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Wednesday Wellbeing: Hormesis




"The dose makes the poison."


"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."


These statements may be cliche, but they bear out when studied more closely. All things, if overdosed, can be lethal. Overconsuming water can lead to heart failure. Overexercising can cause your kidneys to shut down. Too much oxygen can result in brain and lung damage. The list goes on and on. What is good for us can also kill us.


In last Sunday's post I wrote about resilience and introduced the term hormesis to explain how organisms adapt to challenges. Hormesis is a response to a dose. For example, one day you go for a ten-minute walk up a steep hill and it is very difficult. You think to yourself, "I had no idea I was so out of shape. This is horrible. I'm never going to get better." Well, if you can suspend your desire to quit and commit to going back to that same hill in a few days' time, you will most likely feel a little bit better going up. If you repeat the process again, you will feel even better. And on it goes.


There are two keys to successful adaptation: appropriate dose and adequate recovery. Take our hill for example. If you picked a hill that was too steep or too long, you may not be able to walk for a few days. By the time you are recovered enough to go back, you have lost the conditioning that the original bout afforded. Inversely, if the hill was the right level of challenge but you slept and ate poorly in the interim days, you have not recovered enough and failed to get the appropriate adaption. Therefore, it will feel just as hard when you go back out again. Too much dose and too little recovery lead us to the same poor results.


What we are looking for is to expand our range of tolerance, or the window of stress, that we can derive adaption from. The stronger and more capable we grow, the wider this window becomes. This improvement is a great thing! It is what we want to happen. However, it comes with a cost. That cost is the need for continual and progressive overload, otherwise, the fitness deteriorates (sometimes very quickly). The challenge does not have to be extreme, just big enough to elicit an adaptation, but it must be present. Another cost is the need for better recovery. If you want to keep improving, you must eat right, sleep well, and reduce unproductive stress. This may include adding acupuncture, sauna, or massage to your routine.


As you challenge yourself to improve, you will find that a strange thing starts to occur. You will change your daily habits and routines to support that improvement. Nothing makes you want to eat better like engaging in an exercise routine. The two are mutually supportive. Pay attention to obvious (and subtle) ways that you can challenge yourself mentally, physically, socially, and spiritually. The more you want to avoid something, perhaps the more you may benefit from a little bit of it. Just enough to make a change and teach you something...about your own resilience.

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