How Environmental Contaminants Affect Gut Health
With the modernization of our world, we have become exposed to numerous chemicals and contaminants that we never expected. While we’re exposed in small doses, they can still add up and wreak havoc on our health and the health of our children.
Studies are constantly being done on many of the different chemical pollutants that we are exposed to so we can better understand:
- How they are created
- How they affect our bodies
- What levels are dangerous
- And most importantly, what we can do to protect our bodies and reverse any damage that has already been done
Oftentimes these environmental contaminants are leached into our food meaning our first contact with them is in our guts. With our guts being the first line of defense, we must take action since the majority of our immune system is affected by gut health alone.
What Are Environmental Contaminants/Chemicals?
Environmental contaminants are chemicals that we are exposed to from the time of our birth and after. There are upwards of 300 of these chemicals and their metabolic byproducts that we are exposed to throughout our lives. Some of these chemicals are even passed on through breastmilk causing great concern for childhood development.
While many of them are okay in small doses, the majority tend to bioaccumulate in our bodies.
Bioaccumulation is where issues come into play. Our bodies can handle small quantities of these chemicals and know how to properly dispose of them. But much like excessive sugar intake, when our bodies are exposed to too high of levels in a period of time before they can dispose of them, they pile up and start damaging us.
Some of the main groups of environmental chemicals (and the ones we will be covering in the rest of this article) include:
- Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)
- Heavy Metals
- Antibiotic Waste
Problems Associated with Environmental Chemicals
The top health problems that have been associated with these environmental contaminants are:
- Reproductive Problems
- Developmental Issues
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Cardiovascular, Immune, and Endocrine Dysfunction
- Liver Disease
If you have read anything on gut health, you’ll notice that a lot of these problems are similar to the side effects of gastrointestinal dysbiosis (imbalance of your gut microbiome).
This isn’t a coincidence. The main exposure we have to these chemicals is through our food. That makes our guts the first area exposed to them. That’s why the microbiome has become an important area of research when it comes to fighting the effects of these chemicals.
How Environmental Chemicals Interact with Gut Health
Obviously, be ingesting these chemicals we are exposing ourselves to them. But the way they interact with our microbes is how they create dangerous changes to our bodies.
You’ve likely heard of the concerns with bisphenol-A commonly called BPA. BPA is an endocrine-disrupting chemical that is found in plastics. You’ll notice on water bottles it will say BPA-free indicating the plastics used are not exposing you to BPA.
BPA has been found to affect the production of short-chain fatty acids (especially butyrate). This leads to increased oxidative stress, cancer rates, and weight gain.
BPA has also been linked to brain development issues and estrogen imbalances. Estrogen imbalances mean that these chemicals will affect men and women differently so future studies must keep this in mind when selecting study participants.
These are chemicals found in everything from vinyl flooring to children’s toys to medical equipment. We are often exposed to them as vapors or dust particles but they are also found in our food and drinks.
One of the biggest concerns of phthalate exposure is in newborns. When exposed to phthalates they not only have microbial disturbances but they also seem to become immune to certain vaccinations making them vulnerable to diseases they should be protected from.
Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)
Some POPs are naturally found in nature while others are byproducts of manmade items. The problem with POPs is they are hydrophobic and lipophilic meaning they can be transported through water and air. They are also resistant to environmental breakdown, so they accumulate at a more rapid pace than other environmental chemicals.
POPs are found in agricultural products like pesticides, non-stick cookware coatings, and byproducts from fires.
There are several different types of POPs like PCBs, PAHs, PFCs, PBDEs, and PCDDs. The main problems associated with POPs are changes to inflammatory biomarkers, reproductive disorders, immune dysfunction, and neurobehavioral problems.
Heavy metals are one of the few that are found naturally in the world around us. These are the metals found on the periodic table and in the Earth’s crust. Even at low concentrations, if you become exposed to them are very dangerous.
Lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury are the most common. All of which are associated with gut dysbiosis.
Results of these particular gut disturbances include metabolic issues, oxidative stress, atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, and damage to the gastrointestinal tract.
This includes insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. While all of these were created to destroy certain species without affecting humans, when we are constantly exposed to them they accumulate in our bodies and cause problems.
The mechanisms used to affect plants or bugs are supposed to be specific to systems they have but humans don’t, which is where the ‘safe’ argument came from. However, just because we don’t have those same systems doesn’t mean we are safe. It just means it affects human bodies differently.
Pesticides have been linked to increased inflammatory responses, autoimmune disorders, neurobehavioral impairments, oxidative stress, and metabolism disorders.
We can be exposed to antibiotics without actually ingesting them. They are used for livestock and passed on to us through our foods. We are also exposed to them environmentally because they are disposed of through feces and urine in addition to medical disposal.
The studies showing problems with antibiotics on our gut and overall health are unlimited. Antibiotics cause microbial disturbances that can be long term and cause autoimmune disorders and syndromes like IBS.
How Can We Protect Ourselves from Environmental Contaminants?
With these dangerous chemicals being pretty much everywhere, it seems almost hopeless to even try to fight exposure. While there isn’t a lot we can do, there are things that help to reverse our exposure to them.
The first thing to do is try to limit exposure. Swap to BPA-free items, make sure you are limiting exposure to heavy metals, instead of using non-stick cookware get cast iron or cookware of the like.
Probiotics, especially of the Lactobacillus family, were found to tighten the gut barrier and prevent the absorption of environmental chemicals. The main action here that is protecting the body is the gut barrier repair.
Probiotics aren’t helpful for everyone and can actually be dangerous for some people. Prebiotics are a great alternative to help repair the GI tract to keep the barrier tight to avoid absorption.
Prebiotics can be found in fibrous foods or supplements like Atrantil. Depending on the type of fiber you get you should be shooting for anywhere between 20-50 grams per day. Those who have sensitivities should stay to the 20 grams and work their way up if possible.
Exposure to our world is mostly unavoidable. But implementing good health practices can help to mitigate the risk we have by taking care of our bodies. Take care of your microbiomes to make sure none of these dangerous chemicals can destroy your body.
What switches do you plan to make to avoid exposure? Let us know in the comments below!