Pesticides and Depression

Sandra Lewis, MA

Theravive Counseling

Psychotherapist, coach

Pesticides and Depression

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” -Woody Allen

Like Woody Allen, we can all feel sometimes as though the available options in life are bad, and worse. The world seems complicated, and every day we hear about something else that isn't good for us. But it is possible to cut through all the distorted information out there, and come up with some basic truths.

A patient came into my office the other day asking for help with chronic depression. “Stephanie” had felt depressed for long stretches of time for most of her life. Sometimes it was a kind of low-level sadness, just on the edges of her consciousness; other times it was a severe and debilitating downward spiral that engendered thoughts of suicide. Her latest episode is what had prompted her to seek therapy, again. She had been to many therapists in the past; sometimes it seemed to help temporarily, other times not. But the depression always came back.

In my early days as a psychotherapist, I would have asked Stephanie about her childhood, remembered traumas and relationships growing up. I would have searched for core beliefs and archetypes, analyzed birth order, and taught her about negative self-talk and how to turn it around. I would have dug into my arsenal of NLP, EMDR, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Gestalt, EFT, Guided Imagery, Inner Child Work and Focusing.

Now, one of the first things I do is ask my patients about their diet. This always surprises them. I can see them glancing suspiciously at my framed Masters degree on the wall, perhaps looking for obvious signs of counterfeiting! It’s a question no one has asked them before, alarmingly, in spite of the growing evidence, both anecdotal and research-driven, that diet can make a world of difference in our moods. It can even create feelings of suicide where none existed before.

I advise them of two things: the need to eliminate all forms of sugar from their diet and the dangers of pesticides and herbicides. That sugar causes depression has been long and widely documented. The book Sugar Blues by William Dufty was published in 1975 and has sold 1.6 million copies since then. Not so widely know is the effect of pesticides on our mental health.

Patients are astounded and a little skeptical when I tell them of the very strong and documented connection between pesticides and depression.

A recent study by the University Pathology Consortium—a nonprofit group composed of the medical schools of six prominent American universities—suggests that toxins in food and the environment can be directly linked to depression.

For instance, in 2000, after finding high rates of depression and suicide among tobacco workers in Brazil, the Dutch development agency Global Ministries launched a four-month pilot study to assess the possibility of a relationship between the use of certain tobacco pesticides and depression. The development agency concluded that there is a possible link between suicide and pesticide use in the Brazilian tobacco growing regions.

In January 1999, there were several studies from the United Kingdom documenting illness among sheep farmers from chronic organophosphate exposure in sheep dip. Symptoms ranged from moodiness to thoughts of suicide.

Organophosphates, which are the most toxic class of chemicals, affect the nervous system through the inhibition of an enzyme needed for proper nervous system function. Many pesticides in this class are easily absorbed through the skin.

A study by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California published in 2003 made an alarming connection between pesticides and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. The institute found a gene that may link certain pesticides to a number of neurological disorders. It’s the first study to demonstrate a clear genetic link between neurological disorders and exposure to organophosphate chemicals.

A number of other herbicides and pesticides have been particularly implicated in depression. These include acephate, avermectin, benaulide, boric acid and carbaryl. The well-known 2,4-D can cause bizarre or aggressive behaviour and confusion. It is the most widely used herbicide in Canada. Another widely used pesticide, Ethion, used for the control of aphids and mites, impairs memory and concentration, and causes irritability, confusion, disorientation and severe depression.

Chlorpyrifos, a broad-spectrum pesticide used on fruit trees, has NO established safety level for exposure. Chlorpyrifos, usually marketed under the trade name Dursban, is the most widely used insecticide in the United States and Canada. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, reported more than four years ago that "Chlorpyrifos has been …associated with chronic effects in humans, including chronic neurobehavioral effects [which] include persistent headaches, blurred vision, unusual fatigue or muscle weakness, and problems with mental function including memory, concentration, depression, and irritability.

These chemicals can create changes in a fetus, which will show up as depression later in life. Studies indicate men and women exposed to the chemical DES before birth experience high rates of depression, anxiety, anorexia and other psychiatric disorders. In one study, 40 percent of women and 71 percent of men experienced major depression that physically impaired them.

If you think you haven’t been exposed to these, a major study done by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control in 2000 should change your mind. In the largest and most extensive sample of the chemical residues in human bodies ever done, the CDC found widespread contamination. Children’s exposure to the above-mentioned Chlorpyrifos was about twice as high as adults’ exposure. An earlier study in Minnesota found the bug killer at detectable levels in over 90 percent of school children examined.

While the U.S. government has announced plans to phase the chemical out, it hasn’t done so yet. And in the meantime, Dow Chemical, which markets Dursban, is aggressively marketing the chemical in other countries, including India, many of which export produce to America.

But in a recent analysis of selected organochlorine pesticide residues in the U.S. food supply, Pesticide Action Network found that even chemicals that have been banned for decades show up consistently in food samples tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

While Canada imports a lot of vegetables and fruit, we’re no slouches when it comes to using poisons on our own crops. Over 34 million kilograms of pesticides are used annually across the country. According to the National Research Council, expenditures on pesticides doubled between 1980 and 1990 and have increased eightfold since 1970.

So what about Stephanie? Well, she wanted a prescription for an anti-depressant (such as Prozac) because it had helped her in the past. But after learning that her diet was high in sugar and that she never ate organic produce, I suggested she try changing her diet first and we would evaluate it as we went along. She seemed willing to give that a shot, although she was extremely skeptical.

Within two weeks of walking into my office, Stephanie was a changed person. Her depression had lifted and she was suddenly interested in a number of things she had been ignoring… her social life, for instance. She volunteered at a local charity, she applied for and got a new job, and difficult relationships with family members suddenly seemed more manageable.

“Sharon” was a similar case. She came in also complaining of unhappiness with her life, mainly her relationship with her boyfriend. She was suspicious of him, going through his e-mails and letters looking for evidence of infidelity. This left her feeling perpetually guilty, and did nothing to ease her feelings of mistrust. She was never happy, no matter what he did for her, and found fault with almost all his interests and activities. She realized this was her problem and not his, but didn’t know what to do about her feelings of anger and disappointment.

Unlike many of my patients, Sharon was eating a relatively healthy diet, mostly vegetarian, taking supplements, avoiding sugar and white flour. But because of her vegetarian lifestyle, she was also eating a huge amount of conventional produce. When I spoke to her about the possibility of switching to organic, she complained that it seemed too expensive and she had heard that a lot of it wasn’t really organic anyway. (I often hear this.) Still, she agreed to try organic as an experiment. Again, within a very short period of time, Sharon reported feeling her paranoia about her boyfriend lift, and she was much more patient with his behaviour. This, coupled with standard cognitive-behaviour modification, left her feeling much happier with herself and her boyfriend and able to cope with the inevitable problems that arise in any relationship.

These are not isolated cases in my practise. In past years, before I was advising patients on dietary changes, it has taken far longer than a few weeks to see this kind of dramatic improvement. While it seems obvious that everyone would benefit from eating organic foods, there are some who are particularly sensitive to the poisons saturating conventionally grown foods. If you have mood swings and depression for no apparent reason, I strongly recommend these dietary changes as a first step. If you’re a parent, you might want to consider the possible psychological consequences of long-term exposure to pesticides on your children.


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