What is hormetic stress and what are its benefits?

We hear a lot about the importance of stress reduction but can stress ever be beneficial? Yes, it can! Beneficial stress is called hormetic stress. Simply put: hormetic stress is short term, small amounts of stress that can actually produce adaptive and beneficial results. NOT to be confused with chronic stress.

Since the beginning of time, humans have been subjected to brief moments of decreased food intake, high amounts of activity and temperature extremes. Humans have been able to adapt to these moments in time and even thrive! When exposed to hormetic stress, our cells begin signaling to each other and the tissues in our body. As a result, increased amount of anti-oxidants and cellular repair begins. Essentially, clean-up crews begin going to work on overdrive within the body. This type of stress can even make us more physically and mentally resilient. Again, this process does NOT refer to chronic stress – which can have the opposite effects.

So, what are examples of hormetic stress? Intermittent fasting is a great example. Research has shown mild dietary restriction can delay age-related changes in the body, lessen severity of cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disease, allergies and even neurological conditions such as Alzheimers and Parkinson’s. We are not talking extremes here. Benefits begin at 12 hours of fasting: eat for 10 hours fast for 14 hours. Have a day of a slight calorie decrease, just a few hundred is great.

Other examples of hormetic stress are:

  • High intensity interval training: Intermittent bursts of all-out effort followed by the same amount of rest time
  • Breathwork: Holding your breath for as long as you can, may improve lung capacity.
  • Extreme temps, cold or hot: Saunas, hot yoga, ice baths and cold showers

Things to consider:

  • How high are your current stress levels? If they are really high already, be careful with incorporating more stress, even if it’s something that can be considered beneficial. 
  • Know your limits! Again, if these options of brief and periodic stress turn into regular activities, your body may view these as TOO stressful and it will have the opposite of the expected results. Gauge how you feel- look for feeling refreshed.

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[1] “Hormesis defined.” 2008.
[2] “Beneficial effects of mild stress (hormetic effects): dietary restriction and health.” 2010.
[3] “Hormesis: meet the stress that makes you physically and mentally stronger.” 2021.