Written By Donnie Yance, MH, CN

To understand how adaptogens support our bodies in dealing with toxins, let’s take a look at detoxification on a cellular level. The phenomenon of hormesis provides a novel way of viewing the effects of toxins on the body.

The mechanism of hormesis demonstrates that high levels of toxins cause damage resulting in death of the cell and eventually the corresponding organism. Low levels are capable of activating transcription factors that mediate the adaptive stress response, culminating in increased lifespan, improved health, and improved stress tolerance. Mitochondrial hormesis (mitohormesis) is a significant adaptive-response signaling pathway.

As you can see from the illustration above, low levels of toxins activate different transcription factors (shown here in green) leading to downstream effects that increase the expression of important genes known to strengthen systemic defense mechanisms, including antioxidant enzymes, phase I and phase II detoxifying enzymes, heat shock proteins that act as important chaperones, and the unfolded protein response that is a major signal controlling cellular metabolism.

This general phenomenon is called conditioning, which means the overall effect of mitohormesis is to support and prepare the mitochondrial system for future challenges by increasing the global cell defenses. The cumulative effect of this overall support for the adaptive stress response is that it increases lifespan.2

On the one hand, ROS (reactive oxygen species) induces oxidative damage to proteins, DNA and lipids. On the other hand, they also trigger the organism’s adaptive responses, including antioxidant and heat shock responses, fatty acid deacylation-reacylation, cell cycle regulation, DNA repair and apoptosis, unfolded protein responses, and autophagy stimulation.

Interestingly, this seems to indicate that low levels of stress, instead of being harmful, may have positive effects on health and longevity.

Research suggests that the immediate hormetic effects after each individual exposure may only be moderate, but can lead to biologically amplified effects that could have much larger and pleotropic effects. The consequence of this hormetic amplification is an increase in the homeodynamic space of a living system, including increased defense capacity and a reduced load of damaged molecules.

The general effect is that hormetic strengthening of the homeodynamic space provides wider margins for metabolic fluctuation, stress tolerance, adaptation, and survival. Wider margins enhance hermetic strengthening and increase flexibility and the ability to adapt. Couple this with adaptogenic formulas and you have a powerful “dynamic duo” for improving health and lifespan.

Hormesis may promote healthy aging through mild and periodic, but not severe or chronic physical and mental challenges, as well as through the use of nutritional hormesis incorporating mild stress-inducing molecules called hormetins.

“A consequence of hormetic amplification is an increase in the homeodynamic space of a living system in terms of increased defense capacity and reduced load of damaged macromolecules. Hormetic strengthening of the homeodynamic space provides wider margins for metabolic fluctuation, stress tolerance, adaptation and survival.”4

Herbert Spencer first used the phrase “survival of the fittest” in his Principles of Biology (1864) after reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Spencer drew parallels between his own economic theories and Darwin’s biological ones: “This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life.” 5

How do we put the phenomenon of hormesis and the observations of Darwin and Spencer into practice? How do we become more “fit” in order to withstand multiple stressors and increase our chances of survival in an increasingly toxic world?

The answer is simple: Adaptogens.

Adaptogens, and particularly adaptogenic formulas, are complex and pleotropic in nature. They are the ultimate multi-taskers, enhancing our ability to respond, adapt, and efficiently remove wastes. Adaptogens are the key to long lasting, systemic overall health benefits, as opposed to a short-term “honeymoon” effect.

If the system on the whole is sick, and you only change one of the parts, it might be okay for a short period of time but will inevitably return to being the same sick system. To make a lasting change in a sick system, you have to address more than just one of the components, and substantially change the context or environment of the system. This is what adaptogens are beautifully suited to do and why they are so effective for improving our general resistance to stress.

This is an except from “Can Stress And Low Level Exposure to Toxins Improve Health And Longevity?” by Donnie Yance, MH, CN, on his blog.


  1. Reinagel, Monica, September 7, 2017, Does Losing Weight Release Toxins? – Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-losing-weight-release-toxins/
  2. Ristow M, Schmeisser K. Mitohormesis: Promoting Health and Lifespan By Increased Levels of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS). Dose-Response. 2014;13:288-341
  3. Mao, Jacqueline Franke , Hormesis in Aging and Neurodegeneration—A Prodigy Awaiting Dissection, Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2013, 14, 13109-13128; doi:10.3390/ijms140713109
  4. Rattan S. Hormesis in aging. Ageing Res Rev. 2008; 7:63-78
  5. “Letter 5140 – Wallace, A. R. to Darwin, C. R., 2 July 1866”Darwin Correspondence Project. Retrieved 12 January 2010.

Related research on supporting homeostasis with adaptogens:

Adaptogenic and Anabolic Botanicals to Promote Allostasis

Botanicals and Nutrients for Cellular Redox Homeostasis, Detoxification & Cellular and Genomic Integrity