Hormetic stress


I just recently joined Twitter. It is such a fun tool. Tweets on every imaginable topic are flying around. And of-course of every imaginable camp. Tweets from vegans, tweets from carnivores just take your pick. On a more serious note I have to say that it is a source of great information and I would recommend joining us there (@ketontrack).

And one of those topics that fly around that fasting is not beneficial. The argument goes that fasting is a stressor and that you will mess up your hormones by doing fasting. And this could not be any further from the truth. We have talked many times about the benefits of fasting and why for me it is the foundation of health. But this post is about hormetic stress. And how you can get stronger by stress. Stronger in every single department of your life


What is hormesis

Hormesis is defined as a dose-response phenomenon characterized by low-dose stimulation and high-dose inhibition, and has been recognized as representing an overcompensation for mild environmental stress. The beneficial effects of mild stress on aging and longevity have been studied for many years.

Stress is a surviral mechanism. Stress triggers every single survival hormone and/or pathways which build resilience and through this adaptation we become stronger.

The more obvious example (although somewhat controversial these days) is vaccination. We get a low dose of something that in larger amounts could kill us, to give the opportunity to our immune system to adapt. 

This hormetic effect of stress which in Greek means “to set in motion, impel, urge on”, applies to all areas of life. In order to survive, learn, improve, adapt, get stronger we need to set the wheels in motion, become unrcomfortable with our own existance, push ourselves to the space of the unknown.

Famous quote

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Maybe you are too relaxed?

Being complacent

Our bodies like being comfortable. We like the warmth provided by our huge coat during winter. In the same way a lot of people enjoy the comfort provided by a driving to cycling or walking. And even more people these days like the relaxation and time-off provided by scrolling through the various social media apps.

This is, however, not how the human species evolved the last few million of years. Human brain size has more than doubled in the last 3 million year. And it has grown to this size through harsh time, adversity and in the danger of extinction.  And we fought through adversity, not because we were the strongest but because we have been able to adapt to any condition on this planet.

Famous quote

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent of the species that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Charles Darwin from the “On the Origin of the Species”

Hormesis is life

The benefits of hormetic stress extend to most areas of our daily life

Intermittent Fasting : Fasting is mild stressor that triggers protective proteins called sirtuins. They’re associated with longevity and reduced inflammation thanks to the life-extension benefits of autophagy. Short-term fasting is very theraputic, increases Growth-Hormone by 200%, balances mToR with AMPK while boosting our metabolism up to 4%.

Physical Exercise : Exercise is the best example of hormesis. After a workout you are usually sore, and weak. If you didn’t know better, you’d probably think that you should never exercise again. But that stress is an essential trigger for growth. Your muscle build back denser and thicker, to prevent future damage. People with low levels of physical activity are more susceptible to a variety of diseases. Regular exercise at both low intensities and high intensities lower your body’s level of oxidative stress that improve longevity and brain health. Exercise itself is a stressor, especially at high intensities, like lifting weights or HIIT cardio. However, this stress triggers adaptations that increase mitochondrial density and biogenesis, keep the brain plasticity and bone density.   One of the best types of exercise for boosting your resilience is high-intensity interval training (HIIT). It has a particularly strong hormetic effect on your mitochondria — they become more efficient to deal with the stress, which increases your energy production and slows down aging at the cellular level. I try to exercise  4 times a week for maximum 45 minutes. That’s my favorite option, but you should stick to your favorite type of workout. Almost any type of movement does a body good. You can’t really go wrong with exercise. Just make sure you adjust to your level and rest properly until recovered.

Cold  Exposure : Cold Exposure triggers AMPK, which is a fuel sensor that causes your mitochondria to grow and improve their efficiency. It’s also a positive adaptation to lower temperatures with many other health benefits, such as reduced inflammation, stronger immune system, and greater tolerance to pain. Daily exposure to cold temperature (cold showers, cold plunges) is one of the best hormetic biohacks one can do. Cold exposure can be a menta challege as much as it is a physical one. Your brain is the first one to complain even before going into the cold water, so overoming that mental barrier is where most of the benefits come from.

Heat Exposure : Heat activates these so-called ’heat shock proteins’, which allow the cells to resist the damaging effect of heat. High temperatures can also stimulate the lymphatic system, which works like an inner pump for moving liquids and toxins in the body. Sauna is one of the best heat therapies which also acts light a light exercise.

Hypoxia :  Oxygen deprivation is a way to upgrade your mitochondria. When you cut off oxygen to your brain for a short amount of time, it gently stresses your neurons. They respond by creating brand new mitochondria,  increasing your brainpower and helping you think faster and work smarter. Hypoxic training or high-altitude training, athletes have used this method for decades to improve athletic performance. Another option is practise breathing. So simple!

Sunlight : Exposure to Sunlight at daily moderate doses has a lot of health benefits. It’s one of the most effective ways of synthesizing Vitamin D in the body.

The above are all well known stressors, but I would include in the list anything that involves learning, communication or socialising Anything that requires effort and gets out for our comfort zone will have beneficial hormetic effect into some apsect of our life. If you are shy for example finding the courage to go and speak to a stranger can be extremely stressful. But getting outside your comfort zone is how you build new experiences and how you grow as a human either physically or mentally.

Another great hormetic example is the wonders that walking does for the elderly. A big percentage of the aging generation becomes senetary. They slowly give up as various issues crip-up and they end-up spending most of their time in front of the TV. Pushing oneself to get-up every morning to go and buy a newspaper is ones way to say “I am here. I am an active memeber of this society”.  I will let you be the judges of how strong of a hormetic effect this has.


  • The right amounts of stress has positive effects both mental and physical.
  • In times of adversity remind yourself that it’s okay – that this pain will make me stronger. Build a stong mindset and your body will follow.

Too much stress

Most of us associate stress with negative outcomes. This is mainly because we only think of the negative side-effects of stress and anxiety. We think stress as an outcome of a bad situation which is causing anxiety and harm.

And this can be true, since there isn’t a specific line you could draw between positive adaptation and negative stress. This line depends a lot on how the individual person handles stress.

But you would never decide to run a marathon if you did not have a prior exprerience and had not proprely prepared right? This will not end-up too well and you would be lucky to avoid serious injuries. You would first build up a base line level of fitness and slowly. The same stands for everything. If you’re eating a carbohydrate-based diet, then you’re going to actually lose muscle and damage your body if you start to fast for longer than 24 hours. That’s why you need to get into ketosis first before starting extended fasts. On a low carb ketogenic approach your body has already adapted to glucose restriction and you preserve all of your lean mass while burning fat exclusively.

A better definition of positive stress vs. negative stress is probably acute vs. chronic stress. An acute stress state is about being in difficult situations for small periods of time but then give ourselves a chance to recover, before starting again. Chronic stress on the other hand is something we never recover from. We are always under constant pressure and we all know that what happens as a result. Breaking and damage.

Get to know yourself

Life is a journey

There is no reward at the end. The reward is everyday as you are in this step just once. Just today

Life is journey. Everything we do in life is also a journey. A set of goal and targets that keep up going. But have you found yourself sometimes avoiding goals all together because they seem elusive? Too far away? 

  • Will you never move from the couch because running today a marathon is too dangerous?
  • Will you eat all the time because you think starting a 5-day fast will kill you?

There is another extreme as well and I am the best example of it. Jumping to far ahead with exercises that I could not manage resulting into numerous injuries! These days I listen to my body more, rest properly while still getting stronger.

As always there is a happy medium, a balance in life.

  • Get to know yourself first. Recognise the level you are at and start there. Always step-by-step.
  • Challenge yourself
  • Practice and build knowledge
  • Get stronger
  • Repeat

A good example of this is fasting. Fasting has great benefits, but I never recommend to anyone to start with a prolonged fast if they are not already comfortable with OMAD. In the Ketontrack nutritional series we do a 3-day prolonged fasting which takes place in the third series and after we start with 12-hour fasting, and then slowly try out various protocols (16-hours, 20-hour, OMAD etc) as we also address the nutritional and hormonal status of the person. 

Final thoughts

As it dangerous to try out things when un-prepared, it is even more dangerous to disregard suggestions of other when not informed or if not fitting to your agenda. Nothing is written in stone. Keep learning, be open to new experiences, be humble and you will grow stronger by the day.

Don’t become complacent and avoid difficult things. That is how we grow become resilient and live longer. Build the right knowledge and take it step-by-step. And always remember there is no reason to walk this journey alone. Find someone to help you keep you focused and o the right path.

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