The Dose-Response Revolution and Fermented Food

Edward Calabrese, a toxicology professor at the University of Massachusetts, has pointed to the existence of U-shaped dose-response functions in a great many cases. Chemicals harmful at high doses are helpful at low dose, a phenomenon called hormesis. He reviews the evidence here and here. I didn’t know that a low dose of dioxin reduces tumors. Nor did I know that a low dose of saccharine likewise reduces tumors.

The theory behind hormesis is that a damage-repair system is stimulated by the toxin. This isn’t far from my idea that the average American’s immune system is woefully understimulated, with many bad consequences (allergies, cancer, etc.), due to too-sterile food. If the rats or whatever used in the hormesis studies — probably fed sterile lab chow — were given immune system stimulation (e.g., from fermented food), the hormesis effect might disappear.

Thanks to JR Minkel.

11 Responses to “The Dose-Response Revolution and Fermented Food”

  1. Sam Says:

    This sounds like exactly the same idea as homöopathie. In homöopathie, you give the subject a medizin which creates exactly the same symptoms as the subject suffers from, just in a very very low dose.

  2. Glen Raphael Says:

    Low doses of radiation are good for biological life too. Some studies here:

    We know that most substances which are dangerous in large amounts (say, arsenic) are beneficial in smaller amounts. It’s even true with things we think of as necessary and good for you such as water: too little and you die of thirst, but too much and you drown. There’s a U-shaped or inverted-U-shaped dose-response curve for almost everything people have studied and we don’t yet really know *why* this is, though there are some half-baked, untested theories about it.

    The logical application of that principle to the question of bacteria in the diet would be to assume that that, too, has an inverted-U-shape dose-response curve. The notion of hormesis implies there’s some *optimum* nonzero amount of bacteria in the diet to achieve maximally beneficial health effects and if you consume less *or more* than that amount it will be less beneficial. And if you take way too much it might hurt or kill you.

    Even if it’s clear that *some* bacteria in the diet is much better than *no* bacteria in the diet, it does not logically follow that more still is better, or that stuff past its “sell-by date” is better for you than “fresher” food.

    Determining the optimum amount of bacteria in the diet seems like an empirical question rather than something you could answer on principle. Might we all be better off eating natto/miso/kombucha once a week than once a day?

  3. seth Says:

    Sam, you’re right. The phenomenon of hormesis supports homeopathy.

    Glen, when I stop eating fermented food or eat much less of it the effects seem to wear off in about a day. Along the same lines, I met a woman whose health greatly improved when she switched from eating yogurt once/week to once/day. This observations support a once/day rule over a once/week rule.

  4. Patrik Says:

    An accurate way to think about hormesis is exercise.

    Too little is bad. Too much is just as bad. The optimal is somewhere in the middle.

  5. Ted Says:

    No, it doesn’t support homeopathy at all. Homeopathy so dilutes things as to be a fanciful belief in magic powers that water somehow remembers what was once in it.

  6. simon Says:

    Yes, in hormesis you have an optimal dose at a value where there is still enough to have an effect, whereas in homeopathy you have a crazy theory of the optimal dose being at a value low enough not to have any molecules left.

    Unfortunately, the reflexive tendency to associate hormesis with homeopathy has probably resulted in it receiving much less atttention than it deserves.

    I doubt the damage-repair system would be stimulated by benign bacteria though.

  7. Igor Carron Says:


    I second Glen’s answer. Additional insight into this issue is the battle between different groups on whether radiation hormesis exists. At stake is an issue of very large economic consequences. See, if this hypothesis is not verified then any level of radiation is harmful and therefore regulations are working to reduce any radiation output to zero (as they should), a cost that no society can really bear (there is natural radiation everywhere). If the hypothesis is true, then the linear hypothesis is wrong at very very low dose and regulations need to take that into account so as to not burden technologies that in fact are doing no harm when there are releasing very very low doses. However, if the latter is true, the journalistic treatment on any information linked to nuclear subjects cannot really be unbiased: Fear backed up by so called specialists always sells.


  8. VADIM Says:

    “Hormesis with Ionizing Radiation” presented evidence of increased vigor in plants, bacteria, invertebrates and vertebrates. Most physiologic reactions in living cells are stimulated by low doses of ionizing radiation.

    This evidence of radiogenic metabolism (metabolism promoted by ionizing radiation) includes enzyme induction, photosynthesis, respiration and growth. Radiation hormesis in immunity decreases infection and
    premature death in radiation exposed populations. Increased immune competence is a major factor in the increased average life-span of populations exposed to low-dose irradiation.

    This article is very accurate and it is demonstrated here

  9. Seth’s blog » Blog Archive » Hormesis Revisited Says:

    […] Earlier post about hormesis. […]

  10. Seth’s blog » Blog Archive » How Dangerous Are Cell Phones? Says:

    […] Emphasis added. The person who wrote that hasn’t heard of hormesis. […]

  11. Seth’s blog » Blog Archive » Beijing Air Says:

    […] Overall, I think four things have changed: 1. The air in my apartment, where I spend most of my time, is much better (compared to unfiltered). 2. Outside air is somewhat better. 3. Due to fermented foods, my overall health is better. 4. Due to learning about hormesis, I don’t worry about a small amount of air pollution. […]