"WHAT doesn't kill you makes you stronger" is a phrase often used to explain the resilience of people who have endured hardships. Like many aphorisms it contains more than a grain of truth. It describes the theory of hormesis - a process whereby organisms exposed to low levels of stress or toxins become more resistant to tougher challenges.
The theory of hormesis has been around for decades, but has long been met with scepticism or downright suspicion. In recent years, however, biologists have pieced together a clear molecular explanation of how it works, and hormesis has finally been accepted as a fundamental principle of biology and biomedicine. The question now is how to take advantage of hormesis to live longer and healthier lives.
The rest of the article is, unfortunately, behind a subscription wall and, during the massive clean-up that my flat so badly needed last week, I must have junked the issue (so, in what Timmy calls a "bleg", if anyone could email me the article, I'd be incredibly grateful).
However, the theory of hormesis has been around for some time, and can generally be described thusly...
Hormesis (from Hellenistic Greek hórmēsis "rapid motion, eagerness," from ancient Greek hormáein "to set in motion, impel, urge on") is the term for generally-favorable biological responses to low exposures to toxins and other stressors. A pollutant or toxin showing hormesis thus has the opposite effect in small doses than in large doses.
The biochemical mechanisms by which hormesis works are not well understood. It is conjectured that a low dose challenge with a toxin may trigger certain repair mechanisms in the body, and these mechanisms, having been initiated, are efficient enough that they not only neutralize the toxin's effect, but even repair other defects not caused by the toxin.
This was, in fact, the mechanism described—and apparently tested—in the NS article: effectively, one slightly damages the cells—put them under stress—and the bodies repair mechanisms kick in and repair not only the affected tissues but also any damage to surrounding areas. So, what you are doing is making the body repair itself before it would naturally do so, before the damage might become dangerous: and in some instances, these repairs can also create a future defence against the poison introduced—after all, the idea building up an immunity to a poison—iocane powder?*—by taking graually increasing doses has dominated many works of fiction!
In fact, one does not even have to introduce a poison, as such. As regular reader will know, your humble Devil tends to eat somewhat erratically, and rarely mor than once every other day. The reason that the article caught my attention was that the researchers had also shown, contrary to what so many people have warned me, that those who ate, say, every other day tended to be healthier than those who ate more regularly, because of hormesis.
An interesting idea, I think, and might be useful for medical purposes. It is certainly relevant to the world around us and to the state (and society)'s mania for ever more stringent toxin eradication. For, if hormesis does work, this may, in fact, be making ourselves more unhealthy than previously—a theory that might also apply to the ever-increasing incidences of allergies...
* A very fine film.