Xenohormesis: Why Imperfect Food May be Your Healthiest Option

When plants endure stress from weather and predators, they actually develop properties that keep the animals that snack on them healthier and more resilient.

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What is Xenohormesis?

Hormesis is essentially the theory that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. It’s the concept that small doses of stress, such as the stress your body experiences with cold exposure, can boost healthy brown fat and immunity. Another example is how breathing lung-irritating barn dust can lower rates of asthma in children. Or, take insects that when sprayed with small amounts of pesticides react by living longer and making more eggs.

This response also applies to plants and is called xenohormesis. Exposure to a small amount of stress, like exposure to the toxic substance dioxin can boost a plant’s response to other stressors.

Xeno comes from the Greek word for “foreign” and together with the word hormesis, translated as “that which excites,” is the concept that the chemical stress response of one organism can benefit another. Xenohormesis most commonly refers to the ability of a stressed plant to pay forward the benefits of resilience and survival to the animals that consumes them.

See also Hormesis for Digestion + Longevity: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

Why Eating Stressed Plants Makes Us Healthier

Xenohormesis is an emerging field that looks at how environmental stress on plants encourages them to produce protective compounds that insulate them from the stressors.

The fascinating part of this story is that when animals or humans consume these plants, the protective hormetic effects generated by the plant are transferred to the animal or human.

Studies show that animals can piggyback off of almost a billion years of plant evolution and adaptation to stress in order to protect themselves from predators and environmental stressors.

Plants do not have the luxury of running away or aggressively clawing off a grasshopper or deer incessantly gnawing away on its leaves. Their reaction after letting the animal or insect feed for a little while is to slowly secrete a distasteful chemical that the predator will dislike, or, better yet, the plant atomizes a gas that attracts predators of the grasshopper or deer.

When ingested by that deer or grasshopper, compounds made by plants through the process of hormesis have been shown to increase adaptability, health, wellness, longevity, and fitness by enhancing the animal’s cellular response to stress. These compounds are the basis of the drug and supplement industry, with one-third of the top 20 drugs are derived from plant sources, according to an article in the journal Cell.

Red wine is known for producing a chemical linked to longevity called resveratrol. It’s also known that grapes that produce the most resveratrol are grown in extremely harsh environments, on dry and relatively infertile soil. Another example of how stressed plants have health benefits is related to strawberries. Studies have shown that strawberries grown during a drought or in the wild taste better and have more polyphenols delivering greater antioxidant properties. In the same way, lavender, olives, berries, oregano, turmeric, dandelion, mustard, lettuce, and prickly pear all deliver greater health benefits from enduring a variety of hormetic environmental stressors.

See also Tree Wisdom: The Greedy Don’t Survive

Embrace the Ugly or Imperfect Food Movement

We marvel at the sight of a perfectly organized farm with rows of green organic kale, broccoli, spinach, and collards. Tomatoes take up another mouth watering section of the farm as do melons, berries, and fruit trees. Most farmers strive to make plants as prolific and beautiful as possible. But have you thought about where our perception of a perfectly shaped carrot or beet comes from?

In nature, which is as organic as you can get, you will never see perfectly tailored rows of produce, fruits trees, and tubers. You would never see 6-inch beefsteak tomatoes growing in the wild either. It required skill just to locate food to foraging for food for dinner, not to mention an acceptance of whatever shape or size you found.

Edibles found in nature are usually forced to endure some extremes, including late spring freezes, droughts, hail, dust, and predators large and small. Science is telling us that it’s the hardships that a plant goes through that stimulate the most powerful hormetic effects.

Plants that endure heat and calorie restriction from infertile soil and drought can release heat shock proteins and sirtuins that have been linked to longevity. We see this most commonly in the resveratrol from red grapes but also in turmeric and the Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) in green tea and Lifespa’s Tulsi Holy Basil. EGCG inhibits the enzyme cyclooxygenase 2 (COX-2), which supports healthy joints, cardiovascular health, and adaptogenic and antioxidant benefits.

See also Block the Aging Enzyme + Boost Longevity Ayurvedically with Boswellia
Three green pears, one brown
Photo by Tijana Drndarski on Unsplash

Consider a Wild Garden This Year

A wild garden is one without rows, weeding, tilling, mowing, or labelling. Let weeds live and get a phone app to help identify them and see if they are edible. (The one I use is called, PlantNet and it’s free.)

Study up! The first book on this subject, The Wild Garden, was originally written in 1870, was recently revised, and is a great resource.

6 thoughts on “Xenohormesis: Why Imperfect Food May be Your Healthiest Option”

  1. Really appreciate this. As a life long gardener, my respect grows for all the plants that find their way into the garden. These are the ones that chose to grow there and for the most part thrive in the microclimate and biome of my garden. Every year I plant all varieties of seeds and bring in plants from all over, but many if not most of these introductions do not do last, some just disappear. I am slowly learning which ones are not worth trying anymore- onions, peas, are two that come to mind. I try to incorporate the plants that return every year and the new ones that take over, in my diet as much a possible. So dandelions for spring salads, lambs quarters instead of spinach- another plant that does not thrive here. My favorite chickweed for salads and teas.

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  2. I used to grow a very orderly garden. Neat rows of perfect produce prevailed. After a few years of tending grandchildren, my veggies now grow in the wilds of what was once a tamed garden. I enjoy the various plantings no longer in rows. Your article on imperfect produce is great fertilizer for home gardeners. Good one.

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  3. Great thoughts from Dr. Douillard. I am a gardener and have been observing and thinking about my various gardens rather than digging and planting formulaically, I’ve been laughed at for the watching and waiting—but there definitely is value in this. Friends are strict organic consumers, vegans, followers of Medical Medium, and other health gurus, same friends are seriously ill, and/or loading up with 20-30 supplements, struggling— with IMBALANCE! I will continue to read dr. Douillard’s articles for his open mindedness and respect for nature’s mysteries.

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    • Dear EKwei,

      Thank you for your interest in Dr. John and LifeSpa. We are thrilled to hear that Dr. John’s findings are useful to you.

      Best,

      LifeSpa Staff

      Reply
  4. A FRIEND OF MINE AND I KIDDINGLY ASK EACH OTHER, “HAVE YOU BEAT YOUR OKRA LATELY?” A REMINDER TO GO OUT, TAKE A STICK AND BEAT OUR OKRA PLANTS. THE IDEA BEING TO PUT THE PLANTS UNDER STRESS WHICH IS SUPPOSED TO MAKE THEM MORE PRODUCTIVE. I DON’T KNOW IF IT WORKS OR NOT JUST THAT I GET PLENTY OF OKRA AND GET RID OF A LITTLE FRUSTRATION AT THE SAME TIME.

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