Chemical dependence begins in the soil where our food is grown.
Chemical Dependency Is About So Much More Than Recreational Drugs
Growing up on the edge of Generation X, I learned early on about the most universally recognized forms of chemical dependency. In our community, we were exposed to a 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 this was not good. I learned to avoid those people.
As time passed, I heard theories that their dependent behavior, their addiction, was caused by a disease, and that nutrition and lifestyle could influence outcomes. I continued to avoid addicts, and believed I had chosen a better path. Yet despite my efforts to avoid their addictions, I soon developed some chemical dependencies of my own. Starting in my teen years, 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 sugar, while another seeks nicotine and a third seeks a shot of whiskey. 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. Regardless of whether or not I gave in to temptation, the cravings themselves were a constant distraction to me.
A Search for Relief from Sugar Cravings Led me to Consider Natural Health Alternatives
Nearly thirty years ago, I saw a natural health specialist in a local herb shop who suggested that my sugar cravings and other problems I was having (mood swings, chronic insomnia, hormonal imbalances, abdominal pains, and allergies) came from eating foods I bought at the grocery store, 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!
Now any of you think that eating organics is challenging today did not try eating organics in 1986! Other than a smattering of tiny apples and dried, tasteless fruits and nuts in health food stores, there was simply nothing on the market. The local farmers were all using pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
I was young, fresh out of college, and anxious to pay off that student loan I borrowed to finance my last semester in college. I wanted a job that would afford me a house with a few acres, and a few horses. I simply did not want to spend all my time and all my money looking for, buying, growing, or preparing complicated herb teas and organic foods. After trying some of the teas and supplements she recommended, I recognized that her way of doing things required lifestyle changes I simply wasn’t prepared to adopt at the time. It seemed cheaper and more convenient to see a physician that was covered with my HMO, and rely on prescription drugs. I rejected her 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 had just graduated from a college of agriculture! I had already studied the many assessments, rules, and regulations that went into assuring us that the chemicals used in agriculture were safe. It’s not like we were using DDT! 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 that new environmental standards made the chemicals we were using, chemicals like glyphosate, safe. So even though this herbalist confidently assured me that no one in the tribal community where she grew up ever experienced the problems I was presenting, and even though I wanted desperately to start feeling better, her arguments against the food I was eating were simply overruled by the economics of cheap, convenient food, and the kind of knowledge I had absorbed from the university. In 1896, I did not understand the biases that drove modern sciences, government agencies, and university educators to promote adoption of chemical technologies. I simply could not believe that public institutions in the Land of the Free would allow citizens to eat foods that were bad for our health. I had totally embraced that twentieth century culture that valued fast, cheap food, a college degree, and a job with a paycheck. And since none of my friends and family were experiencing the kinds of sugar cravings and health complications that I presented, 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 ignored the herbalist’s advice, and spent the decades that followed using white knuckled willpower to resist cravings. I tried hard to follow the USDA food pyramid and other widely accepted nutritional advice. I made an effort to by the freshest, largest, most colorful produce in the supermarket, and the leanest meats available. I did my best to manage my weight. I drank diet soft drinks 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. Though my collective efforts probably saved me from life threatening levels of obesity, I never managed to stay thin, I always had something that hurt, and none of the so called whole foods I bought from the grocery store or from conventional farms ever reduced my cravings. Too often, when stressed or tired, I gave in to processed foods rich in sugars. Over time, this failure to manage my diet and weight took a toll on my own self confidence, and impacted my relationships with others.
Fast Forward to the 21st Century
I don’t know how three decades flew by so quickly, but a lot has changed since 1986.
It is worth noting that the glyphosate we considered safe in the 1980’s is being questioned by independent scientists around the world today. Dr. Alex Vasquez has gone as far as to assert that “no chemical has done more to promote disease” than this herbicide that has been widely used by farmers, homeowners, and groundskeepers for decades.
It is also worth noting that the lady with the herb shop that I saw in 1986 is now a medical doctor and a internationally recognized expert in natural and alternative health.
Some Chemical Dependencies are Initiated by Physicians
Other chemical dependencies I’ve dealt with over the years were fostered by medical doctors. I recall one MD, who I also saw in the mid 80’s, who convinced me 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 was honestly stupid, or perhaps trusting enough to use an inhaler daily for about 12 years before I recognized that I’d fallen for a line of nonsense! I now use a homemade mixture of lemon, lavender, and peppermint essential oils to manage my wheezing.
Despite my chronic health issues, my career moved forward. I eventually returned to graduate school, and studied molecular biology with the end goal of applying biotechnology to environmental restoration. As a postdoc conducting 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 contain complex mixtures of thousands of ecologically balanced chemicals, while synthetic products contain only one or a few chemicals. This is significant for our health, 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 results:
- an imbalanced metabolic system that cannot properly regulate metabolism
- a microbiome that contains too many of the wrong species to maintain good health (we call this condition “dysbiosis”)
- a dependence on chemical interventions, that may include prescription or recreational drugs, sugars, starchy carbohydrates, and heavily processed foods.
Understanding the Imbalances Chemicals Create Was Key to Adopting A More Wholesome Diet
After Thirty Years of Unlearning What I Was Taught In School, I Understand What the Herbalist Tried to Explain
Some lessons are learned quickly. Others are not. It took me thirty years of denial, ongoing health problems, and damaging side effects of both prescription and over the counter drugs before I recognized that organic food was the better buy, and I could no longer afford a cheap diet. Nor could I afford the risks associated with either prescription or over-the-counter drugs. I made some drastic lifestyle changes, but today I stay away from the ibuprophen, the antihistamines, the sugars, and the carbs that I depended on to function as a young adult pursuing a career. Today, I struggle to model alternate career paths, and alternate lifestyle choices. I am hopeful that the next generation will avoid the career pressures that drove me to choose expedient solutions over common sense, and to accept the “wisdom” of government agencies over the principles that guided evolution for billions of years.
Bringing Chemical Dependency To An End Requires Recognizing Its Soil and Microbial Origins
Today I believe the origins of many of our chemical dependencies (both biological and economic), including 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 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 chemical 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?
- Crops that fails to satisfy nutritional needs of those that consume them.
- Crops that leave consumers craving substances in response to metabolic imbalances. (ie: Chemically Dependent)
- Increased risk of physical or mental illness (resulting from inadequate nutrition).
- Increased soil demand for fertilizer
- 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. It is time we look at more natural, microbiome friendly, chemical free technologies to revolutionize the way we produce our food.