Compelling evidence from epidemiological studies suggests beneficial roles of dietary phytochemicals in protecting against chronic disorders such as cancer, and inflammatory and cardiovascular diseases. Emerging findings suggest that several dietary phytochemicals also benefit the nervous system and, when consumed regularly, may reduce the risk of disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. The evidence supporting health benefits of vegetables and fruits provide a rationale for identification of the specific phytochemicals responsible, and for investigation of their molecular and cellular mechanisms of action. One general mechanism of action of phytochemicals that is emerging from recent studies is that they activate adaptive cellular stress response pathways. From an evolutionary perspective, the noxious properties of such phytochemicals play an important role in dissuading insects and other pests from eating the plants. However at the subtoxic doses ingested by humans that consume the plants, the phytochemicals induce mild cellular stress responses. This phenomenon has been widely observed in biology and medicine, and has been described as ‘preconditioning’ or ‘hormesis.’ Hormetic pathways activated by phytochemicals may involve kinases and transcription factors that induce the expression of genes that encode antioxidant enzymes, protein chaperones, phase-2 enzymes, neurotrophic factors, and other cytoprotective proteins. Specific examples of such pathways include the sirtuin–FOXO pathway, the NF-κB pathway, and the Nrf-2/ARE pathway. In this article, we describe the hormesis hypothesis of phytochemical actions with a focus on the Nrf2/ARE signaling pathway as a prototypical example of a neuroprotective mechanism of action of specific dietary phytochemicals.