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Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, August 23, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
If it doesn’t kill you, it might help

Is it possible to have too little of a bad thing? Maybe, if that means none.

The concept is hormesis, and the term comes from the Greek word horme, which means to excite. A German pharmacologist named Hugo Schultz noticed in 1888 that a small mount of poison seemed to stimulate the growth of yeast. Some 60 years ago, Chester Southam, a graduate student in the University of Idaho School of Forestry and his advisor John Ehrlich used to term hormesis to describe another unexpected phenomenon: a toxic red cedar extract stimulated the growth of various species of fungus.

In recent years scientists have recognized that living things do not respond to stimuli, good or bad, in a linear way. Many types of stress—chemical, environmental and behavioral—can actually stimulate cellular repair and maintenance. Some toxins that do harm in large or moderate quantity, the theory goes, can actually be helpful in small amounts.

The International Hormesis Society based at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is dedicated to research on biological dose-response relationships. Its members want to understand the nature, mechanisms and implications of how living organisms respond to varying low doses of substances that are known to be toxic in quantity. The research is important in dozens of fields—pharmacology, medicine, ecology, biology, environmental science, risk assessment, public policy, neuroscience and immunology, to name a few. The BELLE (Biological Effects of Low Level Exposures) newsletter covers a wide range of articles on current research. For instance, Mark P. Mattson, in his article Hormesis and Disease Resistance, writes that knowledge of hormesis mechanisms will lead to novel approaches in preventing and treating disease. He explains that the proven beneficial effects of exercise and calorie-restricted diets may actually result from hormesis mechanisms. Both are stresses, which can stimulate bodily responses that improve immunity and promote cellular health. When rodents are subjected to calorie restrictions or intermittent fasting, he writes, they increase their resistance to several types of stress, including toxins, heat, cardiovascular stresses, and diseases. Perhaps, he suggests, hormesis research will be the "impetus for reemergence of a Spartan lifestyle.” Other papers review research on possible beneficial effects of very low doses of radiation and toxic chemicals and environmental poisons.

A page for historical figures describes the work of the pharmacologist Hugo Schulz, Chester Southam, an early user of the term, and Fernando Hueppe, another pioneer of hormeses study. The survival or all organisms depends on their ability to adapt to stressful change, and researchers contributing to this society are trying to discover how much of a role hormesis plays in the continuing evolution of viable organisms.

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