June 1, 2009

Good Science: How Organochlorines Are Making Us Fat

You've dieted. You've lost 20, 30, 100 lbs. It all came back as soon as you stopped starving yourself.

Perhaps you blamed yourself for weak will. Perhaps you thought being fat was "in your genes." But there's a new possibility revealed in research that was published without any fanfare 5 years ago.

Perhaps you are being poisoned by the plastics, pesticides and industrial solvents that have contaminated our air and water and which are now being found in the blood streams of 60% of Americans.

Here's the study:

Thermogenesis and weight loss in obese individuals: a primary association with organochlorine pollution. A Tremblay1 et al. International Journal of Obesity (2004) 28, 936–939. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0802527 Published online 18 May 2004.

In this study researchers measured the sleeping metabolic rate of fifteen obese subjects, male and female, before and after they pursued a 15 week weight loss regimen. The researchers predicted the degree of metabolic slowdown they would find in their subjects after weight loss using formulas derived from a control group of 86 non-obese individuals with a wide range of body weights whose sleeping metabolism had been studied with a whole body calorimeter. The formula they came out with was validated by being compared with the findings of another study by other researchers.

At the start of the study the obese subjects had much higher metabolic rates than the controls. After weight loss, though their final metabolic rate value was within the range for normal people who weighed on average considerably less than they did, the amount by which their metabolic rate had dropped was almost twice what had been predicted. You can view the graph showing the result HERE.

Analysis of the blood of the participants for
fasting plasma leptin, total T3,free T4, and total plasma OC concentrations after weight loss as well as their changes induced by weight loss were used as predicting variables. As the change in plasma OC concentration is associated with the loss of FM [fat mass], and since Dulloo and Jacquet have reported that fat depletion (loss in FM as a %
of initial FM) is a determinant of the adaptive fall in basal metabolic rate during weight loss, fat depletion was correlated with the change in plasma OC concentration. This correlation was significant (r2 >0.37, P0.05), and fat depletion was thus included as the predicting variable in the analysis. As shown in Table 2, the change in total plasma OC concentration was the main factor explaining deviations in SMR from predicted values in response to weight loss (r2¼0.47).
In their summary they restated this more simply:

Increased plasma OC concentration was the factor explaining the greatest proportion of the difference between predicted and measured SMR [sleeping metabolic rate] changes induced by body weight loss. OC [organochlorine] pollution seems to be a new factor affecting the control of thermogenesis in some obese individuals experiencing body weight loss.

So what, you may ask are "organochlorines?"

The answer is a host of organic pollutants that pervade our environment. At the top of the list is vyinyl chloride, an ingredient in PVC plastics. The NIH's Report on Carcinogens (11th ed) describes vinyl choride as a known cause of cancer known to cause genetic damage. It also explains
PVC is a plastic resin used in many consumer and industrial products, including automotive parts and accessories, furniture, medical supplies, containers, wrapping film, battery cell separators, electrical insulation, water distribution systems, flooring, windows, videodiscs, irrigation systems, and credit cards.
But that is only one source of organocholorines. They also found in pesticides, industrial solvents, and the PCBs still found in our environment thanks to decades of industrial use.

The researchers also calculated the impact of the dramatic drop in leptin (expected with weight loss) and concluded that
The main finding of this study was that the changes in plasma OC concentration were the main predictor of adaptive thermogenesis, and explained about 50% of its variance. As discussed above, this is not a surprise since these compounds produce significant alterations of mitochondrial activity and of the thyroid function.
In short, while we expect dieters to experience slowed metabolisms after dieting thanks to some natural changes, a major one of which is the drop in leptin levels, it appears that the presence of these chemical pollutants in our body is causing the metabolic slowdown to be much steeper than predicted.

And from a practical standpoint what this means is that a person whose body is filled with these chemicals who manages to lose weight will have an extremely hard time maintaining that weight loss--harder than would be the case were their bodies not filled with these chemicals that damage their mitchondria (the cell units that burn energy) and their thyroids.

This finding correlates with others we have discussed elsewhere that link incidence of diabetes in various populations with their exposure to PCBS, plastics, and pesticides. These other studies suggest that the organochlorines not only explain why it is so difficult to lose weight, but possibly why people gain weight in the first place, since these chemicals destroy the systems used to control blood sugar, and ravenous hunger is a side effect of poor blood sugar control.

Coincidentally, as I was getting ready to write this blog post I found a new article in Science Daily which linked the high level of liver damage found in Americans exposure to their blood-load of pollutants. That report can be read here:

Environmental Pollution Increases Risk Of Liver Disease, Study Finds

In that report we read:
""Our study found that greater than one in three U.S. adults had liver disease, even after excluding those with traditional risk factors such as alcoholism and viral hepatitis," said Matthew Cave, MD, assistant professor, department of medicine, division of gastroenterology and hepatology at the University of Louisville. "Our study shows that some of these cases may be attributable to environmental pollution, even after adjusting for obesity, which is another major risk factor for liver disease."

Using the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), researchers from the University of Louisville study examined chronic low-level exposure to 111 common pollutants including lead, mercury, PCBs and pesticides and their association with otherwise unexplained liver disease in adults. The specific pollutants included were detectable in 60 percent or more of the 4,500 study subjects. [emphasis mine]
You hear a lot about how fat people should be blamed for causing their obesity by indulging in gluttony and sloth. I don't question that people who get fat do so by eating a lot more than they should. But I go further than this. I ask WHY are the inbuilt physiological mechanisms which, in normal people, control appetite and maintain weight at a set point, all of a sudden completely nonfunctional in so many people?

Decades of research show that if you overfeed a normal person, they will quickly return to their normal weight thanks to the existence of a built-in weight set point regulation system. Decades of research also show that normal people have appetite control systems that control their food intake so exquisitely that a normal person will gain only 20-30 lbs over 40 years of life--which means that over a lifetime they are only overeating ten calories a day.

The obesity epidemic is a measure of how damaged our bodies have become and studies like this one--completely ignored by the media--point to why they are damaged.

It isn't moral failure, it's chemical poisoning. I personally believe chemical pollution and its effects on our bodies, worldwide, is a far greater crisis than the energy crisis and one a lot more likely to put human survival into doubt. More and more of our children are being born with conditions reflecting severe genetic damage. More and more people are battling infertility, too.

Personal responsibility is not going to solve this problem. Until we, as a society, demand that corporations stop poisoning our environment and selling us products that damage our bodies, it will only get worse.



country mouse said...

the big Q is: can we reverse the effects of OC pollution?

ItsTheWooo said...

I wonder did they control for OC levels *before* weight loss? Because, I'm thinking that people who lose the most body fat will have the greatest level of OC because OC are probably stored in adipose tissue (like many chemicals are). Therefore, dieting obese people with high levels of OC are losing more body fat than dieting obese people with lower levels of OC.

SO, if OC level correlates with those who are losing the most body fat, all of the other changes (drop in leptin, in thermogenesis/thyroid hormone) are expected results of rapidly losing body fat.

Remember body weight can be fat, but it can also be "lean mass" (water, muscle, bone). Just because OC doesn't correlate with loss of lean mass doesn't mean that OC won't correlate with loss of body fat.

Of course, if the OC Levels were very high before body fat loss, and this predicted adaptive starvation changes (drop in leptin and thyroid acitivity), then it might be possible that the OC had a direct effect on metabolism.

AuntWie said...

Re: Ditto Mouse's question, ditto
And how to avoid the stuff?

Carolyn said...

BTW, Splenda is an organochlorine.

Jenny said...

I welcome information about if and how we can remove these chemicals from our bodies. It's a complex issue and I suspect there is no simple answer that isn't a scam run by someone selling some product.

Splenda, Zoloft and Claritin are listed on Wikipedia as possible organochlorines. Wikipedia is not a trustworthy source for information on controversial issues, which Splenda most certainly is, so I am not certain that they are the same kinds of compounds as those that are known toxins or that they are stored in the body the same way.

NaCl is also a chlorine compound found throughout the body, but one that is essential to life.

I would very much like to learn more about what characterizes the dangerous chlorine compounds from someone with a solid background in applied organic chemistry.

Unfortunately, I am up to my ears working on a non-diabetes/diet project right now so I don't have the time to look into it now.

Carolyn said...

The term "organochlorine compound" means an organic compound with a covalent carbon-chlorine bond. Splenda, Zoloft and Claritin are all organochlorines because they all have one or more carbon-chlorine covalent bonds in their molecular structures. There's no controversy about their being organochlorine compounds.

Sodium chloride has ionic sodium-chloride bonds and is a chloride salt--a very different material from an organochlorine. Sodium chloride will dissolve in water, breaking the ionic bond, to give sodium ions and chloride ions; both are common in the environment and relatively harmless. Carbon-chlorine covalent bonds will not break when the compound is dissolved, whether in fat (nonpolar) or water (polar).

But, organochlorine is a very broad category of compounds and it would be far too generalized to say that all organochlorine compounds have similar behavior in the human body. Certainly, the structures being discussed here are quite varied. From a cursory glance, I'd say that the major thing that the organochlorine compounds mentioned here have in common is that they are relatively nonpolar, which would make them soluble in fats (although some, like Splenda, are also water soluble).

Although it's quite generalized, the Born To Love website has a good overview webpage on the problems with organochlorides:


(And, I have a PhD in chemistry and am drinking a diet soda sweetened with Splenda as I type this.)

ItsTheWooo said...

Like carolyn said, OC are soluable in fat. Therefore, losing body fat will correlate with elevated OC concentrations.

I suspect what we are observing is correlational. Losing body fat results in elevated OC, as well as starvation adaptations (drop in RMR, leptin, thyroid function). The OC are simply a "marker" for the catabolism of fat tissue.

My hypothesis , as a huge fat person who has lost 160 pounds and has maintained that way of eating/loss for ... 7 years now... is the following.
1) Hyperinsulinemia, particularly in early life, causes abnormal hyperplasia of adipose tissue (that is, you make way too many fat cells).
2) This permanently increases set point, as the size of a fat cell determines the metabolic actions of that fat cell.
3) If body fat mass is reduced to a "normal" level, the body behaves as if it were starved because there are numerous now-hypotrophic white fat cells (that do not function metabolically like a smaller amount of adequately filled fat cells). The result of this is a dramatic decrease in leptin, RMR, and thyroid hormone.

In other words, obesity is CAUSED by insulin and this is why it is a permanent condition - insulin causes new white fat cells to mature and grow sorta like a cancer.

This is why truly obese people look so disproportionate. Some parts of their body may appear "chubby" but then their legs or backside may be 10xs the normal size - it is the action of insulin causing white fat cell hyperplasia, almost like a cancer, the fat cells reproduce in a tumor-like way.

If they attempted to diet down to a normal size, those tumor-like fat cells don't go away. They shrink to a small size and behave starved.

It has little to do with OCs, IMO, and everything to do with grossly excessive amounts of white fat cells secondary to hyperinsulinemia (particularly early life/childhood hyperinsulinemia).

Obesity cannot be cured, it can only be prevented by controlling insulin. I suspect if a study were done (if it were possible to do such a study) where mothers had tightly controlled insulin levels throughout pregnancy, and if this sort of diet/lifestyle were maintained in the children, children of those mothers would have a non-existent chance of obesity.

Trinkwasser said...

More scary stuff here


In the days of liberal use of organochlorine pesticides there was a huge reduction in raptor populations as they concentrated the chemicals from their prey. In the UK in recent decades many predatory bird species have bounced back and some are commoner and more widespread than for a very long time.

This suggests that overall in the environment levels of these toxins have fallen significantly.

Most modern agrochemicals are organophosphates, which range from non toxic like glyphosate to extremely toxic like sarin, and including some which sre toxic to insects or fish but not mammals, and also appear to have lesser persistence in the environment.

However tests on their toxicity are done on single chemicals whereas we are probably exposed to low levels of several different types simultaneously. Whether these are also related I don't know.

Personally I blame it all on room odorisers (grins)

LynP said...

..."organochlorine compound" means an organic compound with a covalent carbon-chlorine bond. Splenda, Zoloft and Claritin are all organochlorines because they all have one or more carbon-chlorine covalent bonds in their molecular structures...

Oh rats! Thanks Carolyn *grin* -- now I gotta decide what to do about my allergies IF I chose to eliminate the daily generic Claritin.

Now, I'll have to see if the malto-dextrin formulation in "Just Like Sugar" increases my BG *sigh* and by how much IF i chose to avoid Splenda (why can't I 'learn' to like the taste of Stevia *sigh*).

Why did my maternal side hafta have diabetic genes...why did So FL spray Malathion so often in summer...why did I do whatever it was I did that triggered hyperinsulemia back in the '70s...why have I just learned how pernious stress is in managing my BG...why why why.

Thanks for posting all your research Jennie, it really helps me understand how to manage my particular BG situation.