Holistic medicine advocate Dr. Andrew Weill recently authored a Huffington Post article on hormesis. JunkScience.com friend Dr. John Dunn took a quick whack at it (IN CAPS). The result is below. So that readers may enjoy Dr. Dunn’s Texas-sized personality, we have not edited his responses. Enjoy!
Can Poison Be Good For You? Understanding Hormesis
By Dr. Andrew Weill
January 20, 2012. Huffington Post
Hormesis is a little-known term with huge implications. It refers to a fascinating phenomenon: a favorable biological reaction to low doses of chemical toxins, radiation or some other form of stress that is damaging, even fatal, in higher doses. THIS IS A VERY GOOD AND COMMON SENSE DEFINITION.
It was first scientifically noted by German pharmacologist Hugo Schulz in 1887, who found that disinfectants — which, in large doses, kill yeast — actually stimulate yeast growth when administered in small doses. Of course, many had observed it anecdotally, and poetically, before that. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously observed, “What does not destroy me makes me stronger,” which gets the gist, but overstates a bit — a more precise phrasing might be, “What stresses me within certain parameters makes me better adapted.”
The mechanism of hormesis appears to be overcompensation to re-establish homeostasis — which is a technical way of saying that an organism, or group of them, responds to small stresses by becoming more robust, or numerous, to adapt to a challenging environment. ALSO A REASONABLE DESCRIPTION. NICE WORK, DR. WEIL. HOWEVER, HORMESIS DOESN’T APPLY TO A “GROUP,” WHATEVER HE MEANS BY THAT.
The hormetic response with which most of us are familiar comes from exercise. Lifting weights, for example, does not immediately make you stronger — it actually weakens the body in the short term and releases a cascade of destructive molecules (free radicals) that can injure tissues. A 2005 study by Hungarian researchers suggested that the body responds to this situation by producing more antioxidants, initiating DNA repair and generally slowing the aging process. The result over the next few hours or days is stronger muscles and generally, a healthier, more resilient body. NOT SO MUCH THE PROCESS OF REPAIR AND INCREASING RESERVES IS NOT TO REVERSE THE AGING PROCESS AS JUST THE BENEFIT OF A REACTION TO THE STRESS. A LITTLE OVERREACH HERE. DR. WEIL WOULD BE BETTER OFF IF HE SAID—WE DON’T KNOW, SINCE WE HAVE NO IDEA OF WHAT STRESS AND THE REPARATIVE OR RESTORATIVE MECHANISM MIGHT ENTAIL, BUT FOR SURE STRESS DOES NOT CREATE DNA DESTRUCTION AND DNA RESTORATION IS NOT KNOWN TO REALLY BE A FACTOR OR PROCESS IN THE DYNAMIC OF ENZYME, PROTEIN AND STRUCTURAL RESTORATION AND IMPROVEMENT THAT OCCURS.
To put this in an evolutionary context, the exerciser’s body is essentially saying: “This person is in an environment that requires strenuous exertion. I’ll respond to the damage the exertion causes by overcompensating via creating extra muscle tissue, making her stronger and better able to survive.” HERE IS WHERE YOU CAN SEE THAT DR. WEIL IS AT LEAST ADVENTUROUS IF NOT JUST SILLY. EVOLUTION IS ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE, NOT HORMESIS OR THE EFFECTS OF REACTIONS TO STRESS. EVOLUTION AS PROPOSED BY THE EVOLUTIONISTS IS RANDOM MUTATION WITH SELECTION. DR. WEIL IS GETTING A LITTLE THEOLOGICAL IF HE THINKS HIS ANALYSIS IS ABOUT EVOLUTIONARY MECHANISMS, UNLESS HE IS A LAMARCKIAN. A SCIENTIST IS OBLIGATED TO BE CAREFUL ABOUT USING CONCEPTS THAT ARE LOADED. EVOLUTION HAS BECOME A POLITICAL TERM THAT IS BASED ON A NON SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT OF IMPROVEMENT. NOT APPROPRIATE TO INSERT SUCH A THING AS EVOLUTION HERE. HORMESIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH CHANGING OR MODIFYING THE GENOME.
Similarly, many substances that are universally, and quite correctly, regarded as “healthy” are, in fact, toxins. Dietary phytochemicals — the compounds that give fruits and vegetables their bright colors — are toxic chemicals that plants have evolved as a defense against fungal and insect pests. These are likely mildly toxic to human beings as well, but in the concentrations found in common foods, probably fall within the “stimulating” range. Result: lowered risk of cancers, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disorders. SIMPLIFICATION, IGNORES THE WORK OF BRUCE AMES THAT SHOWS THAT THERE ARE TOXINS IN ALL KINDS OF NATURALLY OCCURRING THINGS. HOWEVER, THAT’S KINDA DEEP SO DR. WEIL IS JUST SKIPPING THE DEEP ISSUES FOR THE SURFACE?? WE HOPE.
Hormesis may also help to explain the conundrum of “healthy drinking.” Ethyl alcohol is indeed a toxin, with a long, sad history of causing irreversible tissue damage and death at high doses. Used responsibly, however, it has been shown in plasma samples to boost antioxidant activity. WELL IT MIGHT DO OTHER THINGS—BUT THAT’S NOT IMPORTANT HERE, ALCOHOL IN LOW DOSES HAS SOME ???? BENEFITS, IN HIGH DOES IS TOXIC. AGREED. This may help explain why many studies have found modest cardiovascular benefit from moderate consumption, such as one alcoholic drink daily. However, the effect is small enough — and the risk of abstainers becoming alcoholics large enough — that I do not believe non-drinkers should start consuming alcohol in pursuit of health. WHY, DR. YOU ADVISE IN FAVOR OF ALL KINDS OF OTHER THINGS, AND YOU WILL LATER IN THIS ESSAY, SO WHY NOT SAY TO PEOPLE—DRINK A LITTLE, TAKE A NIP EVERY NIGHT. THE ANSWER IS YOU ARE A RELIGIOUS FIGURE, DR. WEIL, ADVISING IN FAVOR OF “HEALTHY” LIVING AND EATING AND SUCH—EVEN THOUGH YOU ARE CLEARLY OVERWEIGHT. SO YOU AIN’T GOING TO SAY DRINK SINCE YOUR AUDIENCE OF DEVOTES AND ACOLYTES ARE A TIGHT SPHINCTER CROWD AND ALKEEHAL IS BAD. THEY ARE INCLINED TO BE TETOOOTALLERS AND ABOLITIONISTS AND YOUR SUPPORT GROUP WOULD DRY UP, NOT A GOOD IDEA. THAT’S WHY CONFLICTS OF INTEREST POP UP ALL THE TIME—MONETARY, PROFESSIONAL SOCIAL.
In a larger sense, hormesis may help explain why people who lead strenuous lives with plenty of moderate physical challenges may be healthier and live longer than those in more comfortable circumstances. INDEED, BUT PEOPLE WHO ARE HAPPY AND CONTENT ALSO TEND TO LIVE LONGER—ECONOMIC STATUS IS DIRECTLY POSITIVE IN INCREASING LIFE EXPECTANCY, INDEPENDENT OF LIFESTYLE, IN FACT IN SPITE OF IT. BUT WHOSE PAYING ATTENTION, PARTICULARLY IN AN ESSAY LIKE THIS. A 2008 paper titled “Hormesis in Aging” by researchers from the Laboratory of Cellular Aging, Department of Molecular Biology, University of Aarhus in Denmark concluded that “single or multiple exposure to low doses of otherwise harmful agents, such as irradiation, food limitation, heat stress, hypergravity, reactive oxygen species and other free radicals have a variety of anti-aging and longevity-extending hormetic effects.” CERTAINLY COULD BE, BUT HOW CAN THIS RESEARCH BE RECONCILED WITH THE RESEARCH THAT SHOWS BEING POOR AND UNSUCCESSFUL REDUCES LIFE EXPECTANCY? DEPENDS ON THE SCOPE OF THE INQUIRY OR THE ESSAY, DOESN’T IT?
All of which suggests that one of the best routes to health is to make yourself a little uncomfortable now and then. AGAIN, UNCOMFORTABLE IN WHAT WAY—HEALTHY EXERCISE OR DEPRIVATION? The most profitable discomforts are likely those with which human beings have a long evolutionary history such as physical exertion, getting hungry, regularly tipping back a modest measure of alcohol, short-term exposure to cold or heat, and so on. Conversely, novel stressors — such as the stew of noxious synthetic chemicals in the modern environment with which we have no evolutionary history — are best regarded as guilty until proven innocent. HERE IS WHERE DR. WEIL STARTS TO SOUND HIS RELIGIOUS BONA FIDES—STEW OF NOXIOUS SYNTHETIC CHEMICALS? MODERN ENVIRONMENT? EVOLUTIONARY HISTORY? BOOGABOOGA, DR. WEIL, DEFINE STEW, NOXIOUS, SYNTHETIC, MODERN, EVOLUTIONARY?
Which brings up a word of caution: Throughout history, irresponsible politicians and commentators have cited the hormetic effect to justify reducing restrictions on pollution WELL YOU JERK, YOU CREATE A STRAW MAN, CLAIMING THAT IRRESPONSIBLE PEOPLE (OBVIOUSLY NOT YOU) HAVE USED HORMESIS AS AN ARGUMENT TO JUSTIFY POLLUTION? WHO SAYS SO? MY UNDERSTANDING OF THE ARGUMENT IS THAT HORMESIS IS A CONCEPT THAT COUNTERS THAT IDEA THAT NO THRESHOLD LINEAR MODELING OF TOXICOLOGY IS INVALID, SINCE HORMESIS IS EVIDENCE THAT SMALL EXPOSURES CAN BE GOOD AND THERE MUST BE A THRESHOLD, BUT EPA AND ITS SPONSORED RESEARCHERS WOULD ARGUE AGAINST THAT BECAUSE THEY PREFER THE ONE HIT THEORY OF TOXICOLOGY — claiming that a little poison or radiation in the water, air or food supply is good for us. This is dangerous nonsense. THIS STATEMENT CONTRADICTS WHAT YOU HAVE SAID ABOVE, DR. WEIL—CAN’T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS.
Hormesis appears to be of value only when dosages are very carefully controlled, which does not describe releasing random mixtures of toxins, especially synthetic ones, into general circulation. THIS IS SUCH AN IGNORANT STATEMENT, WHERE DOES ONE START. HORMESIS IS NOT A THERAPEUTIC BUT A TOXIOLOGICAL CONCEPT. IT IS AN ASSERTION THAT THE DYNAMICS OF TOXICOLOGICAL EFFECTS INCLUDE A SUB THRESHOLD OF TOXICITY LEVEL WHERE THERE APPEAR TO BE BENEFITS. THE STATEMENT IS NONSENSICAL AND DISPLAYS AN ESSENTIAL IGNORANCE OF THE CONCEPT OF HORMESIS.
There’s still a great deal we don’t understand about hormesis. THAT CAN ALWAYS BE SAID, BUT IN FACT WE KNOW A LOT ABOUT HORMESIS, WE KNOW THAT IN THE RESEARCH ON TOXICOLOGY THERE IS A PROVEN AND REPRODUCIBLE EFFECT THAT IS THE OPPOSITE OF THE TOXIC EFFECT THAT OCCURS ABOVE THE THRESHOLD OF TOXICITY. IT IS WELL UNDERSTOOD THAT THERE ARE RANGES OF TOXICITY, THERE IS A THRESHOLD FOR TOXICITY AND THEN BELOW THAT THRESHOLD THERE IS A COUNTER INTUITIVE POSITIVE EFFECT. WHO KNOWS WHY, SOME POSSIBILITIES ARE DESCRIBED ABOVE BEFORE DR. WEILL DESCENDS INTO CANT AND HIS ROLE AS A NERVOUS “HEALTHY LIFESTYLE” GURU.
Until we do, the smartest policy for governments and industry is to keep the public’s exposure to environmental toxins as low as possible. IS THE GOOD DR. RETREATING TO THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE HERE? IF IS POSSIBLE HE WAS JUST TEASING US THAT HE UNDRSTOOD THAT BEING NERVOUS ABOUT EVERYTHING AND ALL LEVELS OF EXPOSURE SHOULD BE TEMPERED BY THE REALIZATION THAT HORMESIS IS THE COUNTER ARGUMENT TO THE ANXIOUS PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE PEOPLE AND MIGHT EVEN RESTORE THRESHOLD AS AN IMPORTANT CONCEPT IN TOXICOLOGY.
NAAAAAAAW. DR. WEIL IS ABOUT HEEEEEAAAALTHY LIVING AND FOOD AND DIET AND ANXIETY ABOUT HEEEEEAAAALTHY LIVING AND FOOD AND DIET AND EXERCISE—SO HE HAD TO RING THE BELL FOR EVERYTHING IS DANGEROUS AND THERE IS NO SAFE EXPOSURE—THAT’S HOW HE KEEPS HIS SMALL FLOCK TOGETHER—ANXIETY AND PROPER INCANTATIONS ABOUT THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE AND WHAT IS DANGEROUS OUT THERE.
REPORTING FROM THE REAL WORLD—JOHN DALE DUNN, 65 YEAR OLD PHYSICIAN WHO DRINKS, SMOKES CIGARS AND EXERCISES—ALL IN MODERATION, AND BENEFITS MOST FROM GOOD GENES—LIKE LOW BLOOD PRESSURE FROM MOTHER ROSEMARY AND FATHER DALE, WHILE SOME OF HIS HEALTHY LIVING CONTEMPORARIES HAVE BEEN STRUCK BY CANCER, HEART DISEASE, MS, GOD AWFUL THINGS THEY DIDN’T DESERVE BECAUSE THEY LIVED MUCH BETTER LIVES THAN THE SAID DEGENERATE AND DECADENT DOCTOR DUNN. HELL SOMETIMES HE DOESN’T GET 8 HOURS OF SLEEP, HE REFUSES TO DO RUNS BECAUSE ALL HIS RUNNING FRIENDS HAVE KNEES, FEET AND ANKLES THAT ARE A WRECK.
DUNN HAS NO BAD JOINTS EXCEPT A THUMB ON THE RIGHT HITTING THE SPACE BAR WHILE CUSSING STUPID PEOPLE LIKE WEIL ON A DAMN KEYBOARD.
THEN AGAIN IT MIGHT BE BECAUSE THE THUMB GOT HIT BY A MOVING TRUCK MIRROR A FEW YEARS AGO—YOU THINK?
WEIL IS SO SURE OF HIMSELF. THE TEXAS SAYING GOES—OFTEN WRONG, BUT NEVER IN DOUBT. THAT’S THESE HEALTHY LIVING PEOPLE. PHYSICIANS ARE TYRANTS WHEN IT COMES TO LORDING IT OVER THE REGULAR FOLKS—THEY HATE SMOKERS, THEY HATE THE PEOPLE THAT ARE FATTER THAN THEY ARE, THEY HATE BBQ, AND BACON AND RED MEAT—THEY PROMOTE A LIFE OF AUSTERITY AND SACRIFICE AND SKIPPING THE FUN—AND I HOPE THEY ARE HAPPY THINKING HOW SUPERIOR THEY ARE—I LIKE TAKING CARE OF SINNERS AND UNHEALTHY LIVERS—THEY ARE NICER AND HAVE LOWER SPHINCTER TONE.