What if I told you that poisoning yourself was good for you?
Ok, not full doses of poison, but little doses?
For years proponents of health have been promoting the health benefits of antioxidants. Counteracting the effects of oxidative stress, we have put antioxidants on a pedestal, which in turn has led to an obsession with antioxidant supplements. But as a growing body of research shows, it might not be the antioxidants that are good for us. It might be the stress that plants cause our body, in the form of a little bit of poison.
“Everybody thinks oxidation is bad, and that antioxidants are good,” Dr. Philip Hooper, an endocrinologist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus told Outside. “That’s bogus. A little bit of poison is good.”
Yes, your body needs a little bit of poison and stress. As Nautilus explains, “That stress comes courtesy of trace amounts of naturally occurring pesticides and anti-grazing compounds. You already know these substances as the hot flavors in spices, the mouth-puckering tannins in wines, or the stink of Brussels sprouts. They are the antibacterials, antifungals, and grazing deterrents of the plant world. In the right amount, these slightly noxious substances, which help plants survive, may leave you stronger.”
In fact, oxidants themselves might even be good for us, yet we’ve demonized them in our embrace of antioxidants. “Oxidants may be a primordial messenger of stress in our cells, and a little bit of stress, it turns out, may be good for us,” Toren Finkel, chief of the center for molecular medicine at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Maryland told Nautilus.
Plants have what scientists called “antifeeds,” the things that would dissuade animals from eating them, and in turn helps the plant to survive. As humans, consuming these antifeeds actually gets our own body to “produce antioxidants, enzymes to metabolize toxins, proteins to flush out heavy metals, and factors that enhance tumor suppression, among other important health-promoting functions.” Since plants help your body to deal with toxins on its own, relying on antioxidant supplements actually reduces your body’s own production of antioxidants.
But it’s not just the antifeeds. It can also be the response of the plant to certain natural stresses, like a fungus, to develop more natural defenses. Harvard scientist David Sinclair and his colleague Konrad Howitz use the term “xenohormesis” to describe this, which is, essentially, benefitting from the stress of others.
What’s an example of how this would benefit a human? “A grape vine stressed by fungi churns out resveratrol to fight off the infection. You drink wine made from those grapes, ‘sense’ the harsh environmental conditions in the elevated tannins and other stress compounds, gird your own defenses, and, in theory, become more resistant to degenerative disease,” writes Nautilus.
Some argue that this is also the reason that the Mediterranean diet is so healthy as it contains foods from hot, dry and stressed regions; the plants have to work hard to survive.
Which also means that if we want to help our own bodies, we want to eat plants that have gone through stress themselves. “I buy stressed plants,” Sinclair told Nautilis. “Organic is a good start. I choose plants with lots of color because they are producing these molecules.”
Ready to eat a little poison now?
Photo Credit: Skånska Matupplevelser