Prof. B. M. Hegde
“The art of research is the art of the possible.”
Hormesis is the stimulation of any system by small doses of an agent which, in the larger doses, harms the same system. Hormesis (hormo. in Greek= I excite) is a very important concept in science but, had been killed in its bud by the powerful people in science. Even a poison in small doses could benefit the human system. Hormesis is related to the word hormone, the chemical that stimulates many organ functions in the human body. Scientists think that Nature is foolish but, in fact, nature is there to see that mankind and all other living creatures survive despite the environment being hostile, many times. The concept of hormesis is one of the reasons why homeopathic medicines work in many minor illness syndromes. In fact, modern medicine benefited from homeopathy in the discovery of nitrates in the treatment of anginal pain. In homeopathy nitrates were used to treat headaches in small doses. Incidentally, nitrates reduced chest pain of angina in a patient who was taking the drug to relieve headache in the first place. Nitrates, in small doses, have the hormetic effect on headache while they bring on severe headaches in some patients when given in the “therapeutic doses” of modern medicine. One man’s poison could be another man’s meat.
Small doses of any drug possess a bio-positive effect while the large dose of the same compound has the opposite bio-negative effect. In short, all drugs have opposite effects in two dose extremes. (See figure 2) The young scientist that worked on this hypothesis for his PhD under the famous Stanford immunologist, George Fegan, to show that vitamin C could be dangerous in bigger doses while it is a stimulant and good for the health in very small doses never made it and had to leave science research altogether because Linus Pauling, the great hero of science, destroyed the young scientist completely. It was Pauling himself that had induced Fegan to work on the good effects of vitamin C on the immune system in the first place. The hormetic effect of vitamin C could not be swallowed by Pauling. Pauling could never agree with vitamin C being poisonous in larger doses! Later he fought an expensive legal battle against his own colleague, a former Director of the Pauling Institute, for showing that cancer growth is stimulated by vitamin C in larger doses, but Pauling lost the battle and was disgraced.
Pauling got the second Nobel (Peace) Prize, after his first for the discovery of vitamin C, by the same antipathy towards hormesis. Edward Teller was the father of American Nuclear deterrent against the communists. While Teller was testing atomic weapons, he showed the hormetic effect of radiation by accident. In very small doses radiation stimulates the immune system and increases human life span, radiation hormesis. It also slows the ageing processes by the hormetic effect of working as an anti-oxidant. This has been confirmed by the recent evidence that cancer incidence is less in areas around atomic plants as compared to normal populations.
The famous Teller-Pauling debates that followed took the whole of America by surprise. Pauling succeeded in demonizing Teller to the extent that the Swedish Nobel Academy gave Pauling the Nobel Peace Prize, his second Nobel! There are many such frauds that have occurred in science but, ordinary mortals do not come to know of them. Scientists have built such a great aura around them and the halo is so large that there are many who swear by the accuracy of science while the theta and delta faults make a mockery of most reductionist scientific discoveries. However the technology industry has become a big money spinner and that feeds society with the myth about science. The recent study that daily intake of vitamins harms in the long run while fruits and vegetables help the human system greatly could be understood by the hormetic effect of vitamin C shown in the figure 2 below. Small doses, usually found in fruits and vegetables, have a bio-positive effect while the larger doses help the squamous cell carcinoma by their bio-negative role.
The world famous Misasa hot springs that are known for their disease curing effects emanate radon waves in very small doses-the radium decay products. Radon, in small doses, found around the Misasa springs, produced by the hot water fumes coming out of the spring waters there, stimulates the body’s immune system. Since radon can not penetrate human skin, the fumes here are breathed in by the tourists and patients who go there. Radon, when it enters the human body through the lungs, works efficiently as an anti-oxidant through the super-oxide desmutase system. The Mesasa springs are famous for curing auto-immune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
In an earlier article I had shown how eating fruits and vegetables, unlike daily intake of multivitamins, is health promoting. One could understand the scientific rationale behind this if one realizes the hermetic effect of all the vitamins, both water soluble and fat soluble ones. Modern medical therapeutics could learn a lesson or two from the hormetic concept. The human body responds in a non-linear fashion in any situation. Linear systems do not work in the human body. We have to rethink our dose response curves in pharmacology. Let me remind the reader that well over 150,000 people die every year in the US alone due to unforeseen drug side effects. Understanding hormesis could reduce this burden significantly.
The one man who has worked very hard on this hormetic concept is Professor Edward Calabrese of the University of Massachusetts. This concept would take away the sail from many groups fighting against environmental pollution. Whereas it is true that heavily polluted environment is bad for human health some degree of pollution is inevitable in the modern day world. Extremism in any field has harmful effects on humanity. If we want one hundred per cent pollution free environment, we should be prepared to go back to the Stone Age. Even there people did have background radiation hazards that kept them alive, I suppose. Nature knows best. “What an ingenious medley is Nature’s: if our faces were not alike, we could not tell man from beast: if they were not unlike we could not tell man from man.,” wrote Michel de Montaigne.
Even the stones in the Stone Age did emanate small doses of radon with the sun shining on them. This might have prolonged human life span then! Similarly, most chemical poisons, in very small doses, work as anti-oxidants, as shown above. I must hasten to add that this knowledge should not mislead the greedy multinational companies to pollute the globe heavily with their greed for profits and their proclivity for comfort. It is only when man poisons the last river, cuts the last tree, and chemically loads the last bit of earth would he realize that money can not be eaten to survive. Moderation in everything makes life happier. Small IS beautiful as Schumacher had shown. Fanaticism leads to terrorism. Many times it is the intellectual terrorism that is more dangerous than the weapons of mass destruction kind of terrorism, like the one reported above about the (in) famous Linus Pauling.
“It is the scientific performance rather than the scientific conception that tends to bewilder the lay public.”
Peter Medawar, in The Limits of Science, 1986.