Could Toxins Be Good For You?

In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) commissioned a study on the health impacts of sustained radiation exposure. They compared two groups of nuclear shipyard workers from Baltimore who had similar jobs except for a single key difference: one group was exposed to very low levels of radiation from the materials they handled, and the other was not. The DOE tracked the workers between 1980 and 1988, and what they found shocked everyone involved.

Radiation made them healthier. The twenty-eight thousand workers exposed to radiation had a 24 percent lower mortality rate than their thirty-two thousand counterparts who were not exposed to radiation. Somehow the toxins that everyone assumed and feared were ruining the workers' health were doing just the opposite.

--from Dr. John J. Ratey's book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

Wait, what? Radiation made them healthier?

If nothing else, this shocking anecdote illustrates the complex and counterintuitive biological process of stress and recovery. Who'd guess that nuclear radiation could be good for you?

The answer of course is--duh--radiation isn't good for you. But the central concept here is that we become stronger and healthier thanks to our bodies' reactions to low levels of toxins.

So can we take this concept and apply it to the food we eat? Let's see what Dr. Ratey has to say:

An enormous industry has sprung up to promote the cancer-fighting properties of foods and products that contain antioxidants. Eat more antioxidant-rich broccoli, the logic goes, and you'll live a longer and healthier life. True, perhaps, but not for the reasons the marketing folks would have you believe.

It turns out that these foods are particularly beneficial not only because they contain antioxidants but also because they contain toxins. "Many of the beneficial chemicals in plants--vegetables and fruits--have evolved as toxins to dissuade insects and other animals from eating them... what they're doing is inducing a mild, adaptive stress response in the cells. For example, in broccoli, there's a chemical called sulforaphane, and it clearly activates stress response pathways in cells that upregulate antioxidant enzymes. Broccoli has antioxidants, but at the level you could get from your diet, they're not going to function as antioxidants.

Just as with the nuclear shipyard workers, a mild toxin generates an adaptive stress response that bolsters cells.

Now don't get me wrong: nobody is telling you to drink Roundup or start playing with plutonium rods. But it does make you rethink what it means to be "exposed" to toxins, doesn't it?

Readers, what are your thoughts? I want to know.

Related Posts:
The Problem with Government Food Safety Regulation
Review: The End of Overeating by David Kessler
Recommended Reading for A Good Wine Education
Review: Cooking Green by Kate Heyhoe

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
For those readers interested in supporting Casual Kitchen, the easiest way is to do so is to do all your shopping at via the links on this site. You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.


Anonymous said...

This does not surprise me, if for no other reason that I have smelled my fair share of pine-sol. (Used other cleaners in the 80's & 90's before it became popular/readily available to use anything "greener.")

& in my mind this is one step away from penicillin/Rx that most of us take without hesitation or the fact that food stuffs are covered in bacteria...

chacha1 said...

Isn't this the principle underlying homeopathy? A substance that would *cause* a problem in large quantities is applied in small quantities to facilitate a cure (or alleviation) of the problem?

It's nice to know the mechanism of "antioxidants" though. Dietary fiber has been pretty obvious (aside from that bit about scrubbing cholesterol out of the bloodstream) but I'd never seen anything that so concisely explained what the antioxidant response is.

Sally said...

This reminds me of vaccinations.