There is Such a Thing as Good Stress

In our new series we are featuring Jonathan Hoskins, personal trainer, passionate health advocate and owner of Zone Fitness. At 48 he looks 28—a true testament to his approach to life and living what he “preaches.” We turn to him when we have questions about nutrition, exercise, and, maybe most importantly, a check in on the barrage of health and longevity info that we receive on a daily basis. Jonathan has his finger on the pulse of the latest research and is happiest when sharing information and helping people to create new habits for living healthier lives.

He has changed our lives—and bodies—here at Simply Stylish. Pay close attention—we guarantee some life altering advice!


Q.  Jonathan, exactly what is Hormesis?

A. There is good and bad stress. There is the stress in our daily lives that makes us tired, anxious, and frazzled. This is bad stress. Science has definitively proven the terrible toll that this stress can have on our health. Unfortunately, in our fast paced world it is something that is difficult to get away from. Hormesis, on the other hand, is good stress. Good stress is what makes us stronger. Hormesis is a means of increasing metabolic activity through low and intermittent doses of stress that would be dangerous, or even lethal, at a higher level. For example, if you fall into an icy river the prolonged exposure will probably kill you. But a little cold water therapy in a tub can actually improve your immune function and strengthen your overall health. It is the act of undergoing a small amount of ‘damage’, if you will, to provoke the body into a heightened state of recovery.


Q. Can you give us some examples of Hormesis?

A. Yes, two of the most effective examples are heat and/or cold therapy.

Hot Saunas

A lot of people get in hot saunas, steam rooms or infra-red saunas simply because it feels good to them. There is a reason for that—it is good for them. The inherently good feeling that people get from a little time in a sauna is a great example of the importance of listening to our bodies.

Heat stress has been shown to improve endurance in athletes, prevent atrophy during muscle disuse, and improve insulin sensitivity by increasing glucose receptors in muscle cells. In recent years, the benefits of heat therapy have been getting an incredible amount of attention, and scientific evidence has shown unequivocally that it is a powerful tool in overall health. Not to get too complicated, but it increases BDNF, a protein that stimulates the growth of new brain cells, and norepinephrine, which is associated with focus and attention. In addition, heat therapy is playing a major role in the study of anti-aging and longevity. Keep in mind that exposing the body to higher levels of heat for an extended period of time (30-40 minutes ideally), actually stresses the body in a good way forcing it to subsequently recover–Hormesis.

In fact, there was a study of 2,315 Finish men between the ages of 42 and 65 that specifically explored the association between heat therapy, specifically sauna use, and certain types of mortality. What they found were that death from cardiovascular disease was 50% less likely by the 20 year follow up in men that used the sauna 4 to 7 times per week compared to those only using it once per week. Also, those using the sauna 4 to 7 times per week had a 40% reduction in mortality from all causes. Infrared saunas link to other post here are particularly beneficial.

Cold Water Immersion

While it may not be as comfortable, or innately inviting, as a sauna, cold water immersion elicits a strong adaptive response. I’m sure that you have heard stories of the Polar Bear teams who regularly submerge themselves in ice encased waters. It seems that they are on to something. Hormesis occurs when the body is shocked into this uncomfortable state. The specific adaptive markers noted during cold water immersion are increased endogenous antioxidant production and anti-tumor immunity increase. There are also indicators, both through scientific studies and anecdotal feedback, that cold water immersion results in long term pain relief. This is probably due to the increase in norepinephrine. You’ve might have heard of the cryotherapy chambers that are popping up across the country. People are placed in a ‘cold box’ with only their heads exposed and submitted to short periods at below freezing temperatures. If you have this available to you, it is something to try.


Q. I don’t know about sitting in the freezing cold for that long! Heat I could take…freezing for 15 minutes…

A. Well, the good news is that science has found that even submerging your face into an ice bath for a period of time can have a noticeable effect, but spending 5-10 minutes fully immersed in an icy bathtub is definitely better. It is the extended period of time spent at this cold temperature that produces hormesis. To be sure, this is one that you will have to build up to over time.


Q. What are we to do if we don’t have either of these available to us on a regular basis?

 A. That is a good question, and there is a very easy answer. Most people today are aware of the general health benefits of exercise and healthy eating. If you take this seriously, both of these things are readily available to you—and if utilized properly you can bring about hormesis. 

Strength Training

Strength training creates inflammatory markers that the body responds to in order to repair itself and come back stronger. Lifting heavy, or semi-heavy, weights actually creates tiny tears in the muscle thus forcing the body to repair itself. This whole injury/repair process is what builds strength and definition. Important to note is that rest is the most important part of hormesis in this case. During rest, the body recovers, compensates and/or over-compensates the effect of the exercise stressor. The key components of recovery are the stimulation of anabolic hormones, growth hormones, and testosterone. It also stimulates an important factor that people may not be familiar with, NRF2. NRF2 is a transcription factor that, once triggered, expresses a number of genes involved in antioxidant defense, detoxification, and cellular protection.

Eat Your Brightly Colored Vegetables

I’m not sure there is a person alive today who does not know that eating green leafy vegetables is critical to a healthy diet—but I am not sure that everyone knows about plant phytochemicals, or plant toxins. These are toxins produced naturally by the plant to ward off pests. Let me re-iterate that these are not chemicals used by farmers, or produced in labs. These chemicals, or anthocyanins, are naturally produced by plants as their personal line of defense against insects.


Q. So are you saying we are ingesting natural poisons when we eat our leafy vegetables

A. Not poisons, per se, but we are ingesting the plant’s natural toxins. They are also the element that gives plants their vibrant colors and protects them against damage caused by the sun’s UV radiation. They won’t kill us, but at high levels they might irritate us enough to induce a compensatory adaptive response at the cellular level that results in many benefits. If a person were to eat ten pounds of kale in one day, you can bet they will experience some discomfort. Does that mean the kale is bad for them? No. But the body might have to work harder to recover from the influx of phytochemicals.


Q. So, in summary, how do you suggest that someone makes the process of hormesis a part of his/her healthy lifestyle?

A. The simplest way to begin to build this into a healthy life-style is to make certain that strength training is an integral part of your exercise regimen. When I say strength training, I am specifically referring to having a weight training program that you follow on a regular basis. There is no question that this is essential, not only to creating hormesis but to achieving long term strength, agility and health. It does not have to be complicated. If you have the ability to spend some time with a trainer developing a program for yourself do it. If you do not have that ability, there are good videos on the market targeted at helping beginners to get started. It does not have to be time consuming—it just has to be regular.

Second, and something I will go into in greater detail in our next segment, is recovery. No matter what you do, weight training, heat therapy, cold immersion, intermittent fasting, hormesis does not take place without adequate recovery. This is a problem for many people in our culture who are driven by the ‘more is better’ belief. Remember that hormesis is created by low levels of intermittent stress—without recovery you risk pushing your bodies beyond a state that is healthy. As with most things in life, balance is the key.

Stay tuned for Jonathan’s next segment when he talks in greater detail about how to make hormesis work for you.

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