First, let me say how grateful I am, as a freelance writer, to be given any assignment at all. But having to pore over some of the latest research on biogerontology—the scientific study of aging—has me feeling a little stressed. According to the theory of hormesis, that stress might help me write this story.

Hormesis, you see, is based on the idea that some stress is good for our cells: They perform better, live longer and show fewer signs of aging. It has been studied extensively by Suresh Rattan, a biogerontologist at the Laboratory of Cellular Ageing in the department of molecular biology at Denmark’s Aarhus University.

For the most part, previous anti-aging research has focused on protecting the skin from UV rays and environmental pollutants and the removal of free radicals—unstable molecules that damage cells. But the theory behind hormesis and anti-aging is that, similar to a vaccine—which stimulates the body to produce antibodies when it is exposed to a small amount of the disease—you trick the skin cells into thinking that they’re being damaged so that they produce compounds that boost skin’s natural resistance and slow down the aging process. Stress is the key; so, too, is the idea that what’s harmful in large doses can be helpful in small ones.

Rattan discovered that cells exposed to mild, intermittent heat stress showed less protein damage, aged more slowly and had longer lifespans—they actually “looked younger.” They withstood future stress better too: Stressors that induce hormesis (known as hormetins) can be chemical, physical, mental or thermal. “It’s like exercise for the cells,” says Rattan. “And, just like exercise, you challenge the body to get the benefits.”

The beauty world is taking note: Givenchy collaborated with Rattan to create the anti-aging serum Vax’in for Youth. It was launched internationally in 2010 but isn’t available yet in Canada. The serum contains two hormetins—sanchi, a ginseng extract, and hypotaurine, a protein found naturally in the body—that stimulate the production of HSP70, a protein in cells that decreases with age. HSP70 protects and repairs other proteins in skin and removes damaged ones, thereby helping cells resist aging, explains Rattan.

My own experiment with hormesis was, alas, inconclusive: Outside stressors like FOD (fear of deadline) ruined my control factors.

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