We’ve all heard the phrase: “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”, right!?
But is this true?
No, certainly not. But there is kernel of truth to it.
Let’s explore this by discussing the concept of Hormesis, or “good” stress that can help make us stronger and more resilient.
How is stress a good thing?
Did you know that we can’t build muscle mass if we don’t first “stress” our muscles by tearing them down a bit so that they can rebuild bigger and stronger? This is one example of how a positive (mild) stressor can help make us more resilient. Hormesis is a process by which a cell or an entire organism can be preconditioned by being exposed to low doses of a toxic insult. While high doses will harm us or even kill us, doses within the “hormetic zone” will induce a favorable biological response that is adaptive by ramping up our detoxification pathways and ultimately protecting us from higher doses of similar insults.
Examples of Hormesis include:
- Extreme temperatures (cryotherapy and infrared saunas),
- Intermittent fasting,
- Oxygen deprivation,
- Sun exposure, etc.
Cold water plunges, for example, can help increase men’s testosterone levels by up to 25% and also stimulate thermogenesis (fat burning 24/7), which can help with weight loss. Exposing our skin to the sun in small increments increases our skin pigment melanin, which protects us from a burn in the near future from longer sun exposures. In nature, it’s been observed that oranges on trees exposed to colder weather are sweeter. Certain medications and supplements stimulate hormesis as well. In our clinic, we use LDN, or low-dose naltrexone, which blocks our opiate receptors gently, inducing a hormetic effect of increasing our own endogenous opiate production, thereby helping people with chronic pain and autoimmunity. Curcumin, derived from turmeric, has also been found to have hormetic benefits by modulating an inflammatory response pathway, which in turn decreases inflammation and increases resilience.
Another example of biochemical hormesis of broccoli, which contains a compound that is slightly toxic to the body, so our liver kicks the detoxification processes into gear, which in turn decreases cancer risk. In fact, most fruits and vegetables have small amounts of phytochemicals that stress the body in a beneficial way. Polyphenols are higher in organically/bio-dynamically grown plants; when these polyphenols are eaten by animals, they switch on genes to activate longevity pathways, a process known as xeno-hormesis. Another therapy with a hormetic effect is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy, or HBOT, which enhances the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and causes mild oxidative stress in our tissues. However, in short durations, it has been shown to promote our ability to handle overall oxidative stress better as well as promoting neurogenesis (the regeneration of nerve cells), leading to functional improvements in strokes, traumatic brain injuries, and wound healing.
We also apply the hormetic principle in our allergy program, which involves targeted sublingual immunotherapy for the specific foods or pollens one is allergic to. Through years of medical practice, we found that avoidance of food allergens is not always effective and can even increase our reactivity to those foods long term. However, by taking oral desensitization drops 2-3 times daily and putting those food proteins under our tongues, we decrease our reactivity to those foods over time.
So how do you know when the stress turns from beneficial to detrimental?
Listen to your body and find the right balance for you. You know that a sunburn is telling you that was indeed too much sun. This concept is followed in exercise regimens as well. For example, while lifting weights 3 days a week allows for enough recovery time in a younger individual, the balance shifts with aging. Over age 50, we encourage lifting weights only 1-2 days per week to allow enough time for recovery, therefore preventing overuse injuries. Hence, our motto is that ‘the most important part of exercise is recovery’. BALANCE IS KEY!
Lastly, many inputs that promote better health, such as exercise, fruits and vegetables, cold showers, intermittent fasting, calorie restriction, sun exposure, etc, will work by producing a mild stress, hence they work by hormesis. For example, if mitochondria, our cellular energy generator, is not stimulated, they shrink and die, just like a muscle goes down when in a cast and not used.
Remember, stress tolerance is key to longevity, therefore hormesis is a profound strategy for increasing your metabolic health and boosting your energy levels. Failure to expose your body to the right amounts of various stressors leads to poor health and a weak, fragile, and fatigued body. As you see, some degree of stress is essential and encouraged to increase our health and stamina, but leave plenty of room for rest and repair. Listen to your body as you practice this balancing act and enjoy the “healthy stressors”.
If you’re ready to establish care with Asheville Integrative Medicine and take advantage of our top notch therapies and care, contact the office today. We’re welcoming new patients!