It is not always easy to determine the toxicity of a chemical. Substances that are normally considered harmless, for example common salt, may have serious, or even fatal, effects if taken to excess. Conversely, substances normally considered toxic may have beneficial effects at very small doses. This is known as hormesis or the hormetic effect.
Although the effects of drugs are not generally regarded as examples of hormesis, there are similarities. Many commonly used drugs are fairly toxic. Administered at the correct dose, their effects can be life-saving, but exceeding the recommended dose could be very dangerous.
Hormesis and homeopathy should not be confused. The former involves administering a toxic substance at a dose that produces a response, but does not cause harm. The latter involves giving a dose so diluted that it no longer contains any of the original toxin; it is believed that the water retains a ‘memory’ of the toxin that produces a response.
The body reacts to the presence of toxins by mobilizing a variety of defenses and repair procedures. This happens even when the quantity of toxin is too small to do any significant damage. It seems that these defenses produce beneficial effects by dealing with other damage and having a general stimulating effect.
Hormetic treatments have been found to slow down aging and lead to better stress tolerance and improved general health. Problems relating to allergies also respond well to this treatment. By giving increasing doses of an allergen, tolerance can be increased until it no longer causes problems.
Other stress factors besides chemicals are also subject to the hormetic effect. Exposure to ionizing radiation is normally regarded as dangerous and a cancer risk; however it has been reported that low doses may actually lessen the risk of cancer and possibly bring other benefits. The same applies to ultraviolet radiation in sunlight. Research into hormesis is continuing and as our knowledge increases, so do the possibilities for new treatments.
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