Hormesis: a beautiful way to hack our bodies stress pathways and use them to our advantage! Stress doesn’t have to always be a negative thing.
The study of hormesis and hormetic responses has been a commonly discussed theme in some of the books and podcasts our Made 2 Move team has delved into recently. Buckle up for reading because this weeks blog is packed with information and resources on everything hormesis!
What is Hormesis?
The word Hormesis comes from the Greek root “Hormine”, meaning to set in motion, impel, or urge on. It is one of the magical ways our body works in enhancing its vitality and resiliency.
In the book, Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence, Dr. Anna Lembke defines hormesis as a “branch of science that studies the beneficial effects of administering small to moderate doses of noxious and/or painful stimuli such as cold, heat, gravitational changes, food restriction, radiation, and exercise.” (Lembke 2021).
Edward J Calabrese, toxicologist, professor of environmental studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and leader in the field of hormesis discusses hormetic responses in Dr. Lembke’s book on dopamine. Dr. Calabrese describes the phenomena of hormesis as, “adaptive responses of biological systems to moderate environtmental or self imposed challenges through which the system improves its functionality and or tolerance to more severe challenges.”
This is one of the reasons we feel more resilient after exercise, a cold shower, intermittent fastening, or a sauna bath. It’s not just a mental improvement; there is biological evidence to suggest the benefits of these tools and it all goes back to hormesis!
Basically, hornesis is eustress, or “good stress.” Why is this stress resulting from hormesis healthy for us?
What are the benefits of hormesis?
The benefits of hormesis are far reaching, but all come back to having a positive effect on aging, almost to the point of reversing aging. One of the mechanisms by which this age reversal is possible stems from hormesis boosting mitochondrial function. WIthout getting too sciency, Dr. Lipman, author of The New Rules of Aging Well, talks about the effects of hormesis on mitochondria: “Stimulating the body's mitochondria is a "longevity pathway," Dr. Lipman says, because small bursts of intense stress cause the mitochondria to adapt, slowing their natural decline (which is associated with premature aging).”
But what are the benefits of hormesis RIGHT NOW? Adopting hormetic practices into your life will likely improve your mood, focus, immune function, and boost your resiliency to stress. Think about it like this: If you start your day with a freezing cold shower or incredibly challenging workout, then any other stressor you encounter that day will feel like a breeze. These stressors boost our body and mind’s resiliency to stress, making your stronger and more adept to handle whatever life throws at you.
What are some ways to induce hormesis in the body?
Heat and Cold Exposure
Cold: This could look like cold showers, an ice bath, or cryotherapy. The benefits of cold therapy extend beyond just its hormetic effects. Cold can also increase serotonin levels which has a direct effect on mood and focus! This hormonal response is likely why many people describe their morning cold shower being effective as a cup of coffee in terms of focus and mood.
Heat: Saunas, especially infrared, are the best way to evoke the hormetic responses associated with heat exposure. Try 15-20 minutes. Focus on breathwork and really being present while you (attempt to) relax in the heat.
Many of our patients at Made 2 Move’s Downtown location enjoy the benefits of the sauna at Ethos Athletic Club. Okay, let’s be real: it is tough to get in a 105 degree sauna in the sweltering, humid summer months in Charleston when the outside weather feels like 110 degrees. But the benefits are vast! The sun is also a way to obtain the hormetic responses to heat exposure. Just wear your SPF!
The benefits of cold and heat exposure can likely be attributed to shock proteins. Dave Asprey discusses these shock proteins in his blog on hormesis: “Shock proteins reverse damage from sudden changes in temperature, protect your cells, and trigger full-body repair. They’re a textbook hormetic response, and they make hot and cold exposure powerful biohacks” (Asprey 2022).
If you’re interested in learning more about the hormetic benefits of cold and heat exposure, check out Dr. Rhonda Patrick’s lecture on the topic.
Intermittent fasting is another trend in the wellness world recently, and the science supports it. Please note: intermittent fasting is contraidicated for some groups (pregnant, breastfeeding, those with a history of disordered eating, etc.) and should always be discussed with your doctor prior to starting. Intermittent fasting and food restriction can be beneficial, but not if it is significantly depriving your of essential nutrients, calories, and joy.
Strategic food restricting can lead to reduced blood pressure, extended life span, increased resistance to age related diseases, weight loss, and an improvement in overall well-being. Time restricted eating (eating all your calories within a certain time window) is a fairly easy way to adopt fasting into your lifestyle. Try eating all your food within a 8-12 hour window.
Exercise: And last but certainly not least, EXERCISE! Maybe our Made 2 Move PTs are a little biased, but this is our favorite form of hormesis. Dr. Lembke speaks on physical activity: “Exercise increases many of the neurotransmitters involved in positive mood regulation: dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, endocannabinoids, and endogenous opioid peptides- or endorphins. Exercise contributes to growth neurons in supporting new glial cells” (lembke 2021).
Besides making you stronger, improving mood, and increasing longevity, exercise has even been seen as helpful in decreasing addiction risk and improving outcomes in recovering addicts. This can likely be attributed to exercsie tapping into our dopamine pathways, the same pathway involved in many addictions.
Here at Made 2 Move, we are always searching for ways to improve health measures and longevity beyond just the basics. Our Made 2 Move team wants to give you the tools to own your health, and hormesis is a powerful way to do this. Try adopting the sauna, cryotherapy, a cold shower, fasting or an intense workout into your lifestyle! Interested in learning more about hormesis? Looking for a PT to get you back to moving at your best? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org today to set up an initial consultation!