Stress is Necessary: The Forgotten Flight of Hormesis

Key Topics: Epigenetics
June 28, 2019 • 3 min read

“What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

                                                          – Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, published 1889

Functional medicine expert Ryan Lazarus, MSc, CNS, IFMCP, DC, who has nearly two decades of experience and over 10,000 patients treated, describes the truth in Nietzsche’s words in his discussion of hormesis.

Flying blind

Human biological and neurological systems are simultaneously smarter and more foolish than they are typically given credit. Like well-trained pilots – flying in cockpits with no windows – these systems utilize various instruments to make informed decisions in a variety of scenarios. These systems may not be able to “see” clearly, but they optimize the response to changing environments.

This cycle of semi-informed cause-and-effect has been completed continuously by billions of humans over hundreds of thousands of years. Each completed loop joins the collective, evolutionary DNA as the “blind pilots” grow more competent at responding to the hidden world around them.

Resist a modern lifestyle

According to a study published by Alistair V.W. Nunn, exposure to certain phytochemicals might improve resistance to a modern lifestyle:

“The endocannabinoid system (ECS) was only ‘discovered’ in the 1990s. Since then, many new ligands have been identified, as well as many new intracellular targets – ranging from the PPARs, to mitochondria, to lipid rafts. The reason may be that the ECS is a homeostatic system, which integrates energy seeking and storage behavior with resistance to oxidative stress. It could be viewed as having thrifty actions. Thriftiness is an innate property of life, which is programmed to a set point by both environment and genetics, resulting in an epigenotype perfectly adapted to its environment. This thrifty set point can be modulated by hormetic stimuli, such as exercise, cold and plant micronutrients.” [1]

The ECS is an important physiological system involved in regulating and balancing numerous functions and processes in the human body, including brain plasticity, learning and memory, stress and emotions, immune response, inflammation, appetite and food intake, bone and muscle health, digestion, metabolism, and energy balance.

Nunn’s study claims that in less than a single lifetime, the human organism is capable of performing small, but useful, rapid evolutions in order combat unique threats in its environment. Clues about how to modulate the system more safely are emerging from observations that some polyphenols, such as resveratrol, and possibly some phytocannabinoids can modulate mitochondrial function and might improve resistance to a modern lifestyle.

The key is the level to which threat exposure occurs. Limited exposure to threats, toxins or adversities creates biologically stronger organisms. This process is called hormesis.

The mutating magic of hormesis

Most physicians agree that human bodies are capable of producing healthy, productive biological responses in the face of toxic, dangerous, or overly taxing environments. If a person lifts many weights at the gym, the body responds to the trauma of muscle damage by building stronger muscle fibers over time, just like the “blind pilots” optimizing the response to changing environments.

To the body and brain “copilots,” the body may be under attack, or survival may now require more strain on the muscular system than it did before. To handle the issue, they begin distributing muscle-boosting proteins.

This is the cycle of healthy hormesis. A strong environmental signal produces manageable biological damage. Brains and bodies respond to damage by releasing hormones, stockpiling proteins, and otherwise ensuring maximum preparation to continue thriving in the current environments. This transition from threatened to thriving is called biotransformation.
Hormesis is not a super power; it is a survival mechanism. The best way to embrace the gifts of the hormesis cycle is not to undergo unbearable trauma. Rather, it is to establish a lifestyle that maintains a consistent, healthy balance of a variety of stressors.

Stress, despite the discomfort it brings, is vitally important for creating and maintaining healthy biological and neurological processes. It facilitates a necessary physiological resiliency. However, in the 21st century, technology and progressive economic structures have made incredibly low-stress lifestyles available for the first time in human history.

The biological importance of stress

Stress, in this context, is not the same as anxiety. Anxiety and other forms of unnecessary adrenal stimulation do not qualify as healthy stressors. These processes create unnecessary friction in the body’s most important systems and can create devastating health problems over time.

Stressors, in the healthy sense, are challenges. Stressors are obstacles that an organism must overcome, but in order to do so, that organism must improvise and improve.

One example of a “good” stressor is food. For thousands of years, humans were either relentless hunter gatherers or brutal agriculturalists. However, in in the last century or so, extreme advances in technology and sociology changed the way humans approach food. Relatively speaking, this is an incredibly small amount of time for the human species, and physiological systems have not been able to match the swift pace of global modernization.

Food now arrives effortlessly on the doorstep with the push of a button. Fresh produce, organic meats, and farm-fresh eggs in addition to more processed foods are among the options of deliverable items. Unfortunately, food delivery betrays the hormesis cycle humans have been optimizing since the first cell split. It causes dysfunction in processes that are vital to human thriving.

Human physiological systems – the “blind pilots” – have been “in the air” for hundreds of thousands of years. In that time, these systems have adjusted to certain events, evolving to depend on them. For example, often during the “flight,” these systems respond to hunger by producing a variety of hormones, proteins, catalysts, and activations. Each of these processes creates another process.

Burning fat, for example, only begins when physiological systems ensure that new calories are present in the environment. These systems burn excess fuel to provide energy. Even something as simple as spending an hour walking around the grocery store can trigger the body’s hormesis cycle. While not as traumatic as a burn or a damaged muscle, occupying a “food” state two to three times a day triggers healthy responses.

However, using 21st century technologies to receive delivered food is too quick and too efficient for physiological systems to activate, and biology does not improve. Every day it becomes easier for humans to survive than it was the day before. That is good for humans as a species, but only if humans also manage to maintain a balance of healthy stressors that keeps the hormesis cycles engaged and maintains the tradition of positive biotransformation.

Keep your pilots busy

Embracing hormesis in the modern age has nothing to do with seeking out experimental or dangerous levels of toxicity. In the words of Gems and Partridge in their 2008 Cell Metabolism paper, “Increased longevity can be associated with greater resistance to a range of stressors.” [2]

Here are Dr. Lazarus’s recommendations:

  • Fast intermittently for 12-18 hours to produce a productive level of ketones
  • Eat a rainbow of vegetables for a spectrum of phytonutrients
  • Play often, move frequently and use resistance occasionally to exhaustion
  • Expose yourself to extremes in temperature for limited periods of time such as cryotherapy or saunas
  • Use nutritional supplements that contain therapeutic doses of phytonutrients

Go to the store instead of ordering online to enter a “food” state. Encourage a faster metabolism by jogging to the gym down the block instead of driving to the one 10 miles away. Demand healthier brain function by reading nonfiction works or listening to WholisticMatters podcasts.

Recreation is important. Rest is important. Fun is important. But it is key to keep the “blind pilots” engaged. It is dark in that cockpit. If they are not kept occupied, they may fall asleep at the wheel.

Learn more.

WholisticMatters would like to acknowledge Ryan Lazarus, MSc, CNS, IFMCP, DC, for his contributions to the content of this article.

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1. Nunn, A.V., G.W. Guy, and J.D. Bell, Endocannabinoids, FOXO and the metabolic syndrome: redox, function and tipping point--the view from two systems. Immunobiology, 2010. 215(8): p. 617-28.
2. Gems, D. and L. Partridge, Stress-response hormesis and aging: "that which does not kill us makes us stronger". Cell Metab, 2008. 7(3): p. 200-3.

Other:

Aizpurua-Olaizola O et al. Targeting the endocannabinoid system: future therapeutic strategies. Drug Discovery Today. 2017;22(1):105-110.

Metabolic and Molecular Imaging Group, MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, Hammersmith Hospital, Imperial College, Du Cane Road, London W12 OHS, UK

Institute of Healthy Ageing and Department of Genetics, Environment and Evolution, University College London, London WC1E 6BT, UK

Dose-Response, 8:16–21, 2010, Formerly Nonlinearity in Biology, Toxicology, and Medicine

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