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Are we really so different than those lead-poisoned Romans?

There’s an old debate over whether lead poisoning brought down the Roman Empire.

We’ll let the scholars argue that one, but the fact is, many Romans did expose themselves to enough lead on a daily basis to suffer its toxic effects.

Lead, you see, was such an easily worked metal, and so easily obtained – it was a by-product of silver mining. In fact, the word “plumber” comes from the Latin word for lead – plumbum. Workers who fabricated water pipes from lead were called plumbarii.

Yes, the Romans did drink water delivered through lead pipes. Even their aqueducts were sometimes lined with it.

They also cooked with it, which likely presented a far greater health risk than the water pipes did. Many writings from back then recommend the use of lead cooking vessels to boil down unfermented grape juice into reductions that were widely used in cooking, and to dilute and sweeten sour wine. Cups and dinnerware were also made with lead.

They did know

It’s easy for us today to sit back, comfortable in our perceived sense of technological and scientific superiority, and shake our heads over how ignorant those ancients were. If only they had known.

But they did.

Many Roman scholars of the time did write about the obvious ill effects of lead exposure during the smelting process, or the dangers of lead if ingested. Vitruvius, an author, architect, civil engineer, and military engineer during the 1st century BC, wrote that, “water conducted through earthen pipes is more wholesome than that through lead; indeed that conveyed in lead must be injurious.”

And yet, the Romans dismissed the dangers of lead when it came to their drinking water and cooking. You might even say they had their heads buried in the sand because lead was just so darn useful.

We’re burying our heads, too

Many of us today willingly consume large amounts of a substance that we now know to be toxic. It’s in what we chose to eat and what we chose to drink. The effects of it are obvious when we look in a mirror or step on a scale. It’s a key contributor to Type II diabetes, heart disease, and fatty liver disease – lifestyle-related illnesses that are beyond epidemic in our society.

We’re talking, of course, about sugar. It’s the new lead. And if the truth be told, it’s likely doing far more damage to us than all that lead exposure did to the Romans.

But we downplay the risks. We ignore the warnings from credible health professionals and from our own bodies. It’s an addiction that has us burying our heads in the sand.

Why? Because sugar is, for all intents and purposes, an addictive narcotic. In fact, studies have proven that it impacts our bodies in much the same way that a drug like cocaine does.

A match for cocaine

The most recent study was released in April by researchers from Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

“(Sugar) has also been shown to repeatedly elevate dopamine levels which control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres in a way that is similar to many drugs of abuse including tobacco, cocaine, and morphine,” said neuroscientist Professor Selena Bartlett.

Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter – a chemical released by the neurons in our brains to transmit signals to other cells.

As a result of sugar’s bio-chemical impact, higher and higher amounts of it must be consumed to maintain dopamine production to feel good and avoid mild states of depression.

And sugar, of course, is more than just that white stuff in the bowl next to the coffee machine. It includes the high fructose corn syrup pumped into countless pre-packaged foods, fruit juices (even “pure” ones), honey, maple syrup, molasses, raw sugar, cane sugar, and so on. Just because it comes from a “natural” source, it’s still a form of sugar that is toxic to your body. Even some fruits, like apples and oranges, blast your bloodstream with excessive levels.

So, are you still shaking your head at the Romans?

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