Imagine being vibrantly healthy and youthful all the way to an old age. I’m going to introduce you to the concept of hormesis and antifragility – it’s the key to longevity and anti-aging.
Life is Stress Adaptation
Early living conditions on Earth were hazardous,
- At first there was just the vast ocean with no oxygen or land. The initial life forms were just microbes and marine animals.
- After the formation and oxygenation of the atmosphere occurred, the earliest multicellular organisms could evolve.
- Over the last 500 million years land vertebrates and plants have spread across the globe.
- Despite that, there have been several massive extinction events that have wiped out the dominant species of the planet, like dinosaurs or mammoths.
How on Earth has life managed to survive at all in the midst of volcanos, Ice Ages and asteroids?
Charles Darwin said in On the Origin of the Species:
It is not the strongest or the most intelligent of the species that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.
Us humans have managed to build our civilization not because we could fight a gorilla in hand to hand combat, and not because we could out-think dolphins, but because we’ve adapted to almost any condition on this planet.
- No other species live in the Arctic, in deserts, in jungles, at sea or in barren wastelands.
- No other species has the ability to eat and digest such a wide variety of foods.
- No other species are able to reconstruct their living environment to such a degree.
Of course, our ingenuity, language, social co-operation and communal living have played the biggest part in our evolutionary development. However, our adaptability has a physiological basis as well.
The biological phenomenon to this is called ’HORMESIS’, which comes from the Greek word hórmēsis and it means ‘rapid motion, eagerness’ or ‘to set in motion.’
Basically, hormesis is a biphasic response to a toxin or a stressor.
- The initial contact causes injury to the body
- The following reaction leads to adaptation, leaving the body in a better condition than it was before
This is exactly what the concept of Nassim Nicholaus Taleb’s ’ANTIFRAGILITY’ is about.
- Fragile things break under pressure and they get destroyed
- Resilient things resist the shock but stay the same
- Antifragile things adapt to the change and become better
How Does Hormesis Work
Hormesis was first described by a German pharmacologist named Hugo Schulz in the year 1888. He discovered that a very small dose of lethal poison didn’t kill off the yeast he was experimenting with but actually made them grow.
The term ‘hormesis’ itself was coined and first used in a scientific paper by Chester M. Southam and J. Ehrlich in 1943 in the journal Phytopathology (Volume 33, pp. 517-541).
In 2012 Mark Mattson explained that cells respond to bioenergetic stressors by increasing DNA repair proteins, antioxidant enzymes and the production of neurotrophic factors (such as BDNF)[i][ii][iii].
- Plants contain ‘noxious’ chemicals that are supposed to protect them from being eaten by insects and other organisms.
- However, thanks to the constant evolutionary arms race between us and animal kingdom, we’ve developed counter-adaptations in the form of hormesis and we trigger a beneficial response when eating these foods.
Friedrich Nietzsche said: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” He was a philosopher, not a biologist, but his quote fits hormesis perfectly.
Examples of Hormesis
- Physical Exercise is a clear example of hormesis[vi]. People with low levels of physical activity are said to be more prone to oxidative stress – not working out makes you more susceptible to a variety of diseases. How crazy is that? 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 causes oxidative stress, especially at high intensities, like lifting weights or HIIT cardio. However, it triggers adaptations that increase mitochondrial density and biogenesis through mitochondrial hormesis[vii].
- Alcohol is another hypothetical form of hormesis as it’s believed to prevent heart disease and stroke[viii]. However, there’s evidence to show that these benefits are exaggerated[ix]. I would say that maybe a shot of vodka or a glass of wine once a week can be good for you but when you start drinking anything beyond that then you’re probably just lying to yourself – „Ahhh, got to get my hormesis in“ and you end up drinking every day. Beer, ciders, long drinks, cocktails they’re all anti-hormetic with zero advantages, like zero. You’re only killing your brain cells and getting fatty liver disease. That’s why I’ve chosen to go no alcohol because there are no significant benefits to it.
- Red wine contains resveratrol, which is one of those protective plant compounds and it’s greatly associated with anti-aging effects. Maybe 1-2 glasses of red wine a week can be beneficial but, again, I wouldn’t suggest drinking every day because alcohol is still a neurotoxin that directly damages nerve cells[x].
- Exposure to Sunlight at low or moderate doses has a lot of health benefits. It’s one of the most effective ways of synthesizing Vitamin D in the body but it can also reduce the incidence of cancer [xi].
- 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. Hormesis cold showers – it’s a real thing.
- Heat Exposure 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.
- Caloric Restriction and Intermittent Fasting cause mild oxidative stress that trigger protective proteins called sirtuins. They’re associated with longevity and reduced inflammation thanks to the life-extension benefits of autophagy. Short-term fasting and starvation can also fight cancer [xii].
Hormesis and Antifragility
Mental Stress is another example of hormesis where you’re forced to flex your neural muscles.
Learning new things, gaining skills, being in unpredictable high-stress situations, novel environments and challenges all trigger neuroplasticity and neurogenesis that make you grow new brain cells and create new synaptic connections.
This actually bolsters your brain for future stressors and teaches you how to deal with them better mentally.
I mean, antifragility is very much a mindset thing.
Whenever you’re in difficult situations or whenever you’re going through tough times in your life, then reminding yourself that it’s okay – that this pain will make me stronger in the future – then you’ll not only find more strength to deal with the present moment but you’ll also augment your mindset for anything else that’s to come.
There’s the quote:
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
Which means that you can’t escape the physical stimuli – the pain, the discomfort, the emotions – but you can change your perception of it.
Your perception of the things that are happening to you quite literally alter the way you experience and feel them. You’re using your mind to cause a different response, which is just powerful.
Foods That Trigger Hormesis
- Foods high in reservatrol are grapes, blueberries, cranberries, raw cacao and dark chocolate. The darker pigments and bitterness especially are great signs of antioxidants and healthy compounds.
- Fermented foods are another form of mild hormesis because of the live bacteria in them promote the healthy microbiome in our own gut. Sauerkraut, pickles, kombucha, kimchi, tempeh and apple cider vinegar are great for this. These are alive probiotics that we don’t digest fully but we use them to feed the microfauna inside our stomachs.
- Fibrous vegetables, like cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach have a lot of indigestible fiber. We can’t digest plants the same way ruminants do because of smaller intestines. Our brain needs more calories from fats. However, the fiber still promotes digestion and gut health through a similar hormetic response.
- Curcumin or turmeric is a spicy compound that has many antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Consuming curcumin causes a hormetic response[xiii] and it has many protective effects on brain and neurogenesis as well. Ginger, Cinnamon and Turmeric are a part of my daily antioxidant consumption.
Eating for Hormesis
Converting calories into energy happens in the mitochondria. The by-products of this process are free radicals or reactive oxygen species (ROS).
Free radicals increase oxidative stress in the body, causing inflammation, disease and decreasing mitochondrial density.
- Foods that cause more oxidative stress are high in processed carbohydrates, like candies, pastries, chips, cookies, diet sodas – all those kind of things.
- Carbohydrate metabolism – which is called glycolysis – causes a much higher rate of oxidative stress than fat does. Even the healthier kind, like potatoes or rice.
- Carbohydrate restriction itself causes hormesis because your body shifts into ketosis and starts using more fat for fuel.
However, as we’ve found out, some oxidative stress is actually beneficial for you because this inner response increases the body’s capacity against external stressors and radicals as well[xiv].
Which means you should lower your overall carbohydrate intake on any diet but eating some carbohydrates around your workouts can yield a positive hermetic response.
Incorporating some carbohydrates strategically even on the ketogenic diet will improve your metabolic flexibility, which itself is a component of hormetic antifragility.
So, what I recommend you do is test and experiment with either the Targeted Ketogenic Diet or the Cyclical Carb Backloading type of eating. My Body Mind Empowerment Podcast Episode #5 called The 3 Stages of the Ketogenic Diet talks about this as well.
Hormesis and Anti-Aging
Reducing reactive oxygen species with antioxidants and other compounds reduces oxidative stress and hypothetically can increase your life span.
However, it’s been found that reactive oxygen species may actually have an essential role in the lifespan-promoting effects of hormesis. They act as redox signaling molecules that transport messages from the mitochondria to the other parts of the cell[xv].
Eating foods high in antioxidants or taking supplements will offset free radicals and may block the hormetic response. This applies to physical exercise even – if you take a cold shower or consume a lot of curcumin post-workout, then you’re stopping your muscles from adapting to the stimulus.
How to Live Longer With Hormesis
What does this mean?
- Low levels of ROS within the mitochondria increases your stress resistance and long-term reduction of oxidative stress. This is called mitochondrial hormesis or mitohormesis.
- Repetitive exposure to mild stress has anti-aging effects[xvi][xvii]. Which means you should exercise, do intermittent fasting, take cold showers, take heat saunas and eat fermented foods consistently.
- You should still reduce your overall inflammation levels because hormesis follows a very dose-specific response. Too many free radicals are still damaging and most of the time you’re better off with eating a lot of antioxidant-rich foods like cruciferous vegetables and curcumin.
- Occasionally exposing yourself to more carbohydrates or even grain products can benefit your body’s ability to deal with them. Don’t eat refined white bread or cake, but homemade sourdough bread every once in a while will prevent gluten intolerance and promotes a diverse microbiome.
- Eating some lectins, peanuts or soy even will also make you more resilient to them. If you have an auto-immune condition of some sorts then definitely don’t do that but as a healthy person you can introduce these foods into your diet I’d say once every few months or so.
- Taking antioxidant supplements can have a reversed effect on life-extension and health effects[xviii] if you’re already eating a healthy diet. It’s been suggested that antioxidant supplementation may actually increase disease prevalence in humans [xix]. Supplementing, reservatrol, vitamin C or glutathione have been shown to be very good for your health and longevity but I’d imagine you benefit from taking antioxidant supplements only if you’re experiencing extremely high levels of additional stress, like a night shift work, working out 7-9 times a week, travelling jet lag or some other high demanding activity. At other times you’re most likely better off by eating a lot of cruciferous, berries, turmeric and some adaptogenic herbs for stress-reduction.
How Much is Too Much
There probably isn’t a specific line you could draw between positive adaptation and under-recovery – from this point on I’m going to get weaker because I just can’t do it anymore.
It depends a lot on how your individual organism has been conditioned with stress.
- If you’re a sedentary person, then you shouldn’t have an intense Crossfit workout. You’re just going to throw up and fail… You should build up a base line level of fitness with some calisthenics and cardio first.
- If you’re just lifting weights then you probably won’t succeed in running a marathon or vice versa. Your metabolic engine would crash unless you’ve trained it.
- 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 ASAP before starting extended fasts. Otherwise, you’ll lose muscle while fasting.
- On a low carb ketogenic approach your body has already adapted to glucose restriction and thus you preserve all of your lean mass while burning fat exclusively.
- If you fall asleep while sunbathing, you’re going to get sunburnt and it can actually increase your risk for skin cancer.
- If you expose yourself to high levels of nuclear radiation, you’re going to disrupt the magnetic field of your body and lead to many other mutations and diseases. Very small doses of radiation can cause hormesis, but it’s not clearly shown and I definitely warn you against trying anything like that. Don’t microwave your body parts or work at Chernobyl or Fukushima…
Maintaining Hormetic Readiness
I’m going to give you an idea of knowing how much is too much.
When trying to live an antifragile lifestyle, you have to maintain a state of hormetic readiness.
Basically, it’s about being under slight stressors in which your body has not yet completely reached positive adaptations.
- Full recovery means that you have no additional stimuli to enforce adaptation. Imagine this straight line of stagnation that will eventually lead to underadaptation because there’s nothing that would demand hormesis from the body.
As we know, in hospitals, the heart monitors measure your heart beats. A complete straight line indicates death.
So, you want to mostly be in at least a slight incline – to be climbing ad under mild stress as to give your body some stimulation. Then you’re going to cash-in on your hormesis so to say.
Chronic Stress and Underadaptation
The problem is when stress becomes chronic – when you’re constantly in fight or flight without ever recovering from it.
- You need to hit yourself with a strong stimuli that would trigger a reaction of some sorts, like oh, shhhiitt, we just got hit.
- Then your body will turn on all these adaptive mechanisms like AMPK and hormesis that puts you into #CODE_RED pretty much
- This is going to lead to a chain reaction of events that summon your body’s protective and reinvigorating processes
- After the stressor has been fought off, you start repairing the damage with good quality sleep, nutrition, some antioxidants, cold therapy, yoga, foam rolling, heat saunas or meditation. Just complete rest and relaxation to switch to the parasympathetic mode.
- As soon as you recover from the stress, you should be stronger and more augmented, which means you’re invited to hit yourself with another dose of hormesis.
How to Track Your Hormetic Adaptation
There are many ways of knowing whether or not you’ve actually recovered from the stress.
- Measuring your heart rate variability is a great way to know the state of your nervous system – are you more sympathetic or parasympathetic dominant. There are many chest traps and devices out there that you can use to measure this
- Tracking your sleep should be another essential part of your health routine. How well do you sleep, how long in different stages and so on. I’m using the OURA ring for this because it’s incredibly stylish and the airplane mode prevents the Bluetooth signaling from disrupting my sleep as well. Use the code SIIMLAND to get a -10% off the OURA ring
- Looking at your physical strength and balance will also indicate the state of your nervous system. If you’re weaker than you were before then you haven’t recovered and it would be better to have an easier recovery style workout before hitting it hard again. If you struggle to maintain balance or suffer from brain fog, then you’re also under-recovered. It takes about 48-72 hours for your muscles to recover and grow but your nervous system can take up to 5-7 days, so you have to be very careful with how intense exercise you do.
- I can tell you this simple 1-minute exercise that can give you some idea about the state of your nervous system. You time yourself for 20 seconds and during that time you tap your finger on the table as fast as you can. You get a score which should tell you how recovered you are. Keep in mind that you have to do this over a longer period to establish a baseline of where you’re currently at and you have to do it at the same time of day as well because your readiness will fluctuate between the morning and evening.
- Tracking your mood and overall sense of well-being in a simple journal are the easiest ways of doing this. You score yourself on a scale of 1-10. 10 being I can run through a wall with no problems and I’m super-motivated. And 1 would be that you’re hospitalized in a bed. Lack of motivation can also mean you’re still tired from your previous workout. Of course, there’s a difference between just being lazy and actually having adrenal fatigue but you have to test and experiment, keep track of your numbers and then develop this intuitive knowledge about your body.
Consistency is the Key to Hormesis
What hormesis shows is that it’s not the intensity of the stimuli that matters.
- You won’t get fit by going to the gym once a month
- You won’t lose weight by eating a salad for lunch but still have burgers for dinner
You have to stay consistent with it as to build up your tolerance to these stressors. And this applies to everything – to meditating, to working on your business, to reading and everything else.
Consistency will lead to long-term adaptation and it’s the key to positive hormesis.
So, whenever your healthy biohacker friends judge you for eating gluten or wearing warm clothes indoors, then tell them that „What? You don’t know? I’m triggering hormesis, man. Getting stronger and better.“ That’ll show them…
But I do recommend you to start incorporating voluntary challenges both physical and mental into your everyday life more often. Don’t turn on the central heating, don’t eat for 3 days, skip your morning coffee so you’d cause emotional antifragility first and foremost. Because your body has no other option but to adapt. It’s just that our own minds get in our own way and stop us from ever getting exposed to these stressors. If we were to be left all by ourselves living in the modern comfortable world with our primal brains then we’d most likely get obese and diabetic. So, embracing difficult situations deliberately is where you’ll become the most antifragile.
[i] Mattson MP (2012) Energy intake and exercise as determinants of brain health and vulnerability to injury and disease. Cell Metabolism 16: 706-722
[ii] Arumugam TV, Phillips TM, Cheng A, Morrell CH, Mattson MP, Wan R (2010) Age and energy intake interact to modify cell stress pathways and stroke outcome. Ann Neurol. 67:41-52.
[iii] Yang JL, Lin YT, Chuang PC, Bohr VA, Mattson MP (2014). BDNF and exercise enhance neuronal DNA repair by stimulating CREB-mediated production of apurinic/apyrimidinic endonuclease 1. Neuromolecular Med. 16:161-74
[iv] Mattson MP, Cheng A. (2006) Neurohormetic phytochemicals: Low-dose toxins that induce adaptive neuronal stress responses. Trends Neurosci. 29:632-9
[v] Mattson MP (2015) What doesn’t kill you… Scientific American 313: 40-45
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[vii] Ristow, Michael; Zarse, Kim (2010). “How increased oxidative stress promotes longevity and metabolic health: The concept of mitochondrial hormesis (mitohormesis)”. Experimental Gerontology. 45 (6): 410–8. PMID 20350594. doi:10.1016/j.exger.2010.03.014.
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