What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Extreme stress, not red meat (as we discussed yesterday), is the real silent killer in society today. High levels of stress can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, metabolic diseases, and even some cancers and infections.

But stress is complicated. And, as it turns out, my opening statement from yesterday that “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” might actually apply MORE to stress than it does to meat…

Another way of looking at stress

What one person perceives as stress, another person might feel as a “high.” That’s why treating people as individuals is so important. Especially when it comes to natural, non-drug therapies. (Unfortunately, both mainstream and many “alternative” medical practices virtually ignore psychological individuality. Mike Jawer and I describe how certain therapies work better for certain personality types in our book Your Emotional Type.)

Another old aphorism might apply to stress as well…

In 1888. German philosopher Nietzsche wrote, Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich starker. “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”

Modern science shows that, indeed, what stresses us — within the limits of certain parameters — may ultimately make us healthier.

I have been writing about hormesis for many years now. Hormesis refers to a biological phenomenon whereby there is a positive response to very low-dose exposures to chemicals, radiation, and other toxins that would otherwise be harmful or deadly at higher doses.

Stress may also be like that.

The idea of hormesis has yet to make its way into mainstream medicine. Although German pharmacologist Hugo Schulz actually observed it back in 1887, the year before Nietzsche’s observation.

It was the early era of antisepsis. And Schulz found a disinfectant that killed microbes in larger doses actually made them more robust and numerous when exposed to very small doses, as compared to untreated controls.

Any organism will respond to any stress by compensating to maintain homeostasis, or to stay in balance. And sometimes a little stress can make cells of the body over-compensate by stimulating the cells’ impressive defenses to produce more antioxidants, accelerate DNA repair, and other metabolic processes that repair and replace tissues — essentially like an “anti-aging” or healthy aging effect.

In fact, if mainstream scientists would step out of the ever-smaller, sub-specialized boxes in which they’ve trapped themselves, this kind of hormesis may help reveal an explanation to a puzzle they’ve been trying to solve for decades: the benefits of healthy, moderate drinking, or the “French paradox.”

More support for “all things in moderation”

Moderate alcohol consumption is clearly healthy — but excessive alcohol is clearly very toxic. In addition to the stress-reduction element, moderate alcohol might work by hormesis. For example, moderate alcohol levels increase antioxidants in blood.

Although some persist in politically correct prohibition, most scientists have to agree with the evidence that links moderate drinking, compared to non-drinking, with positive health benefits. (They won’t agree, however, that evidence links light tobacco consumption of less than half-a-pack per day with better health, compared to non-smokers. But the same principles of hormesis would apply, even if not politically correct.)

Mild, stress-induced stimulation also leads to biologically beneficial effects. Researchers have seen these benefits when studying physical stress brought on by caloric restriction, heat exposure, high gravity, high altitude, low oxygen, radiation, and other sources.

So, challenging the body with stressors (within limits) can be good for health and longevity.

This observation is not so strange.

When it comes to health and longevity of the brain, we know that lifelong challenging and intellectually stimulating “stress” helps prevent age-associated cognitive and memory losses.

Thinking through challenging problems may be stressful for some. But it is good for the brain. And some stress is good for the body as well.

Nietzsche signed his writings as “the Crucified One.” But if you’re not Nietzsche, you won’t have to go that far to get a little beneficial stress.