The term "hormesis" is used to describe dose-response relationships where the response is reversed between low and high doses of a stressor (generally, stimulation at low doses and inhibition at high ones). A mechanistic explanation is needed to interpret the relevance of such responses, but there does not appear to be a single universal mechanism underlying hormesis. When the endpoint is a life-history trait such as growth or reproduction, a stimulation of the response comes with costs in terms of resources. Organisms have to obey the conservation laws for mass and energy; there is no such thing as a free lunch. Based on the principles of Dynamic Energy Budget theory, we introduce three categories of explanations for hormesis that obey the conservation laws: acquisition (i.e., increasing the input of energy into the individual), allocation (i.e., rearranging the energy flows over various traits) and medication (e.g., the stressor is an essential element or acts as a cure for a disease or infection). In this discussion paper, we illustrate these explanations with cases where they might apply, and elaborate on the potential consequences for field populations. © 2012 Springer Science+Business Media New York.