Hormesis is a concept in biology that helps explain why seemingly harmful impulses can actually have positive physiological effects. Dina and Matthias called on ‘toxicology rock star’ and hormesis expert Edward Calabrese to help explain why stressors are your friend.
When people first hear about the Wim Hof Method, they often wonder how it can possibly be healthy to repeatedly expose your body to ice water, hyperventilate and hold your breath— which effectively reduces oxygen levels in the blood.
Turning to science, the research field of hormesis can readily provide answers to these legitimate questions. The concept of hormesis was developed more than a hundred years ago, and research in this area has rapidly expanded over the last two decades. The underlying principle was discovered by the German scientist Hugo Schulz, who should have an important place in the history of pharmacology and toxicology.
He should, but he doesn’t, for several reasons. One is that his experimental results were far too unbelievable. At the end of the nineteenth century, Schulz reported that according to his observations, small doses of poison have a stimulating effect on the growth of yeast. Imagine that you drop just a little bit of pesticide on yeast. Almost nothing will happen because the dose is too low to affect the growth of the yeast. If you completely cover the yeast with pesticide it will die. But if you put just the right amount of toxin on the yeast, it will stimulate its growth. And the yeast will grow better compared to when there is no toxin at all!
By definition, hormesis is a dose-response phenomenon characterized by low-dose stimulation and high-dose inhibition. Historically, dose responses have been thought to occur in a linear fashion. A non-linear response, such as the hormetic response, has potential application in almost every scientific field. In fact, hormesis is fundamental to evolution, with many independently derived observations across various animal and plant species.
So once again, hormesis means that the administration of small doses of stress —which in high doses would be very harmful to a specific life form— can stimulate physiological processes that are beneficial in the long run. Now apply the hormetic principle to the Wim Hof Method: immersing yourself in cold water for just the right amount of time, or challenging your body with periods of low oxygen during breath retentions for just the right amount of time, should have beneficial effects on your physiology!
Discussing these ideas with my co-host Dina, we thought hormesis to be a crucial principle when it comes to understanding the Wim Hof Method. So we set out to check our hypothesis by interviewing an expert in this field, and we found a very special one. Edward Calabrese has been dubbed a “toxicology rock star”. He is a professor of toxicology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences. He has an impressive resume, including over 600 scholarly articles and more than 10 books, and was awarded the Marie Curie Prize in 2009 for his work on hormesis. In the past 20 years, Calabrese has conceived and carried out hundreds of experiments to test and re-confirm his findings. His work is a reminder that it is easy to think we have attained vast amounts of understanding about the natural world, but in fact there is so much more that we don’t know.
Hormesis has been a controversial and divisive topic. Calabrese has received overt criticism from within his chosen profession and the scientific community at large, yet he continues to secure funding and move forward. I hope that you’ll find Edward Calabrese’s personal story, and his fortitude and resilience in the face of adversity both inspiring and encouraging.
Listen to Science on the Rocks #13
Matthias Wittfoth is a WHM Instructor, and one half of the podcasting duo that brings you Science on the Rocks: an audio show that seeks to simplify the science underlying the Wim Hof Method.