The Dose is the Poison

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The principle of hormesis has been understood for centuries: large and small doses evoke opposite effects. As far back as the 1400s, physician Paracelsus understood that dose is the difference between cure and danger: “The dose makes the poison.” In the 1880s Rudolf Arndt and Hugo Schultz demonstrated that substances vary in action depending on whether the concentration is high, medium, or low; high concentrations kill, medium concentrations suppress or inhibit, and low or minute concentrations stimulate. The hormesis principle operates on both the level of the body, the mind, indeed, within the whole universe.

There are several healing systems that understand and utilize this principle: homeopathy is the deliberate application of poisons in such a diluted amount that they stimulate a healing response in the body. Similarly, the founder of modern psychoanalysis, Hyman Spotnitz, talked about dosage of emotional communication making the difference in terms of the success or failure of the treatment: the intensity of the analyst’s communications, as well as the actual quantity of the information the analyst imparts to the patient, is crucial in the patient’s ability to “hear” and use the therapeutic intervention, or not.

In terms of brain physiology, the same hormesis phenomenon is evident. The brain, like all other systems, can be either under- or over-stimulated. For instance, prolonged exposure to the adrenal steroid hormones like cortisol, released during the stress response, can damage the brain and block the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is one of the key players in encoding new memories in your brain. Recent studies have shown these neurons can be regenerated with learning and environmental stimulation, but while short-term stress (low dose) may improve attention and memory, chronic stress (high dose) leads indirectly to cell death and hampers our ability to make changes and impedes our ability to be creative enough to even think of possible changes that would reduce the stress level.

There is, as well, a wealth of medical and scientific research on exposure to radiation documenting the hormesis effect: high-dose radiation kills by destroying tissue; but low-dose radiation stimulates. Specifically the immune system reacts in a positive fashion, and creates a healing response in the organism. Researcher Don Lucky has spent a lifetime documenting the effects of radiation hormesis: according to his, and over 3000 other medical studies, exposure to low-dose radiation results in anti-aging effects, increased fertility, mental acuity, cancer suppression, improvement of immune function, promotion of healthy growth and an increase of defense against disease.

There are three environmentally induced radioactive situations that have given us compelling data. First, there is incidence of cancers induced by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were, as we now know should have been expected, large numbers of people near the bombs who subsequently developed radiologically-induced cancer. It is also true, however, that there were large numbers of people who did not develop radiologically-induced cancers. The size of this latter group has been a surprise to most scientists.

Findings of several studies show that when exposure to radiation was at points distant from the blasts, radiation absorption was minimal, and leukemia deaths among these A-bomb survivors was below normal. But, these minimally exposed survivors haven’t just not died of leukemia or other cancers; they haven’t been dying for any reason. They’re healthier than the Japanese population who lived far away from the blast and received no exposure. Dr. Sohei Kondo, in 1993, published Health Effects of Low-Level Radiation, in which he reported findings of a significantly lower death rate for those who had been exposed to low levels of the radiation fall-out than for those who had no exposure at all. As well, no adverse genetic effects in the progeny of the minimally exposed population have been detected during fifty years of study.

To put radiation exposure dosage from the bombs in contemporary perspective, according to Christopher Windham, it is now understood that the radiation dose from a full-body medical scan today can be almost as high as the dose received by some of the survivors of the bomb.

The second piece of compelling research on radiation hormesis addresses the issue of chronic radiation exposure. Until the 1980s, the concept of radon as a dangerous gas found in the basements of homes did not exist in our collective psyche. Excess radiation in homes was discovered by accident. Nuclear power plant workers had been routinely monitored for their exposure levels to radiation. In December, 1984, a nuclear power plant worker set off the alarm for radioactivity on his way into the Pennsylvania Limerick power plant. This was odd! His reading should have been higher on his way out, after having been exposed to the radiation in the plant, not on his way in. Subsequent investigation found that areas around Reading Prong, Pennsylvania and various locales in New Jersey had residential readings for presence of radon that were exceptionally high.

Because radon is a gas, its point of entry into our bodies is through our lungs. Lung cancer was proposed to be the potential after-effect from breathing in the dangerous radon as it accumulated in our basements, seeping up from the rock formations and cracks in the earth. With no scientific proof whatsoever, the EPA proposed the highly speculative conclusion that as many 20,000 lung cancers a year were being caused by residential radon inhalation. In the mid-1980s, the EPA ran with that ball–and launched an aggressive campaign against radon in peoples’ houses. Almost overnight, a hundred-million-dollar industry was created around the radon-abatement industry as basements in houses were ventilated to banish the radon from all spaces it might collect in.

Bernard Cohen, Professor Emeritus at Pittsburgh University, had a particular interest in the phenomenon of radon gas because his own residential stomping grounds were in the area of the highest radon readings. Cohen’s intent in his original research study was to prove the connection between radon inhalation and lung cancer that the EPA had suggested. In 1990, Cohen published the results of his first study, and then in 1995, he published results of an updated investigation. His research had taken five years, cost millions of dollars and involved accumulating data from1,760 U.S. counties, 90 percent of the U.S. population. Cohen had performed what is heralded as the largest epidemiological study ever conducted in the U.S.

The results of Cohen’s study were entirely unanticipated. He found that the areas of the country with the highest radon levels had the lowest lung cancer rates. So, indeed, there is a correlation between radon gas and lung cancer; but the correlation is negative–less radon, more lung cancer. And, the effect is not limited to reduction of lung cancer specifically. The highest levels of radon found in homes yielded lower incidences of other cancers, better immune systems, and longer life.

No one believed the data at first, including Cohen. He re-analyzed his data, correcting for variables that may have skewed the results. No matter how he examined the data to try to find confounding variables, he continued to find a negative relationship between radon levels and lung cancer death rates. If you take two maps of the U.S.–one highlighting the places of high incidence of radon and the other highlighting the places of high incidence of cancer, and overlay the maps on top of one other, you will see the exact inverse correspondence that exists. (Based on his findings, we should all be making plans to be Bernie Cohen’s neighbor in order to take advantage of the high radon rates in his vicinity.)

Prior to his study, Professor Cohen had had a ventilation system installed in his basement to reduce the radon entering his home. After the conclusions of the second study, he marched into his basement and turned the ventilation system off.

The issue of chronic radiation is addressed by many studies of people who live in higher-than- normal background radiation areas. Studies conducted in the U.S., Iran, Brazil, India, Japan, China, England, Germany, and other countries, show us that where there is more exposure to background radiation, people live longer and healthier. Altitude is one factor: the higher the altitude, the greater the exposure to low-level radiation.

If, however, you’re not fortunate enough to live in a high radiation area of the country, you can bring radiation into your environment. Low-level radiation stones are available, and with them, you can make your own radiation hormesis water, or do as Don Lucky has done for decades–sleep with a radioactive stone next to you.