Are Non-Organic Foods, Perfumes, & Everyday Chemicals Keeping You Fat?
By Dr. Lindsey Berkson
Worldwide obesity is an epidemic and a conundrum for adults and children of all ages. The commonly believed causes—eating more and moving less—don’t explain the entire epidemic or why losing weight today is much more difficult to achieve than it was in the 1980s.
When I practiced with Dr. Block in Tulsa, an internist who had been in practice for over 50 years, I asked him what was the most common health issue he ran into over all those years. Without skipping a beat Dr. Block scratched his bald head and answered, “Resistant fat. It’s difficult for most people to lose weight.” Resistant fat refers to trying diligently to lose weight by any means you can, but you can’t.
What’s going on?
One factor that is different is that today we live in a chemical soup. Many of these chemicals cause fat cells to be larger, to grow larger faster, and to be more resistant to breaking down.
I wrote one of the first books on endocrine disruption, Hormone Deception (McGraw-Hill) to inform the public about health issues with chemicals in our food, air, and water. Studies were showing that amniotic fluid in many healthy pregnant women is now filled with dangerous environmental chemicals. These are chemicals from perfumes, personal-care products, pesticides, fungicides and more.
Umbilical cord blood studies show that higher levels of chemicals (meaning your infant was exposed to them inside your womb), the fatter the outcome of your child across all ages. The higher the levels of chemicals, like DDT and plastic metabolites, in the cord blood, the more your baby or your grandbabies are at risk of becoming obese infants, kids, and adults.
Much of this awareness began in the mid-2000s. In 2005, Dr. Mike Skinner, at his laboratory in Washington State University, injected pregnant female rats with a mixture of common chemicals that you and your kids are exposed to regularly. Exposing pregnant rats to everyday pollutants—such as jet fuel, plastics, fungicides and pesticides—made the babies of these mice fatter.
Bisphenol A, known as BPA, is used to line food cans (even organic food cans) and for white dental fillings. It lines many city water pipes. Phthalates are found in most perfumes, nail polish, wood stains, and on and on. The researchers exposed pregnant mice to these chemical mixes and then followed two generations of their baby rodents. Approximately 10 percent of the third-generation rats descended from the exposed females were obese.
When Skinner and his team exposed the pregnant rats to DDT, a pesticide used widely in the U.S. before it was banned in the 1970s (I remember as a kid running through DDT spray used to kill mosquitos), by the third generation 50 percent of the entire population of both male and female rodents were obese.
There’s probably no pregnant women in the 1950s that weren’t exposed to DDT. These exposures may be contributing to today’s human obesity epidemic. The “sins of the father” kind of thing.
I have girlfriends who were born to moms in the late 1940s and the 1950s, many of whom have children that just can’t seem to lose weight. Or if they do lose some through gargantuan efforts, they keep gaining it back. And more.
Dr. Bruce Blumberg was a scientist I met and interviewed when I wrote Hormone Deception. Dr. Blumberg learned at a professional meeting in Japan that tributyltin (TBT), a chemical painted on boats to prevent organisms from growing on hulls, caused sex reversal in fish. Males became females and vice versa. Blumberg was shocked that chemicals could cause gender-bending.
Dr. Blumberg went back home to his laboratory at UCLA at Irvine, California. He creatively decided to test TBT’s effects on their entire collection of banked hormone receptors. Hormones are proteins that deliver signals to other proteins in the shape of satellite dishes waiting to receive these signals. UCLA had a huge bank of every kind of receptor for hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, insulin, cortisol, etc.
To their astonishment, Blumberg’s team found that this chemical, this simple paint-on fungicide that he heard about in Japan, activated a receptor on fat cells called PPARγ (pronounced as PPAR gamma). This receptor is the” master regulator” of fat cell behavior. Tributyltin made fat cells fatter. Many of the generations from exposed pregnant animals to TBT became fatter.
Dr. Blumberg and a colleague Dr. Felix Grün set about to write a review of the science, in 2006, on chemicals that can make you, your kids and me, resistantly fat. They named these chemicals obesogens. This caught people’s attention. There are now many obesogens that have been found to affect many of the hormones that influence how fat we get and how fats (lipids) act inside our body.
Obesogens and the adrenal hormone cortisol: One example is the adrenal hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a glucocorticoid. Many of us have seen the commercials that say too much cortisol makes too much belly fat. Well, numerous obesogens are chemicals now proven to disrupt glucocorticoid activity. They make cortisol misbehave and they can make us fat. And more prone to heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and even cancer.
There is a growing list of obesogens. They may be in use today in the U.S., or banned here but the EPA still allows some to get in on imported foods, or new ones are still being discovered.
Through the combined effort of researchers from China and California, 12 chemicals were studied and found to block and disrupt genes that control healthy cortisol release. For you geeks out there, these genes are called H4IIE and J774A. These cortisol disrupters were: Bifenthrin, λ-cyhalothrin, cypermethrin, resmethrin, o,p’-DDT, p,p’-DDT, methoxychlor, ethiofencarb, and tolylfluanid. This list keeps growing.
Chinese research found that preteen girls with higher levels of BPA in their urine were fatter than girls with less BPA metabolites in their urine. BPA is now shown to disrupt the oxytocin receptor. Oxytocin is known as the love hormone. But this hormone also helps us have healthy portion control, burn fuel off as fat, as well as feel calm with our world and our amygdala (center of emotional reactions). When this is disrupted, we can experience more anxiety and want to eat more to soothe it.
Obesogens and insulin resistance: Chemicals that make fat misbehave also can contribute to insulin being less responsive to glucose. This means they can increase your risk of becoming insulin resistant. According to a growing number of scientists and medical doctors like the nephrologist Dr. Jason Fung in Toronto, Canada, insulin resistance is being regarded as the true root cause of type-2 diabetes and obesity. Insulin resistance also causes non-alcoholic liver disease, which is on the increase and is being linked to causing type-2 diabetes downstream.
Many chemicals and heavy metals in today’s toxic soup promote insulin resistance in fat and other cells. This means you try to eat less and move more, but your toxic misbehaving fat cells won’t budge.
Tolylfluanid is a frightening example. In 2012 at the Endocrine Society 94th annual meeting in Houston, Texas, Dr. Robert Sargis, M.D. Ph.D., shared his team’s research that linked this fungicide, tolylfluanid, to insulin resistance. This fungicide induced insulin resistance in fat cells. Insulin resistant fat cells behave badly and sadly and stick to your hips.
But how tolylfluanid possibly ends up in your child’s lunch box is a convoluted story. It had been banned in the U.S. because it was found to cause thyroid tumors in rats as well as kidney damage. So it’s not sprayed on crops within the United States. But, in September 2002, the EPA issued what is called, confusingly, an “import tolerance” regulation on tolylfluanid. This means that even though it’s banned here, it isn’t elsewhere, and we let those products in. That means that imported apples, juice made from those apples, as well as juice made from those grapes, head lettuce, and tomatoes, can be sold at your local supermarket and end up in your kid’s food and favorite drinks. The food sold at the lunch room at your kid’s school can be chock full of tolyfluanid. In these other countries where it is still used, it can be sprayed on these crops up to 15 times a season!
It’s also on hops that is purchased to make beer or packaged as hops herbs in vitamin bottles. So here you are taking a swig of some brew or some pills to help you sleep, and you may be getting a dose of tolylfluanid!
With Trump signing a gag-order on the EPA to not take research into consideration in marketing pesticides (April 4th 2017), who knows what’s next going to end up on your table? The healthiest choice is to buy completely organic.
Obesogens and the metabolic syndrome: Obesogens can make us store more fat, make more fat cells, get fatter faster, handle calories differently than our forefathers, and have more risk of developing the metabolic syndrome. The metabolic syndrome is a constellation of at least 3 out of 5 issues: central body obesity, high blood pressure, elevated fasting blood sugar, elevated triglycerides, and insufficient good cholesterol. Having three of these puts you more at risk of developing heart disease or type-2 diabetes. Various chemicals found in your everyday life can damage hormone receptors that play a key role in protecting you against the factors linked to getting the metabolic syndrome.
Obesogens and epigenetic changes, like methylation issues in your tissues: Obesogens can also cause methylation issues in generations to come, meaning they can cause epigenetic changes. This can make your children, as they grow, more at risk of a wide variety of diseases, from allergies and ADHD to cancer and other serious disorders, like fibromyalgia and resistant Lyme disease.
Okay, enough with the bad news. You are by now probably saying to yourself, What do we do to protect ourselves and our loved ones?
You can shop smarter, but not smart enough.
We need to take action.
Here are 10 tips to reduce your exposure to obesogens and help you lose weight more effectively. You can also read much more about protective actions in my books Hormone Deception and SEXY BRAIN.
10 Tips to Help Reduce Obesogen Exposure and To Help Lose Resistant Fat:
- Eat organically. It’s worth the extra cost.
- Don’t microwave in plastic, store food in plastic, or put plastic containers in the dishwasher. Small micro scratches occur that you cannot see but that release obesogens into the food and water you put into the plastic containers after being washed.
- Don’t wear perfumes that contain phthalates.
- Don’t have laminate floors.
- Do gentle daily detox steps, such as exercising till you sweat, taking antioxidants.
- Do professional several day to one-week detoxes, one to three times a year, for deep body-housecleaning.
- Eat at restaurants only as a treat, as foods in most restaurants aren’t organic. Or find restaurants that use organic foods, for example the Jason’s Deli and Whole Foods near my home have a mostly organic salad bars.
- Move more, eat less, and eat more plant-based foods. The saturated fat in most animal meats and milks store many of these obesogens.
- Eat less processed foods. Whole foods have less chemicals and more nutrients.
- Avoid sugar, sugar filled sodas, fruit juice, and pastry goods as sugary foods work in consort with obesogens to keep you fatter.
BMC Medicine, 11:228, 2013. Ancestral dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) exposure promotes epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of obesity.
Hormone Deception, Berkson, McGraw-Hill 2001 1st ed. Awakened Medicine Press Eds. 2 and 3 2015, 2017.
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ScienceDaily, 23 June 2014. Endocrine Society. “Exposure to fungicide, tolyfluanid, disrupts energy metabolism.”
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Endocrinology, 156:896-910, 2015. Dietary exposure to the endocrine disruptor tolyfluanid promotes global metabolic dysfunction in male mice.
JAMA, 308:1113-21, 2012. Association between urinary bisphenol A concentration and obesity prevalence in children and adolescents D.-K.
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SEXY BRAIN Berkson Awakened Medicine Press 2017.