The human digestive tract is home to an enormous population of microbes, collectively referred to as the gut microbiome. Gut microbes perform many vital functions; they help us metabolize nutrients from food, regulate our immunity, and protect us from pathogens. Despite the powerful roles gut microbes play in our bodies, they are quite susceptible to harm from external influences such as environmental toxins. Disruption to the microbiome by environmental toxins prevents gut microbes from performing their important functions and has serious consequences for our health. Over time, microbiome disruption may even lead to the development of chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, allergies, and gastrointestinal disorders. It is crucial that we take steps to protect our gut microbes by avoiding toxic environmental exposures and by optimizing the detoxification capacity of our bodies.
What types of toxins disrupt the gut microbiome?
A growing body of research indicates that chemicals used in industry, agriculture, and consumer goods have harmful effects on gut microbes and have adverse downstream effects on our health. Listed below are some of the most common microbiome-disrupting environmental toxins to which we are exposed on a daily basis.
- Triclosan, found in personal care products such as antibacterial soap, mouthwash, toothpaste, and deodorant, is easily absorbed through the skin and gastrointestinal tract and alters the types of microbes present in the gastrointestinal tract. (1)(2) These alterations impair the immune-regulating activities of gut microbes and predispose to allergic diseases such as allergies and eczema. (3)
- Pesticides, found on conventionally-grown produce and used by many people in their yards, don’t just kill insects; they also kill beneficial bacteria in the gut! Reduced levels of beneficial gut microbes have been linked to many chronic health issues, including disrupted immune and gastrointestinal function. (4)
- BPA, found in hard plastic water bottles and the lining of canned foods, alters the normal gut flora and disrupts the body’s hormonal system by mimicking the hormone estrogen. (5)
- 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 to inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders. (6)(7) These heavy metals are common contaminants in soil and drinking water due to industrial pollution.
Strategies for protecting your gut microbiome from toxins
The potential of environmental toxins to disrupt the gut microbiome and promote disease may sound scary, but the good news is that there are ways in which we can reduce our exposure to these chemicals and protect our gut health.
Instead of using conventional cleaning products, which often contain triclosan, try switching to Seventh Generation products or another plant-based brand. These products use natural plant essential oils and enzymes to clean, rather than toxic chemicals that harm the microbiome. For more information on choosing natural, non-toxic cleaning products, check out Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning website.
Commercial body care products are another source of triclosan, as well as many other chemicals that don’t belong on your skin. Absorption of these chemicals can ultimately affect gut microbes, so we definitely want to avoid these products! To find natural, healthy body care products that don’t contain microbiome-disrupting chemicals, check out Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.
Consumption of conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables can unfortunately be a huge source of microbiome-disrupting pesticide exposure. Choosing to buy and consume organic produce can significantly lower your body burden of pesticides, thus protecting your gut microbes. For a list of which types of produce are best to buy organic, look at Environmental Working Group’s 2017 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
By reducing your use of plastics and limiting your consumption of canned foods (and opting for fresh foods instead!), you can significantly reduce your exposure to BPA. Consider using a glass or stainless-steel water bottle instead of plastic, and store your leftovers in glass Pyrex dishes instead of plastic Tupperware.
Tap water can be a significant source of pesticides, heavy metals, and other microbiome-disrupting chemicals. Consider investing in a high-quality water filter that can remove these substances from your drinking water.
Detoxify your body to restore your microbiome
Many environmental toxins are readily absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract and transported to the liver for detoxification. A healthy gut and liver are essential for promoting optimal detoxification; for an overview of how the body’s detox system works, click here. The Metagenics Clear Change program provides key micronutrients and quality protein and carbohydrates that help your liver efficiently remove harmful environmental toxins, thus reducing the impact of toxins on your gut microbiome. The 10-day and 28-day programs include UltraClear RENEW, a medical food that provides nutrients that supports the body’s natural removal of toxins, and AdvaClear, a supplement that provides daily liver support.
By optimizing the detoxification capacity of your body through the Metagenics Clear Change program and practicing conscientious avoidance of toxins, it is possible to protect your microbiome from environmental toxins and promote optimal health! While I have made many suggestions for reducing toxic exposures, don’t feel overwhelmed. Even if you choose to just make one change at a time, your gut microbes will thank you!