Stress for health and longevity

When it comes to nurturing your overall health, longevity genes and aging well, one major, common theme is labeled hormesis. Hormesis is your body’s response to small healthy stresses—say, fasting for a short time, or biking up a brief, steep hill. These short periods of adversity stimulate the body’s defenses against aging without doing harm. Creating small, manageable challenges with regard to food, exercise and, yes, temperature is a playful, proactive way to approach wellness. And, not the least of its virtues, the hormesis mindset gives you a way to reframe what used to be unpleasant obligations, like stepping outside on an ice-cold morning to walk the dog (skip the coat). Everyday life offers up plenty of opportunities for “that which does not kill me makes me stronger.”

Let's take cold for example

The technical term is “cold thermogenesis,” basically any exposure to cold temperatures for short periods of time. Unlike long-term exposure to cold which overtaxes the immune system and erodes health, these brief doses of temperature stress stimulate your cells’ ability to repair themselves, promoting autophagy, the body’s self-cleaning system. Over the course of a lifetime, your body is continually breaking itself down and building itself back up at the cellular level. Regular shots of cold help make the process more efficient and robust, just what you need to counter the natural wear and tear of aging. 

Controlled exposure to cold is like time spent in the sun, which, in managed doses, also confers health-boosting benefits that are tough to access when you’re buried in clothing layers 24/7. Contrary to what your momma might have told you, some cold exposure, sensibly done, is good for you; you likely won’t likely catch a cold because of it. (Cold doesn’t cause colds, viruses do.) 

In fact, getting cozy with cold, however you choose to get yours, is credited not only with anti-aging effects, it’s showing promise as a preventative treatment for dementia by taming inflammation and oxidative stress. In the near term, other benefits include improved immunity, sleep quality and an increased fat-burning. That’s because a dose of cold causes the body to shiver, which activates reactions inside the brown fat cells, the ones that our bodies burn for fuel to keep our bodies warm (versus the problematic white stuff our bodies store). Cold exposure is also thought to tame migraine symptoms (try ice packs on the neck) and soothe irritated nerve endings that can cause pain. For those struggling with mental health issues like anxiety or depression, it can boost mood by triggering the release of the body’s feel-good endorphins. 

So how to use it?

You can swim in a cool pool, then bask in a hot tub. Go back and forth between a sauna and a cold shower. Or just step outside in winter for a few minutes without a coat. It’s so refreshing, especially after hours in an overheated indoor environment. The same hormesis principle applies to other light stresses on the body, like short periods of fasting or bursts of intense physical activity.