Stoicism is one of the most popular philosophical movements of all time. Born from a time when the world was in turmoil, a key tenet of Stoicism is resisting the expectation of being comfortable all the time.
The modern version of Stoicism – or ‘anti-fragility’ – encourages us to get out of our comfort zones and in touch with a reality larger than our own, thereby building mental fortitude as well as emotional resilience.
In many ways, today’s human has become removed from being in touch with the ‘hard’ parts of having a physical body like walking, lifting, shivering and sweating. By reapplying these functional hardships into our lives, we can help our bodies and minds recalibrate to a more flexible, resilient centre. In short, experiencing a minor stressor can actually strengthen the system.
How hormesis can help
One way in which we can reintroduce physical – and thus mental – resistance is through hormesis. This is when something that is damaging or toxic in excess, is very beneficial in smaller doses. Of course, chronic stress is unhealthy. But beneficial stressors can improve and strengthen your physical and mental wellness. One general consequence of hormesis is upregulation of mitochondrial function and resistance to oxidative stress. Examples of hormetic factors include calorie restriction, avoidance of highly palatable foods, exposure to hot/cold temperatures, and the eating of stressed plant foods.
5 ways to benefit from hormesis
1. Intermittent fasting
Extended malnourishment is not good, but smaller doses of calorie restriction can help promote longevity. The ideal fasting regimen appears to be a combination of daily time-restricted eating with a periodic prolonged fast (five days appears to be optimal, done one to four times per year). Time-restricted eating has been shown to produce numerous health benefits, including weight loss, improved heart function, and enhanced aerobic capacity, all without altering diet quality or quantity. (But please, check with your doctor before doing a multi-day fast.)
2. Skip highly palatable foods
Rarely do you find fat, sugar, salt and spice all present in one natural food. Yet the modern world is flooded with foods that are formulated to be highly palatable. They often contain huge amounts of simple carbohydrates (e.g. fructose) that stimulate appetite and activate the reward centre in your brain, meaning the more of them one eats the more one wants. The pervasiveness of poor quality addictive foods also contributes to large-scale agriculture, which produces high amounts of corn, wheat and soybeans which are used to make corn syrup, refined flour and hydrogenated oils – all of which are proven to be detrimental to health.
3. Eat stressed plants
Eating stressed plants is one of the most powerful things we can do to extend lifespan. Plants are faced with many external stressors (from drought to fungal attacks) and given that they can’t physically distance themselves from their “attackers”, they produce chemicals to defend themselves. When humans ingest these compounds, it activates cellular-protective mechanisms that protect us from environmental stressors like air pollution or overexposure to UV radiation. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and brussels sprouts (which contain the compound sulforaphane) are a good place to start – I take a sulforaphane supplement.
4. Cold water therapy
Cold immersion (or cryotherapy) is another way to introduce hormesis. Being uncomfortably cold for short periods of time activates protective brown fat in the body and can lead to weight loss, improved immune function, and reduced feelings of stress and anxiety.
You don’t want to get to the point of hypothermia – try starting with a 20-second freezing cold shower and build your way up to 2 minutes. Exercising in the cold is especially beneficial (like running outside in the winter) or take a dip in a cold pool or ocean.
5. Heat therapy
Trigger hot thermogenesis by taking a sauna. The Finns have long understood the importance of a good sweat season, and scientists have proven that saunas promote relaxation, pain relief, promotes cardio health via vasodilation and improves gene expression, including activating longevity gene FOX03.
In a time of uncertainty, chaos, fear, the only way to thrive is to build resilience. We need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. There is no certainty and true freedom comes from surrender. We have to trust in the process of life.