The Stress That You Desperately Need

You’ve more than likely heard this saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Perhaps you have repeated this mantra to yourself after a bad breakup, job loss, or some other upsetting situation. But in reality, there are no truer words when it comes to your entire physical, mental, and emotional health.

You see, we have been taught for years to believe that, for the most part, all stress is bad. But in the fields of biology and medicine, a phenomenon known as hormesis explains why certain types of stress are actually beneficial for your health.

Hormesis is defined as the “adaptive response of cells and organisms to a moderate (usually intermittent) stress.”1 This adaptive response is the body’s genetic reaction to stress that increases the body’s resistance and resilience to future stressors, making them stronger over time. These stressors have also been shown to reduce the pace of aging.

To be fair, whether stress kills us or makes us stronger is a matter of degree. Serious, long-term stress (such as being trapped in an abusive relationship, working insanely long hours at a job you hate, or being extremely sleep deprived for a long period of time), as well as shorter-term stress of extreme severity (such as experiencing a near-fatal crash), can both lead to accelerated aging and greater risk of physical and mental health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and early death.

But moderate, controllable stress actually entrains your cells, and thus your body as a whole, to not only deal better with stress but also to become physically and emotionally stronger and more resilient because of it. It challenges your cells, including your brain cells, just enough to make them more resilient to future stresses, including toxins, carcinogens, illnesses, traumas, and allergens. So the next time your cells are exposed to stress, they’re less likely to suffer damage to their DNA—and those that do incur damage are more likely to self-destruct and be replaced, rather than linger and risk mutation (a doorway to cancer). Consequently, adaptive stress responses not only lead to healthier bodies but strengthen brain networks and enhance brain plasticity, leading to healthy and slower body and brain aging.

Health-Promoting Stressors

Believe it or not, the adaptive stress response is a survival mechanism that dates back all the way to the time of hunter-gatherers. Our bodies are actually designed to respond to the types of stress that our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have encountered. As such, some examples of “good stressors” that make the body stronger in the long run include exercise and intermittent fasting or calorie restriction. (Additionally, research is finding that intellectual activities that challenge the brain activate stress pathways in the neurons, helping to delay or prevent cognitive decline and dementia.2)

I’ve talked about the benefits of fasting before. When you fast, glucose and insulin levels slowly decline, which alters your metabolic clock and reverses insulin resistance (the age-related process that leads to diabetes). Fasting has also been shown to provide cumulative protection against oxidative damage, inflammation, and numerous age-related conditions, including cancer, heart disease, and neurological/brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.3-4

Exercise is just as important to hormesis. Exercise exposes the body to various forms of beneficial stress, including thermal, metabolic, hypoxic, oxidative, and mechanical. These stressors activate a chain of chemical reactions that ultimately regulate the body’s adaptive response, which includes DNA repair, increased resistance to oxidative stress, and a decrease the incidence of stress-related diseases.5-7

In practical terms, this is how exercise activates your body’s adaptive stress response.

Take strength training—an excellent example of hormesis in action. Say you’re just starting out, so you smartly opt to go light on weight. You do a few sets of back squats with just a 33-lb. bar on your back. The next day, you are sore. Well, that soreness is due to the tiny tears in your muscle fibers and increased inflammation—normal bodily responses to exercise.

To aid in healing, your body releases hormones and anti-inflammatory molecules to repair those tears. In the process of repairing the injured fibers, it also builds up new muscle fibers, and many of the anti-inflammatory benefits to the body are maintained as long as you continue to exercise regularly. So the stress and “injury” from your workout ultimately leads to the development of muscle and reduced inflammation, both of which only benefits you long term.

However, balance is very important with exercise. Too little or too light doesn’t activate the stress response and too much, too strenuous causes excess damage that can’t be repaired and accumulates. In the latter case, the body is never able to recover enough to become stronger.

I work out regularly with a Fitbit activity tracker and always try to keep my activity level somewhere between 70-90% of my maximum heart rate for at least 20-30 minutes a day. Check with your physician to be sure this type of exercise is safe for you.

Polyphenols—A Simple Path to Hormesis

In addition to engaging in regular exercise and partaking in intermittent fasting, adding more fruits and vegetables to your everyday diet is an easy way to promote hormesis, or an adaptive stress response in the body.

Diets rich in fruits and vegetables are consistently associated with longer and healthier lives. This is partly because of the adaptive stress response the plants undergo before the fruits and vegetables are harvested.

When plants are stressed, whether it’s by bugs, nibbling rabbits, inclement weather, or encroaching weeds, they defend themselves by synthesizing phytochemicals such as polyphenols and flavonoids, which impart a bitter taste so invaders back off, or “poison” the soil to stop encroaching weeds in their tracks.

When we eat this very same produce, we “steal” their adaptive stress response.  The polyphenols known to initiate the adaptive stress response are especially found in the skins of and products made from dark fruits and vegetables, as well as certain teas (especially green tea). All of these contain life-enhancing polyphenols called trans-resveratrol, anthocyanins, and catechins.

So What Does This Mean for You?

It is OK to stress yourself out…but in a good way!

You can stimulate your adaptive stress response by doing three things, starting right now: Eat a nutrient- and polyphenol-rich diet, engage in intermittent fasting every few months, and exercise regularly.

These are not only sensible, but strongly science-backed ways to live a healthier and longer life.


  1. Mattson M. Ageing Res Rev. 2008 Jan;7(1):1-7.
  2. Scarmeas N and Stern Y. J Clin Exp Neuropsychol. 2003 Aug;25(5):625-33.
  3. Masoro EJ. Mech Ageing Dev. 2005 Sep;126(9):913-22.
  4. Martin B, et al. Ageing Res Rev. 2006 Aug;5(3):332-53.
  5. Peake JM, et al. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2015 Aug 1;119(3):172-89.
  6. Radak Z, et al. Biogerontology. 2005;6(1):71-5.
  7. Radak Z, et al. Free Radic Biol Med. 2008 Jan 15;44(2):153-9.

About Author

Brian Matthews

Brian Matthews is the President of Gene Smart and the leader of our Gene Smart team. His mission is to provide supplements to help you control your inflammation, your weight, and your life, based on the latest scientific information.

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