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A holiday gone wrong: beware of pesticides

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Sandra,” aged 33, came to see me wearing a mask (pre-pandemic) because the London air and other people’s perfume made her feel terribly ill. She needed me to turn off the light in the consulting room because even though it wasn’t fluorescent, it hurt her eyes and head, a condition called photophobia. She lay on the examination couch for much of the session because she was so exhausted. She warned me that she might not remember much of what I said during the consultation, so her husband “Trevor” took notes.

“And I was completely fit and healthy a year ago!” she said miserably.

Trevor confirmed this. “Never seen her have a day off sick in her life. And she went jogging in the park most mornings, didn’t you, love?”

“I did,” she answered. “Now I can hardly walk across the room.”

Sandra had seen her GP and assorted consultants, including a neurologist, an endocrinologist and finally a psychiatrist. She had been told “All your tests are normal” and offered antidepressants, which she’d declined. Unable to work, she had lost her job as a legal secretary.

Thus far, no doctor had asked her in any detail about where, when and how her symptoms (total exhaustion, headaches, photophobia, memory impairment and extreme chemical sensitivity) had begun.

The turning point

Sandra and Trevor had been on holiday to a village near the French-Spanish border the previous March. They were hoping to see cherry trees in blossom and celebrate their anniversary. This they did for the first three days of their stay. 

Then, on the fourth day, while out for a walk in the hills, they had passed through an orchard of peach trees still in bud. They didn’t take much notice of a tractor and two men in strange clothing, who were busy among the trees. On their way back, their route took them the same way.

This time, Sandra started to feel peculiar and light-headed. They passed close to the tractor, which was still there, and Trevor noticed that the men were wearing protective clothing and spraying the trees. The day was ending and the whole orchard had now been sprayed.

Sandra remembered this last part of the day only vaguely; Trevor said he had to carry her back to their cottage. She spent the next 48 hours vomiting, and they assumed she had caught a tummy bug. She was unable to go out for walks for the rest of the holiday and has no memory of flying home.

The next 13 months had been an endless round of hospital trips while she slowly worsened. Almost housebound now, she had what one consultant had called “atypical chronic fatigue syndrome.” Atypical, in this context, means “doesn’t fit the picture in our textbook, not sure what’s going on here.”

Another consultant had diagnosed her with “depression with idiopathic cognitive decline.” That last bit means “she can’t think clearly and we don’t know why.”

Only once they were back from their holiday did Sandra and Trevor associate Sandra’s illness with having passed through clouds of whatever was being sprayed on the peach trees. They had mentioned this episode to the GP and every consultant they had seen, but the response had mostly been shrugs.

The cause

“Insecticide poisoning” is not in many medical textbooks yet, nor is the resultant “multiple chemical sensitivity.” But Sandra’s symptoms were sadly typical of both. A urine test showed high levels of metabolites of organophosphate (OP) insecticides. These metabolites represented her liver’s best efforts to detoxify the insecticides, but unfortunately the metabolites are just as toxic as the original chemical.

Sandra’s nervous system was the part of her that was most affected by her undiagnosed poisoning episode. OP insecticides are “anti-cholinesterases,” neurotoxins; indeed, their first incarnation was as a nerve gas, an agent actually designed to disrupt the signaling between nerve cells in the human brain and nervous system.

This is why Sandra was exhausted to the point of collapse, couldn’t cope with bright light or loud sounds, couldn’t remember things properly and struggled to put one foot in front of the other. Further, she now reacted badly to even minuscule doses of many other synthetic chemicals. A whiff of fabric conditioner, a sniff of paint or newsprint, even the scent of Trevor’s aftershave, which had never affected her before this incident, now produced nausea, intensified her almost-constant headache and sometimes led to vomiting.

There’s an obvious question you might well be asking yourself: What about Trevor? He passed through clouds of insecticide, too—why wasn’t he ill? The answer is genetics. We are all genetically different, so we are all biochemically different. His liver could make the enzyme (PON1) that can detox the insecticide; hers could not. We carried out genetic tests on them both to confirm this.

The treatment

Sandra’s treatment began with diet: she began eating only organically produced food to avoid taking in traces of insecticides similar to what had poisoned her since she was now sensitized even to those tiny amounts. Second, she cut out sugar and additives and added in lots of good fats, such as coconut oil (for cooking); hempseed, sunflower and safflower oil (raw); avocados; and nuts and seeds. OP insecticides are lipophilic, meaning they hide in fatty tissue in the body and brain. Getting them out is facilitated by putting healthy fats in.

I gave Sandra the “detox meds”: glutathione and phosphatidylcholine (PC) liquid and high-dose vitamin C. And Trevor made her antioxidant-rich organic vegetable juice every morning.

At the second appointment, six weeks later, Sandra felt she had stopped getting worse, and even felt a tiny bit better. She was still exhausted and extremely sensitive but felt her brain was working slightly better. I added the herb milk thistle (silymarin) to support the liver, used for this purpose for centuries and now with some scientific evidence confirming its usefulness and explaining how it works.1

Sandra continued to improve slowly, and six months later she was strong enough to walk about, read and tolerate normal light levels. But she still needed to wear her mask in the street and couldn’t tolerate any artificial chemical smells.

She was just about strong enough to start the next phase of treatment: saunas, a great way to get fat-soluble toxins out of the body. But I cautioned her to limit herself to only five minutes, three times a week, and to continually towel off the sweat; otherwise, any toxins sweated out would simply be reabsorbed by the skin.

Eighteen months later, Sandra was up and about and actively looking for a new job. She describes herself as 75–80 percent recovered. Her mental and physical energy are back and she rarely needs her mask, but she still feels bad if she is near someone smelling strongly of perfume, aftershave or cigarette smoke.

She feels—and I agree—that she could only be 100 percent well living high up a mountain, in the desert or by the sea, away from both urban fumes and agricultural chemicals.

Moral of the story: avoid eating pesticides or spraying your backyard or garden with them, and stay well away from orchards or farms where there may be spraying. Exposure like this could end up being a life-changer.



World J Hepatol, 2014; 6(3): 144–49

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