EMF Exposure: Neuropsychiatric Effects
YASAMAN TASALLOTI, ND
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in the utilization of technology to work, learn, and connect from home. To a great degree, this has been a welcomed solution in terms of convenience and the ability to resume daily life; however, the long-term impacts of the ever-increasing exposures to electromagnetic radiation have yet to be determined. As our environment continues to be burdened by toxic compounds, it might be important to consider electromagnetic radiation as another environmental toxin that is impacting our patients’ health, especially as it relates to their cognitive and mental health. While system-wide physiological effects from exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) have been reported, this article primarily examines their effects on the nervous system. Although further research, especially long-term studies, is warranted, the data thus far have revealed a variety of common clinical findings.
There are 2 categories of man-made electromagnetic fields: Extremely Low Frequency Fields (ELF) and Radiofrequency Fields (RF). Much of the prior research and proposed safety guidelines for EMFs were based on the thermal effects, which can cause tissue damage. However, recent data have focused more on the non-thermal effects of EMFs, which can impair cellular health.1 Some people in the medical community are even advocating for electromagnetic hypersensitivity to be added as a medical diagnosis, as a growing number of individuals have reported incapacitating symptoms from EMF exposure. Some of the currently proposed mechanisms of EMF effects on physiological function are described below.
Physiologic Effects of EMFs
A variety of studies have demonstrated neuroendocrine and neurotransmitter changes after exposure to non-thermal electromagnetic frequencies. Animal studies have shown that one such mechanism is through the activation of voltage-gated calcium channels (VGCCs), which in turn causes the release of neuroendocrine hormones and neurotransmitters.1 VGCCs are found in highest numbers throughout the central and peripheral nervous system. Stimulation of VGCCs prompts intracellular calcium release, which impacts neurotransmitter release, synaptic regulation, and nerve cell excitability.2 Specifically, the rapid release of calcium caused by EMF exposure has been shown in animal and/or human studies to cause decreases in dopamine, serotonin, and phenylethylamine, and increases in norepinephrine and epinephrine.3,4 Many studies of bipolar disorder have linked mood disturbances with an increase in intracellular calcium.5,6 It is interesting to note that the mechanism of action of certain mood stabilizers is through the blocking of VGCCs.7
Exposure to EMFs has been shown in animal and/or human studies to cause neuroendocrine changes, including melatonin disruption, suppressed melatonin levels, and altered circadian rhythms.8,9 We all know how important quality sleep is for our cognitive and mental health. Whether it is lack of quality sleep contributing to mental health or an imbalance in mental health contributing to poor sleep, both must be accounted for.
EMF exposure has also been shown to affect cortisol. Levels of cortisol have been shown to increase in animals exposed to EMFs.10 Effects in human studies have been inconsistent, ranging from no effect to increases in cortisol or alterations in its circadian rhythm.11
ROS Formation & Cytokine Activation
Exposure to EMFs promotes oxidative stress in many bodily tissues.12 One of the mechanisms for this is through the activation of the VGCCs, which partly stimulates the release of nitric oxide.13 Although nitric oxide has therapeutic effects in the body, an increase in its production due to EMF exposure can encourage the formation of free radicals.13 This process occurs when nitric oxide combines with superoxide to form peroxynitrite. It is well recognized that reactive oxygen species (ROS) can cause a host of adverse cellular changes in the body. Examples include impaired phospholipid membranes and ion channels, disrupted ion movement, damaged DNA strands, and altered protein synthesis and enzyme activity.12 A rat study demonstrated DNA oxidative stress in response to EMF exposure, as indicated by elevated levels of 8-hydroxy-2’-deoxyguanosine (8-OHdG).12,14
EMF exposure can also increase levels of inflammatory cytokines,15,16 which are known to play a role in many chronic conditions, including mood disorders.17 For example, inflammatory cytokines have been shown to lower serotonin levels while increasing glutamate levels and excitotoxicity.17 Additionally, they can raise cortisol levels via activation of the HPA axis.17 Along with contributing to mood changes, hypercortisolemia can disrupt sleep patterns.17
BBB Disruption & Histological Changes
Animal studies have shown EMF exposure to cause a variety of histological changes in the brain, neurons, and synaptic connections.1 Over time, sustained calcium elevations can cause apoptosis of cells and irreversible tissue damage. Non-thermal EMF exposure in rats has also been shown to increase blood-brain barrier (BBB) permeability.18 By allowing the passage of toxins into the brain, a breach in the BBB can promote tissue damage, disrupt neuronal function, and increase the risk of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s.19,20
Blood Sugar Imbalances
Although further research is needed, animal models have also shown EMFs to impact glucose and insulin levels. The specific effects, however, vary between studies.21-23 Because blood sugar dysregulation can contribute to symptoms of anxiety, irritability, cognitive dysfunction, and depression, this effect of EMF exposure warrants further research.
Clinical Findings Associated with EMF Exposure
Reported neuropsychiatric symptoms resulting from EMF exposure include sleep disturbances, fatigue, headaches, dizziness, difficulties with memory recall and concentration, headache, depression, anxiety, restlessness, dysesthesia, and others.4,24-26 Allergy symptoms have also been noted,4 which may be a consequence of increased histamine release, as observed in animals exposed to EMFs.27,28 Certain laboratory changes have also been observed in individuals presenting with sensitivity to EMF exposure, including elevations in hs-C-reactive protein (hs-CRP), IgE (even in the absence of known allergy), and 8-OHdG,24 and decreases in serum antioxidants, such as glutathione, superoxide dismutase, myeloperoxidase, and catalase.12
As with other environmental toxins, EMF exposure in today’s world is inevitable. Therefore, limiting one’s exposure as much as possible is the first step. Here are some suggestions to limit EMF exposure and protect against the effects of EMFs:
- Hard-wire computers, both at home and at the workplace
- Limit EMF exposure by setting timers or utilizing apps that set time-frames for device usage
- Shut off Wi-Fi at nighttime: Contact your wireless provider or go online to schedule automatic shut-down of Wi-Fi in the house during hours of rest
- Use shielding technologies: Although this is an area that requires further testing and research, there are a few companies conducting third-party testing to provide technologies that offer protection from both ELF and RF radiation
- Earthing29: Placing your feet on the earth’s surface allows for the transfer of electrons from the ground to your body; this provides antioxidant and anti-inflammatory support. Most of us do not engage in this on a daily basis, and sometimes the climate we live in does not allow for this practice during various times of the year. However, engage in earthing as much as possible; earthing on a daily basis would be ideal. There are also various grounding mats and blankets available that one can use as an alternative method.
- Nutritional support: As mentioned, EMF exposure promotes oxidative stress. Because ROS deplete antioxidants, supplementing the following antioxidants and vitamin/mineral cofactors is worth considering:
- Antioxidants, such as vitamin C, glutathione, selenium, superoxide dismutase, and melatonin, may provide protective effects against EMF-induced oxidative stress. Animal studies have shown vitamin E30 and zinc32 to help address lipid peroxidation, and N-acetylcysteine (NAC) and epigallocatechin-gallate (EGCG) have demonstrated hepatoprotective effects.33
- Vitamin D may confer protective effects against electromagnetic radiation.34,35
Through a variety of mechanisms, EMF exposure promotes inflammatory responses and oxidative stress in the body. A combination of neurotransmitter disruption, melatonin and cortisol imbalances, and inflammatory responses can in turn impair cognitive functioning and mental health. As naturopathic physicians, we are taught to remove the obstacles to healing in our patients. If electromagnetic radiation is one such obstacle, it warrants serious consideration in our assessment and treatment of mental health concerns in our patients.
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- Lee S. Pharmacological Inhibition of Voltage-gated Ca(2+) Channels for Chronic Pain Relief. Curr Neuropharmacol. 2013;11(6):606-620.
- Ismail SA, Ali RFM, Hassan HMM, Abd El-Rahman D. Effect of Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields (Emfs) on Monoamine Neurotransmitters of Newborn Rats. Biochem Physiol. 2015;4(2):156. Available at: tinyurl.com/ooid4ab5. Accessed January 29, 2021.
- Buchner K, Eger H. Changes of Clinically Important Neurotransmitters under the Influence of Modulated RF Fields—A Long-term Study under Real-life Conditions. Electromagnetic Fields. 2011;24(1):44-57.
- Harrison PJ, Hall N, Mould A, et al. Cellular calcium in bipolar disorder: systematic review and meta-analysis. Mol Psychiatry. 2019 Dec 4. doi.org/10.1038/s41380-019-0622-y. [Epub ahead of print]
- Emamghoreishi M, Schlichter L, Li PP, et al. High intracellular calcium concentrations in transformed lymphoblasts from subjects with bipolar I disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 1997;154(7):976-982.
- Harrison PJ, Geddes JR, Tunbridge EM. The Emerging Neurobiology of Bipolar Disorder. Trends Neurosci. 2018;41(1):18-30.
- Halgamuge MN. Critical time delay of the pineal melatonin rhythm in humans due to weak electromagnetic exposure. Indian J Biochem Biophys. 2013;50(4):259-265.
- Reiter R. Melatonin in the context of the reported bioeffects of environmental electromagnetic fields. Bioelectrochem Bioenerg. 1998;47(1):135-142.
- Shahabi S, Hassanzadeh Taji I, Hoseinnezhaddarzi M, et al. Exposure to cell phone radiofrequency changes corticotrophin hormone levels and histology of the brain and adrenal glands in male Wistar rat. Iran J Basic Med Sci. 2018;21(12):1269-1274.
- Touitou Y, Selmaoui B. The effects of extremely low-frequency magnetic fields on melatonin and cortisol, two marker rhythms of the circadian system. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2012;14(4):381-399.
- Kivrak EG, Yurt K, Kaplan AA, Kaplan AA, et al. Effects of electromagnetic fields exposure on the antioxidant defense system. J Microsc Ultrastruct. 2017;5(4):167-176.
- Pall M. Electromagnetic fields act via activation of voltage-gated calcium channels to produce beneficial or adverse effects. J Cell Mol Med. 2013;17(8):958-965.
- Yokus B, Cakir DU, Akdag MZ, et al. Oxidative DNA damage in rats exposed to extremely low frequency electro magnetic fields. Free Radic Res. 2005;39(3):317-323.
- Kim SJ, Jang YW, Hyung KE, et al. Extremely low-frequency electromagnetic field exposure enhances inflammatory response and inhibits effect of antioxidant in RAW 264.7 cells. Bioelectromagnetics. 2017;38(5):374-385.
- Mahaki H, Tanzadehpanah H, Jabarivasal N, et al. A review on the effects of extremely low frequency electromagnetic field (ELF-EMF) on cytokines of innate and adaptive immunity. Electromagn Biol Med. 2019;38(1):84-95.
- Rosenblat JD, McIntyre RS, Alves GS, et al. Beyond Monoamines-Novel Targets for Treatment-Resistant Depression: A Comprehensive Review. Curr Neuropharmacol. 2015;13(5):636-655.
- Eberhardt JL, Persson BR, Brun AE, et al. Blood-brain barrier permeability and nerve cell damage in rat brain 14 and 28 days after exposure to microwaves from GSM mobile phones. Electromagn Biol Med. 2008;27(3):215-229.
- Obrenovich MEM. Leaky Gut, Leaky Brain? Microorganisms. 2018;6(4):107.
- Salford LG, Nittby H, Brun A, et al. Non-thermal effects of EMF upon the mammalian brain: the Lund experience. Environmentalist. 2007;27:493-500. Available at: tinyurl.com/1ll3s3dp. Accessed January 29, 2021..
- Khaki A, Ali-Hemmati A, Nobahari R. A Study of the Effects of Electromagnetic Field on Islets of Langerhans and Insulin Release in Rats. Crescent Journal of Medical and Biological Sciences. 2015;2(1):1-5.
- Carter CS, Huang SC, Searby CC, et al. Exposure to Static Magnetic and Electric Fields Treats Type 2 Diabetes. Cell Metab. 2020;32(4):561-574.e7.
- Meo SA, Al Rubeaan K. Effects of exposure to electromagnetic field radiation (EMFR) generated by activated mobile phones on fasting blood glucose. Int J Occup Med Environ Health. 2013;26(2):235-241.
- Stein Y, Udasin IG. Electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS, microwave syndrome) – Review of mechanisms. Environ Res. 2020;186:109445.
- Abdel-Rassoul G, El-Fateh A Salem A, et al. Neurobehavioral effects among inhabitants around mobile phone base stations. NeuroToxicology. 2007;28(2):434-440.
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- Tümkaya L, Kalkan Y, Gökce FM, et al. The Effects of Mobile Phone Exposure on Mast Cells in Rat Dura Mater. Int J Morphol. 2019;37(2):719-723. Available at: http://www.intjmorphol.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/art_51_372.pdf. Accessed January 29, 2021.
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- Ghanbari AA, Shabani K, Mohammad Nejad D. Protective Effects of Vitamin E Consumption against 3MT Electromagnetic Field Effects on Oxidative Parameters in Substantia Nigra in Rats. Basic Clin Neurosci. 2016;7(4):315-322.
- Ahmed NA, Radwan NM, Aboul Ezz HS, Salama NA. The antioxidant effect of Green Tea Mega EGCG against electromagnetic radiation-induced oxidative stress in the hippocampus and striatum of rats. Electromagn Biol Med. 2017;36(1):63-73.
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Yasaman Tasalloti, ND graduated in 2015 from SCNM in Tempe, AZ. Dr Tasalloti is passionate about uncovering the underlying causes of chronic health concerns and addressing the toxic thought patterns and emotions that can impact the physical body. She firmly believes it is possible for every patient to achieve his or her greatest level of health, given the appropriate treatment options and the patient’s willingness to fully take part in their health journey. Website: www.DrYasND.com