From The Intelligent Optimist Magazine

Fall/Winter 2016

Glyphosate is a ubiquitous weed-killer in modern industrial agriculture and may also be the “secret ingredient” in the current epidemic of chronic disease.

You may not have heard of glyphosate, but you’ve definitely tasted it. Sold by Monsanto as Roundup, glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide in history—in 2014, about 250 million pounds of it were sprayed on crops in the United States alone.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, glyphosate is safe at the levels typically found in food. But a growing body of evidence suggests that glyphosate can have subtle effects on human health that leave us vulnerable to chronic disease.

Glyphosate has been commercially available since 1974, but on its own, it was just too good at killing plants to be much help to farmers, wiping out crops as quickly as weeds. That is, until Monsanto created Roundup Ready GMOs—the only plants that can survive it.

Glyphosate works by inhibiting an enzyme called EPSPS (5-enolpyruvylshikimic acid-3-phosphate synthase). Plants and bacteria need EPSPS to synthesize three essential amino acids: tryptophan, tyrosine, and phenylalanine. Humans and other mammals don’t produce EPSPS—there is no gene for it in our DNA. This is one reason glyphosate was thought to be safe: it targets an enzyme our bodies don’t use. But that assumption is based on an over-simplified understanding of our digestive system.

The microbiome of bacteria that live in our intestines, all but unknown to scientists a decade ago, might be the smoking gun linking glyphosate to inflammatory and autoimmune diseases—which have skyrocketed in prevalence in parallel with glyphosate use.

Although glyphosate levels in conventional food might not hurt human cells, they can hurt the bacteria in our intestines, which rely on EPSPS just like the weeds in a cornfield. Studies in farm animals have shown that glyphosate exposure changes the microbiome by preferentially killing “good” bacteria (probiotics).

When the microbiome is imbalanced, the tight junctions between cells lining the intestine can weaken, allowing molecules to sneak out of the digestive tract and into the blood supply. Over time, this stress can lead to chronic inflammation and autoimmunity. Celiac disease (gluten allergy) and irritable bowel syndrome are classic examples of this process. But diseases as diverse as Alzheimer’s, arthritis and asthma have been linked to similar mechanisms.

There is remarkably little research on the long-term effects of dietary glyphosate, given how much of it we eat and feed to livestock. But researchers now have a theoretical framework for developing strategies to block or reverse the damage it causes.

A supplement called Restore claims to help strengthen these cell junctions. Its active ingredient is an extract of lignite—a fossilized, antioxidant-rich soil used for centuries in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine. In cultured intestine cells, the lignite extract blocked the harmful effects of gliadin, the part of gluten that triggers celiac disease, and a similar pattern was seen with glyphosate.

These preliminary findings are welcome news, since glyphosate is so widespread that it may be impossible to avoid completely. However, the best strategy to minimize your exposure is to eat organic or GMO-free.