Does Hormesis Validate Controversial Medical Practices?

August 01, 2018 5 min read

Athletic person running in front of a large rock wall.

Hormesis is one of the hottest and most confusing developments in modern biology.

And like many perplexing discoveries….

It may actually validate older ideas that once seemed absurd from our supposedly “superior” modern vantage point.

Meditation, for example, is now widely regarded as a powerful practice for both mental and physical health.

Visualization, which once seemed “woowoo” is now proven beyond a doubt to improve performance and is now backed complex neuroimaging studies.

Even something simple like fat – a major part of many traditional diets before it became the dietary devil in the 80s and 90s – is now recognized as a critical component of optimal health.

And the phenomenon of hormesis leads to some surprising revelations about controversial medical practices like homeopathy..


Hormesis: What is it and Why is it Important?

Hormesis, as defined by the National Institute of Health is:

“...a term used by toxicologists to refer to a biphasic dose response to an environmental agent characterized by a low dose stimulation or beneficial effect and a high dose inhibitory or toxic effect”

This simply means that very small doses do something good, but larger doses either have no effect or do something bad.

It makes a graph that looks like this:

This graph illustrates that less is more - A higher dose produces an opposite effect to a very small dose.

What we see in this graph is that less is more. A higher dose produces an opposite effect to a very small dose.

It’s a lot like the old maxim that says “the poison is in the dose”

Now this isn’t something seen in just a couple special compounds. This exact same pattern is common to virtually all of biology.

It even applies to all sorts of “toxins” that damage our health at higher doses. A few examples include:

  • Radiation

  • Dioxin

  • Calorie Restriction

  • Heat Shock

  • Oxidative Stress

The small dose is a “positive stress”– something that stimulates your system to grow, recovery, or adapt.

A small positive stressor can activate your immune system and endocrine system. It can trigger tissue repair and growth mechanisms. A very small dose of a toxic substance can even stimulate neural plasticity.

You can think of it like exercise. It is a form of stress, a challenge to your body that stimulates the growth new muscle tissue.

In this same way, a small, controlled dose of a normally toxic substance appears to stimulate natural healing mechanisms.

One study showed how a much lower dose of epirubicin, a chemotherapy drug, can lead to better health outcomes. Through the mechanism of hormesis, the lower dose created stronger natural immunity without the negative effects of cytotoxicity. [1]

This graph illustrates, through the mechanism of hormesis, the lower dose created a stronger natural immunity without the negative effects of cytotoxicity.


Chemotherapy with hormesis can create better health, fewer side effects, and a stronger immune system.

There are over 1600 research papers investigating hormesis. As a biological phenomenon its validity is unquestioned. Some researchers even say that it is the future of treating challenging diseases like Alzheimer's [2].

Even more fascinating, however, is that some medical practitioners have been applying the principles of hormesis for centuries.

They just called it by a different name...


Hormesis and Homeopathy: a New Mechanism for an Old Practice

The principles of hormesis are at the core of homeopathy. Both words signify the use of very small amounts of “toxic” substances to create a healing or adaptive response.

Briefly, homeopathy is the practice of diluting a toxic or biologically active substance repeatedly in water. The result is a solution with such low concentrations, skeptics say they “cannot” have an effect at that level.

And yet, these same skeptics are quiet when it comes to hormesis.


Homeopathy gained traction in Europe in the 1700s because it was effective against epidemics of cholera, typhoid, pneumonia, yellow fever, and scarlet fever [3-5].

They may not have known howit worked. They only knew that it did. And homeopathy’s reputation as a practice grew.

Even today, homeopathy remains a popular mainstay of public health in Europe. Take France, for example [6,7]:

  • Ranked #1 in the world for health care (while the U.S. is ranked a lagging #37)
  • 40% of the population regularly uses homeopathy
  • 30% of doctors regularly prescribe homeopathy


These numbers reveal a different relationship between allopathic and homeopathic medicine. One that is not so antagonistically black and white.

These numbers show that both allopathic and homeopathic medicine are powerful tools that each have their place in the toolbox of health and healing. And now with developments in the understanding of hormesis, we can begin to understand why homeopathy works.


Other Fascinating Evidence

There is a growing body of technical and peer reviewed evidence revealing the mechanisms backing the centuries of “anecdotal” evidence.

Electron microscopy of homeopathic solutions revealed the presence of nanoparticles –exactly the size and concentration that would have a hormetic effect on biological systems. [8]

Electromagnetic resonance imaging studies showed that the electromagnetic properties of homeopathic remedies were significantly different than just “mere water” [8].

These results are similar to those of Nobel Prize laureate professor Luc Montagnier. In his research, he examined the properties of distilled water. Then he added DNA to the distilled water to observe its electromagnetic effect. Finally, he removed the DNA and looked at the water again.

To his surprise, once he took DNA out, the electromagnetic effect remained.

There are over 150 controlled clinical studies of homeopathy with positive results [10-12]. There are even experimental trials showing homeopathic effects in plants – eliminating the possibility of the placebo effect [13-15].

This is not to say homeopathy is some sort of miracle cure––the point is that something is happening.

And we are only just beginning to understand what it is and how it might work.

We are in the infancy of understanding the mechanics of this subtle medicine, but to put it in perspective, we don’t understand precisely how or why Prozac works either. That doesn’t stop millions of prescriptions from being written every single year.


Homeopathy’s Place in Healing

In the right context, for the right situations, for the right patient, homeopathy may have a lot to offer.

Consider the first part of the Hippocratic oath doctors take:

“First, do no harm.”

Yet, many modern pharmaceutical medicines and surgical procedures are fraught with side effects and risks.

Homeopathic medicine that makes use of hormetic effects may turn out to be a useful option for chronic conditions involving multiple systems. Autoimmune disorders, hormone dysregulation, other something else, for example. For these conditions, conventional pharmaceutical approaches often create further imbalance.


What Does This Mean?

This is by no means an endorsement for homeopathy as a perfect solution for all conditions for all people. However, there is something to it and in the right situation it makes more sense than other potentially damaging alternatives.

We have the personal responsibility to weigh all our options when pursuing optimal health – unencumbered by cognitive biases, dogmatic opinions, or lack of information.

For now, consider this quote from the great American writer Mark Twain:

"You may honestly feel grateful that homeopathy survived the attempts of the allopaths to destroy it."

Mark Twain, Harper’s Bazaar , 1890


  3. Coulter HL, Divided Legacy: The Schism in Medical Thought. Volumes 2 & 3. Berkeley: North Atlantic, 1975, 1973. (Note: Dr. Harris Coulter, a world renowned medical historian who specialized in the history of homeopathic medicine, passed away in October, 2009.)
  4. Rothstein, W. Physicians in the Nineteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.
  5. Ullman Dana. The Homeopathic Revolution: Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes Choose Homeopathy. Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2007.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.