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The Toxic Chemicals Most Linked to Depression

Although 17 million Americans suffer from depression, no one knows for sure what causes it. Theories range from biochemical imbalances to stress to genetics.

Recently, however, depression has been linked to a relatively new phenomenon: exposure to a wide array of environmental toxins. We're all exposed to pollutants--in our food, air, homes, environment, etc.--and over time these toxins accumulate in our systems.

Exposure to pesticides has been linked with increased rates of depression.

"Environmental toxins have only increased over the past 50 years and have been found in everything from grit on the ground to the makeup a woman uses to powder her nose. Pesticides, toxic mold and harsh chemical cleaners have all become more prevalent in our country and also in many of our homes," says Dr. Harry Wong, clinical director of the Physicians Plus Medical Group, a medical clinic in the San Francisco Bay Area. "We often see patients who have feelings of depression and one of the first things we suspect is an environmental influence."

Dr. Wong and like-minded practitioners, including the University Pathology Consortium, a not-for-profit academic consortium founded and owned by the medical school departments of six leading universities, including Stanford, are part of a growing group who believe an underlying cause of depression may be exposure to toxins, and, over time, a toxic overload to the system.

Environmental Chemicals Linked to Depression

You may be surprised at the number of chemicals out there that have been linked to depression. Here are some of the best known, and most widespread.

Common Symptoms of Depression

Depression is a change in mood that lasts for weeks, months or more and disrupts your ability to perform your normal activities. Symptoms include:

  • Feeling sad or blue
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain
  • Inability to sleep or excessive sleeping
  • Agitation or irritability
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Pesticides: It's well known that farmers, who work with pesticides regularly and at higher levels than the general population, have an increased rate of depression. In fact, according to a study published in the Annals of Epidemiology, farmers exposed to pesticides have nearly a six-fold increased risk of suffering from depressive symptoms.

Further, a specific class of pesticides called organophosphates, which are known to be highly neurotoxic, were involved in a revealing disaster back in 1994-1996. The pesticide methyl parathion, which is only approved for outdoor agricultural uses, was illegally sprayed inside Mississippi and Ohio homes by unlicensed pest control operators. More than 1,500 homes and businesses were sprayed, which resulted in the temporary relocation of 1,100 people and the closure of eight day care centers, one restaurant and two hotels.

A study published in Health and Social Work to monitor the depressive symptoms of the victims years later found that more than half the victims interviewed reported depressive symptoms at levels high enough to suggest probable clinical depression.

Want to decrease your pesticide exposure? Follow these tips:

  • Buy certified organic fruits, vegetables and meats (be sure to wash produce, particularly commercially grown produce, thoroughly before eating using a diluted soap solution)

  • Avoid the use of toxic pesticides in your home and yard (opt for natural pesticides that you can find in your local health food store instead)

  • Don't use pesticides for aesthetic purposes like killing dandelions in your lawn

  • Don't use chemical bug repellants, flea treatments or lice shampoos

Environmental pollutants: These toxins, which are especially toxic indoors and can make indoor air two to five times, and up to 100 times, more polluted than outdoor air, can result in psychological problems like depression. Sources of such toxins include: buildings materials, furnishings, cleaning agents, pesticides, printing and copying devices, combustion appliances, tobacco products, allergens, fungi, molds, bacteria, viruses, radon and lead.

In fact, according to Thomas Benjamin, president of the Environmental Alliance for Senior Involvement, "Areas with serious air pollution problems ... may cause stress, anxiety, and depression in addition to physical problems"--particularly for the elderly, children or those with weakened immune systems.

And, Dr. Doris Rapp, author of Our Toxic World: A Wake-Up Call, warns that "Environmental illness can be every bit as real as that caused by germs ... and can trigger serious physical, neurological, and psychological problems." She says symptoms of environmental illness can include "increased fatigue, moodiness, depression, irritability, hyperactivity, aggression, and an inability to focus and remember."

Prescription Drugs: Some commonly prescribed drugs can actually lead to depression, including some in these drug classes:

  • Barbituates
  • Tranquilizers & sleeping pills
  • Heart Drugs with reserpine
  • Beta-blockers
  • High blood pressure drugs
  • Ulcer drugs
  • Systemic corticosteroids
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Anti-Parkinson drugs
  • Antibiotics
  • Some painkillers
  • Contraceptive pills

Each of these drug classes contributes to depression in a different way. In the case of antibiotics and drugs that contain cortisone, Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D. says, "The more often you take antibiotics or cortisone-containing drugs, the more disturbed your natural balance of intestinal flora. The medical term for this is dysbiosis." And two of the most common complaints of people suffering form dysbiosis are depression and fatigue.

It is possible to reduce your reliance on drugs as you see fit by strengthening your immune system with a healthy diet containing plenty of fruits and vegetables (not eating healthy enough? Try the immune-enhancing Fruits of Life: Potent Cellular Protection), reducing stress and getting adequate sleep. Plus, if you have pain, rather than taking a painkiller, you can try one of these eight non-drug methods to treat your pain.

Solvents: Solvents, including those found in detergents, dry-cleaning fluids, perfumes, polystyrene cups, plates and packaging, synthetic rubber, some cosmetics and cleaning supplies, have been linked to neurological disorders including depression. In fact, according to the American Lung Association, "Most organic solvents affect the central nervous system, primarily the brain."

Your best chances at avoiding exposure to solvents is to diligently seek out natural alternatives when it comes to cleaning products, cosmetics and other household needs. There are even environmentally friendly dry cleaners out there that don't use toxic solvents on your clothing.

Heavy Metals Like Lead, Mercury: Exposure to lead and mercury have also been linked to depression. Lead, whose major sources include lead-based paint, leaded gasoline, lead-contaminated water, manufacturing of lead batteries, rubber products, glass and other lead-containing products, and lead oxide fumes that result when demolishing industrial buildings, has also been linked to depression. Further, it's estimated that 64 million homes in the United States still contain lead paint.

According to Steven Marcus, MD, executive director of the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System, "Adults with lead poisoning have increased incidences of depression ... " Further, in a study of foundry workers, who are exposed to lead at their jobs, those with high blood lead levels had an increased rate of depression.

In terms of mercury, one proposed route of mercury exposure is via dental amalgams, which include mercury. In one Norwegian study, 47 percent of patients with dental amalgam fillings reported suffering from major depression, compared with only 14 percent in the control group.

And another study, published in Neuroendocrinology Letters, found that removal of mercury fillings resulted in improvements in 70 percent of those who suffered from mercury-related health problems like depression.

We're also exposed to mercury via our diets, particularly through eating mercury-tainted fish. To lower your exposure, you may want to avoid fish that contains mercury (to get the health benefits of fish, though, try the highly recommended Icelandic Olde World Cod Liver Oil.) You should also consider having any dental amalgams you have removed by a qualified dentist.

Recommended Reading

The Six Keys to Help You Prevent Cancer

The Health Dangers of Phenols Found in Common Household Cleaners


Mental Health Matters: Toxins may be Linked to Depression

American Lung Association: Solvents in the Workplace

Lead Toxicity

eMedicine Health: Depression

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