3 Toxic Chemicals Tied to Depression: Symptoms You Need to Recognize (Part 2 of 3)

Could eating fruits and vegetables be causing your depression symptoms? Well, yes – if you are eating the wrong kind. And by wrong kind I mean eating those that are conventionally grown and from the “dirty dozen” list of most pesticide contaminated fruits and vegetables. Medical reports have linked anxiety and depression symptoms to individuals who have been exposed to pesticides, and the most typical source of pesticide exposure for the average American is the conventionally grown food they put on their plate daily. In fact, one study group found at least one pesticide on 63 percent of the conventionally grown fruit and vegetable samples they analyzed.[1] 

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Toxic Chemical #2 – Pesticides

According to researchers at the Colorado Injury Control Research Center, pesticide exposure may lead to depression, anxiety and psychiatric disorders. A study of farmers finds that those with the highest number of lifetime exposure days to agricultural pesticides were 50% more likely to be diagnosed with clinical depression than those with the fewest application days and were 80% more likely if they had applied a class of insecticide called organophosphates.[2] Furthermore, the study showed that individuals with a history of mood disorders may be at increased risk of depression when exposed to pesticides. This study confirms that long-term, chronic pesticide use may have neurological effects, particularly relating to depression symptoms.

What are Organophosphates?

Organophosphate pesticides are known for their effects on the nervous system. They were developed from closely-related chemicals that were used as nerve gases during World War II when the Nazi military created an arsenal of chemical warfare agents. Following the war, American companies began marketing organophosphate pesticides for consumer use.  Diazinon is one of the most well-known of these pesticides.

Organophosphates are effective insecticidal agents because they shut down nerve responses in insects and other animals (including humans) by depressing the enzyme acetylcholinesterase (AChE).  AChE affects the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is found in the central and peripheral nervous system and red blood cells. Lower amounts of the enzyme means nerves do not stop firing, which can lead to muscle fatigue, spasms, vomiting and eventual death through respiratory shutdown.

Organophosphates are now banned for use as home insecticides due to the poisonous effects of these chemicals on the human body; however, they continue to be widely used in agriculture, including food crops such as fruits and vegetables. Therefore, exposure to organophosphates may be possible via contamination of food sources. In fact, they are the most common form of insecticide in agriculture, making up about half of all insecticides used in the United States.

How Do I Know If My Depression Symptoms Are Due to Pesticide Exposure?

First, know that there are 2 types of pesticide poisoning:  Severe acute toxicity and chronic toxicity. Severe acute pesticide poisoning means that a person or animal has swallowed or inhaled a dangerous amount of pure pesticide chemicals. This is an emergency situation that involves rapid treatment. If this occurs, contact the poison control center right away, 1-800-222-1222. If you use pesticides or insecticides at home, be sure to keep them in a safe location secured from children and pets. Severe pesticide poisoning can be fatal.

Chronic toxicity refers to long-term or repeated exposures to pesticides. The effects of chronic exposure do not appear immediately and may take years to produce signs and symptoms. Asides from developing depression symptoms, chronic exposure may cause the following:

  • Headaches
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Loss of appetite, stomach problems or digestive issues
  • Allergenic sensitization or multiple chemical sensitivity – development of allergies to multiple chemicals and/or pesticides
  • Reproductive disorders
  • Liver damage
  • Cancer
  • In children, altered neurobehavioral development can occur

What Can I Do To Limit Pesticide Exposure?

  • If you are a farmer or gardener who regularly handles pesticides, be sure to wear personal protective equipment including a mask when dealing with these toxic chemicals.
  • Try to eat organic produce when possible. When shopping for produce, use the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Shoppers Guide.  Each year, the EWG tests produce for the amount of pesticides they contain.  They publish the “Dirty Dozen,” which are the top 12 pesticide-contaminated fruits and vegetables. They also publish the “Clean 15,” which lists the foods with the least amount of pesticides.
  • When purchasing non-organic produce, wash your fruits and vegetables thoroughly. Use a fruit and vegetable wash or grapefruit seed extract (GSE) to clean produce. Fill your sink with water and add a few drops of the GSE. Allow the produce to soak for at least 15-20 minutes and then wrap and store them in the refrigerator.
  • If you’re curious if your depression symptoms may be due to organophosphate exposure, avoid further exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals and seek the advice of an integrative physician who can help you detox from these chemicals.

Be sure and check out our next article as we share one final environmental toxin that may be contributing to your depression symptoms.

Originally published in 2012, this post has been updated.


[1] Environmental Working Group,  The Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides.

[2] Beseler, CL, L Stallones, JA Hoppin, MCR Alavanja, A Blair, T Keefe and F Kamel.. Depression and pesticide exposures among private pesticide applicators enrolled in the Agricultural Health Study. Environ Health Perspect. 2008;116(12):1713-1719.

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