The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, August 22, 2015
Food / Drink ... Health / Nutrition ...

Here’s a health and nutrition topic that I believe should be watched by all those who, like me, have been looking for the fountain of eternal youth. Or at least something that slows the body’s aging and decaying process down a little bit, anyway. The topic in question regards the toxic chemicals found naturally in a variety of edible plants, and how they induce “hormesis” in the body. Hormesis is based on the notion that a little bit of bad can do you good. In other words, just a little bit of poison in the body, in just the right amount (not too much and not too little), puts temporary stress on the cells that make up our various body parts and systems; however, when the poison goes away and the cells recover, they become stronger and better than before.

It’s sort of like exercise, which improves the state of the body’s muscle fibers by causing slight injury to them, tearing and mangling little bits of them. Once you stop the exercise and rest, the body over-compensates in repairing these minor injuries, and your muscles become firmer and stronger, maybe even bigger (i.e., the body supplies more structural tissue to the temporarily over-used muscle, as to better handle similar stress in the future). Well, it turns out that many fruits, vegetables and condiments, especially the more bitter ones like broccoli, coffee, eggplant and turmeric, have various chemicals in them that help the plant to survive by making it unpleasant to insects. These chemicals (e.g. polyphenols) are somewhat toxic; too much of them can eventually kill living cells. However, in most edible plants, there isn’t enough to really harm a person, unless maybe that person ate only one thing (e.g. arugula) all the time and nothing else (just like too much exercise can result in actual muscle or joint injury).

But it you eat a typical portion of one of these food items, your internal organs (including your brain) will get a bit stressed, but given enough resting time to recover from the “insult”, they will be stronger and more disease-resistant. I found out about all of this in an interesting article in the July, 2015 issue of Scientific American (entitled “What Doesn’t Kill You” by Mark Mattson). Dr. Mattson has been doing a lot of research on the topic of hormesis, and the processes by which various foods help the internal organs to stay healthy by stressing them out temporarily with small doses of toxic chemicals. (I could say “natural” chemicals to make it sound less threatening, but the fact remains that some of the stuff in these natural foods is toxic to human cells).

One really interesting topic regards the role of antioxidents in the hormesis process. Antioxidents have been a true disappointment to Baby Boomers like myself in search of immortality. Years ago, there were all sorts of preliminary studies about how antioxidents help to rid body cells of “radical” molecules that cause internal damage. So it seemed reasonable that increasing your consumption of common antioxidents like Vitamin C and E would help keep your body young and healthy. But, the actual tests on people who did this showed that taking antioxident pills as dietary supplements did not help, and sometimes even had negative effects. So what went wrong?

The hormesis theory helps to explain it. During hormesis, the toxins help to activate DNA which bangs out proteins that help to repair the cell. One part of this process is that these repairing proteins gather or create antioxidents within the cell, so as to go after the radical molecules attacking damaged cell proteins. This is where and how the antioxidents do their thing. However, just putting them in your bloodstream by taking some pills doesn’t mean that they will ever be called on to go inside a cell and help fix it up.

This can all be compared to exercise and glucose — i.e., when you exercise, you use up glucose, which provides fuel to the cells that are slightly injured by the corresponding mechanical stress. These cells use glucose (regular sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose) to help them make repairs after exercise. This is great — but it doesn’t mean that putting a lot of glucose in the bloodstream (like what happens when you drink a can of soda or eat an order of french fries)(which I don’t), the muscle repair and re-building process will do even better. That will only make you fat. So, just pouting a whole lot of antioxidents in to the body without corresponding hormesis will also probably not do any good, and might do some harm.

The hormesis theory also helps to explain why sleep is so important — that’s when the toxins from your daily meals get washed out, and the repair and rebuilding process from hormesis takes place.

So, the hormesis paradigm is something to keep an eye on, if you are interested in keeping your body going as long as possible. It appears to me that this is still a fairly new concept in the nutritional science field, and has just been picking up interest in the last few years. It’s hard to say exactly what the practical implications are yet. However, in general, this theory seems to support the overall philosophy of having a widely balanced diet, a diet that includes a lot of different stuff including various types of fruits and veggies. Obviously, the bitter stuff like broccoli and kale (and coffee and beer) has its role.

But a lot of questions remain unanswered; there are many topics awaiting future research. For example, is it possible to overdo it, to eat and drink too much bitter stuff (e.g. people who drink 4 or more cups of java each day, or health-conscious people like myself who chug down a fairly generous portion of broccoli or kale every day)? Are the stress effects from the different types of bitter foods cumulative, or do they have separate and independent effects in the body? (In other words, would you be hurting yourself by eating a meal composed mainly of 2 or 3 bitter elements, e.g. eggplant, kale, and coffee?) Is it possible that vegetarians, especially vegans, might push their consumption of plant toxins into the zone where more damage than good is being done? (But then again, the study evidence indicates that vegetarian diets promote overall longevity and better health.) And related to the vegetarian issue, what effect does the body’s “microbiome” have on ingested plant toxins? Is it possible that non-meat eaters have changes to the overall “balance of bugs” in the gut that help keep the toxins from increased plant consumption in check?

For now, the bottom line is that the plant toxin / hormesis idea is a very important one; you might even call it a “revolution” of sorts (Mattson has a book whose title seems to suggest this ). It will probably put the food scientists on a good path, one in which a lot of important questions about nutrition and optimal health can be answered. Again, if you’re interested in keeping your body going for a while yet, I’d suggest that you keep an eye out for further developments on this topic. Remember that you heard it here first !!!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:57 pm      

  1. Jim, I guess I’m just too old to fuss about keeping my body going for however long. What follows, I want to be sure you are aware, is meant with all due respect to any ideas that individuals have about how to be healthy. My comments are simply some wondering (not wandering) tho’ts about the topic.

    If I had to “put money on it”, I’d bet that hormesis will go the way of the antioxidents, the “true disappointment of the Baby Boomers” searching for immortality. Face it: There is no such thing as immortality. I say again: Don’t mean any disrespect here, but there was not even immortality on this earth for Christ.

    I’m a firm believer in the very old fashioned idea that one should eat what one “craves” — or one might modify “craves” to a softer word, such as “wants”. Long ago I was told that when a person feels like eating something that is the body telling the person that’s what should be eaten. I’ve made it to the start of my 82nd year with that idea. So far so good; but I admit I don’t know how long that idea will last for me.

    Then too, I think back (and I’ve said this more than once) to the woman I saw on Johnny Carson [Adele somebody, can’t think of her last name] back in the early 1980s, I think it might have been. She was promoting her book that a person should eat only (I think it was) grains from the field, none of that “processed” stuff. She even sat at Carson’s desk and said that every time she saw a field of grain she knew she would live for a very long time as that’s what she ate. A few years later, she died of cancer (in her 60s, I think), and I tho’t (again, no disrespect intended): “There goes that theory.” Who knows, I may be gone tomorrow with my fancy talk; but I’ve lived longer than a lot of people who are so careful about what they eat; I’ve lived longer than I myself ever tho’t I would.

    Something about “hormesis” bothers me. I do not quite understand how hurting the body, even in microscopic ways, will *help* the body. Yes, I understand the theory, but it seems to me that when it comes to the theory, “something’s wrong with that picture.” And I find myself answering: More wishful thinking by those who want to live forever and who find they will not.

    Strange how theories about living long lives can be accepted and/or refused. One that’s often refused is that death is a normal process of life – the end of life, but a normal process. Jimmy Carter was smiling, looking amazingly peaceful and happy, the other day talking about how his cancer has spread to his brain, which very likely means he has a short time left. But, then again, I’ve also learned that anyone (especially doctors, e.g.) who say how long a person has to live are “full of hops” (as we used to say). Those we expect will live longer than we think, die sooner; those we think will die soon, live longer. One thing I’ve learned for sure is that we (all people) simply have no control over life or death.

    I don’t think I’m going to worry too much about it all. I’ll take things as they come; it’s the best I think one can do. And, for sure, I am *not* going to be eating a lot of bitter things that first cause harm to cells; then when the cells rest they repair themselves. Seems akin to skinning one’s knee, not using it too much, and having it heal over. It’s bad enough when things happen “normally”; why deliberately harm the body so it heals itself. Again, I find myself saying: What’s wrong with that picture? MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 23, 2015 @ 11:01 am

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