A unified theory of disease

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Humans are complex, synchronous enzyme machines, said Joseph Pizzorno, ND, during the virtual 2020 Institute for Functional Medicine Annual International Conference.

A 1999 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found a significant decrease of nutrient density in foods. The study did not measure trace minerals. However, a 1991 study published in the journal Nutrition and Health looked at the mineral depletion foods available in the United States, including vegetables, fruits, meats, dairy, and fish, due to chemical fertilizers and found every mineral except for phosphorus in fruits and vegetables and sodium and dairy decreased significantly, with trace minerals cut down 77 percent in vegetables.

“Fertilizers make plants grow bigger causing a dilution effect, but nutrient content decrease in proportion to use of high-phosphate fertilizers,” said Pizzorno. “Yet, nutrient deficiencies are rampant in the [U.S.].”

Additionally, there is a high body load of toxicants. Studies show that lead increases all-cause mortality and death from cardiovascular disease. Arsenic is a major factor in many cancers and continues to contaminate water supply and soil. Genetics play a significant role in how an individual responds to toxin exposure, Pizzorno said, and there is huge variability in detoxification function.

Toxins and nutrient deficiencies synergistically increase damage, said Pizzorno. For example, lead increased the need for B vitamins—deficiencies in folate, B6 and B12 make lead more toxic, while lead aggravates damage from low B vitamins. Circling back to his first point, Pizzorno said toxins in soil decrease vitamins and minerals in food. In addition, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, toxic metals, and air pollutants decrease vitamin D. Toxins impair detoxification systems, he said.

Human physiology is a massively parallel matric, and there are not simply single pathways, Pizzorno said. Detoxification of acetaminophen is a clear example of these multiple pathways.

The reductionist view of biochemistry misses many details, Pizzorno said. Many plant molecules are now shown to have substantial physiological effects independent of previously discovered biochemistry. The cannabinoid pathway is a classic example, he said.

Modern agriculture dangerously distorts the food supply, said Pizzorno. When plants are hybridized to increase one class of molecules, there is decreased production of others. When foods are refined, the levels of many seemingly unimportant constituents decline. Everyday, humans consume many molecules considered unimportant.

“Many of these phytochemicals are bioactive beyond our current understanding because they act through weak biological feedback mechanisms, difficult to detect in vitro or considered involved in minor unimportant pathways,” Pizzorno said. Only 500,000 molecules have been identified, though there are 200,000 projected.

Beyond molecules, the food supply overall has changed dramatically from hybridization to genetically modified organisms to chemically induced growth. Plants are now so weak they need toxic chemicals to protect from things like insects, viruses, and mold. This impacts human health, Pizzorno said.

A 2018 study published in the journal Microbial Pathogenesis found that organically grown heirloom plants are more resilient and need less help against pests. Further, humans eating these plant molecules were more resilient and less susceptible to pathogens. This concept can be illustrated when comparing ancient kamut to current wheat.

Organically grown foods are more healthful than chemically grown foods, Pizzorno said. But this is just the tip of iceberg. There is a huge clinical impact between organic and chemically grown foods, and the seemingly unimportant molecules greatly impact important nutrients. For example, zinc is critical for metabolism, but only if in cells. Bioflavonoids increase zinc transport into cells. Foods depleted in zinc and depleted in bioflavonoids have even lower cellular zinc. Foods grown with high phosphates typically have higher levels of zinc-antagonist cadmium.

Flavonoids are critical for human health and preserving brain function. These unimportant molecules also lower risk of cancer. Additionally, oftentimes, organic foods taste better and are higher in nutrients, Pizzorno said.

Another facet of this conversation, Pizzorno said, is how humans have lost synchronization with the environment. Circadian rhythms and epigenetics are highly impacted by the environment. Toxin exposure impacts circadian gene expression.

Translating to what these means for practitioners and patients, Pizzorno said we’ve moved from living in a matrix of health-promoting molecules in synchrony with the environment to toxins, deficiencies, and isolation resulting in high disease burden. High toxicant load and gross nutritional deficiencies cause disease, and genetics determine susceptibility.

“We transformed the food supply to be deficient not just in nutrients known to be required for metabolism but also unimportant molecules that hugely impact health,” Pizzorno said. “Then we create drugs that are patentable modifications of some of these unimportant molecules and prescribe them to the population for the diseases caused by a depleted food supply. Now add toxins and toxicants to further poison metabolism.”

The bottom line is there is no substitute for a whole foods diet that is primarily plant-based, organically grown from heirloom seeds that are uncontaminated during growing, transport, processing, storage, and cooking. Further, nutritional supplements are not a substitute for whole foods, though can be used to address genomic susceptibilities, protecting from toxins, and enhancing function when needed.

“Substituting drugs for natural food molecules will never be an effective strategy,” Pizzorno said.

Editor’s note: Click here to explore our 2020 Institute for Functional Medicine Annual International Conference live coverage.