Hormesis: How a little stress can boost your energy

Hormesis: How a little stress can boost your energy

That which does not kill us makes us stronger. ~Friedrich Nietzsche

Written by Ari Whitten

After working with over 3,000 tired clients, there is one thing that I know for certain: Overcoming fatigue and having great energy levels is all about having big powerful mitochondria, and lots of them.

Fatigue is about your mitochondria

In a nutshell mitochondria are the energy generators of the cell. You might remember them from your biology courses in high school or university where they told you that mitochondria are the “powerhouse of the cell.”

It’s their job to create energy using the oxygen you breathe and the food you eat. The energy they create is produced in the form of ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) which is then used to power all cellular and metabolic processes that take place in your body.

Mitochondria are so important to the way our bodies function that we have between 500-2,000 mitochondria in almost every cell of the body.

When it comes to energy, here’s the big thing to remember: The more mitochondria you have and the better and more powerfully those mitochondria are functioning, the more energy you will have.

But even more importantly is the degree to which your mitochondria have “energy mode” switched on or switched off.

Breakthrough new research has uncovered another hugely important function of our mitochondria beyond just generating energy.

Cell defense.

That’s right – your mitochondria are not just energy generators, but also play an integral role in defending your cells against threats.

Researcher Robert Naviaux, MD, PhD, and his colleagues at the University of California San Diego medical school have done revolutionary new research showing that mitochondrial dysfunction likely underlies chronic fatigue (and many other health problems).

Here is Naviaux explaining this in more detail (and pay particular attention to what he says about what the mitochondria have to do to defend against the threat):

“Mitochondria lie at the hub of the wheel of metabolism, coordinating over 500 different chemical reactions as they monitor and regulate the chemical milieu of the cell. It turns out that when mitochondria detect ‘danger’ to the cell, they shift first into a stress mode, then fight mode that takes most of the energy-producing metabolic functions of mitochondria off line. … Energy production and cellular defense are two sides to the same coin—when you are looking at one side, the other side is temporarily hidden. Mitochondria cannot perform both energy and defense functions at 100% capacity at the same time.”

6 keys to beating fatigue (what I've learned from 3,000 tired clients)

The big key to overcoming fatigue is answering this question: How do I switch my mitochondria out of “Danger Mode” and into “Energy Mode”?

That’s where hormesis enters the picture.

What the heck is HORMESIS?

To understand hormesis, I first want you to think of something.

Have you (or anyone you know) ever broken a bone in your arm or leg and had to wear a cast for a month or two?

Did you see what it looked like when you got that cast off your arm or your leg?

The arm or leg literally shrinks to half the size as it used to be, from the muscles atrophying from not being used. And this happens in just a few weeks of the muscles not being stimulated and asked to do work!

Everyone knows and understands this. But here’s what people don’t know.

In exactly the same way that your muscles shrink when not being used, your mitochondria will become weaker and smaller (and you’ll literally have lots of them die off) when you don’t have enough hormesis in your life.

Hormesis is the process by which a mild or acute stressor promotes adaptations in an organism that increases the health, resilience, and vitality of the organism.

Here’s the amazing part: It can increase resistance to a variety of stresses, not only the one to which you are exposed.

And while you have probably never heard of the concept of hormesis, more and more scientific research now points to it as being one of the most—if not the most—important factor in human health.

While this concept of hormesis might seem odd to you right now, you’re actually already more familiar with it than you realize.

This is exactly how exercise works! Exercise is not intrinsically healthy – it is actually a type of hormetic stressor.

Exercise stresses our cells, and then ultimately becomes healthy to us only because it stimulates adaptations and these adaptations in our bodies are what confer the health benefits and disease prevention benefits of exercise. What kind of adaptations? Things like increased heart strength, or blood vessel formation to deliver blood more efficiently, or stronger muscles, etc. But what the research indicates is the most important adaptation from exercise and all the other types of hormesis, is the mitochondrial adaptations.

Exercise literally makes your mitochondria bigger and stronger, and even stimulates “mitochondrial biogenesis” – which is the creation of new mitochondria from scratch.

It is those adaptations that actually translate into disease prevention, more energy, and increased longevity.

But I thought stress was bad?

In a world filled with stress, we’re all looking for ways to reduce stress and build resiliency. But there’s a hidden secret here…while everyone is talking about relaxing and doing calming breathing exercises, mindfulness practices, visualizing calming images, and so on (which are all fine and helpful),people are missing one of the most powerful ways to reduce stress: building resiliency into your biology at the cellular level. You do this by doing something totally counterintuitive and actually the polar opposite of what most stress experts are talking about. While everyone is talking about avoiding stress and relaxing your way to low stress levels, it turns out that the secret key is actually building up your body’s tolerance to stress — your resiliency — with stress itself.

The reality is that humans actually NEED certain kinds of stressors in our lives to be healthy. We NEED regular exposure to specific types of stressors in order for our mitochondria to continue to work normally. I’m not talking about doing extreme things in order to achieve some superhuman state of energy or health here – I’m saying that our biology is literally wired to require exposure to certain stressors just to allow our cells and mitochondria to function normally. And if we are lacking those stressors in our life, we become weak, fragile, prone to disease, and fatigued!

But (and this is a hugely important but) the right kind of stressors in the right doses are needed. You need to be smart and systematic about this. Too big of a dose and/or chronic exposure will have the exact opposite effect to the one you desire. If you’ve been sedentary for years, trying to run a marathon tomorrow is a really bad idea.

Here is a chart from a 2010 study titled Inflammatory modulation of exercise salience: using hormesis to return to a healthy lifestyle.


Hormesis: How a little stress can boost your energy

Here are some examples of hormesis (there are many others):

●      Intermittent Fasting
●      Cold
●      Heat
●      Exercise (all types– interval training, cardio & weight training)
●      Hypoxia
●      Some types of chemicals
●      Many types of phytochemicals (called “xenohormetins”)
●      Red and near-infrared light
●      UV light

By exposing your body to various forms of hormesis, your body makes adaptations that make it more resilient, resistant to dozens of diseases, and ultimately much healthier. Humans are biologically wired to need certain amounts of exposure to hormetic stressors. When we are deprived of those stressors, aging is accelerated, and we become weak, diseased and fatigued.

For millennia, hormetic stress was a part of life. Our ancestors lived and survived during times when food was hard to come by. They ate plants containing toxins. Exercise was essential to life. And exposure to the elements was a part of life (hot and cold). Contrast this to our modern world, which is an “anti-hormesis” lifestyle. We typically avoid virtually all hormetic stress simply because the modern world allows us to do so. It’s easier and more comfortable that way.

I want to give you 3 powerful forms of hormesis (other than exercise) that you should be doing if you want to overcome chronic fatigue or just take your energy and health to new heights.


Most people don’t realize it, but heat hormesis via a sauna is one of the absolute most powerful health-enhancing strategies in existence. Many of my clients say that sauna use has been the single biggest needle mover in helping them overcome chronic fatigue and recover their energy.

Fibromyalgia patients receiving thermal therapy combining sauna and underwater exercise reported 31-77% reductions in pain and symptoms after the 12-week program. These improvements continued throughout the 6-month follow-up period, which also noted also an improved quality of life.

Another study found that perceived fatigue, anxiety, depression, and performance status improved in patients with CFS with sauna therapy.

Check local spas, gyms, massage therapy centers, and health clinics, you would be surprised how easy it is to find a sauna service in your area. If you can afford to get your own sauna, it’s honestly one of the most powerful medicines in existence. Get one from a trusted brand that has met the strictest safety standards with ultra low electromagnetic fields EMF, like Sunlighten. Sunlighten also has a much cheaper and smaller “Solo” unit which people rave about, if space in your home and finances are an issue.

When starting with a sauna, if you’re severely fatigued, start with only 3-5 minutes at a low temperature (e.g. 110 degrees F) and build up slowly and systematically. Don’t try to push for too long in a very hot sauna in your first few times. Start slow and build up progressively.


Hypoxia simply means without oxygen. To deprive your cells of oxygen has been shown to be a powerful trigger for mitochondrial biogenesis, alongside many other health benefits associated with this practice. I am not talking about anything extreme here. You can do this by holding your breath. One extremely powerful method for doing this is through walking breath holds. Here is how to do this it’s really simple.

Whilst going for a walk breath normally.
Then following an exhale hold your breath for as long as you can without overdoing it (especially when you start). If you feel overly dizzy and almost pass out then you are going too far. But at the same time it’s supposed to challenge you.
After holding your breath continue breathing normally until you have recovered.
Recover for 30-90 seconds, repeat.
You can repeat the process 4-12 times.

You might be wondering “is there any science to back this up?”

Interestingly enough, a study was published April 2018 on the effect of breath training in women with fibromyalgia and concluded, “These results provide further support of an idea that breathing exercises are a real and effective intervention to consider in women with fibromyalgia.”

A final point worth making with regards to hormesis is that too much hormesis without adequate cell regeneration is not going to increase energy levels.

We need both hormesis and adequate cell regeneration strategies. A solid foundation of cell regeneration (sleep, circadian rhythm habits, de-stressing habits or what I call Re-Charge Rituals, good nutrition, etc) and we also need to build our cell engine through frequent short bursts of hormetic stressors.

Cold Exposure

There are many metabolic benefits from cold exposure including relieving depression and anxiety. Only recently, though, has modern medical science had anything positive to say about it. Researchers from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine reported that depressed patients experienced a significant improvement in depressive symptoms because of cold water exposure. They simply took a 2-3 minute shower at 68 degrees Fahrenheit, preceded by a 5 minute gradual adaptation to make the procedure less shocking, once or twice daily for two months.

It’s really not so bad. In fact, nearly everyone that adopts cold showers or cold plunges as a daily practice learns to love it much more quickly than you’d expect.

If you’re still apprehensive, here’s some good news: 30 seconds per day of cold water exposure can have a significant effect on your emotional state on overall well-being.

68 degrees Fahrenheit is cold enough to confer great benefit, and the study with the most structured protocol suggested a 5-minute pre-adaptation period—meaning that participants gradually turned the water from hot to 68 degrees over the course of 5 minutes. A lot of people prefer the “all-at-once” method because there seems to be some energy boosting magic in sudden immersion in cold water. You can do a cold bath or shower or use an ice vest or do cold exposure outdoors for 30 seconds if that is possible in winter where you live.

Keep in mind there are both “good” and “bad” stressors. We need ample exposure to “good” hormetic stressors to be optimally healthy and energetic (but brief exposures, not chronic extreme exposure).

About Ari Whitten

Ari Whitten is the #1 bestselling author of Forever Fat Loss. He holds two advanced certifications from the National Academy of Sports Medicine and recently completed coursework for his PhD in Clinical Psychology, an education which rounds out all aspects–nutrition, fitness, and psychology–of his approach to optimal health.

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About Dana Trentini

Dana Trentini M.A., Ed.M., founded Hypothyroid Mom October 2012 in memory of the unborn baby she lost to hypothyroidism. This is for informational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for consulting your physician regarding medical advice pertaining to your health. Hypothyroid Mom includes affiliate links including the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program.


  1. This is very interesting. My husband has MS, and mitochondria was a huge word around here for a long time. We focused on nutrition, but this totally makes sense. He started weight lifting after his MS diagnosis, and he hasn’t have a symptom since. He can’t do cold – even for 30 seconds. lol. But I think I can! Going to add this to my daily routine.

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