5 Neurotoxins Found in Food and How to Avoid Them

May 03, 2023

Have you ever considered that the food you eat might contain harmful substances that are damaging your brain?

From artificial sweeteners to heavy metals and pesticide residues, these neurotoxins (“brain toxins”) can accumulate in our bodies over time, leading to chronic health problems. 

I will explore the various neurotoxins found in our food and their effects on the brain, plus I’ll provide you with tips on how to avoid them to help protect your neurological health.

What are neurotoxins?

Neurotoxins are substances that can harm or damage nerve tissue or nerve cells (neurons) in the body, leading to various neurological symptoms and disorders.1 

Numerous natural and synthetic sources contain neurotoxins, including plants, animals, and man-made chemicals. Exposure to these toxins can interfere with the normal functioning of the nervous system, disrupting communication between nerve cells. 

Why are neurotoxins so dangerous?

Neurotoxins are particularly dangerous because they can disrupt the normal functioning of the nervous system, which is responsible for controlling and coordinating all the body’s functions. this triggers an immune response that leads to inflammation.2

Some neurotoxins can damage the structure of nerve cells, causing them to malfunction or die. Others can interfere with the release or uptake of neurotransmitters, leading to imbalances that disrupt normal brain function. Still, others can interfere with the production or metabolism of neurotransmitters, leading to similar disruption of brain function.3

Symptoms of Neurotoxin Exposure

The effects of neurotoxins on the nervous system can be acute or chronic, depending on the toxin type and the exposure extent. 

Acute exposure to high levels of neurotoxins can cause the rapid onset of symptoms, such as:4

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Twitching or spasms
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Respiratory distress
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Seizures

The symptoms of chronic neurotoxin exposure can be more subtle and challenging to recognize than the symptoms of acute exposure. Some common symptoms of chronic neurotoxin exposure may include the following:

  • Chronic headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Memory problems or cognitive impairment
  • Mood changes, such as depression or anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Respiratory problems, such as asthma or bronchitis 

Chronic neurotoxin exposure can also contribute to chronic health problems like neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases), autoimmune disorders, and cancer. 

5 Neurotoxins Found in Food and How to Avoid Them

The impact of neurotoxins on brain inflammation underscores the importance of identifying and avoiding these substances whenever possible. 

Here are 5 common neurotoxins found in food and some tips on how to avoid them:

1. Aspartame

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener commonly used as a sugar substitute in various foods and beverages labeled as “sugar-free” or “diet.” You may also be familiar with aspartame in the Equal or NutraSweet packets found on most restaurant tables. 

Studies have linked aspartame consumption to numerous symptoms, including:5

  • Headaches and migraines
  • Dizziness and vertigo
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Stomach cramps or abdominal pain
  • Changes in mood or behavior, such as anxiety or depression
  • Skin rash or hives
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Changes in vision or hearing

Plus, aspartame can trigger or worsen symptoms associated with diabetes, fibromyalgia, Alzheimer’s, and multiple sclerosis.6

How to Avoid Artificial Sweeteners

To avoid artificial sweeteners in your diet, start by looking at your food labels. Look for terms like “aspartame,” “sucralose,” “acesulfame potassium,” and “neotame.” There are also several natural sweeteners that you can use, including:

  • Stevia
  • Monk fruit extract
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Coconut sugar

2. Diacetyl

One of America’s favorite low-calorie, high-fiber snacks, popcorn, hides a nasty neurotoxin – diacetyl!

Diacetyl is a chemical compound used as a flavoring agent in some foods, particularly in butter-flavored products such as microwave popcorn, margarine, and snack foods. However, diacetyl is linked to serious respiratory issues that cause inflammation and obstruction in the lungs’ small airways, leading to coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.7

In addition to respiratory issues, research has linked diacetyl exposure to oxidative stress and damage to DNA.8 Plus, evidence suggests that diacetyl may be able to cross the blood-brain barrier, potentially causing damage to brain cells and contributing to the development of neurological disorders.

How to Avoid Diacetyl

Popping and flavoring homemade popcorn with natural ingredients such as salt, organic butter or olive oil, and nutritional yeast is the easiest way to avoid diacetyl.

Check the labels if you’re purchasing microwavable or pre-popped popcorn. Several brands are available that don’t have diacetyl, including QuinnBoom Chicka Pop, and Lesser Evil.

3. MSG

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a flavor enhancer commonly used in processed foods.9 MSG is made from sodium and glutamate, an important brain neurotransmitter found naturally in many foods. Evidence suggests that excessive glutamate can act as an excitotoxin, causing brain cells to become overactive and ultimately leading to their death.10  

Many people report a wide range of symptoms after consuming MSG, including:

  • Headache
  • Flushing
  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Diarrhea 
  • Numbness and tingling

How to Avoid MSG

MSG is in many processed foods. Read labels carefully and look for products that use natural flavors rather than artificial ones, as these are less likely to contain MSG.

This is also an excellent opportunity to experiment with other seasonings. You can use herbs and spices to flavor your food, and experimenting with different combinations can be fun. Lastly, be cautious when eating out; inquire if MSG is used in the restaurant.

4. Mercury

Mercury is a naturally occurring metal in the environment, including in bodies of water where fish and other aquatic absorb the metal. So even though eating fish can be a part of a healthy, balanced diet, consuming fish high in mercury, such as swordfish, king mackerel, shark, and tuna, can harm your health.11  

Ingesting high levels of mercury can lead to symptoms such as:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Memory loss
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Moodswings
  • Numbness
  • Tremors

How to Avoid Mercury

To reduce the risk of mercury exposure from fish, I recommend choosing lower mercury species, such as wild salmon, sardines, mackerel, anchovies, and wild trout, and avoiding or eating species with higher mercury content sparingly, including shark, swordfish, and tuna. It’s also important to pay attention to the source of the fish, as fish from polluted waters may contain higher levels of mercury.

5. Aluminum

Aluminum is a metal commonly found in the environment. Exposure can occur through various sources, including foods such as baking powder, pickled vegetables, canned goods and processed cheese, water, air, and consumer products. 

It’s believed that aluminum interferes with various cellular processes and causes oxidative stress, inflammation, and damage to nerve cells.12 Plus, it has been linked to several neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and ALS.

Exposure to high levels of aluminum can occur in occupational settings. Still, exposure is more common at home through certain types of cookware, antacids, baking powder, and some cosmetics and personal care products. 

How to Avoid Aluminum

Because aluminum is a naturally occurring environmental element, avoiding exposure is impossible. However, you can take some precautionary steps to help reduce your exposure and minimize potential harm to your health.

  • Avoid using aluminum or non-stick cookware; opt for stainless steel, glass, ceramic, or cast iron instead.
  • Avoid aluminum additives, such as baking powder and processed cheese. 
  • Switch out cosmetics and personal care products for aluminum-free alternatives. A great place to start is with antiperspirants or deodorants. 

Additional Neurotoxins to Be Aware Of

There are many types of neurotoxins and new substances are constantly identified and studied. So, I would be remiss if I didn’t include a few additional neurotoxins to look out for.

  • Sucralose: An artificial sweetener used as a sugar substitute in many processed foods and beverages shown to alter brain chemistry and decrease the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut.13
  • Perchlorate: A chemical compound commonly used in rocket fuel, fireworks, and some fertilizers that can contaminate soil and water supplies.14  
  • Red food coloring: A synthetic dye made from chemicals like amaranth and azo dyes used to give foods and beverages a red color. The dye is linked to hyperactivity and behavioral problems in children and may increase your risk of developing certain types of cancer and cause allergic reactions in some people.15
  • High fructose corn syrup (HFCS): A sweetener made from corn starch used in processed food and beverages that contain high levels of fructose, which is linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, oxidative stress, and inflammation in the brain.16
  • Trans fats: Unsaturated fats used in processed foods to improve taste and texture that disrupt cell membranes’ function and increase brain inflammation.17 Trans fats have also been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic health conditions.
  • Pesticides and herbicides: Chemicals used to kill or control pests and weeds in agriculture that may increase the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and ALS.18 19 They have also been linked to developmental delays, cognitive impairment, and other neurological problems in children and adults.

It’s Not Too Late to Put Your Brain First

To protect our neurological health, it is vital to understand neurotoxins’ effects on the brain and learn how to avoid them in our diets. By making conscious choices about the foods we eat, we can minimize our exposure to these harmful substances and promote optimal brain function.

And it’s never too late to put your brain first!

With our BrainReboot program, you will discover your foundational challenges leading to suboptimal brain function. And then, we’ll work together to systemically upgrade both your body and your brain so that you can achieve optimal brain function.

Don’t hit snooze on this unparalleled program!

Get started on your revolutionary brain optimization journey by scheduling a complimentary BrainReboot strategy session

Resources

1. “Neurotoxin – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics.” https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/neurotoxin. Accessed 20 Apr. 2023.

2. “Neurotoxicity – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics.” https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/neurotoxicity. Accessed 26 Apr. 2023.

3. “Neurotoxicology: what the neurologist needs to know.” https://jnnp.bmj.com/content/75/suppl_3/iii29. Accessed 21 Apr. 2023.

4. “Neurotoxicity – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics.” https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/chemistry/neurotoxicity. Accessed 21 Apr. 2023.

5. “Neurophysiological symptoms and aspartame: What is the … – PubMed.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28198207/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2023.

6. “Sugar- and artificially-sweetened beverages and the risks of incident ….” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5405737/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2023.

7. “Respiratory Toxicity of Diacetyl in C57BI/6 Mice – PMC – NCBI.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2669658/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2023.

8. “Silymarin constrains diacetyl-prompted oxidative stress and … – NCBI.” 2 Apr. 2022, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9135832/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2023.

9. “Extensive use of monosodium glutamate: A threat to public health?.” 19 Mar. 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5938543/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2023.

10. “Pictorial Review of Glutamate Excitotoxicity: Fundamental Concepts ….” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7973850/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2023.

11. Neurotoxicity of mercury: an old issue with contemporary significance.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8276940/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2023.

12. “Aluminum in neurological disease – a 36 year multicenter study – PMC.” 29 Nov. 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6550484/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2023.

13. “Sucralose, A Synthetic Organochlorine Sweetener – NCBI.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3856475/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2023.

14. “Perchlorate: Health Effects and Technologies for Its Removal from ….” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2681191/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2023.

15. “Synthetic Food Colors and Neurobehavioral Hazards – NCBI.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3261946/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2023.

16. “High fructose corn syrup induces metabolic dysregulation and ….” 29 Dec. 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5747444/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2023.

17. “The Effect of Trans Fatty Acids on Human Health: Regulation and ….” 14 Oct. 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8535577/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2023.

18. “Neurotoxicity of Pesticides – PMC – NCBI.” 13 Jun. 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6826260/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2023.

19. “Toxic Effects of Glyphosate on the Nervous System – NCBI.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9101768/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2023.

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