We are surrounded by countless toxins in our environment. They are in our air, food, water, homes, household products, plastics and even in our bodies! They range from naturally occurring substances like venom and certain bacteria to synthetic industrial chemicals and pollutants. The exact number of toxins that exist is not even known.
Toxins can have various effects on us, from immediate and acute damage to long-term health consequences. Toxins can trigger mental health and brain issues.
In this blog, you will learn:
- What toxins are in our environment
- What effects they can have on our mental health
- Which mental health conditions are susceptible to toxins
Exposure to environmental toxins like chemicals, additives, pesticides, air pollutants, fuel emissions, heavy metals and many others can harm the central nervous system and the brain.
To maintain good mental health and brain function, it is vital to minimize exposure to toxins. Let’s take a closer look at mental illness, toxins and what kind of problems they can cause.
What is Mental Illness?
Mental illnesses, or mental health disorders, are a wide range of behavioral or psychological conditions related to mood, thinking, state of mind and behavior. They can affect all aspects of life and create distress for the person suffering from symptoms. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors.
- 1 in every 8 people in the world live with a mental disorder (WHO, 2022).
- Mental disorders involve significant disturbances in thinking, emotional regulation or behavior.
- 300 different mental disorders have been identified by medical professionals (WHO, 2022).
- Anxiety and depression are probably the most common mental health conditions.
What are Toxins?
A toxin is something that is toxic, or dangerous, to our health. Types of toxins include:
- Chemicals: Chemicals are used in foods and food production, personal care products, industrial and household cleaning products, industrial chemicals and more. They include mercury, PAHs, PFCs, DDT, PCBs and many others.
- Household products are a large source of toxin exposure. Examples are pesticides from lawns, chemicals used in carpeting, furniture, house paints, TVs, flame retardants, air fresheners, fabric softener, shower curtains, etc. Non-organic cleaning products, chemicals in plastic food wraps and containers, non-stick cookware and others all contain toxic chemicals.
- In food production, pesticides, hormones, food preservatives and food additives are used.
- Addictive substances like alcohol or drugs are toxins.
- There are naturally-occurring biotoxins that can make us sick, like Lyme disease, Lyme co-infections and toxic mold.
- Environmental toxins and pollutants include car exhaust emissions, other fossil fuel combustion substances, power plants / coal burning, exhaust from industrial processes and plants, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and others.
- In the US, average city tap water contains hundreds of different chemicals.
- Different chemicals can leach into the body from water packaged in plastic bottles.
- Thousands of personal care product ingredients are defined as toxins, carcinogens or hormone disruptors. These include parabens, phthalates, SLS, perfumes, formaldehyde, PFAs and others.
- Heavy metals like mercury, lead, cadmium are toxic to the human body.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, there are countless toxins. These toxins are all detrimental for human health and the environment.
Every toxin that exists is a potential trigger for poor overall health and especially, for poor mental health or brain issues. They can cause issues with cognition and brain function, mood disorders like depression and anxiety and even neurodegenerative diseases.
Some chemicals have been tested for safety. But we know very little about the long-term health effects of most chemicals. All of these chemicals mix with each other, creating ‘a cocktail effect’. And we don’t really know how they affect us and what the effects of these chemicals mixing together are.
There are various causes of mental health issues: they can be genetic, lifestyle or environmental. One analysis found that environmental factors contribute a 55% to 66% risk for major depression, 32% risk for bipolar disorder and 23% risk for schizophrenia (Khan A, 2019).
How Many Toxins Actually Exist?
Estimates suggest that we are exposed to approximately 700,000 different toxic chemicals on a daily basis. According to Global Healing Center, we might be exposed to 2,100,000 toxins every day. The world produces 250 billion tons of up to 150,000 different man-made chemical substances yearly (The World Counts, 2022).
Years ago, a study done on people living in the US found that every person, including newborn babies, has chemicals in their bodies. As long ago as 2005, it was found babies are born with 200 industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides in their bodies (EWG, 2005).
Personal care and cosmetic products are a huge source of toxins. We all use these products every day.
- In 2015 the Environmental Working Group, EWG, found that the average adult uses 9 personal care products a day, with 126 different chemical ingredients (Cohen L, 2019).
- Women are exposed to 168 chemicals every day, which is twice as many as men (Cohen L, 2019).
- The average man uses 5 -7 personal care products a day, including deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo, hair gel, shaving cream, aftershave and lotion (Cohen L, 2019).
- The average woman uses 9 – 12 products and the average teenage girl uses 17 products daily (Cohen L, 2019).
How are Toxins Linked to Mental Health?
Mental health is really about brain health. A healthy brain is less susceptible to mental illness. Toxins, and the resulting neurotoxicity they can cause, can harm the brain. These toxins can negatively affect the nervous system. Over time, with enough toxic exposure, neurotoxicity can eventually disrupt and kill neurons (nerve cells) in the brain. Neurons are vital for transmitting and processing signals in the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Our cells talk to each other and part of this communication is done via neurons in the brain.
Neurotoxicity is caused by exposure to man-made, or natural, toxic substances. These toxic substances are called neurotoxicants. Neurotoxicants interfere with the normal activity of the nervous system.
Neurotoxicity can come from exposure to chemotherapy, radiation treatment, heavy metals (lead, mercury, etc.), certain foods and food additives, pesticides, industrial chemicals, cleaning solvents, cosmetics and some naturally occurring biotoxins like toxic mold or the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Pesticides, metals, solvents, natural substances and industrial chemicals are all neurotoxicants which can cause damage.
Environmental chemicals can contribute to the development of neuropsychiatric disorders (Costa, 2017). Symptoms may appear straight away or may be delayed. They include changes in memory / memory loss and cognitive or behavioral problems.
Exposure to toxins increases the risk of:
- Anxiety disorders
- ADD / ADHD
- Learning and developmental problems
- Memory problems and memory loss
- Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
- Brain fog
- Temper outbursts
- Bipolar disorder
- Psychotic behavior
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Examples of toxins causing mental health problems include:
- Biotoxins are chemical substances produced by bacteria, plants and fungi that are toxic to humans. Examples are the Borrelia burgdorferi Lyme-causing bacterium and toxic mold mycotoxins. The infections or conditions caused by these biotoxins can cause mental health issues. This is commonly seen with Lyme disease and its co-infections. This is especially true if Lyme goes undiagnosed, is misdiagnosed or becomes chronic. Toxic mold is another biotoxin that can also have mental health implications. The immune activation from toxic mold exposure can cause cognitive and emotional dysfunction including anxiety, depression and cognitive deficits (Harding CF, 2020).
- Toxic metabolic encephalopathy is a type of encephalopathy or altered mental state. It is brain dysfunction caused by toxic exposure. It is caused by toxins, such as solvents, some gases (carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, cyanide) and heavy metals that can affect the brain and behavior (Frontera JA, 2021).
- The heavy metal mercury is bio accumulative and collects in the body. It is difficult to remove it from the body. Exposure to mercury can cause headaches, anxiety, memory issues, mood swings and more. Neurological damage from toxic mercury exposure could be permanent in some people.
- Exposure to heavy metals (cadmium chloride in particular) causes severe anxiety disorders (Ma J, 2019). High levels of lead and chromium are associated with a higher risk of schizophrenia (Ma J, 2019)
- Exposure to environmental toxins; cigarette smoke, polluted air and pesticides, can negatively impact brain health, leading to cognitive decline and an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease (Kumar NN, 2023).
- Neurodevelopmental disorders include autism, ADHD, dyslexia and other cognitive issues. Industrial chemicals, and the damage they can cause to the brain, are a known cause for the increase in these conditions (Grandjean P, 2014). Several industrial chemicals, including lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), arsenic, fluoride and others, have been found to be neurotoxicants (Grandjean P, 2014).
- Air pollution contains gases, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, metals, diesel emissions and contaminants generated by cars and industrial activity. These different pollutants cumulatively have a negative effect on the nervous system (Khan A, 2019). Air pollution is significantly associated with increased risk of psychiatric disorders, bipolar disorder and major depression (Khan A, 2019). These pollutants affect the brain via neuroinflammatory pathways that can cause depression (Khan A, 2019).
- One study on sheep farmers with a history of low-level exposure to pesticides found they were more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression than people with no exposure to these pesticides (Harrison V, 2016).
- Organophosphate pesticides (OPs) are the most widely used pesticides in the world and are harmful to health. OPs are associated with higher risk of neuropsychiatric disorders. Their neurotoxic effects involve changes in central nervous system function resulting in potential cognitive and psychiatric symptoms. OPs disrupt neurotransmitters, like serotonin, which is important for mood regulation and this can explain the link between pesticide exposure and mood disorders (Harrison V, 2016).
- Glyphosate is the most used herbicide in agriculture. It has a damaging effect on the gut microbiome and on good gut bacteria (Rueda-Ruzafa L, 2019). Glyphosate can cause dysbiosis, which is a gut imbalance with too much bad gut bacteria and too little good bacteria. Through the gut-brain axis, an overgrowth of bad bacteria can generate toxins in the brain. Glyphosate triggers gut dysbiosis and disrupts the brain. It contributes to emotional, neurological and neurodegenerative disorders (Rueda-Ruzafa L, 2019).
- In mice, exposure to Glyphosate increased anxiety and depression-like behaviors (Aitbali Y, 2018). Glyphosate decreased the amount of good gut bacteria like Firmicutes, Bacteroidetes and Lactobacillus. As a result, Glyphosate toxicity and gut dysbiosis it causes can increase mood disorders such as anxiety and depression (Aitbali Y, 2018)
- Toxins trigger neuroinflammatory and excitotoxic processes in the brain (Khan A, 2019). This means the toxins create inflammatory and chemical reactions in the brain. This is linked to psychiatric disorders generally and to bipolar disorder in particular (Khan A, 2019). Certain cells in the brain, called microglia, become activated and secrete pro-inflammatory substances when the brain is injured. The brains of bipolar disorder patients show more neuroinflammation and increased excitotoxicity compared to people who do not have bipolar disorder (Khan A, 2019).
How Do Toxins Damage the Brain and Contribute to Mental Illness?
- Toxins cause systemic inflammation. This inflammation can be in the brain, which leads to mental health imbalances and mood issues.
- Toxins can disrupt the endocrine system and interfere with hormones. This can lead to hormonal imbalances, which can increase the risk of depression, anxiety and panic attacks.
- Toxins can damage the immune system, increasing the risk of autoimmune disorders, anxiety, depression and even psychosis.
- They can disturb the gut microbiome, which may lead to leaky gut and mood and anxiety disorders, ADD/ADHD, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
- Toxins can damage DNA, speed up aging of the brain and lead to mood issues, anxiety, irritability, temper, irrational behavior and memory issues.
- Toxins can damage organs, such as the brain, the gut, liver and kidneys. Organ damage means the body’s detoxification system is less able to detoxify toxins out, leading to an even greater buildup of toxins.
- Toxins can alter gene expression by possibly turning on harmful genes and/or turning off beneficial ones.
- They can damage cell membranes and the important communication that takes place between cells.
There are, of course, other factors involved in mental health. These include adverse childhood experiences, abuse, trauma, neglect, social isolation/ loneliness, stigma, deprivation and other difficult experiences. These life events, along with other environmental factors, influence whether a person will develop a mental health issue. These factors affect the onset, progression and recurrence of mental health disorders.
Toxin exposure is one environmental factor that can have extreme health consequences. The low-grade chronic inflammation seen with mental health disorders may be partially due to toxin exposure. Gut health has a huge effect on mental health and can be significantly and negatively impacted by toxins.
Given the loose regulation of man-made toxins and chemicals, the best approach is to protect yourself against toxic exposures. Learn how to read food labels. Limit your exposure to chemicals and toxins. Think about what you are putting on and in your body. Avoid unnecessary toxins in your household and environment. We will help you to do just this in our next blog.
- Mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and many others, are a growing health concern.
- We are exposed to countless dangerous toxins every day, which have real consequences for short-term and long-term health.
- Toxins create neuroinflammation, cause damage to tissue and brain function, interfere with important inter-cellular communication, disrupt the gut and the gut brain axis and can possibly change DNA and gene the damage expression by possibly turning on harmful genes and/or turning off beneficial ones.
- Toxin exposure can have extreme health consequences both in the short term and the long term. Being over-exposed to toxins is an important causative factor in the development of mental health disorders.
** Follow us for our next blog on important information on how to minimize exposure to toxins, as well as how to detox toxins from the body **
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