The survival of all organisms depends upon their ability to overcome stressful conditions, an ability that involves adaptive changes in cells and molecules. Findings from studies of animal models and human populations suggest that hormesis (beneficial effects of low levels of stress) is an effective means of protecting against many different diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancers and neurodegenerative disorders. Such stress resistance mechanisms can be bolstered by diverse environmental factors including exercise, dietary restriction, cognitive stimulation and exposure to low levels of toxins. Some commonly used vitamins and dietary supplements may also induce beneficial stress responses. Several interrelated cellular signaling molecules are involved in the process of hormesis. Examples include the gases oxygen, carbon monoxide and nitric oxide, the neurotransmitter glutamate, the calcium ion and tumor necrosis factor. In each case low levels of these signaling molecules are beneficial and protect against disease, whereas high levels can cause the dysfunction and/or death of cells. The cellular and molecular mechanisms of hormesis are being revealed and include activation of growth factor signaling pathways, protein chaperones, cell survival genes and enzymes called sirtuins. Knowledge of hormesis mechanisms is leading to novel approaches for preventing and treating a range of human diseases.