Chemical toxins: a hypothesis to explain the global obesity epidemic
THE JOURNAL OF ALTERNATIVE AND COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE
Volume 8, Number 2, 2002, pp. 185–192
Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.
Chemical Toxins: A Hypothesis to Explain the
PAULA F. BAILLIE-HAMILTON, M.B., B.S. D.Phil.
The number of obese people worldwide has escalated recently, revealing a complex picture
of significant variations among nations and different profiles among adults and children, re-gions, and occupations. The commonly held causes of obesity—overeating and inactivity—donot explain the current obesity epidemic. There is evidence of a general decrease in food con-sumption by humans and a significant decline in their overall levels of physical activity. Thereis also more evidence to indicate that the body’s natural weight-control mechanisms are notfunctioning properly in obesity. Because the obesity epidemic occurred relatively quickly, it hasbeen suggested that environmental causes instead of genetic factors maybe largely responsible.
What has, up to now, been overlooked is that the earth’s environment has changed signifi-
cantly during the last few decades because of the exponential production and usage of syntheticorganic and inorganic chemicals. Many of these chemicals are better known for causing weightloss at high levels of exposure but much lower concentrations of these same chemicals have pow-erful weight-promoting actions. This property has already been widely exploited commerciallyto produce growth hormones that fatten livestock and pharmaceuticals that induce weight gainin grossly underweight patients.
This paper presents a hypothesis that the current level of human exposure to these chemicals
may have damaged many of the body’s natural weight-control mechanisms. Furthermore, it isposited here that these effects, together with a wide range of additional, possibly synergistic,factors may play a significant role in the worldwide obesity epidemic.
cling, the main causes are thought to beovereating and a lack of physical activity (Bray
health care concern that affects adults andchildren in all socioeconomic groups (Bun-dred et al., 2001; Flegal et al., 1998). Although
WHY THE OLD EXPLANATIONS ARE
there are many theories about the causes of to-
day’s obesity epidemic, to date, there is stillmuch uncertainty about obesity’s etiology. Al-
though many non–lifestyle factors are known
Overeating has been suggested as an impor-
to influence weight, such as genetic predispo-
tant cause of modern obesity, particularly be-
sition, carbohydrate craving, and weight cy-
cause highly palatable convenience foods are
Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at Stirling, Stirling University, Stirling, Scotland.
much more prevalent (Prentice and Jebb, 1995).
problem can effectively be ruled out (Prentice
However, despite a general increase in the in-
take of these foods, evidence suggests that, al-
However despite the stability of the human
though there is a perception among members
gene pool, many largely genetically deter-
of the general public that people are consum-
mined, underlying controlling mechanisms that
ing more calories in modern times, overall lev-
set body weight and metabolic efficiency (e.g.,
els of daily caloric consumption have declined
hormones, neural pathways, various brain nu-
substantially thoughout the twentieth century.
clei, and many neurotransmitters), appear to be
(Department for Environment, Food and Rural
malfunctioning frequently in patients who are
obese (Baptista, 1999; Harris, 1990; Wang et al.,2001). If genetic alterations are not responsiblefor such changes in metabolic functioning, per-
haps there is another cause for them. Indeed, it
Because a fall
in food intake obviously would
has been suggested that perhaps they have been
not account for an increase in the incidence of
caused by some environmental factor or factors
obesity, it may be that that the modern seden-
tary lifestyle is mainly responsible (Prenticeand Jebb, 1995). However, despite the adventof television, motorized transport, and energy-
ARE ENVIROMENTAL CHEMICALS
saving domestic appliances (which has re-
sulted in an overall reduction in manual labor)
Toxic chemicals and their effects on weight
since the middle of the twentieth century, hardevidence does not show that levels of physical
Although diet and behavioral changes have
activity have plummeted sufficiently to cause
been considered to be major causative factors,
such a high incidence of obesity during this
it is difficult to see how they could produce
time period (Morris, 1995; Rasvussin, 1995). In-
many of these metabolic malfunctions.
deed, a report by the British Sports Council
However, the levels of certain substances—
(now known as Sport England), London, Eng-
synthetic organic/inorganic chemicals–in the
land, on physical activity noted the opposite
environment have coincided with the increas-
phenomenon, stating that “participation is in-
ing incidence of obesity that has been docu-
creasing across all age bands and all social
mented. These substances are known to dam-
groupings” (Sports Council, 1993).
age many of the mechanisms involved inweight control.
Since the creation, and subsequent introduc-
tion, of synthetic organic/inorganic chemicals
Weight control is not simply about energy in-
in the late nineteenth century, the global com-
take and energy expenditure; these comprise a
munity has been increasingly exposed to an ex-
superficial part of a very complex situation
ponential rise in the production of these sub-
(Miller and Mumford, 1966). Body weight is
stances (see Figure 1; Flegal et al., 1998; United
generally thought to be homostatically regu-
States Tariff Commission, [various documents]
lated at a certain predetermined level or “set
1918–1994). In their daily lives, human beings
point” by, largely genetically determined, feed-
are now exposed to tens of thousands of these
back-control mechanisms that enable the body
chemicals, in the forms of pesticides, dyes, pig-
to maintain a stable weight for relatively long
ments, medicines, flavorings, perfumes, plas-
periods of time (Harris, 1990). Because of the
tics, resins, rubber-processing chemicals, inter-
genetic basis posited for these mechanisms, the
mediate chemicals, plasticizers, solvents, and
“set point” theory has not been widely used to
surface-active agents (United States Tariff
explain today’s incidence of obesity, which has
Commission, [various documents] 1918–1994).
occurred over a relatively short period of time.
Pesticide residues, preservatives and additi-
Thus, dramatic changes in the gene pool that
tives are ingested with foods and contaminated
would have been sufficient to cause the current
water, inhaled from polluted indoor and out-
DO CHEMICAL TOXINS CAUSE OBESITY?
plain why the scale of this chemically causedweight gain has effectively been “missed,” bysome researchers.
industrial chemicals produce weight gain.
These chemicals—which human beings are ex-posed to quite regularly—include:
Pesticides, for example, organochlorines, suchas dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT),endrin, lindane, and hexachlorobenzene(Chadwick et al., 1988; Deichmann et al., 1972;Deichmann et al., 1975; Dorgan et al., 1999;Hovinga et al., 1993; Stellman et al., 1997;Takahama et al., 1972; Villeneuve et al., 1977)
The production of synthetic organic chemicals
and the percentage of overweight adults in the United
States during the twentieth century. The illustration is
Cranmer et al., 1978; Nicolau, 1983; Tran-
taken from The Detox Diet
, by Paula Baillie-Hamilton,
M.B., B.S. D.Phil. (to be published by Penguin Books, Lon-don, in April 2002).
Carbamates, including dithiocarbamates(Walker et al., 1994; Yen et al., 1984)Polychlorinated biphenyls (Clark, 1981; Dar
door air, and absorbed cutaneously via per-
sonal-care products. As a result, the average
person now has many hundreds of industrial
monly used as fire retardants (Gupta et al.,
chemicals lodged in his or her body, with many
of these toxins being transferred across the fe-
Plastics, such as phthalates and bisphenol A
tal–maternal blood barrier (Jacobson and Jacob-
(Ashby et al., 1999; Ema et al., 1990; Field et
son, 1996). Many of these toxins are also ap-
al., 1993; Howdeshell et al., 1999; Lamb et al.,
pearing in women’s breast milk, thus, probably
transferring their effects to children who are
breast fed (Alleva et al., 1998; Bordet et al., 1993).
(Antonio et al., 1999; Hovinga et al., 1993)
One of the toxic effects of these chemicals ap-
Solvents (Chu et al., 1986; Gaworski et al.,
pears to be weight gain. Unlike the well-known
1985; Hardin et al., 1987; Moser et al., 1995;
weight loss resulting from high exposure to
toxins, this weight gain tends to occur at muchlower levels of exposure, which fail to make an-
The example of organochlorine pesticides:
imals or humans obviously ill (Takahama et al.,
1972). However, as a result of a long-held ideain some cultures that weight gain must be ev-
The organochlorine pesticides illustrate how
idence of “good health,” a significant amount
chemotoxicity can promote weight gain. Be-
of evidence showing these chemicals to cause
cause of previous extensive usage as pesticides,
weight gain has been virtually ignored, ex-
inherent structural stability, persistence in
plained away, or even, on occasion, apologized
body systems, and ability to concentrate in an-
for (Lamb et al., 1987; Takahama et al., 1972).
imals that are higher up on the food chain,
Although it has been generally accepted, in
many organochlorine pesticides are currently
recent years, that weight gain can be evidence
present in human fat in relatively high levels
of chemotoxicity, much of the evidence pre-
(Hovinga et al., 1993; Stellman et al., 1997).
sented in earlier scientific papers was rarely
mentioned in their abstracts. Being that current
duced weight gain appears to come from in-
creases in the overall proportion of body fat. In
formation contained in abstracts, this may ex-
one animal study, the pesticide dieldrin more
than doubled the total body-fat content of
the monoamine hormones it produces (nora-
treated mice (Deichmann et al., 1972). Another
drenaline, dopamine, adrenaline), plays a key
role in controlling weight, body-fat levels, and
known as lindane, induced obesity in animals
nutrition partitioning (Bray, 1993). The sympa-
(Chadwick et al., 1988). Indeed, in yet another
thetic nervous system may do this by suppress-
study, the overall weight-gain effect of another
ing appetite, particularly the appetite for fats
pesticide, hexachlorobenzene, appeared to be
(Leibowitz, 1992); by enabling the body to mo-
so powerful that a group of treated animals still
bilize fat stores for use (Hamann et al., 1998; Pao-
managed to gain significantly more weight—
letti et al., 1961); and by stimulating physical ac-
despite the fact that their food intake was cut
tivity levels powerfully (van Praag et al., 1990).
by 50%—than untreated controls who were on
Thus, it is not surprising that abnormalities in
full food rations (Villeneuve et al., 1977).
the sympathetic nervous system are very com-
mon in most forms of obesity (Dulloo and Miller,
thetic and industrial chemicals, appear to cause
1986). Indeed, most of the drugs commonly used
weight gain by interfering with most of the dif-
to treat patients who are obese, or who have eat-
ing disorders, primarily alter these patients’
weight control system. In particular, these
monoamine hormones levels. (Leibowitz, 1992).
Unfortunately, many of the commonest syn-
thetic chemicals in the environment appear to
Disrupt the major weight controlling hor-
target the sympathetic nervous system. This
mones, such as catecholamines, thyroid hor-
can lower its effectiveness dramatically, not
only in the short term but also permanently
(Goldman et al., 1997; Knoth-Anderson and
Abou-Donia, 1993; Seegal et al., 1994). One
Alter levels of, and sensitivity to, neuro-
study of pesticide factory workers, revealed
transmitters (in particular dopamine, nor-
that those who were exposed to pesticides ex-
creted 50% more catecholamines then control
workers. Another study showed that pesticide
(nerve and muscle tissue in particular), often
DDT, organophosphates, and carbamates had
at levels that human beings are currently ex-
plasma levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline
that were approximately 40% and 20% (re-spectively) lower than nonexposed individuals
This interference results in changes in ap-
(Embry et al., 1972; Richardson et al., 1975).
petite; food efficiency; and fat, carbohydrate,and protein metabolism. The desire, and ability,
to exercise are also affected. These changes havebeen thought to be responsible for increases in
The ability to manipulate the underlying sys-
body weight (Chadwick et al., 1988; Gupta et al.,
tems that control body weight has resulted in
1983; Howdeshell et al., 1999; Moser et al., 1995;
many synthetic chemicals being used by the
Pearson & Dutson, 1991; Takahama et al., 1972;
agricultural community to promote animal fat-
Trankina et al., 1985; Yen et al., 1984).
tening and growth. These substances, generallyknown as growth promoters, include such syn-thetic chemicals as antithyroid drugs, corticos-
Effects of toxic chemicals on the sympathetic
teroids, anabolic steroids, organophosphate
pesticides, carbamates, antibacterials, and
To illustrate this, it is worthwhile to consider
ionophores (Pearson & Dutson, 1991; Trankina
the effects of many toxic chemicals on what is
et al., 1985; Yen et al., 1984). Although many of
possibly the key weight-controlling system (the
these substances are now illegal for use as
sympathetic nervous system (Bray, 1993). The
growth promoters, they still are consumed in
sympathetic nervous system, in conjunction with
foods that human beings eat because this prac-
DO CHEMICAL TOXINS CAUSE OBESITY?
tice has not been stopped effectively. Similar
portedly found a positive association between
chemicals also are retained in foods as pesticide
levels of certain toxic chemicals in the chil-
or chemical residues (Pearson & Dutson, 1991).
drens’ and adults body tissues and increased
Many treated nonfood products also confer ex-
body weight in these subjects (Dar et al., 1992;
posure to human beings (Alleva et al., 1998).
Hovinga et al., 1993; Schildkraut et al., 1999;Stellman et al., 1997).
Therefore, it can be posited that the relatively
recent presence of synthetic chemicals in the
Synthetic chemicals are heavily used in med-
environment may be a significant causative fac-
icine to treat certain illnesses because such
tor in the current worldwide obesity epidemic.
chemicals can strongly alter hormone systems,
These chemicals may be causing weight gain
levels of neurotransmitters, and other aspects
via toxic effects on the body’s natural weight-
of general body metabolism. Not surprisingly,
control mechanisms. The very speed of the
in altering these systems, synthetic chemicals
marked increases in the numbers of overweight
can effectively alter the weight set point. This
people, as clearly shown in Figure 1, indicates
has resulted in their previous usage for pro-
that changes in the environment are more likely
moting weight gain in patients with anorexia
to be the source of the obesity epidemic than
(Morley, 1996). And more evidence that syn-
thetic chemicals promote weight gain in hu-
While a link between human exposure to ever-
mans arises from the extremely high number
greater numbers and amounts of synthetic chem-
of synthetic pharmaceuticals that make pa-
icals, which are known to promote weight gain,
tients gain weight, an obviously unwanted
has not yet been established, the coincidence of
side-effect. Such pharmaceuticals include some
the obesity epidemic with the appearance of
medicines commonly used in cardiology, on-
these chemicals in the environment indicates the
cology, psychiatry, and immunology (Baptista,
possibility of a causative relationship.
1999; Chrysant et al, 1991; Simpson et al, 2001;
The idea that many toxic chemicals in foods
and the environment have, in effect, poisoned
the body’s natural weight-control mechanismswould help to explain many of the functionaldifferences found in the weight-control sys-
SUMMARY OF THE HYPOTHESIS
tems of patients who are obese (Wang et al.,2001). This concept would also explain the in-
Being that the levels of synthetic chemicals
congruity of continuing weight gain in hu-
required to cause weight gain are relatively low
mans despite falling food intakes and no ex-
and that they have been administered deliber-
cessive reductions in exercise. The concept also
ately to livestock and patients to produce this
may shed light on the marked failure of food-
effect, it may well be that nondeliberate expo-
restriction diets to effect long-term weight loss.
sure to low levels of contaminants in food and
The extent to which each individual is affected
the environment could have similar results.
could also be significantly related to a given
This would not be too surprising because, de-
individual’s genetic ability to deal with these
spite being generally many times less potent
than natural hormones, many environmental
The high levels of chemotoxins shown to be
contaminants with endocrine-disrupting prop-
present in human fat and breast milk, the ease
erties are currently present in wildlife, in labo-
of transfer through the fetal-maternal blood
ratory animals, and in living human tissues at
barrier and the increased sensitivity of devel-
concentrations that are thousands of times
oping systems to these toxins may also help to
higher than the natural hormones they are de-
explain the increasingly early age at which this
signed to mimic (Alleva et al., 1998).
problem is evident in infants and children and
Evidence that this could be the case comes
the increasing extent to which individuals are
from several studies of adults and children in
now affected (Alleva et al., 1998; Bundred et al.,
free-living populations. Researchers have re-
Research is now needed to investigate which
weight and obese children between 1989 and 1998: Pop-
of the many chemicals in the environment are
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AUSTRALASIAN SOCIETY OF BLOOD TRANSFUSION INC. u Editorial Board Margaret Buring, Wendy Erber, Jim Faed, John Editor's Note This issue of topics is the first for some time and it is hoped it will be the first in a more regular series appearing at quarterly intervals throughout the year. The issue consists of a series of varied topics comprising abstracts from the recent succe
Making sense of antipsychotics (major tranquillisers) Contents Making Sense of antipsychotics What should I know before taking these drugs? What should my doctor take into account? Which type of antipsychotic should I take?Why do people take more than one antipsychotic?Who should avoid taking antipsychotic drugs? The different types of antipsychotic Older antipsychotics Making S