Wednesday, January 04, 2012


"(from Greek hórmēsis "rapid motion, eagerness," from ancient Greek hormáein "to set in motion, impel, urge on") is the term for generally favorable biological responses to low exposures to toxins and other stressors."


"Spartan life was governed by the principles of discipline, self-denial, and simplicity.They did not surround themselves with luxuries, expensive foods, or opportunities for leisure. The life of the Spartans seemed to hark back to a more basic way of life....."

Stephen Guyenet puts the concept into layman's terms......"Hormesis is the process by which a mild or acute stressor increases resistance to other, more intense or chronic stressors. It can increase resistance to a variety of stresses, not only the one to which you are exposed...."

Surprisingly many people probably incorporate some level of hormesis into their lifestyle without even realizing or understanding the concept in regards to wellbeing. Moderate alcohol consumption, skipping meals and exercise are examples of hormesis.I can`t help but think of that old proverb - what doesn`t kill you makes you stronger. That is the general premise. Introducing the body to low/moderate levels of stressors will cause adaptation and the body will thus become stronger.

As an athlete I have been applying the principles of hormesis to my sporting activities. Train yourself to become a stronger, faster and fitter athlete in pursuit of personal bests. My recent adoption of a intermittent fasting way of eating is also an example of hormesis in action on a dietary level. Stephen's introduction to the subject also makes me wonder of all the modern convienences of Western civilization has indeed made us "soft" and the resulting rise in chronic illness just a reflection of our easy(er) lifestyles.

"Why is it that our ancestors were able to perform feats like killing bears and wooly mammoths in snow-swept grasslands? How do present-day tribesmen withstand days of ultra-cold temperatures in Northern Greenland and prolonged periods without water in scorching hot Kenyan deserts? Why is it that a century ago, children in the Swiss alps ran barefoot through ice-cold mountain streams on cold days, while now they get carpal tunnel syndrome playing video games?"

I suspect everyone has rolled their eyes in response to an elder exclaiming how "young people have it so much easier nowadays" at some point in their lives. In fact I still regale my kids with stories from my youth about walking kilometres to school in bitterly cold temperatures, of hot days spent at the beach without any sunscreen and, to their utter disbelief, going hours without food cause I was busy playing baseball, riding my bike or sledding. As an adult I was amazed to hear how my parents and grandparents lived with such austerity, often without electricity, modern appliances or even running water and plumbing. As technology advances maybe we are becoming "softer" with each passing generation. Is it having an effect upon our wellbeing and health?

What prompted me to write this post? I have read some blogs on the subject of hormesis ranging from the benefits of fasting, of sun exposure to the gaining popularity of polar bear swims held locally every winter but it was my conmute to and from work that sealed the deal.Temperatures today were listed at -9C but -22C with windchill.

Under estimating the weather (due to an unseasonal mild winter) I was wearing cycling clothing suitable for warmer weather. Needless to say it was quite the shock once I was exposed to the prevailing winds. The stinging sensation of the crisp air was invigorating after I adjusted to the initial shock and soon settled in to my short 5km ride. Once at work,changing and shaking off the cold I remembered reading this blog posting by Dr. Anastasia about traditional European hometic cold weather practices. An excellent read that I had to revisit.

"In Finland the practice of ice-water swimming is called Avantouinti, in Russia its practitioners are named ”morzhi” (“walruses”). The less threatening variation is cold water dousing, an old tradition with roots in asceticism and naturopathic healing, frequently practised with fasting....."

Hormetic adaptation can occur with a variety of applied substances........

"Beyond chemicals and radiation, other biological stresses have been shown to have hormetic effects. Some of the more interesting of these hormetic stresses include: calorie restriction,cold temperature, heat shock, and hypergravity....."

The benefits appear to be wide ranging....."The hormetic effect also appears to involve several seemingly independent physiological systems, including the endocrine and immune systems, tissue repair and growth mechanisms, and neural plasticity".

Excellent resource here....check it out.

So maybe the Spartans were a culture ahead of their time by advocating the health benefits of a hormetic type of lifestyle? We can disagree with their politics but there is little doubt that they were physically fit, strong bad asses! What about us? Maybe getting some sun exposure without slathering ourselves in sun screen is not wrong? Maybe taking a cold shower now and then might actually be beneficial? Enjoy that glass of wine!Skip a meal or two. Maybe "no pain, no gain" is indeed true and that a little measured suffering actually does benefit the body and soul.

I do know might have been bloody cold cycling to work but I was feeling prime once there!

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