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When a Little Poison is Good for You

poison, toxins, radiation, hormesis"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" is a phrase that contains more than a grain of truth. It describes the theory of hormesis -- the process whereby organisms exposed to low levels of stress or toxins become more resistant to tougher challenges.

The theory of hormesis has been around for decades, but has long been met with skepticism or downright suspicion. In recent years, however, biologists have pieced together a clear molecular explanation of how it works, and hormesis has finally been accepted as a fundamental principle of biology and biomedicine.

As an example, exposing mice to small doses of gamma ray radiation shortly before irradiating them with very high levels of gamma rays actually decreases the likelihood of cancer. A similar effect occurs when dioxin is given to rats.

The biochemical mechanisms by which hormesis works are not well understood. It is thought that a low dose of a toxin can trigger certain repair mechanisms in the body, and these mechanisms, having been initiated, are efficient enough that they not only neutralize the toxin's effect, but can even repair other defects not caused by the toxin.

One of the areas where the concept of hormesis has been explored extensively is aging. It is thought that exposing cells to mild stress could result in the adaptive or hormetic response that has anti-aging effects. Some of the mild stresses that might work for this include heat shock, irradiation, pro-oxidants, hypergravity, food restriction, and even exercise.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

This is a fascinating concept, which highlights the problem inherent with so much of our medical interventions, whether natural or conventional. The stereotypical thought pattern that “if a little is good, more must be better,” usually turns out to be the precise converse of the truth.

Many have already been harmed by excessive exposure to toxins and forms of radiation that have been previously deemed “safe.” Think of:

Your body is a finely tuned instrument, and even seemingly insignificant changes can sometimes create major repercussions, for better or worse. Like a spider’s web, if you pluck one strand, the entire web vibrates. Pluck too hard and it breaks the strand, collapsing the intricate design of the whole.

Hormesis – To Impel Change

Hormesis -- from the ancient Greek word hormáein, meaning "to set in motion, impel, urge on" -- is the term for favorable biological responses resulting from low exposures to toxins and other stressors. A toxin showing hormesis thus has the opposite effect in small doses than in large doses.

Homeopathy could be considered as an example here, where even a highly toxic (natural) substance can be used to produce dramatic healing responses in your body because it is reduced to such a degree that only the energetic essence of it remains; there’s enough to impel a healing change, but not nearly enough to tip the scales too far to cause damage.

Hormesis then, is the biological phenomena where an otherwise adverse or detrimental influence is beneficial when applied at low levels – just enough to set something into motion.

The concept of biological hormesis is as important as that of homeostasis for the survival of an organism. Your body’s ability to resist and adapt appropriately to both internal and external stresses is essential for good health, and the hallmark of aging is your body’s inability to withstand stress, which starts to degrade it.

The hormetic phenomenon in aging is characterized as beneficial responses to stress through physiological adaptations, as exemplified in lifespan extension by calorie restriction or exercise, for example. According this schema, your body’s ability to adapt is developed during the resistance period.

This notion corresponds to the evolutionary view on the survival for the fittest theory, where survival is dependent on metabolic and defensive adaptation to harmful stress.

The beneficial effects of hormesis can easily be observed with physical exercise. Proper exercise can improve your body function, boost metabolism, increase immune function, deter a wide variety of diseases, extend the average lifespan, and create resistance to oxidative stress. Too much exhaustive exercise, however, can be as harmful as too little or no exercise – another topic I’ve already discussed in some detail. (For more information see this link.)

The Anti-Aging Benefits of Calorie Restriction

The stress theory of aging is concerned only with the adverse, lethal aspects of stress, far beyond the optimal level of stimulation. Excessive secretion of stress hormones such as ACTH, cortisol, and catecholamines are blamed for such life-shortening effects as long-term exposure leads to exhaustion and then breakdown of various biological mechanisms.

Consider antioxidants, for example. An optimal amount of antioxidants in your diet is essential for good health. However, too many antioxidants in your body can have a seemingly paradoxical effect and actually lead to deteriorating health. Researchers have found that an overload of natural antioxidants can actually lead to heart failure due to “reductive stress” -- Essentially, too much of a good thing. I wrote about this issue in-depth in my article, Could Too Many Antioxidants be as Bad as Too Few?

The fact that calorie restriction can have a profound impact on health and longevity has now been confirmed by science.

For example, in one such study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that mice whose food intake was reduced by 40 percent but whose diet included fish oil lived nearly 300 percent longer than mice fed omega-6 oils, like corn oil, and who ate as much as they wanted.

What’s most interesting about that is that calorie restriction actually has a more powerful influence on longevity than adding fish oils, which alone only increased lifespan by 40 percent. As many of you know, I am a major advocate of omega-3 fats in the form of krill- and fish oil, but I am truly amazed by the profound beneficial effect of calorie restriction.

Just incorporating calorie restriction to a diet high in fish oil raised the mice’s lifespan six-fold; from a 40 percent increase to a whopping 265 percent increase in lifespan. 

Hormetic resistance from mild stimulation is believed to be an evolutionarily acquired survival mechanism. By adapting to challenges to overcome adverse environmental conditions, such as lack of food, your body compensates, making it more robust. Within this context, nutrition wise, the mild stress imposed by reduced calorie intake stimulates your body to defend itself against insults of disease-causing oxidative stress.

Essentially, your body maximizes its energy utilization by allocating greater resources to your essential defense processes and life supporting systems.

Please understand that I do not at all advocate calorie restriction to stay healthy. I believe it does work, but it works by the mechanism of reduced insulin levels and there are safer, and far more enjoyable, ways to achieve low insulin levels.

Controlled Energy Restriction and Eating For Your Nutritional Type

I do believe that eating less is likely to be healthier for us in the long run, which I recently wrote about in my article U.S. Food Portions: Monuments to Decadence? The benefits of calorie restriction are largely related to a reduction in your insulin levels, which is a major accelerant of aging.

The beauty of eating according to your nutritional type, which is based on your personal biochemistry, is that it automatically reduces your food cravings, making reducing the sizes of your portions that much easier. You feel far less hungry than you ever were before because your body is finally getting the fuel it needs to thrive, which means your body is not screaming for more calories to keep it going.

Typically this involves shifting the ratio of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, once you have determined what types of food your body is designed to eat. Optimal health may actually have less to do with the type of food you are eating, but with the relative percentage of each food you consume. If your ratios of proteins, fats and carbs are balanced for your biochemistry, conscious counting of calories becomes less of an issue.

The benefits of energy restriction can also explain why the juicing program works so well. It provides a relatively low calorie, dense nutrition that does not raise your insulin levels.

If a Little Toxin is Good, More Will Likely Kill You

There are numerous other examples of the hormetic principle in action. Many studies showing no adverse effects, or even slight benefits, of exposure to low levels of toxins and radiation are likely be due to hormesis, such as:

  • Ionizing radiation -- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that any amount of exposure to ionizing radiation is harmful. The EPA set very strict regulatory limits for public exposure to radiation at 15 and 100 mrem (millirem) a year, which is the level radioactive sites must achieve before they can be released to the public.

    However, other experts have discovered that low doses of ionizing radiation do not cause cancer, and could have a beneficial effect on your health.

    For example, one study revealed that the survivors in Nagasaki, who received 1,000 to 19,000 mrem of radiation, have fewer cases of cancer and are living longer than the non-irradiated population. The radiation hormesis model might also explain why residents living in high-radon-level areas such as Japan, Germany and central Europe have fewer cases of cancer.

    However, it’s also been well established that exposure to x-rays may increase cancer and heart disease, as ionizing radiation can cause all manner of structural chromosomal mutations and DNA instability. Dr. John Gofman, a nuclear physicist and medical doctor is one of the leading experts in the world on this topic and has previously contributed articles to my site on these issues.

  • Radium – Radioactive products were all the rage in the 1920s and 1930s. Radium-containing “health elixirs” were touted as magical remedies that could promote health and prolong life by rejuvenating effects with a host of widespread benefits.

    This was later followed by horror stories of gruesome, painful deaths due to overconsumption. The most famous case was that of Eben Byers, a millionaire steel tycoon and sportsman whose doctor urged him to drink radium-infused water for a bit of extra “zing.” Four years later, his death resulted in the iconic Wall Street Journal headline "The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off,” which ended up being the death knell for such radium products.

    However, bathing in radon water is still popular. Some 75,000 people a year seek treatment for arthritic and other complaints at a dozen radon spas in Germany, and there are several in Austria, the Czech Republic and Japan.

    Exposure to such low-level radiation is under investigation in Japan, where it has been successfully used to suppress cancer by strengthening immune system defenses and promoting DNA repair. There is good evidence that low level radon stimulates super-oxide dismutase, a powerful antioxidant that blocks free radical damage, and ATP, the source of energy for all cells.

The important thing to remember is that you need to make your own decisions about what is safe because the “truth” may not prevail until harm has already been done. You must take control of your own health, in order to gauge what’s right for you based on your individual circumstances.

Another great book that reviews the principle of hormesis is a book written 20 years ago. It was recommended to me by one of my early mentors, Dr. Tom Stone, who passed away a few years ago. The Reverse Effect  explores these concepts in great detail.

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