HORMESIS: STRESS THAT MAKES YOU STRONGER
The difference between a “good” stressor and a “bad” stressor is that you bounce back from the “good” one stronger than you were before. Stress itself is not an inherently bad thing it’s actually necessary for things like growth and survival. The body and mind can adapt to stress and grow from it... if it’s in the right dose and over the right time frame.
This is the process called Hormesis- it’s a biological phenomenon with beneficial effects (improved health, cardiovascular function, aerobic capacity, stress tolerance, longevity, strength, more muscle, etc.) through responding to a low or intermittent dose of a stressor that could be dangerous or deadly at a higher level.
Remember back in Biology, the idea of Homeostasis? The principle of Homeostasis was first articulated over a hundred years ago by the physiologist Claude Bernard, and it has since been well documented in a broad range of biological systems- like us. What is pretty awesome with Hormesis, is that adaptations can occur to a wide range of different stressors, and the adaptations can be pretty significant (1).
The most obvious example of Hormesis in action is resistance training- Let’s say for example you’re a complete beginner and you can only squat the bar (~45 pounds). You squat with the bar for 5 sets of 5; you go home, eat, finish your tasks for the day, and get some sleep.
The exercise (which is a stressor) actually damages your muscles and increases levels of oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. You’re actually getting a relatively low but manageable dose of stress and microtrauma or microtearing of muscle fibers the sheath around the muscle and connective tissue (which you might feel in the form of soreness or DOMS [delayed onset muscle soreness]). When your body heals those tiny injuries, it builds up new muscle fibers to go along with the repaired tissue.
In your next workout, you might be able to squat the bar for 5 sets of 6, or you could go for the bar + 5 pounds (50 pounds total) for the same 5 sets of 5. Either way, your body adapts, becomes stronger and your work capacity improves. Then you go home, eat, get enough sleep, and repeat the cycle. In the long run, your levels of oxidative stress will decrease (depending on the intensity and frequency of the stressor) while you get stronger and more resilient to stress in general (2).
The Dose-Response-Recovery Relationship:
Hormetic stress depends on a manageable dose + recovery.
To bounce back and get stronger, you have to keep the “dose” of stress reasonable and actually give your body time to bounce back. Exercise can be a Hormetic stress if you recover from it appropriately, or it can be a chronic stressor if you’re overtraining and under-recovered (that goes double if you’re not consuming enough calories to fuel recovery). Under-recovering can transform any stress into an unwanted-stress, regardless of how beneficial it could have been under the right circumstances.
Here’s how you can use Hormetic Stress to your advantage:
The theory behind Hormetic stressors: Chronic stress wears us down, and overwhelming stress can kill us very quickly, but intermittent and relatively low doses of stress followed by sufficient recovery can actually make us stronger.
This might be a novel concept to some, but… Challenge Yourself!
Not just in the gym, although that’s one way to do it.
- The Theory of Progressive Overload is not limited to resistance training. Try something ambitious– a half-marathon if you run, or a planned program of intelligent higher intensity resistance training. You can gain from this mentally as much as physically. Make sure to have the proper intent and match the intensity of your “stressor” to your recovery capacity.
- Go on adventures. Do things that scare you. If you’re 100% comfortable the entire time, it’s not an adventure. No growth comes from comfort zones.
- Different forms of fasting. Intermittent fasting, or even being in a calorie-restricted state is also form of Hormetic stress. (Unless you’re doing it on top of a grueling training routine, a steep calorie deficit, a chronic sleep debt from having disordered sleep hygiene, and a full-time job. Then it’s just another straw on the back of your chronic-stress camel).
…And Then Recover.
As the old saying goes “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” which should really be revised to “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…if you have a chance to recover from it.”- Otherwise, what you’re doing just wears you down. The harder you push, the more seriously you need to take your recovery. How you recover will depend on what your body needs, but here are some ideas:
- An hour or two of extra sleep can sometimes do more good than all the foam rolling and supplements in the world. Your body is the world champion at healing itself; you just have to lie back, close your eyes, and let it do its job.
- Sufficient calories, adequate protein, micronutrient-dense food, especially if your form of challenge is calorie-intensive. It’s one thing to be in a calorie deficit, and it’s a completely different thing to be chronically under-nourished state. Remember that calorie restriction is a stressor.
- Manage life stressors. This will help you recover faster from the stressors you choose. What can’t be managed has to be worked out through actives like meditating, journaling, deep breathing, going on walks, etc…
“Managing stress” doesn’t mean avoiding all potential stressors and curling up into a fragile little ball on the couch with a safety helmet on. Humans are tougher than that. “Managing stress” means reducing the chronic stressors that just suck away your energy without giving you anything back, but embracing the hormetic stressors that make you stronger and more resilient.