Hormesis – the “Good Stress”

Author: Dr. Ron Hunninghake, MD


Isn’t Stress Always Bad?

Most people think of stress as being a bad thing. Being overbooked, behind in your home and work duties, short on sleep, fatigued, irritable, anxious, or even seriously depressed – these are undoubtedly undesirable states of “bad stress.” Just running into another highly stressed family member or co-worker can be enough to bring you down! Stress is “bad” … unless you learn how to “dose” yourself more effectively.

Hormesis To the Rescue

Hormesis is a dosing concept taken from toxicology. Exposure to a large dose of an unfamiliar toxic chemical can make you sick. However, given intermittently, small doses of that same toxic chemical can stimulate and gradually “train” your body to neutralize it so that you don’t get sick, even when you are hit with a larger dose! Hormesis is the process of learning how to properly “dose up” various threats over time in a way that strengthens your physiology, thus making you more immune to the adverse effects of the threat.

Hormesis and Appropriate Alcohol Use

Most of us are unaware that alcoholic beverages are considered a “Group 1 carcinogenic agent” by The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization*. Although this agency recommends complete abstinence from alcohol, it does concede that one alcoholic drink per day (using alcohol as a hormetic) may reduce your risk for heart disease.
However, chronic overuse of alcohol is NOT hormetic and can lead to the development of all kinds of chronic and sometimes fatal diseases.

Examples of Hormesis in Daily Life


Walking, lifting weights, jogging, and riding bicycles are excellent exercises that hermetically strengthen your bones, build muscles and stamina, increase your immunity, and stimulate endorphins that help you feel happier.


Heating up your body to a mild fever causes sweating and many other adaptive responses. Alternating a sauna session with cold showers may not sound comfortable, yet it triggers wonderful hormetic benefits to your health.


We typically don’t think of this as hormesis. Yet, it truly is a process of “repetitively stressing your memory” until more permanent neural pathways are laid down in your brain: the result – a successful performance or a higher score on your test.

Interval Training – High-Level Hormesis

A daily walk is great for your overall health. If you want even better health benefits from your walk, try doing it as interval training. Start your walk with a 5-minute warm-up where you take your time to get limbered up. Now ramp up your pace to “as fast as possible, yet safe” for about one minute. Then slow your walking speed back for 2-3 minutes. This “one minute fast followed by 2-3 minutes slow” is considered one interval. Carefully work up to a total of 5-7 intervals during the training phase of your walk. Finish your session with 3-5 minutes of cool-down easy walking. It’s best to practice interval training only 2-3 days a week, with normal walks between training days.

Colorful Phytonutrients are Hormetic

The 5 A Day for Better Health program is a National Cancer Institute-funded program to educate and encourage everyone to eat five servings of colorful vegetables and fruits for better overall health and a reduced risk for cancer. These “colors” are poisonous phytochemicals that the plants synthesize to protect themselves from molds, fungi, certain insects, and other predators. Over the course of time, through a process of evolutionary hormesis, early humans developed detoxification pathways in their liver that made them tolerant to these “poisons.”

Today, we know over 1000 of these phytochemicals fall into various categories of polyphenols and carotenoids. These phytochemicals can stimulate the immune system, slow the growth rate of cancer cells, and prevent DNA damage that can lead to cancer and other diseases. By consciously choosing colorful vegetables and low glycemic fruits, we are using the power of hormesis to become more resilient to the development of cancer.

Metabolic Hormesis

Every night most of us engage in intermittent fasting for at least 8-10 hours. That is unless you can’t sleep through the night without a bedtime snack, or a 2 am treat. Suppose you are unable to make it through the night without a snack. In that case, this could be due to your blood sugar plummeting – nighttime hypoglycemia, which is a common sign of insulin resistance, the dreaded precursor to Metabolic Syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes. By training yourself to extend the time that you do not eat during the night and into the early morning, you are engaging in the good stress of metabolic hormesis! Over time, you should be able to work up to 12-16 hours of intermittent fasting. Your body’s metabolism will gradually shift into better fat-burning, also known as ketosis. Not only will you gradually lose excess fat and re-normalize your blood sugar levels, but you will also be reducing your risk for heart disease and cancer. Hormesis saves the day again!


As you can see, hormesis plays a pivotal role in developing better health through the adaptive tendencies of the human body when adequately exposed to just the right amounts of progressive “good stress.” Keep this method in mind as you work to develop better daily habits of health. Become a Hormetic Health Hunter!


1. Group 1 Carcinogens in Food – Alcoholic Beverages
2. Functional and Preservative Properties of Phytochemicals; 2020