If you ever wanted to explore a topic that is highly provocative and can send you on a journey of discovery, Hormesis could be it. Hormesis is a Greek word meaning “rapid motion, eagerness” from the ancient Greek Hormaein “to set in motion, impel, urge”. A term used to describe a process in which exposure to toxins and stressors at low doses produces a generally favorable biological response by the cell or organism. Conversely, higher doses result in an inhibitory, damaging effect. The concept of Hormesis is fundamental to the evolutionary theory. From the beginning of life on earth to the present, all living things have undergone Hormetic adaptation to toxins, free radicals, and stressors in order to avoid extinction.
Hormesis is used in toxicology to describe a biphasic dose response to an environmental agent. On one hand small doses result in positive stimulation, and on the other higher doses negative inhibition. Paracelsus, often referred to as the Father of Toxicology, wrote: “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.” In short, the dose makes the poison. A good and very interesting example here is exercise. An individual that experiences no exercise and is otherwise sedentary as well as someone who exercises excessively, to the point of tearing down the body, will likely be plagued with high levels of oxidative stress. Conversely, someone who engages in moderate healthy exercise that the body can adapt to and grow stronger would expect to be healthier with lower levels of oxidative stress.
The concept of hormesis can be somewhat counter-intuitive. We know that the body will produce a Hormetic response to stressors to protect and strengthen itself. These stressors can produce free radicals and negative oxidative stress. Now let’s look at plants for a moment. Plants contain a host of elements including: Vitamins, minerals, enzymes and phytochemicals. Within these phytochemicals are things like antioxidants that plants rely on to defend themselves against disease and insult. Antioxidants are extremely beneficial to the Human health as they neutralize free radicals that can lead to oxidative damage. But in many plants there are noxious elements within these phytochemicals that the plant relies on to deter herbivores and insects from grazing on them. These noxious elements would induce a stress response in Humans who ate them as well.
Now we need to put this all together. Perhaps the best example here is to take a look at Curcumin from the spice Turmeric. It is considered a Hormetin as it produces a positive stress response in acceptable doses. Curcumin is a known anti-inflammatory. It is conjectured that Curcumin has this positive effect by actually causing inflammation to a small degree. In essence, Curcumin excites the body to respond to its’ presence and in so doing wakes up the bodies’ own anti-inflammatory response thus having a positive Hormetic effect. Additionally, the body reacts to the stressor such as Curcumin and goes in search of other inflammation that was previously undetected thus reducing inflammation throughout the body. Furthermore it must be noted that many Hormetins such as Curcumin not only contain the stressor but they also contain the cure. In other words, Curcumin contains the stressor that aids in the inflammation reduction and also contains antioxidants to help reduce oxidative stress as a result of the inflammation.
The fundamental concept of Hormesis suggests that in order to maintain good health and longevity the body needs to be challenged or stressed. Exercising our minds improves cognitive function. Exposure to viruses and bacteria challenges and improves our immune system. Exposure to sunlight is a stressor but also provides valuable vitamin D3 for overall health.
This now brings us to perhaps the most important aspect of the discussion. Stressors and toxins challenge the body to keep time with the demands of the environment and mount a Hormetic response to strengthen and adapt. In order for this to play out in a positive biological fashion the body must be nourished and of a reasonable healthy constitution. If the body cannot provide a positive response, no matter what the stressor or level thereof, a negative outcome is eminent. For example, one person of reasonably good health may come in contact with a stressor and their system would adapt quickly and be stronger for it. Another person of poor state could come in contact with the same stressor and have a life threatening reaction. Essentially strength begets strength and weakness begets weakness. The principal of Hormesis is a strong case for treating the body right and letting it do its job and fight its own battles.
Written by DMK of Seven Grains