Mithridatism is the practice of administering small doses of poison in order to build an immunity from potentially larger lethal amounts. It was introduced by Mithridates, 120 BC, who was the king of Pontus, and unlike his father, did not want to die by poisoning. The story goes that his mother, Laodice VI, was the main suspect in his fathers death and favored poisoning as a means of getting rid of her enemies. As Mithridates grew closer to the age of becoming king, he began to catch wind of assassination plots against him at the direction of his mother who favored his younger brother to be the next ruler.
In an effort to mitigate the risk, Mithridates fled into the wilderness, it is said, for seven years. With the fear of befalling the same fate as his father, he began to ingest small amounts of a poison-concoction he had mixed together in order to build up an immunity to the lethal substances. Mithridates’ immunity to poisons did not go unnoticed and his discovery was used by the prominent Celsus, a popular doctor of the ancient world among others. The idea of adding harm to the system in order to protect it from the unknowns of the future was also adopted by Agrippina, Mother of Nero. She followed the poison-sipping Mithridates’ role and protected herself from a vengeful son, but ultimately could not protect herself from the sword.
Mithridates’ invention of this “universal antidote” against poisoning lived on long after his death. In fact, in the 1st century the medical encyclopedia, De Medicina, gave a recipe for an antidote against poisoning called, Antidotum Mithridaticum.
In 1888 German Pharmacologist Hugo Shulz extended this theory in his observations of yeast. He found that yeast would be stimulated by low doses of poison which led to the term Hormisis, the favorable response a cell or organism has to low doses of toxins or other stressors. An example can be seen in cancer radiation, benefits of caloric restriction (fasting), and most vaccinations.
Researchers found pacemakers that temporarily disrupt the hearts rhythm actually serve to boost a hearts health.
The benefits of Mithridates’ experiment does not reside in the medical context alone. The idea of a beneficial gain from adding stressors, or a little harm, can be seen in a healthy regime of physical exercise. Cold baths, heat shock, and hyper-gravity, all have stress-induced benefits. Researchers found faulty pacemakers that temporarily disrupt the hearts rhythm actually serve to boost a hearts health.
The theory of post-traumatic-growth is another example of Mithridates idea just in another domain. Although not self induced, a positive change or strengthening of one’s life after experiencing difficult and/or traumatic events can be found in combat Veterans as well as difficult civilian incidents. In a Washington Post article from November 2005, staff writer Michael Ruane reported a 1980 study of the Vietnam POWs, indicating that 61 percent of those surveyed “believed their experience was ultimately beneficial. Tom McNish, a former Air Force pilot who was a prisoner in North Vietnam for six years, said, ‘There is no question in my mind that the experience I had in Vietnam has had an overall very positive effect on my life. But I don’t recommend it for anybody else. And I don’t want to have to do it again.’”
I am not advocating for going out and finding combat like situations, but inevitably we will experience variations of “poison” in some way. However, it is when confronted with life’s abundant stress-tests we will decide what meaning and long term effects we will attribute to them.
Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it . -Harold S. Kushner
We should be cautious to remove as many stressors, challenge, and adversity from our lives and the lives of our children (helicoptering). We don’t know what we don’t know, what is life going to bring me tomorrow, how can we prepare ourselves for the unknown today?
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