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