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What Is Good Stress?

Key Takeaways:

  • Good stress is the type/level of stress that keeps you stimulated, alert, and interested.
  • Once stress becomes too much of a burden and creates negative health effects, it is no longer good stress.
  • Another way of framing good versus bad stress is acute versus chronic stress.
  • You may be able to increase your resilience to stress through hormetic stressors.
  • Hormetic stressors include cold/heat exposure, breathwork, and exercise; however, you need to find what level of these works for you.
  • A healthy diet, in particular one that promotes a healthy microbiome, such as a Mediterranean or Paleo diet, can also help your body with stress management.

When you’re juggling a million-and-one tasks while desperately wishing you were on vacation, it’s hard to imagine there’s a benefit to having stress in your life.

Yet some types of stress are actually good for us, helping to promote physical fitness, optimal alertness, and improved mental performance. In a recent podcast, author Scott Carney and I also discuss how some environmental stressors (like heat and cold) used in a controlled way have surprising benefits for your immune, metabolic, and gut health.



This article goes a little bit deeper into the topic of what is good stress (and whether good stress/bad stress is an oversimplification), the difference between acute and chronic (long-lasting) stress, and how to keep your stress levels balanced.

What is Happening in Your Body When You’re Stressed?

Surprising as it may seem, the short-term physiological effects of stress are the same whether that stress is something fun and exciting (a first date or riding a rollercoaster), or scary/painstaking (a driving test or work deadline). 

Similarly, the effects of environmental/physical stress (e.g, heat stress or running a marathon) and psychological/emotional stress (a bad relationship or an argument with your boss) are physiologically very similar, with the same downstream effects (1, 2).

The mechanism in the body that is primarily responsible for bringing about the responses to stress is a complex system of interwoven nerve and hormonal pathways known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis [3].

Some of the outworkings of this pathway in action include:

  • Cardiovascular
    • Stress increases heart rate, strengthens heart muscle contractions, dilates the heart, and moves blood to large muscles. 
  • Respiratory
    • Stress constricts airways, causing shortness of breath and fast breathing.
  • Endocrine (hormonal)
    • Stress causes the body to produce stress hormones, like cortisol, to activate the body’s stress response.
  • Gastrointestinal
    • Stress can change how fast food moves through the intestines and what nutrients get absorbed.
  • Nervous system
    • Stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response), which in turn causes the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline and noradrenaline. Adrenaline causes mental arousal and improves cognitive function in the brain. After an acutely stressful event, the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) helps the body recover.
  • Musculoskeletal
    • Stress causes the muscles to contract in preparation for guarding against pain or injury, or for making a quick getaway.

Good Versus Bad Stress

When thinking about “good stress” versus “bad stress”, a more helpful definition is acute/mild stress you can quickly recover from and chronic/severe stress that remains unresolved. Other terms for these two are “eustress” and “distress”. Acute stress, also known as eustress, tends to provoke necessary, adaptive, and often helpful responses to threats [3].

On the other hand, chronic stress, also known as distress, repeatedly activates stress pathways, which can cause long-term damage to the systems that normally protect us. Over time, chronic stress can cause destructive reactions that can lead to burnout [3].

The definitions of acute and chronic stress are blurred when the acute stress is extreme. For example, a highly traumatic incident may only be short term but can trigger overwhelm the body and become a chronic form of “bad stress.”

This is the mechanism that underlies PTSD, or post-traumatic stress syndrome — i.e,  the initial stressor is a single “acute” event, but the body’s inability to cope is what makes it chronic.

  • An example of eustress, or good stress, is moderate exercise. Exercise creates a mild challenge, eliciting a mild stress response and an overall benefit [4]. Another example could be dealing with personal or relationship issues in a way that leads to self-development and growth.
  • An example of distress, or negative stress, is childhood trauma. Such trauma represents a strong, prolonged challenge, eliciting a severe stress and chronic response that causes damage [4]. 

Good Stress Versus Bad Stress Is an Oversimplification

Even though it’s pretty clear that childhood trauma isn’t good for us, and that working out improves health, some researchers argue that it’s not accurate to strictly pigeonhole stress as good or bad [5].

It’s certainly oversimplifying things to do so because the key to whether stress is ultimately good or bad for you is less the nature of the stress, and more the ways your body deals with it — the so-called stress adaptive response.

In a nutshell, the effects of stress on health or performance depend on a huge number of interactions between the body and the environment, as well as the individual’s history of such interactions. 

More to the point, one person’s healthy stressor may be another person’s damaging stressor

Anything that creates enough of a challenge for the body to adapt for its own benefit (but not too much of a challenge that our stress systems are overloaded) can be regarded as healthy stress for your body.

Why Stress Can Be Good for Us

Healthy stress, especially healthy psychological stress, can be defined as such by our reaction to it. For example, if you feel empowered and feel in control after you’ve dealt successfully with a stressful task it can be said to be healthy stress.

Acute, or short-term, stress (that lasts minutes to hours) is much more likely to be the healthy sort that enhances our ability to protect and perform in response to threats, challenges, and opportunities [6].

When the body doesn’t receive enough stress (known as sustress) this may reduce the body’s resilience toward various stressors and be detrimental to health [4]. 

For example, a sedentary lifestyle could be considered an example of sustress. Without challenges presented to the body through exercise and movement, muscles can atrophy, and fat can accumulate, both of which can cause metabolic disorders.

“Hormetic” Stressors Can Improve Well-Being

Hormetic stressors, can be defined as (usually physical) stress exposures that are low, acute, and not too frequent [7] Growing evidence suggests these can provide just the right amount of positive stress for health benefit, with common examples being controlled exposure to either heat (e.g. sauna therapy) or cold (e.g. an ice bath).

Heat Exposure

The benefits of heat stress on the body were examined in a 2021 pooled scientific analysis of 15 clinical trials. Treatments included repeated sessions of whole-body (or just arm or leg) immersion in 104℉ water, or full exposure to dry sauna at 140℉ for at least half an hour.

The results found that those who received heat therapy had:

  • Lower blood pressure 
  • Improved vascular function (more flexible blood vessels and improved blood flow)

This was the case in both healthy people and those with or at high risk of cardiovascular disease [8].

Another review found that sauna bathing reduced the risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease via benefits to the autonomic nervous system and blood vessel dilation/flexibility, and was also linked with [9]:

  • Lower risk of lung disease 
  • Reduced incidence of neurocognitive diseases
  • Improved immune function 

Other studies have found similar results for infrared sauna bathing. This type of sauna bathing has been associated with short-term benefits to heart health [10].

Cold Exposure

At the other end of the temperature scale, cold also acts as a temporary stressor that may strengthen your body’s ability to deal with similar stress in the future, as well as help the body to recover from strenuous physical activity. The quality and consistency of the studies vary, but overall: 

  • Cold-water immersion seemed to reduce body fat and improve insulin sensitivity, which could help protect against metabolic diseases and improve other systems of the body [11]. 
  • Cold-water immersion, especially at lower temperatures and for shorter durations, may be beneficial for recovery, particularly after high-intensity exercise and dynamic power movements (e.g. squats and pushups) [12].
  • Air cryotherapy (cold air) was particularly helpful for recovering muscle strength and power [13].

Breathing Exercises

Breathing exercises are also recognized as a way that can create positive stress — in the Wim Hof method, for example, cold therapy and breath holding are combined for optimal hormetic effects. Breathwork manipulates the oxygen levels your body is getting, which engages your body’s survival mechanisms in a controlled environment, making you more resilient.

There’s no right or wrong way to do breathing exercises, but examples of breathwork that have been associated with lower levels of stress, and self-reported anxiety and depression include [14]:

  • Slow breathing exercises
  • Fast breathing exercises
  • Diaphragmatic breathing 
  • Alternate nostril breathing
  • Timed in and out breaths

Should You Try Hormetic Therapies?

As outlined above, there is definitely evidence that hormetic stressors can lead to health benefits. But It’s always important when introducing new stressors to do so at a level you can tolerate [7]. 

As an example, while some health-seeking enthusiasts feel great after a “polar bear plunge”, someone with no history of cold water exposure could risk their body being weakened by such an advanced version, and should probably opt for a quick, cold rinse at the end of their shower instead. 

My take on all this is that low and slow is your mantra here. You don’t want to be trying so hard to give your body “positive stress” that you ironically stress yourself out even more. Even if there’s a mountain of research to back up a hormetic therapy, it can become unhealthy if it burdens your system too much.

How to Increase Stress Resilience

Sme simple things that will almost certainly help balance your stress levels without any downside include diet, moderate exercise, and supportive supplements.

Diet

The Mediterranean diet is full of antioxidant-rich veggies, lean protein, and oily fish, and has many benefits, one of which may be a better stress response.

In one study (in primates), the Mediterranean diet reduced cortisol response to acute stress and delayed age-related negative changes in the ways the body dealt with stress. These results suggest a healthy diet may increase stress resilience but needs to be repeated in humans [15].

Other diets that work for my patients include the Paleo diet, and for those with a higher incidence of food intolerance issues, a low FODMAPs diet. These diets tend to promote better gut health, and a healthier bacterial balance in the gut has been linked with a better response to stress [16]. 

Moderate exercise

Moderate exercise (zone 2 exercise, or the type of exercise you can do while still holding a conversation relatively easily) is the best sort for improving stress resilience. On a cellular level it reduces proinflammatory chemicals (cytokines) and promotes anti-inflammatory cytokines [17].

More intense exercise can actually have the opposite effect, causing the release of proinflammatory cytokines and restricting the release of anti-inflammatory cytokines [17]. However, a low level of inflammation is necessary for muscle tissue to recover from exercise-related trauma, so some intense exercise may be helpful for that and other reasons. 

With exercise, as with other stressors, you just have to get the balance right for you (and this may change over time as you get fitter). 

Probiotics and Rhodiola

Probiotics, especially triple therapy probiotics, are one of the supplements that I recommend, alongside a gut-healthy diet, to help mitigate stress.

In one study, probiotics helped to relieve stress and anxiety symptoms, probably by improving the gut’s bacterial composition and influencing the chemical cross-talk between the gut and brain [18]. 

It’s also been proposed that probiotics help to seal a leaky gut (i.e. preventing incompletely digested food components from entering the bloodstream), in turn preventing the immune system / inflammatory response that can trigger stress pathways [19].

Another potentially supportive supplement that can help when you’re feeling particularly stressed is the herbal supplement rhodiola. A randomized controlled trial found that consuming 576 mg of rhodiola extract a day resulted in significantly reduced fatigue symptoms, improved concentration, and decreased waking cortisol in burnout patients with fatigue syndrome [20].

What is Good Stress: A Recap

There’s no one answer to “what is good stress”, because it depends entirely on where your personal balance point is between a stress level that keeps you engaged, happy, and motivated, versus one that overloads and creates mental distress. 

However, there’s evidence that you can improve your body’s resilience to future stress by employing hormetic stressors like exercise, breathwork, and hot/cold therapy.

Another surefire way to help your body deal with stress is by eating a healthier diet, particularly one that will improve your gut microbiome. My book Healthy Gut, Healthy You provides detailed insights into how you can improve your gut health. 

For more entrenched health issues or problems related to stress and mental health, you can reach out to us at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Health.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

➕ References
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