Living Healthy in the New Year with Hormesis

As the New Year begins and we make personal resolutions to be healthier and happier, we’d like to highlight why the phenomenon known as hormesis or the hormetic response could be the key to you achieving your 2020 health goals.

What is a Hormetic Response

A hormetic response is defined as a dose response characterized by low dose stimulative or beneficial effect and high dose inhibition or toxic effectWhat this means is that a mild stressor can cause a disproportionate protective response by the body, resulting in an overall net benefit when the stressor is taken in sufficiently small doses.  In larger doses of the stressor, the protective response is overwhelmed and negative effects of the stressor outweigh the response. The hormetic zone refers to the range of doses in which result in a net positive response.  

The Hormetic Response Curve

Hormesis tells us that too much of a good thing can be bad, or conversely, a small amount of bad thing can be good.

Some Possible Examples of Hormesis and the Hormetic Response

While there is still some dispute among experts as to the importance and prevalence of hormesis, here are some probable examples of the hormetic response:

Exercise is a source of stress, which induces a hormetic response.  For this reason individuals that do not exercise enough are at risk for high levels of oxidative stress, as are individuals engaged in demanding exercise programs.  Yes, too much exercise can be unhealthy if steps aren’t taken to deal with oxidative stress.

Alcohol is believed by some to be hormetic in certain ways, such as the prevention of heart disease and stroke, as observational studies often show that small amounts of alcohol consumption reduce the incidence of heart disease and stroke. However, some believe this effect may be often overstated, as light drinking is often leisurely and social, and the benefits observed may be due to these confounding factors.  Light drinkers are also more likely to exercise than non-drinkers, which could be the real reason light drinkers sometimes fare better in observational studies.

Fasting, or periods of abstaining from caloric intake for more than 16 hours, is a stressor that induces a hormetic response, activating a number of beneficial processes in the body such as autophagy and apoptosis.  Through these processes the body clears away damage and dysfunctioning cells and replaces them with newer healthier cells.

Exposure to extreme temperatures likely induces a hormetic response, which is probably why many cultures have practices, such as sweat lodges, involving exposure to hot or cold that date back thousands of years.

Hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, can cause the body to produce more mitochondria.  


Inducing a hormetic response can be a great way to alleviate a variety of health problems.  One possible advantage to hormesis over treating symptoms pharmacologically, is that there isn’t a tendency of the body to adapt and develop a dependency on the stressor as it might with a drug.

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