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Hormesis: how to train and gain benefit from your stress response

“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”  This famous quote by Nietzsche is indeed right when it comes to our adaptive stress response. Our bodies thrive on short-term acute “stress” exposure by ramping up growth and repair. This process, known as hormesis, may have powerful health and longevity benefits.


In the fields of biology and medicine, hormesis is defined as an adaptive response of cells and organisms to a moderate (usually intermittent) stress. Low levels of controlled stress stimulate or upregulate existing cellular and molecular pathways, improving the adaptive capacity of cells and organisms to withstand greater stress.

Let’s illustrate what that looks like in everyday life. Short bursts of exercise (i.e. high intensity interval training) stress the body just enough to activate a particularly strong effect on your mitochondria — they become more efficient to deal with the stress, increasing energy production and helping to slow down aging at the cellular level.

The same can be said for our brain. The brain has an outstanding capacity to adjust in response to cognitive, emotional, and environmental challenges or stressors. More and more studies indicate that regular engagement in mild-stressful challenges — such as learning a new language, is beneficial for the brain, activating hormetic pathways in neurons. Similar to the changes that occur in muscle cells during exercise our brain responds by making new pathways that stimulate neuroplasticity.


Consider what Laurens van Oers, Founder of Superhuman formula, says about hormesis: “If I lift a weight that’s heavier than I can easily lift, the muscle will grow in response. If I’m exposed to a little bit more cold than I can normally process, my body will adjust to the cold. If I get too much cold exposure, then I get hypothermia. If I lift too much weight, I rip a tendon.”

The point? In order for us to strengthen our adaptive stress response we need to control, both the timing and the dose of stressors.


The good news is that there are plenty of scientifically-proven ways to activate our adaptive stress response in controlled situations. Here are three healthy stressors scientifically shown to increase strength, resilience, and longevity.

Exercise and Hormesis The adaptation of our muscle cells to exercise is one of the reasons why exercise performance improves with training. If you looked at your muscle fibers under a microscope after a tough workout, you’d see chaos. If you didn’t know better, you’d probably conclude that in the best interest of your health you should cease exercising. But therein lies the power of hormesis: stress is an essential trigger for growth. One of the best types of exercise for boosting your stress resistance is high-intensity interval training (HIIT). It has a particularly strong hormetic effect on your mitochondria — producing more mitochondria and more mitochondrial enzymes. This increases the respiratory capacity of muscles, i.e., their ability to produce ATP from nutrients to power muscle contraction. Exercise increases your energy production and helps slow down aging at the cellular level.

If you’re short on time, a 20-minute Tabata routine will do the trick.

Cold Therapy and Hormesis It is well established that exposure to acute cold stress increases overall mood, motor, and cognitive performance, working memory, and stimulates the immune system, all of which are physiological characteristics of critical impact on the survival, health, and well-being of humans.*

Subjecting our bodies to the acute stress associated with cold therapy may improve mitochondrial health through a process known as “mitochondrial biogenesis,” or in other words, increasing mitochondria production.

Spoiler alert: learn to embrace the discomfort, and you’ll come out stronger on the other side.

Intermittent Fasting and Hormesis Fasting is another hormetic stressor with huge potential benefits. Reducing calorie intake is shown to be one of the most successful approaches to enhance longevity.

Fasting is a biohacking tool that our team loves. We’ve published a blog about intermittent fasting with tips on how to get started and it's wide range of benefits. Start learning more about the positive change associated with intermittent fasting here.

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