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Anxiety Disorders Are on the Rise: Are Pesticides to Blame?

It might certainly seem that we're in one of the greatest periods in human history: rapid technological developments keep us connected like never before, shrinking our distance to ideas, cultures, and lands, while also expanding our experiences. Thanks to modern medical science, we can live longer and hopefully healthier lives too. It's surely the stuff of sci-fi fantasy dream worlds, and it would seem like a time of great enjoyment for many, but millions around the world actually can't take pleasure in the modern world because they're too overwhelmed with anxiety issues.

The treatment of anxiety is one of the fastest growing pharmaceutical market segments; a segment expected to reach $6 billion globally by 2017. In the U.S., approximately 40 million Americans—more than 10 percent of the population—suffer from anxiety disorders, and one-third of all mental illness-related expenses are directly to treat anxiety disorders, with anti-anxiety drugs making up about 25 percent of all prescription drug sales. And it's not just the U.S. that suffers from anxiety: European countries report nearly 30 percent of their population suffers from brain disorders, with depression at the top; and in Asia-Pacific, depression and anxiety disorders are expected to rise more than 5 percent by 2017.

Our complex human nature means there are a whole slew of factors that could contribute to our mental health, from genetics to life experiences. Even what we eat can greatly contribute to our mental wellbeing—diets low in healthy fats, fiber, and plant nutrients have been connected with a greater risk of depression and anxiety too. But here's another factor that may be responsible for the rising rates of anxiety disorders: pesticides.

Most pesticides are designed to attack the nervous systems of pests, and these toxins also alter our endocrine systems. The endocrine system governs many body functions, from reproduction and digestion to growth and the state of our moods. Neurotoxins can cause the endocrine system to "misfire" sending faulty signals to glands and organs and they can also cause those glands that regulate our body's many functions to stop doing their jobs altogether! Some research suggests that our increased exposure to pesticides over the last several decades corresponds to our ongoing battle with obesity. In combination with the many unhealthy foods marketed at us ad nauseum, the pesticides on our food and in our air, water, and soil make it difficult for the body to effectively metabolize, leading to stubborn weight that won't come off no matter how hard we try. And if that's not enough to cause you to stress out, consider this: According to the World Health Organization, as many as 25 million people each year suffer from severe pesticide poisoning.

And research published by the organization also suggests that certain pesticides have been linked to higher suicide rates as well as depression and anxiety disorders. In the study titled "Pesticide exposure and suicidal ideation in rural communities in Zhejiang province, China", researchers found that levels of organophosphates overlapped the regions hardest hit with suicide and severe anxiety disorders. Organophosphate pesticides go right to the nervous system, which affects our nerves, brain, and spinal cord. These toxins are then actually transformed into a much more potent toxin—chlorpyrifos-oxon—which is 3,000 times the potency of the pesticide itself. These toxins can disrupt our brain's production of the mood regulating chemicals dopamine and serotonin, which can lead to severe depression and anxiety disorders.

While we can't very well control what's in the air we breathe, we can greatly reduce our exposure to pesticides by eating organic food and using chemical-free pest deterrents in our homes and gardens. If you suspect that you've developed anxiety for no reason in particular, check with your physician immediately. While some pesticides cannot be detected specifically, your doctor can conduct some tests (like cholinesterase inhibitor pesticide test or alkyl phosphates test) to see if you're at risk for pesticide toxicity.

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