As a college sophomore, I wanted to be an exchange student. England seemed like an exciting option. Mom dissuaded me by telling me England didn’t have central heat and I wouldn’t be comfortable. I didn’t understand exactly what that meant, “no central heat”, but I understood Mom was saying I couldn’t go. Given my life experiences since then, that little bit of discomfort, if it had in fact been the truth, would have prepared me for my life.
If no central heat was uncomfortable, imagine a cabin with minimal insulation and a coal/wood-burning stove to heat and cook with. Heaven, for me! Or a yurt with a tiny propane heater during a winter that was the coldest and snowiest the old-timers had seen in 20-30 years. More heaven. Those two situations pushed my limits and I loved the experiences. How would you have liked those situations?
Pushing your limits makes you less fragile and often strengthens your immune system. Learn something new. Shorten your eating window. Hold your breath. Do one more sit-up or push-up than you usually do. Take a sauna followed by a cold shower. Those are ways of pushing your limits to get stronger. The effect here is hormesis.
Essentially, hormesis is an adaptive response to moderate stress. It can refer to environmental agents or physiological agents that induce the stress and the resulting increased immunity or strength. In other words, when you apply a bit of stress to some part or parts of your body, they respond by getting stronger. This is a useful concept in your everyday life.
You’ve been applying the concept to your body all of your life. At birth, you started applying hormesis to your brain because of your natural inclination to learn. Learning stresses the neural pathways, causing new circuits and pathways to form. Another form of hormesis is play. Kids run, jump, swing, and stretch, all activities that stress bones, muscles, connective tissues, and even the brain, and the result is strengthened bones, muscles, connective tissues, and brains.
If we continue to learn and move we continue to have strong bodies. That’s vital for healthy living and aging. When we stop learning and moving, we start dying. The bottom line is you have some amount of control over your health and longevity, and probably more than you think.
Another form of hormesis you may have played with as a kid was your breathing. Perhaps you learned, as I did, that if you hold your breath, say while playing hide and seek, your heaving breathing won’t give away your hiding place. Did you test your skills of swimming underwater for longer and longer periods of time? Or, did you have a “tea party” at the bottom of the pool like I did? All of those acts are stressing your lungs, strengthening them, and making them more resilient.
Two other forms of hormesis have recently come to my attention as body stressors that build strength and boost immunity. Intermittent fasting and hot/cold therapy.
Intermittent fasting comes in two flavors: a reduced eating window, ideally an eight to ten-hour window for eating, and not eating one or two days a week. Amazingly, this boosts your immune system and improves your digestive system. Research also shows that either type can help you lose weight. I wrote about this earlier in My Husband Doesn’t Do Anything Right, a tongue-in-cheek post about what a short eating window has done for him.
Hot/cold therapy is something Scandinavians are known for. The ritual is to sit in the heat, then jump into the cold, and back to the heat. In cold climates, you go from a hot sauna to an ice bath or snowbank and back to the sauna. We bought ourselves a FIR (far infrared) sauna so we could get this heat therapy. During the winter, I can step onto the back porch and soak in the cold winter air while I enjoy the stars. During the summer, I step into a cold shower. It’s all invigorating.
Hot tubs are another good way to get heat therapy. If you don’t happen to have easy access to a sauna or hot tub then a hot shower fills in. If you don’t have ice and snow for your cold therapy, you can use cold air or a cold shower. The easy, home technique is to take an alternating hot and cold shower. Whatever approach you take, the idea is to shock your body with heat and then shock it with cold. Go 10-15 minutes in the heat and 2-5 minutes in the cold, though start out easy and work your way up to those time levels. This hot/cold therapy tunes your body to being more responsive to temperature extremes, boosting your immune system.
The caveat to all of these hormesis acts is to check with your doctor. Extreme changes can trigger ill effects. You may want to ease into the changes to mitigate any problems or negative reactions. If your doctor gives you the go-ahead, start incorporating one or more of these hormesis approaches to strengthen your life.