Hormesis. Not a term with which you are likely familiar. Pronounced hȯr-‘mē-səs. It is defined as the beneficial effect (improved health, better performance, longer life) obtained from the exposure of small doses of an agent that would otherwise be toxic or fatal at high doses. The philosophy of Hormetism espouses this seemingly paradoxical effect to promote health, strength and longevity.
Hormesis was first described in 1943 by researchers studying the effect of an oak tree compound that stimulated fungal growth at low doses but killed the fungus at higher doses. This is a paradoxical effect. You’d think that if high doses of a substance killed you, then low doses would at the very least be unhealthy. But the opposite is often true and since hormesis was first described, there have been thousands of examples of this phenomenon.
Fundamentally, hormesis is based on the knowledge that your body has the ability to adapt to overcome stressful stimuli. The tenet of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is, in fact, rooted in science. In other words, some stress—whether chemical or physical—is good for you. It forces your body to adapt. An unusual example is found with radiation exposure. We all know that radiation is bad and linked to a variety of cancers, however, increased levels of very low radiation (such as found in higher altitudes and some industrial work environments) seem to diminish cancer incidence and prolong life. Another example is found with dioxin, a relative of the Vietnam-era exfoliant Agent Orange. Dioxin is such a notorious environmental carcinogen that the Environmental Protection Agency has stated that there is no safe level of this substance; however, animal studies have demonstrated that low levels of dioxin has the capacity to inhibit tumors.
Before we all get carried away and start ingesting low levels of poisons and running off to the hospital to demand x-rays for the purpose of good health and longevity we should be wary. Although toxic compounds and other stressors can produce a hormetic effect that would be desirable, the dosages to produce such an effect almost certainly vary from person to person and what in one person may prolong life, may in another shorten it; it’s a science that is not fully understood and we’re talking about toxic substances, after all.
At this point you are likely asking yourself whether there is a practical application for hormesis given that one person’s poison may be another person’s panacea. There is, because there are safe ways to stress your body to achieve a hormetic effect that don’t involve toxins. There are several stressors that elicit an adaptive response to make your immune system function better, prevent cancer, decrease inflammation, increase bone density and muscle mass as well as prolong life—and without the potential for negative sequalae. These hormetic stressors are calorie restriction, cold temperature exposure and heat exposure.
With regard to food restriction, fasting is the most efficient means to safely engage hormesis. By fasting intermittently (skipping breakfast, for example, will achieve an 18-20 hour fast), your body will increase lean body mass while burning fat, decrease inflammation and engage your body’s repair system. These beneficial effects only occur with fasting; they do not occur if you diminish the amount you eat at regularly scheduled meals (i.e. there is no hormetic effect if you just diminish how much you eat at breakfast, lunch and dinner).
Sauna exposure has been found to lower blood pressure, increase muscle mass, decrease heart disease and prolong life. High temperature exposure stresses your body and results in the creation of heat shock proteins (i.e. hormesis). Heat shock proteins are, at least in part, responsible for the benefit of prolonged heat exposure. It also doesn’t take a great deal of exposure—some studies have identified benefit with as little as thirty minutes of sauna once per week.
Cold body therapy, or cryotherapy, has gained traction as a method to improve health. Wim Hof, known as the Ice Man, is sort of a celebrity in this regard. He has run a half marathon in his bare feet above the Arctic circle, stood submerged in ice cubes for almost 2 hours and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in shorts—all the while extolling the benefits of cryotherapy that include improved immunity, better sleep and diminished inflammation. Research is beginning to substantiate the benefits of cold-induced stress on our bodies (i.e. hormesis).
Hormesis, simply put, is the benefit to be gained by stressing our bodies. The opposite of hormesis? Don’t stress your body. Lay around on your sofa while your immune system weakens, brain function diminishes, inflammation increases and your physical health deteriorates. The choice is ours to make. I say better health thru hormesis!
-Dr. Nick LeRoy–Director, Heartland Wellness Retreat and Spa