Our gut microbiome is a complex and diverse ecosystem that can be sensitive to multiple factors.
Studies suggest that our environment may have more of an impact on the microbiome than our genetics. Living conditions, our upbringing, how active we are, the foods we eat, and the toxins we are exposed to can all influence how our microbiome interacts with our environment.
Environmental toxins in particular can have a huge impact on our gut bacteria. Exposure to these has become increasingly common, especially with modern lifestyles where there is increased sanitation and antibiotic use, separation from the outdoors, higher intake of processed foods, and sedentary lifestyles.
In this article, we will discuss steps we can take to protect our gut from environmental toxins and how to avoid these pollutants.
How Does the Environment Affect Gut Health?
Both the external environment and your body’s own internal conditions influence the way our microbiome functions. We are exposed to thousands of pollutants and environmental toxins every day. Over time, this exposure can have serious consequences for our health, including metabolic disease, obesity, autoimmunity and mental health disorders.
Environmental pollutants can alter the composition of the gut microbiome, leading to a range of disorders that affect nutrient absorption, energy metabolism, and immune system function, and prevent our healthy gut bacteria from working properly. This can lead to overexposure to harmful chemicals and gut toxicity.
What is Gut Toxicity?
Gut toxicity refers to functional damage in the gut microbiome caused by exposure to harmful substances, such as heavy metals, pesticides, artificial sweeteners, antibiotics or even consumption of processed foods. This is especially problematic when the exposure is long-term or in high amounts.
When the gut microbiome is disrupted by toxicity, our healthy gut bacteria can be reduced and lose their diversity. This can lead to a variety of health problems, including inflammation, digestive issues, weakened immune systems, mental health disorders, intestinal permeability, and neurological disorders.
What Toxins Are Bad for Your Gut?
We are exposed to thousands of toxins each day. Some of the most common include:
Pesticides are chemicals used to apply to crops to protect them against pests, weeds, and disease. They play a major role in food production by boosting yields and the number of times a crop can grow on the same land.
The best way to avoid pesticides is to wash your fruits and vegetable produce thoroughly, and always buy organic when possible as these tend to be lower in pesticides.
Normally the gut microbiome is the first line of defence against heavy metals. Heavy metal toxicity is rare but can exist through soil, drinking water, seafood, and metal amalgam fillings.
Heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, and arsenic reduce levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut that protect against intestinal inflammation chronic exposure to these heavy metals may predispose us to inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders and even neurological disorders.
Drinking filtered water and choosing organic fish when possible is an easy way to avoid heavy metal exposure.
Cigarette smoke can be inhaled through primary or secondary causes and is hugely detrimental to our gut health
Smokers are twice as likely to have Crohn’s disease, a common type of inflammatory bowel disease, compared to non-smokers. Nicotine has antibiotic effects on the gut and causes oxygen deprivation within the cells, and increases our risk for respiratory cancer.
Avoiding smoking and seeking smoke-free environments is the best way to reduce your exposure to cigarette smoke
Mould is a type of fungus that grows in moist or humid places, and is a common toxin.
It occurs naturally in the environment and can be found almost anywhere, including bathrooms, offices, homes, garden composts and on decaying or damp material. Contaminated crops, including grains, as well as some fermented foods and dairy, can also carry mycotoxins.
Mould exposure can increase our risk of developing gut dysbiosis or ‘leaky gut’ where particles are able to pass through the gut barrier easily. This can lead to digestive issues, cognitive Issues, anxiety, fatigue, and skin problems including eczema.
Eating a low mycotoxin diet, keeping your environment clean, eating fresh foods, using air ventilation, and preventing dampness is the best way to reduce mould exposure.
Bisphenol A (BPA)
BPA is found in hard plastic water bottles and canned foods' lining. It’s a toxin that can alter the normal gut flora and disrupts the body's hormonal system by mimicking the hormone estrogen. When buying a water bottle, or canned produce, always look for BPA-free versions where possible.
Strategies to Protect Your Gut Microbiome From Toxins
Studies show that enhancing microbial conditions in the gut microbiome with probiotics helps to prevent heavy metal particle absorption and reduce permeability in the intestinal tract.
A healthy diet helps to support detoxification, immunity and optimises our body's natural defence mechanisms against environmental pollutants.
Foods to be consumed include a diet high in prebiotics and probiotics, which help to protect against toxin buildup in the body, help us remove waste bi-products more efficiently, and help to keep the good bacteria thriving.
Consume plenty of whole grains, fibre, lean protein, fruits and veggies, omega-3s, and leafy greens. Along with a healthy diet, spending time outdoors in nature and regular exercise is an excellent detoxifier for the body and helps to prevent toxicity within the gut.
Exposure to environmental pollutants is inevitable in our modern world, and in most cases can be avoided with careful steps.
By reducing exposure as much as possible, supporting our detoxification pathways and cultivating a healthy gut flora through diet and lifestyle, we can reduce our risk of the many inflammatory diseases associated with environmental toxins.