I listened to a few great podcasts this week, one about the negative effects of stress on our body and the other about when stress is good.
What was interesting about these two podcasts was that they were both talking about stress but they were saying the EXACT OPPOSITE things.
The one expert talked about stress being negative and very, very bad for us. This is unequivocally true.
The other, said stress was exactly what we needed in order to promote health and longevity. This speaker was a Harvard professor, pretty sure he knew what he was talking about too. He explained when stress is good for us.
What was important to understand was that one talked about emotional stress (bad) and the other talked about biological stress (good to a point).
WHAT IS STRESS?
Stress is the body’s method of reacting to a condition such as a threat, challenge or physical and psychological barrier. Stress is the disruption of homeostasis, or your body’s state of equilibrium. In other words, stress is something that throws your body off-balance. You’re designed to handle minor and occasional stress.
In fact, your body thrives on occasional stress or toxin exposure, and responds by ramping up growth and repair, to bring you back to balance.
WHY EMOTIONAL STRESS IS BAD
Emotional stress causes our sympathetic nervous system to kick into high gear and causes the following cascade of reactions…resulting in a faster running but older, less intelligent you.
–> We lose our ability to hear, we get tunnel vision and lose the use of our modern brain and move to pure reaction mode, making our thinking clear but without the benefit of planning or big picture thinking.
–> Our skin becomes more acidic making it so we taste terrible and no one would want to bite us, but if they do our blood has thickened so we wouldn’t bleed to death at least. Chronically stressed out and this acidity on the skin ages us before our time!
–> Our heart rate increases, our bowels and bladder evacuate, blood moves away from our digestive tract and into our limbs in case we need to run away quickly. This can result in compromised digestion, IBS, gas, bloating and more.
–> In the end these reactions cause our blood pressure to rise, our skin to sag, our digestion to be compromised and put us in a generally unhealthy and unintelligent state.
Short term is okay but as a way of life it becomes a health crisis, resulting in a leading cause of hospital visits.
WHEN STRESS CAN BE GOOD
By biological stress I mean situations that stress your body and put it in uncomfortable situations. This requires an introduction to the word ‘hormesis’. The term comes from the Greek word meaning “to excite.” According to the proponents of the theory of hormesis, tiny doses of toxins in the body act in a completely different fashion from large doses and may even be beneficial! They “excite” the body’s immune system and repair mechanisms allowing for a better response to insults.
Hormesis is the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” type of stress – your body’s positive response to minor stressors.
Over time, you can use hormesis to build an adaptive stress response, where you learn to benefit from sources of stress. With exercise, for example, you need to damage your muscles, otherwise your body won’t build them back stronger. By the same token, your brain needs challenges – learning a new language, doing something creative, and so on – to build new connections between brain cells and become sharper.
Another example is intermittent fasting. Skipping meals, or not eating for an entire day has been shown to delay most age-related physiological changes, and extends maximum and average lifespan. Animal studies have also demonstrated that it can prevent or lessen the severity of cancer, stroke, coronary heart disease, autoimmune disease, allergy, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Cold water baths is another example. Shown to speed up the regeneration of cells, cold showers or cold water baths can be very good for us. Prolonged exposure to this cold, not so much.
In conclusion, these low dose stressors help your body develop CELLULAR GRIT.
We need to get uncomfortable to stimulate positive biological change. Change that can result in living a longer life, having stronger muscles and a sharper brain well into our golden years.
But not so much stress that it becomes harmful. Only the dose makes the poison.
THE TOP 4 HORMETIC STRESSORS
One of the best types of exercise for boosting your resilience is high-intensity interval training (HIIT). It has a particularly strong hormetic effect on your mitochondria – they become more efficient to deal with the stress, which increases your energy production and slows down aging at the cellular level.
Fasting is another hormetic stressor with huge benefits. It makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint – in times of starvation, your body had to run at its peak efficiency, both to save energy and to increase your odds of finding or catching something to eat. And sure enough, research shows that fasting is amazing for you:
- It helps you live longer
- It makes your cells more resilient to oxidative damage
- It protects your brain cells and improves cognitive function
- It burns fat like crazy
The ideal window for fasting is between 16-48 hours. Shorter than that and you don’t see the above benefits as much. Longer, and you start to run into downsides, like dips in energy and muscle loss.
Full disclosure…I have never been able to fast, nor have I put much effort behind it. I have given it the old college try but so far haven’t been able to build a habit of this. My version of this is extending the time between my meals and it allows me to not panic if I am getting hungry…I am trying to change my thinking so that when I feel some hunger pangs I start to think I am actually doing something good for my body, rather than think of it as a negative feeling.
3) Extreme Temperatures:
Cold exposure, for example, makes your cells produce antioxidants system-wide, protecting your body from inflammation and damage and increases immunity. Heat exposure makes the proteins in your cells more resilient to stress and slows down cellular aging.
You can certainly go to a spa like Scandinave to use their plunge pools and saunas to do this right but for a regular habit maybe you can stop worrying if you feel a chill or turning your air conditioning up high if you start to feel warm. Don’t be afraid to feel the seasonal temperature shifts.
4) Sun Exposure:
Sun exposure also triggers hormesis. UV rays cause sunburn, cancer, and all kinds of nasty damage if you get too many of them, but when you get the right dose, sun exposure is an incredibly powerful (and free) biohack.
Make low level discomfort your friend but keep in mind, not all stressors are good, and you don’t want to just go out looking for as much stress as possible. The wrong type of stress will damage your biology and make you weak. Instead, learn to manage negative stress, and only use stress that triggers hormesis. 🙂