The toxin is in the dose: hormesis and health - Baobab Health

The toxin is in the dose: hormesis and health

Hormesis is a biological phenomenon whereby a beneficial effect (improved health, stress tolerance, growth or longevity) results from exposure to low doses of an agent that is otherwise toxic or lethal when given at higher doses. It is the idea that when we are exposed to small stressors in our environment it causes our body to up-regulate its detoxification and stress handling mechanisms in order to prepare our body for the next stressor that comes along. I like to think of it as what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.

The idea of hormesis seems to be essential for an organism’s health and ability to thrive. Without acute stressors that challenge our body, we become less robust and more susceptible to illness.

There are certain elements in our environment, which have been shown to have a hormetic effect on our bodies. These include things like exercise, eating fruits and vegetables, fasting and alcohol consumption. These elements, in the right amounts, cause small amounts of oxidative stress and inflammation, which leads to an up-regulation of our detoxification, anti-inflammatory and anti-stress mechanisms, making them become more efficient and more powerful, in order to deal with other more harmful stressors in our environment. The body is highly adaptable to stressors as it is essential of our survival and evolution.


Exercise is a stressor on the body. It causes inflammation and oxidative stress. However, the reason why it provides the health benefits that it does, is because the acute, short term stress of physical activity can lead to our bodies up-regulating our anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory mechanisms, as well as making our bodies more efficient in things like energy production, in order to prepare the body for the next stressor. This is why when you “train,” you feel improvements in your capacity to do certain physical activities. Your body up-regulates certain mechanisms to make you more efficient at carrying out certain physical tasks, therefore making you more robust.

However, these new adaptations will only last if you continue to “stress” your body slightly and give it new stressors to adapt to. Take strength training for example. When you lift weights in the gym, you are actually causing muscle damage and stress to your muscles. But, with adequate nutrition and rest, your body rebuilds these muscle fibres and makes them bigger and stronger in order to deal with the next session. This is how people put on muscle. This is also why if you don’t progressively overload your body (increase the weight and reps), you will not grow more muscle fibres. The body continuously needs harder stressors in order to adapt.

It must be noted that hormesis only occurs when the stressor is applied in the right amount. The stressor needs to cause a slight stress on the body, without overwhelming it. All of the elements that can have hormetic effects on the body, can also be harmful and toxic to the body if exposed in too high amounts. As mentioned above, exercise is beneficial to health in the right amounts, however if you over train, it can overwhelm the bodies stress coping mechanisms leading to negative health effects. This is the idea that the toxin is in the dose and our grandparents were right when they said “everything in moderation.”

Fruits and vegetables.

Many people think that fruits and vegetables are beneficial to our health because they contain plant nutrients called phytonutrients that have anti-oxidant effects in our body. However, most of these plant nutrients are actually pro-oxidants, whereby they cause oxidative stress and inflammation in our body. These pro-oxidants are chemicals that the plants use to protect themselves from sun damage, microbes, insects and animals. Plants can’t run and don’t have claws or teeth, so they have developed some extremely potent chemicals that help protect the plants from predators and damage.

This is why some plants are totally poisonous to humans. However, the plants that are edible, which are our herbs, spices, fruit and vegetables, also contain mildly “toxic” compounds that cause stress on the body when ingested, however the stress is not large enough to overwhelm the body and therefore have a beneficial hormetic effect.

Rather than killing us or making us sick, however, these compounds promote adaptations that make us healthier and stronger and may extend our lifespan. Our bodies recognise these phytochemical as slightly toxic, and we respond with an ancient detoxification process aimed at breaking them down and flushing them out.

Consider fresh broccoli sprouts. Like other cruciferous vegetables, they contain an antifeedant called sulforaphane. Because sulforaphane is a mild oxidant, we should, according to old ideas about the dangers of oxidants, avoid its consumption. Yet studies have shown that eating vegetables with sulforaphane reduces oxidative stress.

When sulforaphane enters your blood stream, it triggers release in your cells of a protein called Nrf2. This protein, called by some the “master regulator” of aging, then activates over 200 genes. They include genes that produce antioxidants, enzymes to metabolize toxins, proteins to flush out heavy metals, and factors that enhance tumor suppression, among other important health-promoting functions.

Based on this information, while fruits and vegetables are undoubtedly beneficial to our health and people who eat more fruits and vegetables tend to be healthier than those who don’t. However, it may not be ideal to make them the only foods that you eat (e.g. vegans and vegetarians). You need balance and like I said before, hormesis is based on the notion of everything in moderation. In the right amounts, the pro-oxidants in fruit and vegetables may up-regulate our anti-oxidant and detoxification mechanisms, however in excessive amounts, it may overwhelm our anti-oxidant mechanisms causing inflammation and therefore dysfunction in the body. This is why a balanced diet like this, is important for health.

This may also be a reason as to why supplementation with anti-oxidants found in plants may not be so beneficial to our health because they decrease our bodies own ability to produce its own anti-oxidants.

Periodic fasting.

Intermittent fasting is a general term used to describe a variety of approaches that change the normal timing of eating throughout a day, with short-term fasts used to improve overall health. In other words, the one consistent theme of intermittent fasting is that individuals periodically fast for a longer duration than the typical overnight fast.

Some approaches to intermittent fasting include skipping one meal of the day, extending the duration of the overnight fast to anywhere from 12 to 20 hours. This may also be referred to as time-restricted feeding because it shortens the feeding window. Some people prefer whole-day fasts that usually involve fasting for 24 to 30 hours, performed anywhere from once to twice per week to just once or twice per month. Most of the research on intermittent fasting more specifically uses alternate-day fasting, where participants fast for 24 hours every other day, alternating days of eating without restrictions.

Intermittent fasting has been shown to have some great health benefits such as weight loss, decreased cardiovascular risk profile, decreased inflammation and increased brain health. But like all things hormetic, fasting too much and not eating enough to support our body’s energy demands is obliviously harmful and detrimental to our health.

Processed food.

Although there are no studies done on this topic, the ingestion of processed food every so often may be beneficial to your health. It can help build your tolerance to it, so when you go out with mates, you don’t feel sick after eating a slice of pizza. I am not saying processed food should form the foundation of your diet, however, if the foundation of your diet is mostly whole, unprocessed, nutrient dense foods, then the occasional ice cream or your favourite chocolate may be beneficial to your health, especially if it is consumed in social settings. It’s about applying the 80/20 rule.


I’m sure you have all heard that small amounts of red wine can be beneficial to our health. This is because red wine contains some of those pro-oxidants that I spoke about in the fruit and vegetable section. However, alcohol in general is also a pro-oxidant and requires detoxification from our body due to it’s toxic effects on various systems of the body.

Alcohol in moderation can have beneficial effects on our detoxification mechanisms, keeping them primed and tuned. Alcohol should be consumed in moderation. Alcohol is something that tends to bring people together, therefore consuming modest amounts of alcohol in the context of good company can be very beneficial to health. This is because social connection is also so important for our health.

However, like all things, alcohol needs to be consumed in the right amounts for it to have its beneficial effects. Binge drinking and frequent consumption, especially in the backdrop of an unhealthy diet and lifestyle, can be very damaging to health.

Lastly, there is also good reason to argue that occasional smoking of straight tobacco (without the chemicals in cigarettes) can also be potentially beneficial through hormesis.

Wrap up

Acute stressors play an important role in our health. Not only does this apply to our physical health, but it also applies to our mental health. Finding ways to challenge your body and mind acutely can lead to positive health benefits, both mentally and physically. It can help you become a more well-rounded, robust individual. So don’t be afraid of challenging yourself mentally and physically. Get out of your comfort zone once in a while; it is beneficial for your health. Don’t get stuck in a constant state of comfort as this leads to stagnation and lack of growth.

I like to go to travelling by myself every so often to destinations that are off the beaten track. Being alone, taking responsibility for myself, adventuring and forcing myself to meet other people is not always “comfortable,” but I feel like it has helped me develop and grow as a person for the better.