Research & Education

Pesticides – Part 1 – Exploring Their Impact

In the functional medicine model, environmental pollutants are one of the root causes of disease. Pesticide exposure and accumulation remain a chief environmental pollutant contributing to the body’s total toxin load.

Completely avoiding pesticides is nearly impossible. Everyone is exposed to the pesticide residues found in many common food products and in drinking water. Individuals living in rural communities can suffer significant exposure through air and soil contamination or direct occupational exposure. Greenhouse and nursery workers have a high exposure. But even the average household falls prey, as pesticides are commonly used for treating both plants and premises.

Farmers and other agricultural workers have been the targets for most human studies on the negative health outcomes of pesticide exposure. However, the facts are still rather nebulous due to inadequate testing techniques and research gaps that leave long-term studies and predictions lacking. It is also reasonable to assume that agribusiness, one of the largest sectors of the economy for most countries, is not eager to learn of the dangers associated with chemicals that are vital for their existence, and therefore, may lobby against research that would compromise their productivity.

However, studies to date have confirmed that pesticides contribute to some of the most devastating and epidemic health conditions witnessed globally. A 3-year cohort study of 246 farmers from 3 provinces of China, evaluated the effects of pesticide exposure on hematological and neurological indicators. Abnormality of nerve conductions, alterations in complete blood count, hepatic and renal functions were noted. A review of 15 cross-sectional studies found significant associations between occupational pesticide exposure and chronic cough, wheeze, dyspnoea, breathlessness, chest tightness, asthma, bronchitis, and elevated risks of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A review in the journal, Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, indicated:

“There is a huge body of evidence on the relation between exposure to pesticides and elevated rate of chronic diseases such as different types of cancers, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson, Alzheimer, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), birth defects, and reproductive disorders. There is also circumstantial evidence on the association of exposure to pesticides with some other chronic diseases like respiratory problems, particularly asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cardiovascular disease such as atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease, chronic nephropathies, autoimmune diseases like systemic lupus erythematous and rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and aging.”

This same review cited the primary mechanisms of action behind pesticide exposure and chronic disease include genetic damages, epigenetic modifications, endocrine disruption, mitochondrial dysfunction, oxidative stress, endoplasmic reticulum stress and unfolded protein response (UPR), impairment of ubiquitin proteasome system, and defective autophagy.

Another review in Archives of Toxicology cites chronic and sublethal pesticide exposure as causative of not only the same health conditions listed above, but many health conditions affecting children such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, diabetes, and obesity. There is now concern that maternal and paternal toxicants are impacting the genetic expression of their offspring. Polymorphisms in genes encoding for xenobiotic-metabolizing enzymes are commonly found among adults and children living in communities with increased environmental exposure to pesticides.

Other researchers agree that oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction, and neuronal cell loss caused by pesticides underlie the development of negative health outcomes.

Clearly, pesticide exposure is a global health problem that the traditional medical system may not consider when dealing with chronic health conditions. However, the functional medicine model recognizes environmental toxin exposure as a foundational root of many health problems that cannot be ignored. Detoxification is not optional, but a vital part of nearly every treatment plan. Furthermore, detoxification support should be included in a healthy lifestyle for lifelong health maintenance.

In Part 2 of this blog series, we will consider several botanicals and nutrients helpful for efficiently detoxing accumulated pesticides from the body. Mitochondrial support, antioxidants, and nutrients that focus on brain and neuron support are also critical for addressing the underlying mechanisms by which pesticides dismantle and destroy metabolic processes essential for health and wellness.  

By Nicole Spear, MS, CNS