Poison Yourself—It’s Good for You
Plants have long been lauded for their health-promoting antioxidants. But recent research upends that thinking—broccoli is good for you precisely because it stresses your body.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
By now, it’s become a given: your multivitamin is useless and the right amount of stress, even in our recovery obsessed world, is good. So what, if anything, do we gain by clinging to our antioxidant supplements?
Very little, according to an accumulating body of research. We don’t need massive doses of antioxidants, we need stress to compel our own bodies to create antioxidants.
“Everybody thinks oxidation is bad, and that antioxidants are good,” says Dr. Philip Hooper, an endocrinologist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “That’s bogus. A little bit of poison is good.”
That poison can actually come from plants, especially those that have survived harsh conditions. In this Nietzschean diet principle know as xenohormesis, foods that have survived harsh conditions make us stronger by stressing our bodies, not because they’re rich in antioxidants.
As the science quarterly Nautilus explains, plants have developed an arsenal of chemicals to help them ward off insects and grazers. These “antifeedants,” when ingested by humans, trigger the body to release proteins and activate genes that “produce antioxidants, enzymes to metabolize toxins, proteins to flush out heavy metals, and factors that enhance tumor suppression.”
Plants prepare your body to handle toxins much as exercise prepares you to race—by stressing your body. And supplements, says Dr. Hooper, interrupt this pay-it-forward biological sequence.
“These antioxidant supplements are like a Trojan horse,” continues Dr. Hooper. They say, I’m a good guy. You guys go to sleep and while the defense is asleep the antioxidants get rid of any oxidation. It puts the defense-system’s army to sleep.”
Just as wearing a testosterone patch lowers the body’s production of the hormone, relying on supplements reduces the body’s natural production of antioxidants.
While Dr. Hooper acknowledges the benefits of vitamin E for muscle cramps and macular degeneration, he scoffs at the idea—as have many others lately—that it improves one’s physical performance.
“We’ve thrown so many millions of dollars at this,” he says. “It’s a misconception and it’s naïve.”And he suggests that athletes in intense contact sports such as soccer and football benefit from trauma. “Players have to be hit with pads on Tuesdays and Thursdays in order to compete on Sundays—they need that actual trauma,” he says.
“Everything in our society is geared toward, ‘How can we reduce stress?’” adds Dr. Hooper. “When it should be just the opposite. We need stress. Stress is good.”