What doesn’t kill us… Thoughts on hormesis.

Not your average beach

It’s 6AM. The sound of the alarm rudely interrupts my sleep. I reach out and fumble with my phone trying to turn it off. Throwing off the covers I drag myself into the bathroom. The light is too bright and my eyes refuse to open. I blindly turn the shower tap on, take a big breath and jump in… My eyes open wide, shiver runs down the spine, my body shoots upright – the water is freezing cold. I slowly count backwards from 30 while feverishly rubbing myself warm, cursing my mother and my Russian heritage under my breath. After reaching zero, I decide I can stay another 10 breaths. That’s enough. I jump out, dry myself off and look at my reflection in the mirror. The eyes are bright and have a crazy glint in them, the skin looks pink and glowing, stupid grin on my face.

What is this madness???

In Finland the practice of ice-water swimming is called Avantouinti, in Russia its practitioners are named “morzhi” (“walruses”). The less threatening variation is cold water dousing, an old tradition with roots in asceticism and naturopathic healing, frequently practised with fasting. One of the leaders of the movement in Russia was Porfiry Ivanov, regarded a holy man and a healer to some and heretic to others, born in a small Northern Russian village, not far from where I grew up. Porfiry and his followers believed that if the body can withstand any hardships such as extreme cold and hunger both the body and the spirit will get stronger in the process. “Magical thinking” aside, the idea was not unique to them. The practitioners of ice-water swimming all over the world maintain that exposure to cold improves your immunity and circulation. Footy players use cold baths for recovery, many athletes immerse their tired and injured limbs into icy water. Look up “ice-water swimming” on YouTube or Google and you will find endless shots of scantily clad Norwegians/Finns/Russians/Americans enthusiastically plunging into dark icy waters.

As a little girl in Russia, I watched with fascination as our neighbour, a dainty 40-something lady who worked as a primary school teacher, would go outside in her swimsuit with a bucket of water on a cold winter’s day when average temperatures would plunge to minus 20 Celsius. She stood barefoot on the snow, poured some water over herself then rubbed some snow over her legs, arms and face. Glued to the window, I would follow the 5-minute ritual with a sense of admiration and envy promising myself that one day I will try it.

The [perceived] health benefits of cold water immersion are closely related to the concept of hormesis which originated in toxicology where it described a biphasic dose response. In other words, a substance which a toxic in large doses can be actually beneficial and protective in small doses. In health and medicine it has been defined as “an adaptive response of cells and organisms to a moderate (usually intermittent) stress.”

Many everyday stressors may be described as hormetic: lifting heavy weights once or twice a week stresses your muscles and forces them to adapt to that stimulus by growing bigger and getting stronger.  Increase the stress dose too much and suddenly your muscles go past the tipping point. Instead of the beneficial effect, your hormetic stimulus has turned toxic and your body starts to play catch up in its attempt to recover.

It has been speculated that alcohol might be classified as a hormetic stimulus: a little is good for you, a little more is neutral, a little more still and you are in trouble.  Antioxidants may fall in the same category: a punnet of blueberries stimulates your body’s defense against the free radicals but a concentrated dose taken in a pill form will overwhelm it.

Five minutes in the icy water might be a healthy training stimulus for the immune system which is ready for it.  Ten minutes might be enough to cause a system shutdown in the same person. I don’t like using the word “moderation” because it reeks of food industry hypocrisy giving us permission to eat their junk. But use common sense (yes, I know, common sense doesn’t seem to be very common).

The major benefits to taking a cold shower that I have personally noticed is better cold tolerance. I used to be THAT rugged-up-to-the-nose person at the meeting who always closed the windows and turned the air conditioner off. This has improved dramatically since I started eating primal, and even more so now. Now I’m frequently the only person in the hospital wearing a short sleeve top. Cold shower also does a great job waking me up in the morning, the short surge of adrenaline firing me up before work or exercise.

So how do you get started?

1. Start with a 10-15 seconds of cooler water after a hot shower
2. Do it daily, otherwise you will feel tempted to feel sorry for yourself and look for excuses to avoid it.
3. Gradually reduce the temperature and increase the time under cold water.
4. Do not take too long to “build up to it”. It will NEVER feel comfortable. After 3-4 days of preparation just turn the bloody hot water off!
5. Immerse your head as soon as possible! It carries the greatest effect and makes the rest of the body feel tingly and pleasantly cool.
6. Enjoy the feeling of discomfort. Ok, that just sounded weird. But trust me, you will know what I mean.

Don’t overthink it. If you are searching PubMed for a study on cold water immersion right now, you are overthinking it. Just do it.


44 thoughts on “What doesn’t kill us… Thoughts on hormesis.

  1. I first read about hormesis in the preview chapters to Nassim Talelb’s latest book… there was an ancient anti-poison technique called mithridatism, basically taking minute doses of poison to develop an immunity. In use today back those that handle deadly reptiles.

    That this idea has been lost to modernity is a major cause of trouble in our world today. Think economics, nanny-state, destructive diet and exercise regimes, mental-health (we gone from an environment of punctuated stress with time to recover with a constant baseline of stress, no recovery or too little).

    • Hi Rowdy. I seem to remember that the Borgias used to take minute doses of poison because they were worried of being poisoned themselves. Nowadays we go from one extreme to the other: wrapping ourselves in cotton wool to avoid any discomfort to exercising into oblivion while swimming in chronic stress. Not good.

      • All I have to say here is Iocane Powder. From the Princess Bride – if somehow you are unfortunate enough not to know this. And of all irony, it’s from Australia.

        • Thank you Aaron for giving me an excuse to have a break from house packing and google “iocane powder”. I highly enjoyed the memorable quotes from the Princess Bride including the one about this famous Australian (non-existent) poison. Ashamed to say I’ve never seen the movie but now I want to.

          • “The Princess Bride” is one of the best movies of all time. You must watch it. You won’t be disappointed, it’s fun fun fun! I remember the first time I saw it at age 11 in the theater when it came out. I’ve seen it at last 20 times since then and I have the book.

      • We have pesticides residue now instead of the arsenic Borgia most probably used. There is always something. We have more exposure to plastics and less to fumes from the fire. My guess is that coal fumes could be worse.

  2. Been there. Done that. Agree with you 100%. Haven’t had it in my rotation for a while though. I’ve been busy with my ongoing mission to find the most harmonious and hormetically optimal balance of coffee to red wine. It’s a fun journey that I hope never ends.

  3. Love the post!

    Another form of this in Finland is running out of the sauna buck nekkid and rolling around in the snow. Very therapeutic actually, also, fun.

    I think you’ve just convinced me into introducing this to my showering routine, despite my severe dislike of cold. Well, at least attempt to. If for no other reason than to celebrate my Finnish roots. Thanks 🙂

    • I’m happy I’ve inspired you, Tanja, to go back to your roots. The running naked bit sounds also exciting but I’m not ready for that one yet.

  4. No thanks! I’ll live with whatever the opposite effect of all this is. Prefer to plunge into a 25 degree swimming pool when air temp is 19 and hurtle back and forth for a kilometre and half – that makes me feel all tingly good!

    • Don’t knock it till you try it, Sally :). Although I’m sure that your swimming provides your body with plenty of stress stimulus to force beneficial adaptation.

  5. As a little girl in Russia, I watched with fascination as our neighbour, a dainty 40-something lady who worked as a primary school teacher, would go outside in her swimsuit with a bucket of water on a cold winter’s day when average temperatures would plunge to minus 20 Celsius. She stood barefoot on the snow, poured some water over herself then rubbed some snow over her legs, arms and face.

    Ha, it’s almost like we grew up in the same house. Although our 40-something lady was far from dainty. But she still looks healthy now, about twenty years since I first saw her, and she ages well.

    • There must have been a “morzh” in every apartment building. It could have been much worse: a 40yr old man with a beer gut and in Speedos :).

  6. Interesting. Methinks this is worth a try though even the tap water here in Canada is darn cold this time of year.Snow rolling sounds kinda fun though the neighbors might think I have finally lost my mind. Great post but then again anything that mentions wine, coffee and naked has to be good….wink.


    • Geo, I think sometimes things get a little heavy in health and nutrition. Coffee, wine and jumping into icy water could just the crazy distractions we need ;).

  7. I hope your phone has a sleep-cycle app, otherwise you’d be getting a first “hormetic” dose each morning I’d rather avoid …

    And lifting weights TWICE a week ?
    Doug McGuff would be proud of your progress 🙂 !

    • These apps can tap into your brain to find out when you are in REM? Cooool :). I love Doug McGuff’s work but I also think there’s individual variation in physical tolerance. I know guys who are happy to lift 4-5 times a week but my recovery is compromised >2. Find your own sweet spot.

      • Then you’ll probably be getting a Zeo, like Dave Asprey 🙂
        I am more than happy with ElectricSleep, a lowly Android app which simply works by using the gyroscope.
        No grains, f.lux, darkened room, sleep-cycle app – perfect sleep.

  8. I’ve always had trouble sleeping (even had a prescription for Mirapex until recently for “periodic limb movement”), but have recently found something that works. Before bed I sit on the back porch shirtless in a pair of shorts reading Sherlock Holmes stories until I am shivering from the cold. Then I walk barefoot in the grass, say my prayers, and go inside and curl up under the covers. I now sleep like a baby. It could be the dim light, could be going barefoot in the grass, could even be Sherlock Holmes, but I think it’s the cold. I got the idea that cold helps sleep from the clearly insane Tim Ferriss.

    • Very interesting. I remember another piece of traditional wisdom related to your experience: sleep with your windows open to keep the air cold. We used to have a window open a tiny crack even in freezing winters and just use blankets to keep the body warm. This way you breath in cool fresh air all through the night. My book of choice to put me to sleep is Agatha Christie: works like a charm every time.

      • It was the first thing that I found difficult to adapt when I came to live in Canada from Moscow – windows were kept closed in order to keep our heating bill reasonable. Now I live in Florida , and just now we can finally open windows. Cool air is a luxury here most of the year..

    • Interesting question. I’m sure, Galina, you’ve experienced the Russian “banya” (Russian wet sauna for the uninitiated). There, in “parilka” you expose your body to extreme heat, then to complete the torture beat yourself and other willing participants with a “bouquet” of birch tree branches dipped in hot water. Sounds disturbingly S&M but you can’t get away from the fact that it is an ancient tradition. Is it hormetic? I wouldn’t be surprised.

      • Yep, just sitting in “parilka” (steam room) is a cardio-vascular exercise in itself, and adding beating makes it a high-intensity training.
        Our town banya has a small pool of cold water right out of parilka, so you can get a nice bout of heat exposure in parilka and then plunge right into the pool for double the S&M hormetic effect.

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  10. I haven’t done cold showers in a while (actually, except as a punishment for a childhood tantrum, I don’t think I’ve ever done COLD showers- generally just cool), but I’ve been thinking I should reassess recently (I’ve never been a ‘cold’ person, but have recently found myself piling on the layers), and your post inspired me. Yesterday as I finished up my shower I cranked the temp all the way down… I’m really glad I was the only one home- otherwise I’m afraid the sound effects might have been misinterpreted!

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    • Michael, I’m trying to get through the new guidelines right now. My progress is somewhat hampered by me letting out a few expletives and throwing my iPad in frustration at regular intervals. Cortisol overload indeed.

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  13. As an open water swimmer, I’ve been thinking of acclimatizing myself to colder water to go without the wet suit in moderately cold water. Why didn’t I think of this simple method!? Thanks.

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