Friday, March 27, 2015

Chemical Dependency Starts in the Soil

Soils treated with agrochemicals produce
 crops that lack nutritional complexity.
Consumers eating such crops may experience
cravings even after caloric needs are
      Growing up in the 70's, I learned early on about the most universally recognized forms of chemical dependency.  In our community, we were exposed to a small number of people who drank too much, smoked too much, or ingested too many hallucinogenic compounds.  We learned that those people were dependent on chemicals, and that this was not good.  I learned to avoid those people.  As time passed, I heard theories that their behavior was caused by a disease, and that nutrition and lifestyle could influence outcomes.
     Whether I continued to avoid addicts and out of false piety, or in a spirit of self preservation, really doesn't matter because in the end, despite my avoidance behavior, I soon developed some chemical dependencies of my own.   
Table sugar, sucrose, is a purified chemical that 
interacts with the same dopamine receptors in the 
brain as alcohol and cocaine.
     Starting, I think, in my teens, I began noticing an excessive attraction to sugars. For those who doubt the intensity with which one can crave sugar, allow me to point out that this molecule affects the same dopamine receptors in the brain as nicotine, cocaine, and alcohol (Bilton, 2013).  We don't know what makes one person crave a substance more intensely than another, but I can tell you that I craved sugar and the baked goods that contained sugars constantly.  Sometimes I controlled my cravings well.  Other times, I did not. But the cravings themselves were, and still are, a constant distraction to me.  
     Nearly thirty years ago, I saw a nutritionist who suggested that my cravings came from eating a bad diet, and that when I was receiving all the nutrients my body needed, my cravings would go away.  She encouraged eating organics, recommended more supplements than I could afford, and said that the food we were eating had too many chemicals in it to be good for us. I rejected the notion of too many chemicals, because, well, quite frankly, food is made of chemicals.  Proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and other substances found in foods are all chemicals. As for too many synthetic chemicals, well, I was a student in a college of agriculture at the time, and I was learning the many assessments, rules, and regulations that went into assuring us that the chemicals used in agriculture were safe.  I was learning the biochemical reactions with which otherwise toxic chemicals were degraded into harmless forms by bacteria in the soil.  I was learning that the really toxic, ecologically persistent chemicals had already been banned.  And I was learning that our agrochemical technologies were the force that enabled us to lead the world in agricultural production, feeding ourselves while helping other nations as global populations continued to grow.
     Okay, so I was also naive.  I did not understand the biases that drove modern sciences, university educational processes, or foreign aid programs.  I was part of a culture that valued fast, cheap, and easy food.  And since none of my friends and family were experiencing the kinds of cravings I had, it was simply easier to believe that something was wrong with me, than to believe that something was wrong with our entire food system and the agencies that regulated it.    
      So I spent the decades that followed using white knuckled willpower to resist cravings, buying the largest, most colorful produce and the leanest meats the grocery store could offer, and doing my best to manage my weight.  I started drinking diet soft drinks in an effort to satisfy my sweet cravings without adding calories.  Soon, I craved the diet soft drinks as much, perhaps even more, than I craved the sugar itself.  I also spent a fortune on dietary supplements I hoped would help me get the nutrients I needed while I restricted my diet.  Though my collective efforts probably saved me from life threatening levels of obesity, I never managed to stay thin, and none of the so called whole foods I bought from the grocery store or from conventional farms ever reduced my cravings.  Often, when stressed or tired, I gave in to processed foods rich in sugars. 
     Other chemical dependencies I've dealt with over the years were fostered by medical doctors.  I recall one MD who convinced me, in the mid 80's, that if I did not take my asthma inhaler 4X
daily, for the rest of my life, my lungs would build up scar tissue and my asthma would get progressively worse. I took an inhaler daily for about 12 years before I recognized that I'd fallen for a line of nonsense, and began to relieve my own wheezing episodes with a homemade mixture of lemon, lavender, and peppermint essential oil.  

       During the years that I conducted research in natural product chemistry and
microbial ecology, my eyes slowly opened to what the nutritionist had tried to explain to me decades earlier.  With each essential oil analysis, metabolic profile, or metagenomic assay that I ran, I became more aware that a key difference between the synthetic chemicals we manufacture, and those natural products we find in our soil, our food, and our cells, is that natural products typically contain balanced mixtures of thousands of chemicals, while synthetic products contain only one or a few chemicals.  This is significant because the microbiomes and cellular enzymes that regulate our metabolism and protect us from our environment work most efficiently in the presence of complex natural product mixtures.  When a microbiome is fed a relatively pure chemical mixture, some species within the microbiome are fed, while others are poisoned. The microbes that are fed will grow and reproduce, bringing with them an increased demand for the chemical they feed on.  Microbes are quite capable of stimulating cravings in their host.  Those microbes that are poisoned will be eliminated, and therefore unable to regulate the growth of competing microbes.  The result? an imbalanced ecosystem that cannot properly regulate metabolism.  An ecosystem, including the microbiome and the people or other hosts that interact with it, that is dependent on the addition of new chemicals. 
     When I began eating organic, I saw my cravings reduced.  There was not enough organic food in my community, so I had to get serious about home food production.  When I began growing my food own food at home, I was astounded by the difference in flavor between even the organic market produce and produce fresh off the vine.  I found very unexpected foods, like parsley and beets, which I had never even liked in the past, not only tasted delicious, but also left me satisfied.  This was remarkable, since food in the past had perhaps never left me satisfied.  Soon I observed that during those seasons when my victory garden was producing, I could go for days eating fresh produce and experiencing no cravings.  
     Today I believe the origins of many of our chemical dependencies (both biological and economic) including food cravings, classic drug addictions, and those medical conditions that drive us to seek pharmaceuticals, are influenced in no small part by the soil in which we grow, and the chemicals with which we process, our food.  We know
Ammonium nitrate is among the most common
fertilizer ingredients.   Used to address soil nitrogen
deficiencies, it can reduce the potential for soil microbes
to fix atmospheric nitrogen. 
from studies like the Great Prairie Soil Metagenome Grand Challenge
which compared microbiomes from native and agricultural soils, that farming practices like the addition of chemical fertilizers are associated with soil that lacks nitrogen fixing bacteria, and that exhibits an abundance of denitrifying bacteria.  Such soils are not capable of accumulating enough nitrogen from the atmosphere to produce crops.  These soils are are dependent on chemical fertilizers.  
     In theory, any agrochemical that offsets the balance (the ratio of one chemical to another) of naturally occurring biochemicals beyond natural thresholds can overwhelm the structure and function of a microbiome, selectively feeding some microbes while reducing the growth of others.  A few possible results? 

  1. Crops that fails to satisfy nutritional needs of those that consume them. 
  2. Crops that leave consumers craving substances in response to metabolic imbalances. 
  3. Increased risk of physical or mental illness (resulting from inadequate nutrition).
  4. Increased soil demand for fertilizer
  5. Increased food production costs 

    Yet just as a genuine drug addict tends to minimize his or her addiction, we as a society tend to ignore and minimize the negative impacts that chemicals in our food and health care systems are having on our health, our environment, and the economy that is created when healthy people interact with productive ecosystems.  We see the chemicals as solutions to our problems, much as the classic addict sees the drug as a solution.  Until we, as a society, resolve to break our addiction to chemicals, I fear we will continue to see ecosystems decline, healthcare costs increase, and economies struggle. 

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