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Peanuts, Hormesis & Training for Weakness – By Mark Hatmaker

I’m old. I can prove it with the following sentence.

When I was a kid, I cannot recall one child in my school ever having a peanut allergy and you could eat peanuts and peanut butter sandwiches willy-nilly. (Willy-nilly is a word that old men are legally obligated to use, I don’t make the rules.)

As my daughter was growing up the world changed, peanuts were (and are) treated in schools with more prejudice than teeny bottles of shampoo are by the TSA. (That’s why when I travel my luscious locks never look as firm and bouncy as when at home. Thanks TSA.)

We go from no kids in my childhood memory having a peanut allergy (I’m sure there were some I just never encountered them) to apparently 1 in 10 being fragile to the mere fumes of this deadly legume. (I’m
surprised there are no warning labels on a jar of JIF.)

What happened?

Well, it seems an over-correction to what was a problem in a minute few became dangerous and even lethal to many others. When it was well publicized that this minute few can indeed have severe reactions to peanuts, some parents erring on the side of safety and love decided “No peanuts or peanut butter for my kid.”

I get that decision, one borne of concern.

The government quickly followed the “concerned” trendline and mandated peanuts peanuta non grata in schools for fear of mass death.

This exclusionary policy by parents and government alike has had (and continues to have) a perverse iatrogenic effect, that is, it created more peanut allergies in the population by sheer dint of zero exposure.

Let’s ponder that, to keep children safe from peanut allergies we fostered more peanut allergies.

Now how does something like this happen?

Look at this way, the human body (more often than not) responds positively to low-dose stressors if the stressors are chosen (exercise, mentally and emotionally challenging activities, etc.) the positive effect of such low-dose exposure is called mithridatics, if the low-dosing is accidental or a by-product of living (as in the case of children reared on farms or in the countryside having lower incidences of asthma by having been dosed to “allergens” from an early age) it is called hormesis.

Either way, stressors robustify and strengthen the body, the mind, the immune system and I daresay the spirit. Overcoming challenges is what makes the individual thrive.

Let’s play this thought experiment. Let’s say we are told by “experts” that a certain activity can lead to rapid heartbeat, a rise in blood-pressure, flushed skin, labored breathing, and copious sweating in children in under one minute. This alarming reaction to the activity may cause some to protect children from these ill-effects, after all a human body is not observed to suffer such effects in the status quo.

Now let’s say we are told the activity that caused these symptoms was playing a gloriously active game of kickball. The symptoms no longer sound like symptoms and rather by-products of an activity that if continued over time will lead to a conditioning effect resulting in hardier children.

Now lest anyone thinks I speak a tergo (out of my ass) regarding the peanut allergies I would direct you to the following statement regarding the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) change of heart.

“Proactivity may be the solution to peanut allergies… the more susceptible a kid is to a peanut allergy, the earlier he or she should start eating peanuts. The advice is a big shift from pediatricians’ previous advice to avoid giving at-risk kids peanuts until they are 3 years old.”

Hmm? Sounds sensible and suspiciously like all mithridatic advice, you condition your body with fitness training by gradually ramping up the stressors as your threshold increases. This slow-approach is far wiser than going from couch potato to Tough Mudder in 12 hours.

The key though, is that there must be exposure to the stressor to protect from the stressor. No exposure, you increase the odds of adverse reaction. With exposure you either reduce reaction, eliminate it altogether, and, as in the case of many things pleasurable, turn what was previous thought a hazard (a peanut butter cookie or a game of kickball) into a pleasure.

If we keep our eyes open we might ask ourselves “what is the faux peanut allergy in my own life?”

Do I thwart my own immune system’s chance to do what it might be capable of addressing on its own each allergy season by popping Claritin and like products or do I take a chance on dosing myself with the real-world? (BTW – I have done just such Nature-Dosing, works like a charm.)

Do I invariably bump the thermostat up or is there any wisdom in robustifying to one or two degrees cooler than my chosen “average” every now and then?

Do I view “stressful” situations as reasons to post my woes to Facebook or do I have an opportunity to view them as emotional cardio/situational free-weights to build patience and social fortitude?

Now keep in mind we are talking small controlled dosages of certain stressors, not poisoning the self as in the zero to Tough Mudder example. But I will wager that in more areas than we might admit, more domains than we may even realize there is a robustifying effect in purposefully allowing a bit of exposure to occur.

Remember the flip-side of Post Traumatic Stress is Post-Traumatic Growth. Often what flips the switch from one to the other is the dosage and the determined decision.

In many such matters, the choice is in our hands; there may be more metaphorical peanut butter sandwiches to enjoy than we currently realize. The key is to wake up, take small bites, and grow from there.

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