Formaldehyde - the missing link?

May 2013

Some of our most serious chronic health problems seem to have their roots in the 1980s. Why?


In the 1980s, several things began to feature in our lives which have increased year-on-year ever since:

1. Glyphosate weed-killer entered the market place.
Glyphosate has become ubiquitous in fields, food, water, public areas and our bodies [1,2]. Human exposure to this popular weed-killer has risen dramatically since the introduction of herbicide tolerant 'Roundup Ready' GM crops. Compared with other agri-chemicals, glyphosate has always had a very favourable, and marketable, safety profile.

2. Aspartame artificial sweetener entered the market place.
Aspartame has been the sugar-substitute of choice for decades due to its lack of aftertaste and low cost. There's a perception that it breaks down to natural protein components, making it intrinsically safe.

3. Dementia began its steady climb to emerge as another modern epidemic.
Dementia is a progressive impairment of brain function due to chemical abnormalities in the brain cells. It presents in high proportions of the very elderly, but is now being seen in the middle aged.

4. Obesity and type-2 diabetes incidence began their steady climb to emerge as modern epidemics.
Obesity is an excess of body fat and the condition is no respecter of age.
Type-2 diabetes refers to high blood sugar levels. It's a range of conditions in which some requirement of normal sugar metabolism is impaired. Once upon a time this was a condition of old age, but in now presenting in children.

Is the 1980s date of commencement a coincidence, or is there some factor linking these four together?

Recent research has pointed to one possible underlying common denominator.

When glyphosate and aspartame are broken down, they release methanol (a toxin). Methanol is metabolised to formaldehyde (another toxin). Both substances are a part of the biochemistry of natural living matter, where they are closely controlled. On the other hand, an unnatural accumulation or a chemical influx of formaldehyde from the environment is harmful.

Formaldehyde is a vital intermediate in the biochemistry of memory formation in brain cells. Abnormal levels of the toxin in neurons are directly linked to the type of impaired memory and cognitive function indicative of dementia.

Aspartame is marketed as a diet aid for the obese and as a healthy choice for diabetics. However, actual consumption by these sub-populations isn't known, and any cause-and-effect links between aspartame, obesity and type-2 diabetes are so intricate, they've proved impossible to unravel.

There's evidence, for example, that aspartame stimulates the appetite and promotes weight gain: the latter could stimulate even greater consumption of aspartame and the onset of type-2 diabetes.

On the other hand, some studies have found a significant association between artificial sweeteners (mainly aspartame) and type-2 diabetes: the latter could stimulate even greater aspartame consumption, greater appetite and weight gain.

Recently published research has described a clear connection between obesity and dementia, but the authors were unable to suggest a mechanism. It's possible that the obese favour aspartame as a dietary choice. However, if they simply eat more food they could be feeding themselves more glyphosate residues too. They might even be feeding themselves more formaldehyde, as a recent analysis of a herbicide-tolerant GM maize showed [3].

There are, of course, other related theories.

Earlier this year for example, a highly speculative review of how glyphosate might disrupt many aspects of our biochemistry was published. Among other things, the authors suggest a mechanism whereby glyphosate itself could stimulate overeating and obesity. They also note that glyphosate enhances ammonia synthesis which may have a critical role in the development of dementia.

GM-free Scotland has previously pointed out that glyphosate's effects on hormones could be a factor in modern chronic diseases. Low testosterone is a recognised risk factor for both obesity and type-2 diabetes. In rat experiments, glyphosate was found to produce symptoms of reduce testosterone levels.[4]

Coincidences? Perhaps.

Background reading:




  • Robin McKie, Middle-age obesity 'will lead to a surge in dementia cases', Observer, 12.05.13
  • Zhiqian Tong et al., 2013, Aging-associated excess formaldehyde leads to spatial memory deficits, Scientific Reports 3, 9.05.13
  • Qing Yang, Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and neurobiology of sugar cravings, Neuroscience 2010
  • Guy Fagherazzi et al., 2013, Consumption of artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages and incident type 2 diabetes in the Etude Epidémiologique auprès des femmes de la Mutuelle Générale de l'Education Nationale - european Prospective Investigation into cancer and Nutrition cohort, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 30.01.13
  • Artificial sweeteners tied to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, CBC News, 17.02.13
  • Anthony Samsel and Stephanie Seneff, 2013, Glyphosate's Suppressin of Cytocrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases, Entropy 15, 18.04.13

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