Xenohormesis: What Doesn’t Kill Plants May Make Us Stronger

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A new concept in biology tries to explain why the consumption of certain natural compounds in plants may mimic the lifespan-enhancing benefits of caloric restriction.

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

A whole new theory has arisen to explain the mystery as to why so “[m]any plant molecules interact with and modulate key regulators of [our] physiology in ways that are beneficial to [our] health”—a theory called xenohormesis.

I touched on hormesis in my liquid smoke video. Basically, it’s the biological principle of no pain, no gain. Mild stresses, like exercise, can trigger a protective response that leads to strengthened defenses in the short term. But instead of exposing ourselves to the stressor to trigger our body’s defenses and shore up protection against future stressors, why not just let plants take the hit? Let the plants get stressed, because, incredibly, the stress-response molecules in plants may activate the same protective responses in humans. “Xenohormesis…explains [why] environmentally stressed plants produce bioactive compounds that can confer stress resistance and survival benefits to animals that consume them. [We] can [then] piggyback off [of their] sophisticated stress response.”

“Indeed, the majority of known health-beneficial effects of edible plants are attributable to the pharmacologically active substances of plants’ stress response.”

Hormesis may be why dietary restriction can lead to lifespan extension. The mild stress placed upon the body by not eating enough may activate a wide variety of protective pathways within the body, a whole cascade ramping up anti-inflammatory and antioxidant defenses. Our body is preparing itself for the coming famine it thinks is about to occur.

So, “[i]s there a way to exploit the benefits of [dietary restriction] to prevent chronic disease…?” Obviously, chronically restricting food intake is not a realistic health strategy for the majority of people…” It’s hard for most people to even cut food intake 10 or 20%, given the powerful evolutionary..drive..to eat… As a more feasible alternative, we may be able to activate [dietary restriction] induced stress response pathways by other means.” In other words, xenohormesis.

If you starve plants, they do the same thing—activate preservation pathways. So let’s let the plant face the adversity to create the molecules that trigger cell-stress resistance, altered metabolism, and disease resistance, then just come along and appropriate them for the same uses in our own bodies.

The reason phytonutrients like resveratrol in grapes, curcumin in the spice turmeric, and ECGC in green tea are called “dietary restriction mimetics” is that they mimic the physiological effects of dietary restriction. And. this may be no coincidence, because that’s why the plants produced these compounds in the first place—to save their own green butts from scarcity. So, instead of having to walk around starving all the time, thanks to xenohormesis, we may be able to let plants bear the brunt, and “enable us to harness other species’ hardships as a means to promote our own health.”

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Stannered via Wikimedia

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

A whole new theory has arisen to explain the mystery as to why so “[m]any plant molecules interact with and modulate key regulators of [our] physiology in ways that are beneficial to [our] health”—a theory called xenohormesis.

I touched on hormesis in my liquid smoke video. Basically, it’s the biological principle of no pain, no gain. Mild stresses, like exercise, can trigger a protective response that leads to strengthened defenses in the short term. But instead of exposing ourselves to the stressor to trigger our body’s defenses and shore up protection against future stressors, why not just let plants take the hit? Let the plants get stressed, because, incredibly, the stress-response molecules in plants may activate the same protective responses in humans. “Xenohormesis…explains [why] environmentally stressed plants produce bioactive compounds that can confer stress resistance and survival benefits to animals that consume them. [We] can [then] piggyback off [of their] sophisticated stress response.”

“Indeed, the majority of known health-beneficial effects of edible plants are attributable to the pharmacologically active substances of plants’ stress response.”

Hormesis may be why dietary restriction can lead to lifespan extension. The mild stress placed upon the body by not eating enough may activate a wide variety of protective pathways within the body, a whole cascade ramping up anti-inflammatory and antioxidant defenses. Our body is preparing itself for the coming famine it thinks is about to occur.

So, “[i]s there a way to exploit the benefits of [dietary restriction] to prevent chronic disease…?” Obviously, chronically restricting food intake is not a realistic health strategy for the majority of people…” It’s hard for most people to even cut food intake 10 or 20%, given the powerful evolutionary..drive..to eat… As a more feasible alternative, we may be able to activate [dietary restriction] induced stress response pathways by other means.” In other words, xenohormesis.

If you starve plants, they do the same thing—activate preservation pathways. So let’s let the plant face the adversity to create the molecules that trigger cell-stress resistance, altered metabolism, and disease resistance, then just come along and appropriate them for the same uses in our own bodies.

The reason phytonutrients like resveratrol in grapes, curcumin in the spice turmeric, and ECGC in green tea are called “dietary restriction mimetics” is that they mimic the physiological effects of dietary restriction. And. this may be no coincidence, because that’s why the plants produced these compounds in the first place—to save their own green butts from scarcity. So, instead of having to walk around starving all the time, thanks to xenohormesis, we may be able to let plants bear the brunt, and “enable us to harness other species’ hardships as a means to promote our own health.”

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Stannered via Wikimedia

Doctor's Note

If this subject interests you, be sure to see my last video, where I introduce the topic: Appropriating Plant Defenses.

I previously introduced the concept of hormesis in Enhanced Athletic Recovery without Undermining Adaptation and Is Liquid Smoke Flavoring Carcinogenic?

How else might we get the benefits of dietary restriction without starving ourselves? See:

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

45 responses to “Xenohormesis: What Doesn’t Kill Plants May Make Us Stronger

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  1. Plantastic piece of plant work my friend!

    Interestingly, I could have sworn I heard a train horn in the background.




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  2. So, fascinating! I believe this is one reason organic foods are better than those doused in pesticides, right? The plants have to fend off pests and activate xenohormesis.




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    1. Most organic produce is also doused in pesticides (just ones from the “organically certified list”). Plants subject to insect predation and abiotic stresses (heat, drought) do produce more polyamines, polyphenols, isothiocyanates, alkaloids, etc, but aren’t marketable. Given how many of the benefits from fruit/vegetable consumption arise from these compounds, the surprising truth is that the heat-wilted, insect bitten leaf may be the healthiest. It least that’s what I tell myself when my garden looks bad.

      Personally, I don’t buy the idea that xenohormesis is largely our taking advantage of protective plant compounds. These plant compounds are natural pesticides and in some cases carcinogens, and its our attempts to detoxify them that lead to our own hormetic response. Benefits of dietary restriction may be evolutionary adaptations that protected our ancestors from plant compounds in times of scarcity.




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  3. Would Dr Greger go as far as supporting Dr McDougall’s associate Dr Alan Goldhamer’s fasting regime for dietary restriction? Is that a valid approach to improving health? That approach was interesting to me until I checked athlete and vegan enthusiast Durianrider’s statement on fasting. Basically, he argues that it might help us short term to lose weight but our body will eventually react once we stop the fast — by an immense compensatory appetite, in body response aiming to prepare us for the next fast (which it reads as becoming a new condition of everyday life). Better he says to “carb up” and just get your exercise to deal with weight issues.




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    1. True North is the place you speak of in Santa Rosa California that Alan Goldhammer DC runs under the medical supervision of Michael Klapper, MD. I don’t know the absolute answer about having a voracious (rebound) appetite after water fasting but I do know that if people who are on the water fast eat too much too quick they will vomit it back up.
      The successful strategy of True North (TN) is not just fasting but also the education on healthy eating habits. Patients have daily lectures during their stay at TN by Dr. Klapper, Nutritionists, and one of the most talented psychologists in giving people insight to their “pleasure traps”, Doug Lisle, PhD. Water fasting can be done safely for up to 60 days at TN.
      I have had the pleasure of working with all these people and True North works very well at getting people to eat healthy, which means eating whole plant foods with no SOS (Salt, Oil, Sugar).

      Regarding D. Riders videos I have seen many of them and they are enjoyable and maybe he has a point, but True North is mostly about the education that comes along with the fasting; for that is the only strategy that will have lasting effects.

      The same education strategy is employed at Dr. McDougall’s live in programs but there is no fasting which is much easier for people to do.

      I am very blessed to work with John McDougall, MD every year at some of his immersions as a physician and I can say 100% everyone gets better when they switch to eating whole plant foods!– Their cholesterol comes down, their blood pressure drops, their blood sugar drops and they come off many of their medications in just 7 days.

      I remember right after residency shadowing Dr. McDougall and seeing the patients get better in only 7 days. I was truly blown away! They never taught that in Medical School or residency. In fact it really pissed me off that I didn’t get that education because after seeing the results so quickly at the immersion programs I felt the medical system was really a Sickness Care system not a true Health Care System.
      It became glaringly clear that the system was set up to keep people sick and on drugs, not get them better! Why? Without sick people doctors don’t make much money so getting patients well hurts doctors financially.

      It truly is amazing the power of plant based eating and the healing effects it has on the human body both physical and psychological!
      Everyday, I tell my patients about this information just as Dr. Greger does because that is our true duty as physicians–to be patient advocates, teachers (that is the original definition of Doctor) and healers as all physicians should be!

      Anyway, fasting can be good at certain times and has been done historically throughout all time, but learning healthy eating habits that are also sustainable is most important of all.




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      1. I’ve been on this diet (strict) for almost a year and a half now and I feel very confident that it will make a major difference in my life for the long-run. I wish it were more common so I could enjoy it more with others. Anyway. I’m pretty sure it was T. Colin Campbell’s site that gave an estimate that the US could save 70-80% of our medical expenses as a nation by converting en mass to this diet.

        I hear your point about Goldhamer’s program… it’s all about changing deep habits and the fasting part is an add-on. But my uncertainly remains about the benefits of water fasting. The opposing view seems to suggest that we can get the same effects in the long run by simply switching to strict plant-based. The benefits of fasting sometimes seem to be too good to be true. He portray it like a panacea for many disorders, which echos the religious roots of fasting… But this is science (or life) so I guess we never really get a complete picture, which is quite difficult for those of us who are not scientists and only get snippets. Fortunately, we can have high confidence in the several doctors who recommend plant based.




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        1. Tobias… have you considered directly asking those who have water fasted about their experience? If you don’t know anyone who has, feel free to Friend me on FB then send me a private message and I can connect you with several people who have first hand experience (3-4 wks of fasting, each at a different health center) and they can connect you with many more people. The folks I know were on strict plant based diets for some time prior to water fasting. https://www.facebook.com/deitra.jones.33?ref=tn_tnmn




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        2. Hi there, I just recently completed a 21 day fast at True North. And let me assure you, there is nothing new age or hokey about the medical benefits I experienced or witnessed. I’m a sugar addict. And it was getting worse. I was also put on BP meds, a year ago and could not get off. My meds were stopped after 4 days. We have weekly blood and urine tests, twice daily vitals. I re feeder for less then the ideal time but after I cam home, the inform you that it takes around the same amount of the fasting period to recover. And that is exactly what happened. I was weak, trying to figure out how to sustain diet on my own, dealing with the memories of the sugar addiction et all..but I am a committed. I WANT this lifestyle. I don’t want to be on meds at the ripe ol age of 45. I don’t want to be on meds ever for that matter. Fasting was not. Fun for me but the experience was remarkable. And the people! What great people. Gold hammer really is a freak of nature. I didn’t believe it till I met him and heard his commitment. I’m an aethiest. So there was nothing religious or spiritual about it for me. I just needed help. And I got it.




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          1. Key question might be whether you come back with an intense hunger that lasts a long time to make up for this period of deprivation. The other key question is whether you could have achieved the same results via dietary change, following the plant-based diet, which could take much longer but have a similar benefit… minus the possible yo-yo outcome suggested above.




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      2. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to find actual doctors that know what the deal is. I’ve spent the past 3 years hopping from doctor to doctor, specialist to specialist, trying to figure out what is wrong with me.
        My body started slowly betraying me and has since just gotten worse and worse. All I keep being told is that it is all anxiety. I have to tell you, for anyone to take one look at me and think my only problem is anxiety is laughable.
        All I know is I wish I had stumbled upon this website long before I ever got sick. I am thankful that I am here now. I have learned more actual facts about health and nutrition in the last two weeks than I have in the ten years I’ve been reading about it.
        I went vegetarian two weeks ago…I didn’t think I could give up dairy. Well after what I learned yesterday I don’t feel like I am giving up anything. Gross!
        Anyhow, I know this is a little out of place, but I am so thankful for all of this and I know that I will be reaping the benefits of this knowledge real soon. Many thanks!




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        1. Penny: Welcome to the club! I found cheese to be the hardest of the animal products to give up. But I’m not at all sorry that I did. Agreed – gross. Not to mention several other significant problems.

          It sounds like you are just getting started on your path to health. Congratulations. I hope you get to see some benefits sooner rather than later. Let us know how it goes and if you have any questions/want advice on recipes, etc.




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        2. I feel the same way and every day I am thankful for finally getting to the bottom of all the health issues! My only regret is wish I also knew a lot earlier! It makes me sad too that these truths mostly fall on deaf ears for the many who could reap amazing benefits!




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      3. Dr. HemoDynamic: Thank you for this post. I read The Pleasure Trap some time ago and was intrigued by the information about fasting. Your personal take on it was *really* interesting. Thanks for taking the time to write all that out.




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      4. I did a 30-day water fast in the 90s. I had been eating a
        strict vegan diet since the seventies and it was relatively easy to slip into the fast and out of it. I did it on Maui with the supervision of a bush doctor, but the advantage was that I used meditation daily for centering and a gravity-feed
        colonic machine often for cleanliness. I had a beneficial healing experience.




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        1. Actually, he has and continues to defend wheat as a great example of beneficial starch/carb. I’ve only seen him defend it.




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        2. First of all I would like to see a link to the claims you state.

          Here is a position editorial from John McDougall, MD, from January 2014.

          http://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2014nl/jan/smoke.htm

          I know John McDougall well and as mbglife states in their comment have only seen him defend wheat as a beneficial starch as you should have read by now in his “Smoke and Mirrors” Newsletter.

          The only instance where Dr. McDougall looks at eliminating gluten is in extreme cases where people have tried everything else and nothing has worked. This is called an elimination diet and was made famous by Walter Kempner, MD at Duke university for trying to reverse hypertension and kidney disease. http://www.drmcdougall.com/2013/12/31/walter-kempner-md-founder-of-the-rice-diet/

          Her is a link to Dr. McDougalls newsletter in 2002 titled, “A Diet for the Desparate”

          http://www.nealhendrickson.com/mcdougall/021200pudiet.htm

          In rare cases removal of the opium like compounds created from the digestion of milk and wheat (Casomorphin and Wheat Exorphins) has shown improvement in these conditions.
          I stress, however, the word RARE!
          For most people eating a whole food plant based diet (including wheat) reverses their chronic diseases.




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      5. Does McDougall or Lisle collect data over the course of these retreats, and is any of it accessible? I know that McDougall reports an average cholesterol and weight drop on his website, but you kind of get the impression that he works mostly on referral, endorsement, and testimonials.




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  4. I read somewhere where people who dont have cancer have higher chance of dementia and people who dont have dementia have higher chance of getting cancer.

    think the goldern mean is best and everything in balance.




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    1. Produce the source and I’ll give your position stronger consideration. I’d need to know the context of this single study, the related citations in the literature, and the variables that they controlled for in the correlation that you are claiming in support of your appeal to an unspecified mean.




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  5. Interesting concept that we can essentially piggy back off of plants stress reactions and gain the benefits for ourselves.




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  6. I think Dr. Gregor is dismissing fasting too quickly. The 5-2 Fast Diet promoted by Dr. Michael Mosley is eminently doable for most people. I am taking tentative steps in that direction by restricting calories to 500 a day once a week (mostly because I’m already thin and don’t want to lose too much weight). It’s a lot easier than trying to restrict calories every day. Knowing that the day after my fasting day I can eat my normal diet again makes it relatively painless.




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  7. If xenohormesis is good, would not autohormesis be better? That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. I have thought about the findings in Dr. Campbell’s “The China Study” that the experience of the stress of deprivation and infectious disease of the study population of rural Chinese might be an alternative explanation of the benefits of the rural Chinese lifestyle. What do you think, Dr Greger?




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  8. Interesting! Is it a theory or hypothesis though? I always get confused as I never know if people are using the generic everyday meaning of theory or the scientific meaning.




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  9. Hello, I would like to take resveratrol supplement because I see all those anti-aging promises. But I’m naturally skeptical about stuff that is ”miracle in a bottle”.

    I know you are not a fan of supplements and you prefer getting the good stuff from plants and that’s why I ask this to you. So are resveratrol supplements harmful, harmless or helpful? And is there a plant equivalent to the supplement?

    Thank you




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  10. Excellent, thanks for sharing. Personally (and professionally) I think there is MUCH more to hormesis, nutritional hormesis, xenohormesis than credit is given for. It has the potential to have great leverage on gene expression and epigenetics with small dosages theoretically helping to make longevity nutrition more affordable for more people. I have been getting good reduction is stressors by utilizing nutritional hormesis in my practice.




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  11. You have inspired my entire book and workshop series on environmental eating, for us and earth! Thank you for the diligence, thus amazing work you do. Also for shining light on green life!




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    1. Catherine Be: Since you are interested in environmental eating, you are probably already aware of the movie, Cowspiracy. But just in case you aren’t aware, it is a must see! This movie is the truth that was so inconvenient, Al Gore chose not to address it.

      “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret is a groundbreaking feature-length environmental documentary following intrepid filmmaker Kip Andersen as he uncovers the most destructive industry facing the planet today – and investigates why the world’s leading environmental organizations are too afraid to talk about it.

      Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption and pollution, is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry, and is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, ocean “dead zones,” and virtually every other environmental ill. Yet it goes on, almost entirely unchallenged.

      As Andersen approaches leaders in the environmental movement, he increasingly uncovers what appears to be an intentional refusal to discuss the issue of animal agriculture, while industry whistleblowers and watchdogs warn him of the risks to his freedom and even his life if he dares to persist.

      As eye-opening as Blackfish and as inspiring as An Inconvenient Truth, this shocking yet humorous documentary reveals the absolutely devastating environmental impact large-scale factory farming has on our planet, and offers a path to global sustainability for a growing population.”

      http://www.cowspiracy.com/




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  12. Oh the humanity! Torturing plants to help ourselves?! When will the madness end?
    This will bring about a new age of “plants have feelings, tho”




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  13. Hi Doc. Is this similar to Beta Glucans, formed in organically grown plants under stress from fungus or molds just as they’re ripening, that when consumed have a strengthening effect on the immune system?




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    1. Hi rockslide, That analogy sounds like it would make sense but after a little research I don’t think so. Beta glucans are sugar molecules that are part of the cell wall structure of certain cereal plants, fungi, yeasts and bacteria. Whether or not they will be beneficial to the body has to do with the positioning of their carbon molecules known as branching and also on how your immune system reacts to exposure to them. It seems that positioning has more to do with what plant they come from than from the plant being under stress.




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  14. interesting. so basically if you starve various animals you own like pigs chickens or cows, and then consume them, it will mimic same response as xenohormesis something to think about since its always the opposite with animals, overfed to death hence why such conditions like high cholesterol and the likes occur with consuming them.




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