Hormesis: Switch On The Vitagenes

Intermittent fasting, aerobic exercise, phytochemical nutrients, and cognitive challenges (e.g. effective brain training), are all energetic stressors. Through the hormesis response, they switch on stress-response genes called ‘vitagenes’ in a highly beneficial adaptive cellular stress response (CSR) that promotes health, immunity and physical and mental performance. IQ Mindware apps are designed to tap the hormesis response.


Energetic Stressors and the Evolution of Vitagenes

In the drier environments of our distant ancestors, food was often scarce, and energy expenditure high. These three ‘energetic stressors’ below put strong selective pressures on human biochemistry and brain evolution:


  • Caloric restriction (CR) in times of food scarcity
  • Physical energy expenditure ( e.g. for running, hunting, fighting, and daily chores)
  • Mental energy expenditure (e.g. for learning and reasoning in constantly changing environments)


As our species evolved, individuals that were mentally sharp,  physically fit, and disease or illness-free in the face of these challenges had an adaptive advantage and their genes flourished.

The human body and brain is biochemically adapted to these main energetic stressors. Over time we have evolved adaptive cellular stress responses (CSR) that build resilience and optimize our physical and mental performance. The elements of the CSR  are shown in the diagram (click to enlarge).


Adaptive Cellular Stress Response and Hormesis


The genes that regulate the CSR are called vitagenes.  By doing the right kind of CR/fasting, exercise and brain training we can switch on the vitagenes regulating the CSR, unlocking a wide range of long-term benefits to health and brain function.

As reviewed here and here, the benefits of the CSR include:


  • Increased brain cell growth and neuroplasticity
  • Reduced cancer causing anabolic hormones
  • Less insulin & improved insulin sensitivity & energy regulation
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Removal of damaged organelles and cells
  • Activation of DNA repair systems for DNA stability.



Harnessing the Hormesis Response


Hormesis is the term for a beneficial biological response to (relatively) low exposures of stressors.  While large doses of stressors (such as lack of food or over-exercising) are destructive and can result in tissue damage and burn-out, smaller doses activate biological repair mechanisms, build resilience, and regenerate the brain and body.


hormesis response 1

With the right dose of fasting, exercise, brain training – and even certain nutrients that stimulate the CSR – we can optimize brain health and performance, increase vitality, and build overall resilience to stress.

Combinations of Fasting, Exercise and Brain Training

Fasting, exercise and brain training do not all activate exactly the same vitagenes – they activate both overlapping and complementary stress-response pathways in the overall CSR.  Various combinations can be experimented with. Dr Mark Mattson suggests combinations such as:


  • Alternate Day Fasting with a daily exercise period
  • Same day Intermittent Fasting, exercising every other day
  • Eating in the morning and late afternoon/evening, and exercising at midday



Brain training and other cognitive challenges can be incorporated in similar overlapping or non-overlapping intervals, aiming at a total of perhaps 1 to 2 ½  hours working memory brain training per week, depending on intensity.

As shown in the hormesis response diagram below, you have to experiment to ensure that you do not go into the ‘excessive stress’ zone. This is particularly true at the beginning of your training before you have built up more stress tolerance.


Hormesis response