Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide, has been making headlines for its potential to cause cancer, but another serious disease has also been linked to this ubiquitous chemical: nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), particularly the most advanced cases.
Staggering amounts of glyphosate have been applied worldwide in recent decades. Since 1974, for instance, more than 1.6 billion kilograms (or about 3.5 billion pounds) of glyphosate have been used in the U.S. alone, accounting for 19% of its overall usage worldwide.
Two-thirds of the total volume of glyphosate applied in the U.S. from 1974 to 2014 was applied in the last 10 years1 — a time during which rates of NAFLD also increased.
As more and more glyphosate has been sprayed on agricultural lands, parks, and backyards, entering our food and water supplies, NAFLD rates have trended upward, from a prevalence of 15% in 2005 to 25% in 2010.2 Is there a connection? The answer increasingly appears to be yes.
Glyphosate Exposure Linked to Advanced Liver Disease in Humans
Researchers from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine analyzed urine samples from 93 patients who had been diagnosed with NAFLD.
Those with a more severe form of NAFLD called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH, had significantly higher residues of glyphosate in their urine, an association that held true regardless of other factors in liver health, such as body mass index, diabetes status, age or race.3,4
That exposure to glyphosate may lead to more severe forms of liver disease is concerning, since those with NASH are at increased risk of liver cirrhosis, liver cancer and higher liver-related and non-liver-related mortality than the general population.5
In a UC San Diego news release, lead study author Paul J. Mills, Ph.D., explained “There have been a handful of studies, all of which we cited in our paper, where animals either were or weren’t fed Roundup or glyphosate directly, and they all point to the same thing: the development of liver pathology. So I naturally thought: ‘Well, could it be exposure to this same herbicide that is driving liver disease in the U.S.?’”6
According to Mills, “The increasing levels [of glyphosate] in people’s urine very much correlates to the consumption of Roundup-treated crops into our diet,”7 although he acknowledged that we’re exposed to many synthetic chemicals on a regular basis, and the study only measured one. Still, it’s not the first time glyphosate has been linked to problems with liver health, including NAFLD and NASH.
Animal Studies Show Low-Level Exposure to Roundup Damages the Liver
A number of animal studies have linked glyphosate to liver damage, including one that dates back to 1979, which showed the chemical could disrupt mitochondria in rat livers.8
Glyphosate is also known to trigger the production of reactive oxygen species, leading to oxidative stress. As noted in Scientific Reports, “Elevation in oxidative stress markers is detected in rat liver and kidney after subchronic exposure to GBH [glyphosate-based herbicides] at the United States permitted glyphosate concentration of 700 μg/L in drinking water.”9,10
Researchers from King’s College London also showed an “ultra-low dose” of glyphosate-based herbicides was damaging.11 The study involved glyphosate exposures of 4 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per day, which is 75,000 and 437,500 times below EU and U.S. permitted levels, respectively.12
After a two-year period, female rats showed signs of liver damage, specifically NAFLD and progression to NASH. The authors noted that glyphosate may bring about toxic effects via different mechanisms, depending on the level of exposure, including possibly mimicking estrogen and interfering with mitochondrial and enzyme function.
“Glyphosate is also a patented antibiotic (Patent No.: US 7771736),” the researchers said, “and can inhibit the growth of susceptible bacteria by inhibition of the shikimate pathway and could cause dysbiosis in the gastrointestinal tract,” and added:13
“Our observations may have human health implication since NAFLD is predicted to be the next major global epidemic. Approximately 20-30% of the population in the United States carry extra fat in their livers. NAFLD is associated with the recent rapid rise in the incidence of diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome.
Overall, it is acknowledged that NAFLD is mostly caused by excess caloric intake, but also from the consumption of processed foods … as well as sedentary lifestyles.
However, many suffer from NAFLD but which do not have any high risk factors and thus other contributors to disease, such as exposure to physiologically active environmental pollutants via contaminated food, cannot be excluded.”
Choline Deficiency Also Linked to Fatty Liver Disease
NAFLD is the most common chronic liver disease in developed countries,14 characterized by a buildup of excess fat in your liver that is not related to heavy alcohol use. NAFLD can progress to NASH, which involves inflammation of the liver and liver cell damage in addition to the buildup of fat.15
People with NASH may go on to develop fibrosis, or scarring, of the liver, as well as cirrhosis of the liver, which in turn is linked to an increased risk of liver cancer (rates of liver cancer have been increasing over the last two decades).16,17
NAFLD often has no symptoms, although it may cause fatigue, jaundice, swelling in the legs and abdomen, mental confusion and more. In the early stages, NAFLD may be reversed by careful attention to diet and exercise, and choline intake may also play a significant role.
Choline, an essential nutrient, supports normal liver function and liver health, helping it to maintain membrane integrity and manage cholesterol metabolism, including low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL), helping to move fat out of your liver.18,19
By enhancing the secretion of VLDL in your liver, required to safely transport fat out, choline may protect your liver health.20 An estimated 90 percent of the U.S. population is deficient in choline.21 You can increase your intake by consuming more choline-rich foods, such as organic pastured egg yolks, grass-fed beef liver, wild-caught Alaskan salmon and krill oil. Arugula is also an excellent source.
Restricting Net Carbohydrates Is Essential for Liver Health
In the case of NAFLD, glyphosate may be one contributing factor, but diet is another. With NAFLD, the fatty liver occurs in the absence of significant alcohol consumption and is driven instead by excess sugar, which is why this condition is now found even in young children.
Most importantly, you need to eliminate processed fructose and other added sugars from your diet. Fructose affects your liver in ways that are very similar to alcohol. Unlike glucose, which can be used by virtually every cell in your body, fructose can only be metabolized by your liver, as your liver is the only organ that has the transporter for it.
Since all fructose gets shuttled to your liver, if you consume high amounts of it, fructose ends up taxing and damaging your liver in the same way alcohol and other toxins do. The way your liver metabolizes fructose is also very similar to that of alcohol,22 as both serve as substrates for converting carbohydrates into fat, which promotes insulin resistance, dyslipidemia (abnormal fat levels in the bloodstream) and fatty liver.
Fructose also undergoes the Maillard reaction with proteins, leading to the formation of superoxide free radicals that can result in liver inflammation similar to acetaldehyde, an intermediary metabolite of ethanol. Reducing carbs to 50 grams for every 1,000 calories and increasing your intake of healthy fats is a powerful way to support your liver health.
In the video below, Dr. David Unwin, a low-carb advocate in the U.K., discusses the health improvements patients in his practice have experienced in liver function (and Type 2 diabetes) as they follow a low-carbohydrate diet.
Verdicts in Glyphosate Trials Side With Victims, Awarding Billions in Damages
Aside from NAFLD, glyphosate’s link to cancer continues to grow stronger as the first three lawsuits alleging the chemical caused the plaintiffs’ cancer has been ruled in the victims’ favor. In August 2018, a jury ruled in favor of plaintiff Dewayne Johnson, who claimed Roundup caused his Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Monsanto was ordered to pay $289 million in damages to Johnson, although the award was later reduced to $78 million.
In a second case, a judge ruled in favor of the plaintiff, ordering Bayer to pay more than $80 million to Edwin Hardeman, who claimed repeated exposures to Roundup, which he used to kill weeds on his 56-acre property, were responsible for his cancer diagnosis.23
The third case involved a married couple, Alva and Alberta Pilliod, who claimed they both developed Non-Hodgkin lymphoma after regular use of Roundup. The pair had been using Roundup since the 1970s, stopping only a few years ago.
The jury heard 17 days of testimony and deliberated for less than two days before deciding in the Pilliods’ favor and ordering Bayer to pay $2 billion in punitive and compensatory damages.24
At least 13,400 lawsuits are still looming from people who claim exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them health problems, including cancer. If the science continues to support a link between glyphosate and NAFLD, it’s very possible that another round of lawsuits could come down on Bayer due to the chemical’s toxic legacy.
Bayer was even caught making a hit list after French media raised accusations about Monsanto’s 2016 “stakeholder mapping project.” Monsanto had compiled lists of supportive and critical stakeholders, including personal information including their addresses and opinions in relation to Monsanto, which may have violated both ethical principles and legal regulations.25
How to Avoid Glyphosate
Just how much glyphosate is the average individual getting, if they're eating a primarily processed nonorganic food diet every single day of the week? No one knows at this point, but the evidence suggesting the liver disease may occur, even from very low doses, should have public officials scrambling to find out. Glyphosate has been detected in everything from drinking water to Cheerios cereal to disposable diapers.26
The best way to reduce your exposure is to choose organic or biodynamic foods as much as possible. Interestingly, the authors of the featured study plan to put patients on an organic diet for several months, which would presumably lower their exposure to glyphosate and other chemicals, to see how it affects biomarkers of liver disease.27
If you want to find out how much glyphosate is in your body, the Health Research Institute (HRI) in Iowa developed the glyphosate urine test kit, which will allow you to determine your own exposure to this toxic herbicide.