Obesity, chemicals and detoxification

You may have thought you had this whole story figured out, and so did I at one time: people eat too much, they gain weight, and some even become obese. However, to me this explanation never adequately matched what we see happening today.

How is it, for example, that obesity only became an epidemic around twenty years ago, and even more so in the past ten years? While Americans are not known for their stellar
eating habits, these have not changed that much in the past few decades and, according to some estimates, they have actually improved.

And why does obesity increasingly affect children, even babies and toddlers? Is it plausible that an obese toddler got that way because of poor eating habits? Finally, what about the many people who suddenly gained weight or even became obese without changing their diets or exercise regimens? Some gained weight because they developed a thyroid condition, but in my experience this only encompasses a minority of cases.

The first in-depth review I found of possible causes of obesity other than overeating is contained in an interesting article published in 2002 in the Journal of Alternative and
Complementary medicine (J Alt and Comp Med. 2002 Apr;8:185-192).

The article, entitled “Chemical Toxins: a hypothesis to explain the global obesity epidemic,” reviews decades of related research leading the authors to formulate the theory that environmental chemicals – not overeating – is the real cause.

Thousands of chemicals in our environment have simply never been evaluated for safety. For some, studies were performed to assess the risk of major toxic effects, like cancer, and it was assumed that if common exposure levels did not cause cancer these chemicals were otherwise safe.

However, a number of animal studies have shown that chemicals can cause cancer only at extremely high exposure levels but can have all sorts of other harmful effects – including obesity – at much lower, and sometimes even minuscule, levels.

Implicated chemicals include heavy metals, solvents, polychlorinated bisphenols, phthalates, organophosphates and bisphenol-A. These are everywhere in our environment today and we are all exposed to them to some extent. Not only can they cause obesity, they are also known or strongly suspected of disrupting hormones, affecting brain development and function, and causing other harmful health effects – including lower sperm counts, impotence, infertility, and so on.

More recent research has focused mainly on bisphenol-A, a chemical that is ubiquitous in today’s environment as it is used to make “safe” plastic (polycarbonate) bottles, even baby bottles, and many other food containers.

Frederick vom Saal, professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the author of much of this research. In his view, studies to assess safety of this chemical have been industry-sponsored and largely inadequate, completely missing low-dose hormone- disrupting and other harmful effects.

According to Dr. vom Saal, if exposure to bisphenol-A occurs early enough in life it can actually modify expression of a person’s genetic makeup, thus programming the body for
obesity. In his words, an individual exposed to this compound “could eat the same thing and exercise the same amount as someone else but become obese while the other person
remained thin.”

The reason why we do not all become obese at the same rate when exposed to bisphenol-A has to do with genetic and other individual differences, but in no case can genetics be blamed for today’s obesity crisis. Read about Dr. vom Saal’s research here:


Bisphenol-A and all other implicated chemicals share one common feature: they are fat-soluble, meaning they are stored in fatty tissues of the body. The body has no mechanism to get rid of them once stored – as long as they are present in the body they exert a metabolic effect and can continue to trigger weight gain or interfere with attempts at weight loss.

Studies have shown that body fat is saturated with chemicals, and weight loss leads these chemicals to be released into bloodstream, from where they can end up lodging themselves in the brain, heart or other organs of the body (see Obesity Reviews 2003; 4: 17-24). Could it be that weight loss programs fail so often because people simply feel unwell when chemicals are released at such high rates?

Whatever the reason, if chemicals cause weight gain, then ridding the body of chemicals could be the only way to enable metabolism to normalize and reverse the problem. The only means found to effectively detoxify body fat is through far-infrared saunas, which produce a penetrating heat that draws toxins out of fat stores and into sweat. Find information on the detoxification effects of this type of sauna here: http://www.sunlightsaunas.com/detox.htm and on the Newsletters page of www.DoctorVolpe.com.

But is there any evidence that far-infrared saunas promote weight loss? Interestingly, two of the studies performed on far-infrared saunas focused on cardiovascular risk factors (J Am Coll Cardiol 2001;38(4):1083-8, J Am Coll Cardiol 2002;39(5):754-9). Both studies found improvements in a broad spectrum of risk factors, even for people suffering from chronic heart failure (but this is a separate topic that deserves more in-depth coverage in a future newsletter).

Of interest here is that both of these studies found that people who did regular sauna therapy lost weight, though not specifically dieting. Although there are many theories on how sauna therapy can trigger weight loss, one likely possibility in my view is that once chemicals like bisphenol-A are gone, metabolism can return to normal and weight tends to
normalize naturally.

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