How a small amount of an irritating substance, or anti-nutrient, can help you heal digestive woes, boost immunity, and more.
Hormesis–The Good Stress That Supports Longevity
When I was a kid, my grandmother would tell us during our Sunday family dinners that it was okay to have a little wine with the meal. “It makes you live longer,” she repeatedly reminded me. I’m pretty sure Sunday dinner was the only day she drank, and she lived to 90.
I can see now that her weekly drink was related to a scientific process discovered in 1941, called hormesis, translated as “that which excites.” Akin to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s adage that “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” hormesis suggests that when you ingest something in a small dose that is otherwise bad for you at a higher dose, your body responds to the stressor with a healing response that is more potent than the ingested toxic substance.1
My grandmother was right, moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with a longer life, especially when it comes to reducing the risk of death from stroke and heart disease. She was supporting the theory of hormesis!1-3 A drink a week may help us stay healthy, while excess alcohol consumption is associated with heart disease, liver cirrhosis, neurological disorders, and cancers. So if a little is good, that does not than more is better!3
As crazy as it may sound, according to scientific research, even the nicotine in cigarette smoke has a hormetic, or protective, effect against Parkinson’s disease, but is clearly a major health concern in other areas.4
The theory of hormesis also has its own system of medicine: Homeopathy is a proven medical system that that introduces small amounts of harmful substances into the body to elicit a predictable and reproducible therapeutic effect.
Homeopathy takes many of its cues from examples of hormesis in nature.
Examples of Hormesis in Nature1
- Bacteria tend to flourish in the presence of tiny amounts of antibiotics.
- Worms that are exposed to environmental stressors, such as heat, hypoxia, and excess free radicals, exhibit longer lifespan.
- Insects treated with very small amounts of pesticides live longer and make more eggs.
- Humans who experience an ischemic event (stroke) become more resistant to further ischemic events.
- Exposure to small amounts of toxins like dioxin enhances an organism’s response to other stressors.
- Low-dose radiation has been shown to have a hormetic therapeutic effect.
- A small amount of neurotoxin, such as beta amyloid plaque, has been shown to have a protective effect on neurons.
- Low-dose ultra violet (UV) radiation enhances DNA repair.
- Acquired immunity through vaccinations can also be termed hormesis.
Have We Become Soft as We Become Farther Removed From Nature?
In a powerful New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) study, researchers compared the asthma rates of kids from two genetically-similar farming communities. They compared the kids from an Amish farming community in Indiana to the kids from a Hutterite farming community in South Dakota.8
The unique difference in these two communities is that the Amish still farm in the traditional way: with horse-drawn carriages, and with kids running barefoot in dusty barns and interacting regularly with livestock. The Hutterite community has modernized their farming methods. Their farms are industrialized, sterile, and the farmers and kids have little access to farm animals.
The researchers examined 30 kids from each group and found that none of the Amish kids had asthma, while six of the Hutterite kids did. The study concluded that the dust in barns acted as a respiratory irritant that triggered a hormetic effect that made them essentially immune to breathing difficulties like asthma.
In the U.S., on average, only 10 percent of children are diagnosed with asthma, meaning the Amish kids who run barefoot in barns and have cows as pets are less likely to have asthma than the average American child.8
The researchers then exposed mice to both Amish and Hutterite dust . The mice that were exposed to the Hutterite dust had breathing troubles and inflamed airways, and the mice that were exposed to the Amish dust did not.8
In the NEJM study, researchers also found that the Amish kids had far more white blood cells, which are important for fighting infections. And that Amish white blood cells were less reactive than the Hutterite’s, suggesting that hormesis, in this case the regular exposure to allergens, dust, microbes, livestock, and dirt, may be responsible for boosting immunity.
Another study of more than 10,000 children in 14 countries in Europe, Scandinavia, and Australia compared those who grew up on farms to those who grew up in suburbia or the city. They found that children who grew up on farms were:18
- 54% less likely to have hay fever
- 57% less likely to have nasal allergies
- 50% less likely to have asthma
Researchers found that farm kids were exposed to more dust, mites, and respiratory irritants. Rural kids had more white blood cells (WBCs) than urban kids, suggesting the immune system does indeed respond to stimulation.
The Wim Hof Method + Hormetic Cold Exposure
Maybe we have become too comfortable. Most of us are intolerant to heat and cold, and unable to digest foods like wheat and dairy. Have we become allergic to our world? One of the best examples of our environmental intolerance is from research done on a Dutchman named Wim Hof, who teaches breathing techniques and cold exposure. Studies on him and others he has taught have found that cold exposure can boost immunity, energy, and stamina. Wim is famous for climbing Mt. Everest in shorts and running a marathon in the Arctic Circle with bare feet. He also holds the world record for the longest ice bath (during which his core temperature actually rose).5,6
He contends that our ancestors all survived in the cold without heated or air-conditioned caves or tents. They endured long winters and hunted in freezing temperatures that modern humans simply don’t tolerate. Wim Hof is teaching how to re-enliven abilities that we all have by using hormesis—by re-introducing small amounts of cold back into the human physiology.5,6
Eat Wheat or Die
In another example of how exposure therapy works, Hormesis suggests that our immune system developed over millions of years from eating hard-to-digest foods that may irritate the intestinal lining. That irritation, from the anti-nutrients that protect the seed, nut, grain, and bean of fruit (such as nightshades and lectins like gluten and phytic acids), provides the gut stimulation we need to build gut immunity, which makes up 70% of the body’s total immune response. Emerging science shows that removing these gut irritants may severely compromise our immune systems.
Just taking wheat, dairy, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, or fruits out of your diet without addressing the underlying imbalance in digestion that has created the food intolerance is like sweeping the real problem under the rug. The symptoms could return aggressively in the months or years to come.
5 Reasons Gluten is Good For You
1. Gluten Decreases Bad Bacteria + Supports Beneficial Bacteria
In one study from the British Medical Journal, or BMJ, 10 healthy 30-year-olds were put on a gluten-free diet for one month. Analysis of their food intake and stool indicated their numbers of healthy gut bacteria decreased. More surprisingly, the numbers of unhealthy bacteria increased.
Based on these findings, researchers concluded that a gluten-free diet, even for just one month, could alter microbes and compromise the immune system.14
2. Gluten Boosts Immune Response
In another study, from the American Heart Association, involving nine healthy individuals, five were given three grams of concentrated wheat gluten per day for six days, and four followed a gluten-free diet. The gluten group saw a significant increase in natural killer cell activity.
This is significant, as natural killer (NK) cells are our bodies’ frontline defense system. They are incredibly important in individuals with autoimmune conditions and cancer. The group on a gluten-free diet saw no increase in NK cell activity.15
Download my Digestive Troubleshooting Guide eBook.
3. Gluten Lowers Cholesterol
Many studies link a diet rich in whole wheat to lower cholesterol levels. Wheat fiber, specifically, has always been assumed to be responsible for this health benefit.
However, in one study, folks who ate a diet high in fiber and gluten saw lower triglyceride levels than the control group, who ate diets high in fiber.16 This suggests that gluten, not wheat fiber, may be the factor responsible for lowering triglyceride levels.
4. A Gluten-Free Diet Raises Mercury Levels
In one recent study, mercury levels were compared in three groups of people:
- Celiac patients on a gluten-free diet
- Celiac patients who had not yet started a gluten-free diet
- Non-celiac patients who ate wheat regularly
The group of celiac patients that had been on a gluten-free diet had FOUR TIMES the amount of toxic mercury in their blood than the other groups.17
5. Gluten-Free Diet Increases Risk of Heart Disease
In a Harvard study that followed more than 110,000 adults from 1986 to 2010, the relationship between gluten intake and heart disease was evaluated. In this study, they found that the difference in heart disease risk was about the same for the folks who ate the most gluten and those who ate the least amount of gluten—suggesting that the amount of gluten you eat does not play a role in heart disease risk.
When the researchers dug deeper and adjusted the study for the amount of refined grains that were eaten in the high-gluten group, the heart disease risk soared. Refined grains lack heart-healthy fiber, which abounds in healthy whole wheat. The fiber is the hermetic irritant that supports gut immunity.
When the researchers adjusted their findings for intake of refined grains vs. whole grains, the group that ate the least amount of gluten had a 15 percent higher risk of heart disease.20
The Benefits of Hormetic Irritants
As we can see, while removing gluten from one’s diet may seem like a healthy idea, there may be unintended consequences. When we take digestive stimulation out of the diet by removing foods that are somewhat harder to digest (not only wheat, but also nuts, seeds, nightshades, goitrogens, oxalates, and more), we may also remove an immune-boosting stimulus that we have developed to benefit from over millions of years.
The concept is that our overall health and immunity is determined and boosted by hormetic irritants and small amounts of toxic exposure. The theory that certain harder-to-digest foods, like wheat, may actually turn out to be important immune-boosters, particularly for gut immunity (linked to respiratory immunity), is gaining traction!19,7
Instead of blaming the food or allergens for your health concerns, Ayurveda suggests that you can strengthen your barriers and digestive strength. Your barriers are the linings of your gut, lungs, skin, and the blood brain barrier that protect your body from exposure to pathogens and harmful toxics and toxins.
It is all about digestion. Digestion issues were deemed to be the cause of 85% of all disease thousands of years ago and today it could not be more true, making hormetic digestion practices an important factor in longevity.
To learn more, read my book Eat Wheat.