A relatively new scientific hypothesis called xenohormesis(1) is believed to play a major role in anti-aging processes. It posits that specific plant molecules found in our food supply can activate our longevity genes.
Xenohormesis sounds like a complex word and it is but breaking down the Greek from which it’s derived can help us better grasp its meaning.
The Greek word xenos means stranger.
Hormesis, also from Greek, means set in motion.
Putting the two together, xenohormesis explains the adaptive physiologic response that is set into motion when a foreign organism (stranger) or external stressor, which is new to the plant, is introduced into its surrounding environment.
It further suggests that when a plant experiences mild or acute biological stress such as cellular damage, extreme weather conditions or a lack of nutrition, it learns to adapt. This adaptive survival ability then becomes imprinted in its genetic code.
And then when an animal or human consumes this same plant, the survival information the plant collected passes to the one consuming it. In other words, the longevity/survival gene can be activated in the human or animal by ingesting the hardy plant.
Xenohormesis offers that certain molecules in our food can have significant health- and longevity-enhancing effects that could be so profound they could ultimately eclipse the abilities of some current pharmaceutical medications.
Since the turn of this century, scientists have been increasingly admitting that we truly can significantly improve our diets with plants with the goal of living to a very advanced age yet with a high quality of living.
"The need to understand aging only increases in importance over time. The global population has now passed an important tipping point, moving from a world where children predominate to one in which there are more older people than youth." —Thomas A. Rando and Laura L. Carstensen, Stanford Center on Longevity, Stanford University, California
Scientists involved in the study of xenorhomesis believe that age-related degeneration may be reduced or even eliminated by positively and naturally challenging human genes like the longevity gene.
Here’s what actually happens during xenohormesis:
When plants are under stress such as extremely cold and harsh weather conditions, malnutrition, infection or dehydration, for example, they produce response molecules—different plant compounds such as polyphenols which can help them adapt to the effects of the stressful event and improve the plant’s survival rate.
When another species such as human consumes these chemicals by eating the plant these humans are subjected to the protective benefit of the compound the plant created in response to the stressor. The human never had to be exposed to the stressor in order to reap the benefits of the genetic survival information. The hormetic influence has been transferred from plant to human.
Ingested xenohormetic plant compounds activate the animal's or human’s own cellular stress response.
This beneficial cellular stress response can be applied in the fields of plant-based drug discovery and nutritional diet enhancement and already is to a large extent.
"In effect, animals and humans can piggyback off bioactive plant compounds which reflect the plant’s sophisticated stress response following millions of years of a stationary lifestyle. The result just may be that the xenohormetics can improve human health and function and have been found to play a part in age-related signaling pathways.” —Marios Kyriazis, M. D. in Challenging Ageing: the Anti-Senescence Effects of Hormesis, Environmental Enrichment, and Information Exposure
While such cellular stress response is thought to be at least two and a half billion years old, plants and their stress response have been evolving for almost one billion years.
Because the immobile plant cannot physically move away from stressors, environmental extremes of temperature variation, water or nutrient deprivation, or even predatory ravaging must be endured in place.
As a result, the complexity of the plant stress response humbles that of animals. But when human or animal consumes a stress response activated plant, they readily benefit from the plant's hardship and ultimate survival.
These benefits come in the form of adaptability, health, wellness, survival, longevity, and even fitness.
Examples of consumable xenohormetic agents in plants:
The natural phenol resveratrol is a plant molecule in red grapes, berries, peanuts, and Japanese knotwood.
Artemisinins are derived from extracts of sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua) and are well established in the treatment of malaria.
Salicylates exist naturally in broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber, mushrooms, radishes, spinach, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, coconut, white willow bark and wintergreen leaves, to name only a few. They are believed to protect the plant against insect damage and disease. Aspirin is a salicylate or a salt of salicylic acid.
Curcumin is a substance in turmeric which may help reduce inflammation.
Carotenoids are any of a class of mainly yellow, orange, or red fat-soluble pigments, including carotene, which give color to plant parts such as ripe tomatoes and autumn leaves.
Ascorbic acid, also known as vitamin C, is found particularly in citrus fruits and green vegetables.
Betalains are a class of red and yellow pigments found in cacti, carnations, amaranths, ice plants, beets, and many carnivorous plants. Many members are succulent with fleshy stems or leaves. Betalains also occur in some higher order fungi.
Polyphenols present in olive oil are xenohormetic compounds which exhibit anti-aging activities and suppress the biological immortality and self-renewal capacity of cancer stem cells.
Ginseng is another xenohormetic compound studied and utilized in traditional Chinese medicine. It offers stress response effects.
Lavender, berries, oregano, dandelion, mustard, lettuce, and prickly pear also pass longevity codes to your genetics when you consume them because they’ve endured a variety of hormetic environmental stressors. The more hardship a plant goes through the more powerful the hormetic effects.
Edibles wild grown in nature have often been forced to endure extremes like late Spring freezes, Summer droughts, hail, winds, dust, and predators. These fruits and vegetables are going to be able to offer you the highest quality survival/longevity genetic codes.
During the actual process of xenohormesis, animals and humans consuming a formerly stressed plant are able to sense and have their physiologies challenged by molecules that were synthesized by the plants following a stressful event.
This assists animals to instinctively perceive, and humans to perhaps pick up on subtle levels of which they are often unaware, warnings about a forthcoming adverse environment. This information advises them to begin preparing to proactively respond to future stressful events before they even happen.
The increased stress-induced polyphenol content of the plant may signal forthcoming famine conditions, for example. In this case, the instinctive animal begins to respond by preparing for lean times to come.
The effects researchers have observed from resveratrol may be an example of just such a response. Red grapes, for example, the most potent of which are grown in harsh environments and in dry and relatively infertile soil produce the highest amounts of longevity chemical resveratrol.
Xenohormesis researchers believe animals and fungi learned to detect the chemical cues signaled by these stress-induced polyphenols eons ago and still do, giving them advance warning about the impending deterioration of their environment. This acquired ability to detect chemical signaling cues has allowed animals to prepare while conditions were still relatively favorable.
Ronald Klatz, M.D., D.O., who coined the term, ‘anti-aging medicine,’ and who is recognized as a leading authority in the relatively new clinical science of anti-aging medicine is extremely optimistic about the potential for living very long and healthy lives.
“We’re looking at a life span for the baby boomers and the generation after the baby boomers of one hundred twenty to one hundred fifty years of age.”
These long quality life spans are perhaps truly within our grasp but only in an authentic way less manipulated by pharmaceuticals if we turn to wild nature for its longevity and survival codes. There is not only beauty there but wonder, mystery, and some very secret life-giving ingredients pulsing through edible plant life. Hormetic plant compounds found in nature might be key to long life and vitality living it.
The phenomenon of xenohormesis was first named by Howitz and Sinclair (2008; Lamming et al. 2004). David Andrew Sinclair (born June 26, 1969) is an Australian biologist who is a professor of genetics and co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research at Harvard Medical School.[ He is known for his research on aging with a focus on epigenetics (the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.)
Small molecules that regulate lifespan: evidence for xenohormesis. Lamming DW, Wood JG, Sinclair DA
Xenohormesis: sensing the chemical cues of other species. Howitz KT, Sinclair DA Cell. 2008 May 2; 133(3):387-91.
Heat-shock proteins, molecular chaperones, and the stress response: evolutionary and ecological physiology. Feder ME, Hofmann GE Annu Rev Physiol. 1999; 61():243-82.
Complexity of the heat stress response in plants. Kotak S, Larkindale J, Lee U, von Koskull-Döring P, Vierling E, Scharf KD Curr Opin Plant Biol. 2007 Jun; 10(3):310-6.
Hooper, Philip L et al. “Xenohormesis: health benefits from an eon of plant stress response evolution.” Cell stress & chaperones vol. 15,6 (2010): 761-70. doi:10.1007/s12192-010-0206-x
Kyriazis, M. Challenging Ageing: the Anti-Senescence Effects of Hormesis, Environmental Enrichment, and Information Exposure. United Arab Emirates, Bentham Science Publishers, 2016.