Although it is well-known that lack of physical exercise and sloppy eating can lead to type 2 diabetes, there are other probable causes of this disease, which are both unpopular and difficult to control.
What if we told you that type 2 diabetes is linked to environmental pollution? Just think about how many different chemicals we are exposed to daily nowadays. From exhaust fumes to BPA and phthalates contained in plastic, these substances may interfere with our metabolic health substantially, mainly by disrupting our hormonal balance.
So, let’s dive into the science of how environmental pollution disrupts our metabolic health.
According to the International Federation of Diabetes, almost half a billion people were affected by it in 2015, a number expected to grow by roughly 20% by the year 2040. Considering how fitness and good nutrition have been mainstream for quite some time, this increase simply doesn’t make sense.
Therefore, things like specialized diets and more exercise won’t simply cut it for a significant portion of the population. Recent research points to an increasing role for environmental pollution in both obesity and diabetes, which involves several mechanisms, including the alteration of neural pathways that affect how we eat.
What are the offending chemicals? Here’s a not-so-surprising list:
BPA, which is short for Bisphenol A, is a compound commonly found in many plastics, including those used in toys, water bottles, medical devices, and cans. There is growing evidence pointing to a role of BPA in the induction of hormonal imbalances and diabetes. It seems that BPA disrupts the function of insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, thereby leading to increased resistance to insulin.
Not even infants are safe from BPA: Bottle-fed babies show higher BPA levels than breastfed ones. The safest way to deal with BPA so far is to avoid plastic containers altogether and opt for glass.
Arsenic is a well-known poison but is little known is its potential to affect insulin production. What’s more, recent research shows that arsenic is found in the drinking water of more than 100 million people worldwide. Lab experiments have proven that even low levels of this contaminant, otherwise thought as non-toxic, led to impaired glucose tolerance in mice.
Because arsenic is practically everywhere in the environment, cutting exposure to absolute zero is, unfortunately, not possible. That’s why it’s important to reduce your arsenic intake by controlling the sources that are known; opt for organic, non-processed foods and avoid grains.
PCBs are synthetic organic compounds that are used in thousands of products, both industrial and commercial. Although officially banned since many years ago, they are still detected in some products. Because they tend to bio-accumulate, PCBs remain in the body for years after original exposure. For the same reason, they remain in the food-chain and the cycle never breaks.
Research in rodents has shown that PCBs interfere with several metabolic pathways and are related to impaired glucose tolerance and increased insulin resistance. Moreover, PCBs have been shown to exacerbate several inflammation markers.
An interesting fact is that, since PCBs are fat-soluble, people who are overweight or obese and start losing fat through diet and exercise, actually start showing more adverse effects because the PCBs that were stored in their body fat are being released into circulation.
These are chemicals that serve as durability and transparency enhancers in the plastics industry. Recent research has revealed a strong association between phthalate concentration and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease in humans. The association remained even after controlling for factors that are known to cause these conditions, like smoking and alcohol consumption.
Phthalates are found in several products used every day, ranging from medicine and health-related products to packaging material and cosmetics. Opting to make your own homemade cosmetics and household cleaners is the best way to limit your phthalate exposure.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemicals naturally occurring in oil, coal, and gasoline. They are released into the atmosphere when materials such as gas, oil, coal, garbage, and tobacco are burned. They are so abundant in the atmosphere that most people today are tested positive for PAHs or some of their metabolites.
Recent studies have revealed a role of PAHs in the occurrence of diabetes itself, as well as situations that predispose to diabetes, such as inflammation and oxidative stress.
Since a significant amount of PAH exposure originates from cigarette smoking and cooking meat in high temperatures, limiting those can be a substantial step curbing your exposure to that pollutant.
Mercury has been shown to directly affect insulin-producing beta cells, resulting in raised blood glucose. Observational studies have also uncovered a link between mercury exposure and a host of metabolic diseases, including type 2 diabetes.
As a heavy metal, mercury reaches humans through various pathways. From environmental pollution to everyday consumer goods (light bulbs, electrical switches) and dental fillings for inorganic mercury, to large fish and seafood for organic mercury. That’s why some large fish like shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish aren’t to be consumed by pregnant women.
Although these chemicals are vital in agriculture to keep crops safe from pests, their widespread use has significant repercussions.
More than 22 studies linking pesticide exposure to diabetes have been published so far, revealing an association that is hard to ignore. Going organic is probably the safest way if you want to limit your exposure to these agents.
Take home messageThere is a substantial amount of evidence supporting the idea that obesity, aging, family history and inactivity only account for a small portion of the global diabetes burden. On the contrary, exposure to certain environmental pollutants seems to be the reason behind the increasing prevalence of diabetes. BPA, PCBs, mercury, arsenic, pesticides, PAHs, and phthalates are among the most prevalent ones, and curbing exposure to those might be key to battling type 2 diabetes.