Most consumers realize that what kind of food they eat affects their physical health. Fewer people give much thought to the fact that eating habits can also affect mental health. However, scientists have recently begun to uncover an insidious connection between the chemicals found in food and recent increases in serious mental health disorders.
Diet and Depression
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that over 17 million American adults have suffered at least one major depressive episode. The connection between depression and brain chemistry has long been accepted in scientific communities, but it is only recently that researchers have begun to evaluate how what people eat might be affecting depression. Turns out, there’s definitely a connection.
What people eat affects their gut microbiomes, meaning the beneficial bacteria that aide in digestion. Certain foods, including chemical-laden processed goods, kill off those beneficial bacteria, but it doesn’t just cause digestive problems. According to researchers with the Flemish Gut Flora Project, it also affects mental health.
The researchers studied the gut microbiomes of over 1,000 participants and correlated the concentrations of different microbes with quality of life and incidences of depression. What they found was that people with depression had consistently lower levels of two bacterial groups, Coproccus and Dialister, than happy people.
The Pesticide Problem
One 2014 study performed by the National Institute of Health further illuminated the problem by uncovering a connection between the pesticides in food produced with conventional agriculture and mental health. They studied 84,000 farmers and their spouses over the course of 20 years, documenting which pesticides they used and what physical and mental health problems they developed. What the study found was that the use of organochlorine insecticides and fumigants increased the farmers’ depression risk by between 80 and 90%.
Since then, over a dozen further studies have shown that it isn’t just farmers who suffer when these chemicals are used in food production. Even low-level of exposure can impair cognitive function, meaning that consumers of non-organic foods are also at risk.
Pesticides and the Endocrine System
The body’s gut microbiome isn’t the only thing that suffers when exposed to chemical pesticides. Ingesting chemicals, even in very small doses, also disrupts the endocrine system, responsible for hormone regulation. More specifically, 30 out of 37 tested brands of pesticides either increased or decreased levels of the male hormone androgen.
The EPA now runs a program called the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program. The program has tested over 200 chemicals found in both food and drinking water to determine their effects on the endocrine system. However, the program does not ban those pesticides and other chemicals that disrupt hormone regulation. It only offers information about their risks, leaving consumers to make the decision as to whether it’s worth the risk for themselves.
The Bottom Line
Just a few decades ago, those few nutritionists, doctors, and scientists who pointed out the potential dangers of non-organic food to mental health were considered a fringe movement. Today, research is supporting their ideas and more people than ever are going organic. Anyone who suffers from depression should absolutely consider getting their gut microbiomes back in balance by making the switch to organic, pesticide-free food.