A dose response phenomenon whereby a substance that in a high dose inhibits (or is toxic to) a biological process, in a much smaller dose will stimulate (or protect) that same process.
Toxic substances stress us. Stephan explained it nicely over at Whole Health Source:
Hormesis … increases resistance to other, more intense or chronic stressors. It can increase resistance to a variety of stresses, not only the one to which you are exposed.
Hormesis is a powerful, non-obvious-yet-evolutionarily-intuitive idea — I can improve my health by intentionally introducing some stress into my otherwise pampered, stress-free life. And here are a few applications:
- High-intensity exercise. I lump in here anything that briefly elevates my heart-rate and requires my body to do a significant amount of work. Weight-lifting, sprinting and kettlebell drills readily come to mind.
- Fasting / Intermittent Fasting. Going without food is quite possibly the easiest path to the benefits of hormesis. Shameless self-promotion: on fasting (application and benefits) and more recently on caloric restriction / resveratrol and the potential for slowing aging.
- Drinking alcohol. We’ve heard this before — drinking one to two alcoholic beverages a day may benefit cardiovascular health. It seems that the benefit of drinking alcohol is from its hormetic effect.
- Smoking tobacco. First, I gleaned this application from Arthur De Vany. Dr. DeVany applies it via cigars. I see no reason it could not also be applied via a pipe or some type of snuff or chew. I personally enjoy the occassional cigar or alternatively, will smoke a pipe. One thing to note: inhaling might eliminate the hormetic benefit of tobacco use by taking it from a mild dose to a heavy dose. I simply don’t know.
- Cold showers. I snagged this one from Richard Nikoley. I then reread the idea from Art and then Stephan, who says it helps fire up “non-shivering thermogenesis”. If you want to read more about activating cold via hormesis, check out what a DeVany reader sent in on the subject of brief exposure to cold.
- Radiation. I mention this only for completeness, but small exposure to radiation is a tactic to increase resistance to larger doses of radiation later (Surprise, its controversial). I don’t know of any way for normal folks to apply radiation hormesis.
The above are fairly non-controversial ways to practice “stressing out”, and thereby benefit from hormesis (Excepting radiation hormesis). However, I wonder if there are other things one could do. Here are some alternative hormetic possibilities:
- Get less sleep. Maybe periodically cut back on your sleep by 30%. I’ve occasionally experienced increased alertness on less sleep. However, the positive effect wears off in time. Prolonged lack of sleep also weakens your immune system, which doesn’t sound too beneficial.
- Binge on fruit. Assuming you are a low-carber, eating a lot of fruit at one time should result in a sizeable insulin response. If you aren’t on a low-carbohydrate diet, binging on fruit won’t do much to acutely stress your body.
- Get some sun. Beneficial for Vitamin D purposes, seems like this would also make sense for potential hormetic effects.
- Expose your kids to allergens. Didn’t know for sure where to put this one and I don’t have kids. However, I’ve read that exposing your kids to cats may reduce the risk of allergies and asthma. Is the benefit here hormesis? Also, is there a risk in overprotecting your kids from germs?
If you have any other ideas for unconventional applications of hormesis, I would love to hear them.
Finally, let’s remember that high doses of toxic substances can impair your health or even kill you. High doses of stress are likewise unhealthy. Therefore, may I present one last list of bad ways to stress out:
- Over-training (And also, potentially, endurance exercise). Not allowing your body to recover from exercise is a recipe for disaster. Endurance activities like running marathons (or jogging long-distances) might also be harmful (Art De Vany thinks so). I speculate that endurance activities may be safe so long as they are using fat oxidation for energy (See endurance athlete Mark Twight’s write-up on fat). This would necessarily require a lower intensity for most all of us who don’t train to exercise for hours on end — an effort probably no more intense than walking or leisurely riding a bike.
- Stressing about work, money, family, relationships, career, or the meaning of life. We’ve all done this. However, can you imagine our evolutionary ancestors experiencing existential angst? I can’t. Food availability, yes. Finding shelter, sure. Avoiding predators, certainly. I’m no expert on meditation or any other specific methods for stress reduction. When I get stressed out about life for too long, I just try and step back and see the big picture and/or let go. It helps.
- Cut back on the caffeine. This is a tough one for me. I drink a good bit of coffee on a daily basis. Caffeine might have hormetic benefits — but I doubt they occur if you’re a chronic user like me.
Anything I missed? If so, please let me know.
Parting thoughts: introduce some “stress” to your life and improve your health. A cold shower followed-up by a 24-hour fast is an easy way to get started. Finish off the fast with some hill sprints. Practice hormesis. If you can consciously control the stressors in your life, you just might live longer.