Throughout recent history we have been told we need to avoid stress. But now many experts like Dr. Frank Lipman, author of New Rules for Aging Well,, are giving us an encouraging option - small stresses. Rather than a blanket warning about all stress he and the larger body of biological research are explaining that mild stressing -- hormesis -- can help us think about self-maintenance in a new way. They say small stresses regarding food, exercise, and temperature are challenges we need to seek out.
What is Mild Stress?
Most of us like a little excitement but is it therapeutic? It is interesting that something that is a little exciting to your body systems can definitely work in your favor. Really.
The principle of hormesis states that an exciting stimulus can be healthful when it is experienced in small doses. On the other hand, the same stimulus can be harmful in large doses.
The key is the size of the dose.
To illustrate, I’ll compare it to the effects of rain. A little rain at the right time is wonderful for gardens and animals alike. A lot of rain is dangerous to the health and life of plants and wildlife. We really must be specific when we talk about the utility of rain since, in the extreme, it can be deadly. Likewise, it makes no sense to talk about the toxicity of a substance or dangers of a stressful exposure without talking about the potency or amount of it.
Fasting is an enormously popular topic in the search engines, and everyone weighs in with their opinion quoting their favorite alarmists or proponents. Fasting is portrayed as a weight loss hack with some people fearing it leads to anorexia, giving it a twist sounding scary or dangerous.
More than a weight loss hack:
But temporary fasting causes a hormetic (aka stimulating) response that can be appreciated when measured in the repair mechanisms of cells in the body, including the mitochondria. The key distinction between fasting that is healthy and fasting that is dangerous is the amount of stress induced.
An example of temporary fasting is intermittent fasting (IF). In IF you would typically limit yourself to two meals a day and nothing in between. It uses small shots of fasting (no food taken in for 12 – 16 hours a day) allowing the digestive organs, enzymes, and cellular responses to recover and recoup during these episodes of “no food”. If you have prepared yourself for IF by becoming adapted to burning fats instead of carbohydrates (fat adapted) you will be able to use IF as a mild stress – “Intermittent” makes this a mild stressor.
Time restricted eating (TRE) is another form of very temporary fasting. It highlights both the time of eating, limited to 4-6 hours a day on a regular schedule, and the remainder of the 24 hours is time-out for rest and recovery.
IF and TRE both have essentially the same effect, giving the body time to rest and “reboot”. Digestion, immune functions, and all other major functions including mental acuity become stronger over time as you adapt. TRE has the added stipulation of consuming food in a window that avoids eating within 4 hours of nighttime sleep. This adjustment enhances digestion by matching it to your internal circadian clock, optimizing performance to produce clean burning fuel. As a bonus, it allows sleep to be deep and rejuvenating without the burden of digestion.
Exercise, for example, puts a stress on our body, but we also know that the body adapts and eventually develops stronger muscles, bones, and a more efficient metabolism. If you are someone who regularly runs three to four miles a day for fitness and to feel good, you may be so comfortable with it that you don’t remember how you started, but it may have looked something like this:
In the beginning, you may have tried to run a little bit before you realized the shoes you were using were wrong, causing you pain, but you also found yourself gasping for air (not the shoes’ fault). So, you corrected the shoes and, to try them out, you ran again for a few days because you spent good money on those shoes. As you kept trying to do it, you realized you could go a little further each day without gasping. That accomplishment encouraged you. Pretty soon, you were running a mile without getting breathless and your feet/ankles/legs and butt learned to push you forward with improved strength.
If you are healthy enough, your systems adapt to this kind of mild stress. You improve with energy adequate to the job because, in response to stress, your mitochondria increase in number, which is a really good thing for adapting to a task and slowing the decline of aging. These little guys will use up a lot of the food you consume and it will translate into improved energy overall. This, with other metabolic improvements, allows your weight to stabilize since it multiplies your calorie burners.
Another example is “pulsing”. Athletic sprinters use this technique to develop their competitive edge, but we can all use this very effective technique to push the limitations of mind and body. In physical training hormesis is often referred to as “bi-phasic” training.
In sprinting, the athlete pushes (running, biking, or swimming) as fast and long as possible while holding his/her breath. This is followed by a short period of deep and rapid breathing, then pushing again without breathing. This is pulsing, alternating extreme effort with brief recovery. These pulses of anaerobic (no breathing) and aerobic (breathing) “excite” the mitochondria and over a very short period of time, they multiply to accept the next challenge.
Developing metabolic economy like sprinting, IF, and TRE improves the mind as well as the body. Instead of fearing stress and possible injury, we can learn to use mild stress to grow stronger in every way. On the other hand, if you ran too much, too long, and too frequently, you would have experienced “over-stressing” and perhaps injured yourself or contracted a virus because your self-protective mechanisms failed in the face of overpowering stress.
To review, hormesis describes the useful idea that an activity or substance can be beneficial or harmful, depending on its intensity or dose.
Have you had an experience with hormesis? You may already be thinking of ways to adapt this idea in your current situation. Good for you! Let me know your thoughts and if you are beginning to change some of your activities to grow instead of decline.