What Scientific Data Say About Hormesis
Can exposure to low level of stress or toxins make you stronger? There are a good number of scientific evidences that associate disease resistance with exposure to certain levels of health hazards. The medical community calls it the theory of hormesis.
After decades of being dismissed as purely anecdotal, the scientific community finally acknowledged hormesis as a fundamental principle in biology and medicine.
One study has demonstrated the validity of hormesis among laboratory animals. Rats that were bombarded with radiation showed less susceptibility to develop cancer when they had been exposed to minor gamma rays. A similar response was observed when dioxin was given to rats.
The biochemical mechanisms underlying hormesis are still a mystery. It is believed that a certain amount of toxin prompts repair mechanisms, which not only fight the toxin’s effect, but also the damages caused by other toxins.
Aging is one the areas where hormesis has been widely investigated. It is believed that exposure to mild stress prompts adaptive or hormetic response that fights aging. Examples of mild stresses that may trigger such response are irradiation, heat shock, hypergravity, pro-oxidants, food restriction, and physical activity.
Hormesis challenges the mainstream concept in conventional and natural medicine that if a little is good, more must be better.
Human body is like a finely-tuned musical instrument that either malfunctions or improves in response to minor changes in its settings. Some stressors make you healthy, while others do the opposite. Examples of stressors with damaging effects are:
- Water fluoridation
- Radiation emitted by cellphones
- Mercury amalgams
Hormesis and Adaptation
Hormesis is derived from the ancient Greek word hormáein, which means “to set in motion, impel, urge on,” Hormesis pertains to healthy reactions to low exposures to toxins and other stressors. Therefore, a toxin that prompts hormesis has the opposite effect when introduced in larger quantity.
An example of such “healthy” form of toxin is homeopathy. This practice proves that even a highly toxic substance can cause health benefits when it is introduced to the body in small quantity, which is just enough to trigger hormesis, but far from being sufficient to cause damage.
Hormesis is as important as homeostasis for biological survival. Through hormesis, an organism adapts to internal and external stresses by strengthening the body. This phenomenon corresponds to the “survival of the fittest” theory of evolutionary biology. Aging is an obvious manifestation of the principle of hormesis. Aging results when the body fails to withstand stressors that cause biological degradation.
Hormesis in old age can be in the form of longer lifespan in response to calorie restriction or exercise. It is believed that the adaptive ability of the human body is developed during the resistance period.
One of easiest ways to trigger hormesis is through physical exercise. Exercise can increase metabolism, improve the immune system, prevent various diseases, prolong life, and fight oxidative stress. However, excessive exercise, just like other forms of stressors in high amount, can induce harmful effects.
Anti-Aging Effects of Stressors
Stressors are often viewed as major causes of aging. The stress theory of aging emphasizes the role of stressors in aging. For instance, overproduction of stress hormones such as ACTH, cortisol, and catecholamines is associated with shorter life-span and disintegration of various biological functions.
Excess levels of antioxidants, which are commonly marketed as health supplements, could lead to a form of harmful stress called “reductive stress.”
The stress theory of aging fails to take into account the role of stress in improving health. An example of such stress is calorie restriction. There are strong evidences that support the claim that calorie restriction prolongs life.
For example, a study published in the “Journal of Nutrition” proved that limiting food intake could prolong life. The study reported that reducing the calorie intake of mice by as much as 40% increased their lifespan by almost 300%. This figure was relative to the lifespan of mice with no calorie restrictions.
What’s more interesting was that the longevity effect of calorie restriction exceeded that of fish oils, which only prolonged lifespan by 40%.
As the study showed, life span of mice increased six-fold (from 40% to 265%) when calorie restriction was combined with fish oil diet.
Hormetic tendency is believed to be an acquired survival mechanism. Lack of food forces the body to mobilize available resources to defend itself from disease-causing oxidative stress. As a result, energy utilization is maximized by allocating greater resources to immunological functions and life supporting systems.
But it doesn’t mean that you should restrict calorie intake to stay healthy. The hormetic effect of calorie restriction is due to insulin reduction. Actually, there are safer and more pleasant ways to reduce insulin.
Eating Less for Longer Life
Reduce your calorie intake by eating according to your nutritional type, which is based on your unique biochemistry. This should reduce your food cravings. By giving your body the right amount of energy it needs, you will experience less hunger.
Know the types of food and amount of nutrients required by your body. Then create the appropriate mix of proteins, carbohydrates, and fat. This approach to energy restriction puts more emphasis to the proportion of essential nutrients in the diet rather than the amount of calories. Having a well-proportioned mix of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates is the key to energy restriction. This explains why vegetable juicing is so effective in energy restriction. Vegetable juice is low in calorie, high in essential nutrients, and has no insulin-elevating ingredients.
More “Healthy” Stressors and Toxins
There are plenty of cases that show the hormetic principle in action.
1. Ionizing radiation
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers ionizing radiation as a health hazard regardless of its amount. EPA-mandated radiation limit ranges from 15 to 100 mrem (millirem) a year. Radioactive sites cannot be released to the public unless they meet this limit.
Contrary to the negative impression of EPA on ionizing radiation, it was found that minimal radiological exposure does not cause cancer and can even improve health.
For instance, survivors of World War II atomic bombing in Nagasaki, who received 1,000 to 19,000 mrem of radiation, are less vulnerable to cancer and have longer lifespan than the non-irradiated population. Hormesis may also explain why people in high-radon-level areas in Japan, Germany, and central Europe are less prone to cancer.
But beware that x-ray exposure is a major cause of cancer and heart diseases. These side-effects are attributed to radiation’s ability to cause chromosomal mutations and DNA instability.
Radioactive health products were in huge demand during the 1920s and 1930s. Sellers of these products purported that they could lengthen lifespan and cure many diseases.
Fatal complications caused by overconsumption of radion health products eventually weakened their reputation. The death of Eben Byers, a millionaire and sportsman who was urged by his physician to drink radium-infused water, was the most sensational of all morbid cases associated with radium consumption. Four years after his death, the “Wall Street Journal” published a cover story about another radium-induced complication, which marked the death of radium health products.
Despite the health hazards of radion, bathing in radon water remains popular. Every year, around 75,000 people resort to radon spas in Germany to treat arthritis and other ailments. Japan, Austria, and the Czech Republic also run radion spas.
The health benefits of such low-level radiation exposure is being investigated in Japan. It has been proven in Japan that low-level radiation could fight cancer by strengthening the immune system and repairing DNA. Minimal radon exposure is also believed to stimulate super-oxide dismutase, a potent antioxidant, and ATP, the energy supply of cells.
Whether hormesis is right for you or not is something that you yourself should decide. Be accountable to your own health and choose the treatment options that you think best suit your personal circumstances.