Guest: Dr. Mark Donohoe
Guest Bio: He is one of Australia’s most experienced and best-known medical practitioners in the fields of nutritional and environmental medicine, as well as the emerging field of integrated medicine.
Health Professional Radio
Katherine: Thanks for listening to Health Professional Radio. My name is Katherine, and today, I am joined by Dr. Mark Donohoe. He is one of Australia’s most experienced and best-known medical practitioners in the fields of nutrition and environmental medicine, as well as in the emerging field of integrative medicine. He will also be a speaker at the AustralAsian Academy of Anti-Ageing Medicine Conference. Welcome to our show.
Dr. Mark Donohoe: Good to be here, Katherine.
Katherine: Now today, we’re talking about organic foods and how it has a major positive impact on our health.
Dr. Donohoe: Yeah. It’s been a fascinating battle over decades now between the needs of agriculture to use chemicals and to do toxicology testing on humans and rats and kill a lot of animals and say what’s safe and what’s not? I think now we’ve got evidence that even things that we thought were safe for humans aren’t necessarily good for our health, and that’s where organic foods really may be significantly better for the health of our patients.
Our patients tell us this all the time. They say, “I can’t eat the pesticide-treated or the normal foods. I have to have organic foods.” And we think, “Well, how can that be?” There’s not enough poison there to cause you any deaths, but there is enough to cause damage in the gut. Once you have pesticides which affect gut microbes, that profoundly affects the health of the individual, or it canprofoundly affect the health of the individual, especially if they’re already sick.
Katherine: So as you mentioned pesticide-free, organic food – I just wanted to talk about the toxicology of it in entering our foods. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Dr. Donohoe: Well, I can a bit. My interest in this goes back. I have dealt with chronic fatigue syndrome patients. Back in 1994, we published a paper in the Medical Journal of Australia showing that people with chronic fatigue syndrome had significantly higher levels of pesticides in their bloodstream. The argument then is: well, are they sick because of the pesticides or are these people whose liver or metabolism is unable to eliminate the pesticides? Are these people who we need to pay attention to or are these people who were sick to begin with?
I think the argument is that we’ve done toxicology testing on people and we’ve proved that these toxins don’t poison humans. They poison microbes. They poison rats. They poison other things but they don’t poison humans. We kind of bought that line, that if you can’t poison a human or a rat with it, how could it be bad for you? And that’s how the toxicology standards came up for foods. The problem is that we only think in terms of humans. We don’t think in terms of what makes humans healthy, and this emerging field, the microbiome of the gut, the bacteria, the parasites, the bugs that live inside us, that [indecipherable 03:03] us 10 to 1. There’s 10 of them for every cell of ours.
They are very susceptible to pesticides. They are very susceptible, and differentially susceptible, meaning, some of them will die very rapidly in contact with trivial amounts of these pesticides. Others are very resilient and robust and hang around. So when we have foods with even small and allowable amounts of pesticides, it may not affect our liver and our brain, but it affects our gut, and those microbes then metabolise things and that does affect us.
Dr. Donohoe: So it’s a more subtle thing. What we’re doing is disturbing the basis of health. What we need is a healthy gut microbiome, high variety, a very complex social interaction going on down there, and when we put in pesticides … the one that’s got now good research on it is glyphosate, a very commonly used herbicide, so commonly used that many authorities don’t … thought to be safe. Many authorities don’t even want to measure it. But it is used so commonly and we believe that it has no effect on mammalian physiology, therefore it’s safe. But it is devastating in the gastrointestinal tract and it changes the gut flora in very significant ways.
Katherine: Yeah, very interesting. You mentioned that in your practice, you’ve helped children and adults with adverse effects to some of these pesticides. By eliminating them and getting them on an organic diet, you were able to see some great results.
Dr. Donohoe: Oh, yes. In fact, the problem that I had … honestly, I thought I was quite avant-garde and I was ahead of the game in toxicology. I had a focus on toxicology which is what all doctors had: does it poison humans? I thought of humans as that single person, the person in front of me, without thinking of them as a combination of them and the healthy gut microbes and the healthy skin microbes – all the things that are invisible to us but are in fact an important part of health.
It was my patients who had to teach me about this. Because in the typical [inaudible 0:05:17] I’d say, “Well, organic food is important but it’s not that important.” One patient after another, after another, would come back and say, “When I go off the diet of organic foods, I get sick really quickly. It’s only a matter of weeks.” I had to pay attention to those, and the funny thing is it’s taken like two-and-a-half decades to get an understanding that the pesticides may not be affecting the human in the way that we are all looking for. It may be affecting us indirectly by affecting the gut, the bowel generally, absorption and nutrition. It might be doing things that way.
Now the studies … we have three years of studies on, say, glyphosate. Now we know for sure that that actually happens. That it diminishes gut flora diversity. It changes around certain enzymes that are important in the gut, and that changes around the nutrition and the availability of vitamin K, certain amino acids to humans that really do affect health very profoundly.
Katherine: What about people who do not have access to organic fruit and vegetables? I know that sounds a bit funny, but there are certain areas in Australia where it is very hard to get organic fruit and vegetables. Are there ways that people can clean conventional fruit and vegetables?
Dr. Donohoe: Well, there are. The problems is this – we’ve got a new class of herbicides. In the old days you could say “yes”. The organochlorines, the dieldrin, heptachlor, chlordane, DDT; that class of chemical was not terribly systemic. What it did was it killed the insects around the place. It would stay on the outside, and thorough washing off the fruits and vegetables would do a great deal of good. You couldn’t do much about it in the meat, because animals that ate those fruits and vegetables would themselves be contaminated, but it was in the very structure and the fats of the meat that you were eating. So you couldn’t do much with the meat, but you could a lot with the vegetables.
The problem is that we now have … the vastly-predominant herbicide in the world is a herbicide called glyphosate, made by many different manufacturers now. It was commonly previously known as Roundup, but now lots and lots of different manufacturers, and it’s cheap, it’s very effective. And because of a thing called Roundup Ready grains – Monsanto and other companies made special types of plants that would resist this herbicide – it was very useful for the farmers.
What they’d do is they would plant their field with the resistant grain or the resistant vegetable. They would then spray the field with the herbicide, and it would affect everything but the Monsanto genetic variety. That allowed farmers to not have to do the weeding and not have to do a lot of the work and the yields went up.
The trouble is glyphosate is taken up by the plants. It changes the nutritional value of some of those plants, but it is also taken up and you can’t easily get rid of it. So I suppose what you’d say now is the majority of the risk is probably related to the herbs and the grasses and the plants and the grains that are treated with glyphosate. You can’t wash it off. What you can do is you can minimise the intake somewhat of those, and go for things that you may grow in your own garden. You can then use probiotics to probably restore some of the gut flora.
So yes, you’re putting a herbicide down there. It’s tiny amounts but very toxic to your bowel flora. But if you’re careful, if you’re able to eat yoghurt, if you’re able to have, say, the occasional probiotic – if, in other words, you think of your food almost a little bit as though it’s an antibiotic that you’re trying to get around the adverse effects of, then it’s seems plausible to restore the normal gut flora.
It’s hard, and it gets harder, and until more growers and until more producers start to think of this way, of the adverse effects on health, we won’t have laws and regulations preventing it. But I do think that in the next five years, after what we’ve seen with the original research, in the next five years there’ll be a lot more focus on what Roundup and the glyphosate generally does to our health. There’ll be more and more availability of an alternative to it. Things that don’t contain glyphosate will be the way to go.
Katherine: We’ve touched on this point before, but I wanted to talk about the cost issue for some of the families. There is pressure from supermarkets to have cheap, perfect-looking food. Fruit and vegetables that have no blemishes, although nature … sometimes an apple has a little blemish or whatever and it’s perfectly fine, but people are so used to these shiny fruits and vegetables. Organics are a little bit more expensive for some.
Dr. Donohoe: And they look grotty sometimes too, don’t they? They look smaller and …
Katherine: But they’re safer, though.
Dr. Donohoe: No, I know. But therein lies the very problem we have, like medicine liking sterility. We all like to have perfect things, and nature does not, in the general run of events, have perfect things. Pests eat foods and they go for those foods and then they’re slightly defective, but that’s what nutrition and nature is all about. Kids will go for it. Kids don’t have that kind of, I want shiny perfect food.
But you’re quite right. The yield from the use of pesticides increases, the amount of lesions on the fruits and the vegetables goes down. The food looks better and it always feels odd paying more for something that looks grotty. It doesn’t … actually walk out of the supermarket, you think, “I’ve got half the weight at twice the price, and there’s little bumps all over it. It doesn’t even look right.” That’s a trade-off that we have to learn to deal without …
In the future, I suspect the organic growers will get better and better at using natural, organic, non-pesticide ways of keeping pests under control. It’s a learning process. A lot of the farmers are producing extraordinarily good varieties by using integrated pest management which doesn’t involve the use of pesticides, but the knowledge of how to plant fields together. As I understand it, this was knowledge that, a few generations ago, every farmer had to have.
It’s not that we get lazy. It’s just that we think, “Oh that’s modern, that’s a new way of doing plants. It increases the yield. It gives me more money.” And that’s always a good incentive. The trouble is if our health suffers as a result of it, and especially if the health of the most vulnerable suffers as a result of it, there’s a downside. There’s a penalty to pay for it. And that’s what we need to learn about.
I heard in America, in New York, the deputy mayor has just announced something there which is if doctors prescribe organic foods, organic fruit and vegetables, that there can be subsidy for it. That sounds like a sensible way to go, that if a person is need of fruit and vegetables and especially if they have special needs where the costs may go up, if it’s a medical necessity, it would be nice to be able to intervene as health practitioners and say, “Here’s a healthier food. You won’t have to pay the premium. You’ll actually be subsidised for the choices of food if it makes a significant difference to your health.”
That requires a bit of re-training of an entire profession, to start to think of food as if it were medicine. Of course it goes right back to Hippocrates, who said those words, “Food is your medicine and your medicine is your food.”
Katherine: It’s kind of interesting for me because I use organics, as I mentioned to you. It’s interesting because decades ago, there was no other option except organic food, because we didn’t have these pesticides and things. But in a way we’re going back to our food roots, yet now, like you said, we pay a premium for it. So in a way it doesn’t make sense at all, but it is …
Dr. Donohoe: In way it does. The thing that has … I’ve learned a lot in my medical practice, but I’ve never learned more than I have from mums with young babies and pregnant women. There’s something about them that they know what’s good for themselves and good for their babies. A lot of the times the choices to move to organics are made around that time of reproduction and care of the baby. Their intuition – we keep on dismissing in medicine. We think, “Oh, they’re just mums. We know better with Caesareans. We know better with breastfeeding versus bottle.”
We’ve got to remember 30 years ago we considered mothers who breastfed negligent and second-rate because we knew better than they did, what a baby needed for nutrition. In general, when mums tell you something and they’ve seen it with their babies, that’s the most sensitive and exquisite experiments that can be done. They know what their babies suffer when they eat certain things or when they do certain things, and they respond intuitively and, as we regard it, emotionally, but over and over it’s correct.
I think that’s the kind of sensitive indicator that we should be spending more time looking at. What raises really vigorously healthy babies? It’s always good in medicine to know what causes the disease. Doctors don’t know health if we run into it, and looking at the healthy and saying, “What makes vigorous health?” I think we’ve got a lot to learn from mums on that area about just what does it.
Katherine: Exactly. Also with the price issue, hopefully maybe if families are paying a little bit more for their food, there’ll be less waste, because I think waste is another problem in families. They’re paying for food but then they throw about half of it in the rubbish bins.
Dr. Donohoe: As has been identified though, the cheapest way to feed a family is to turn up to one of the burger joints. You can’t do better than $15 to feed an entire family. The trouble is that’s not food in the normal sense of the word. That’s fast food. It’s easy to see where obesity and health problems come from when our organic vegetables cost five times the cost of getting burgers and chips from a supplier.
Until that attitude changes, until we see maybe support from within medicine and maybe from politicians, to say, “We have an investment in future health which is too important to leave just to the market. Let’s bring price parity up.” We do it with carbon pricing. We’re seeing all that now. But if we can see that eating particular ways, even though it’s cheap at the point of sale, costs in terms of obesity, diabetes, ill-health and we’re paying those bills later, then we need to increase the cost of unhealthy foods and we need to subsidise what gives us health.
Maybe that’s the turning point. When organic production is the norm and the population has become used to that and that’s the cheapest way to feed a family, then we’re building health for the future.
Katherine: Exactly. Thank you so much for your time today and for talking to us about organics. Thank you Dr. Donohoe.
Dr. Donohoe: It’s a pleasure. Thank you.