Our Toxic Soup: Chemicals and Their Effect on the Gut Microbiome
Like most Americans, I was decidedly uninterested in the topic of toxins and chemicals. I tried to turn a blind eye to it for as long as possible... until my health crisis demanded a different approach.
Understanding toxins and feeling empowered to DO something about them could change the trajectory of your health, and your life. Let's dive in!
We are surrounded by chemicals, toxins, and microplastics.
The Amazon package you just opened from your porch spread them all over your living room. Animals carry them in their bodies as do plants, so plastics can move through the food chain too, through a process called “tophic transfer.”
Fruits like apples, grapes, and pears have high levels of plastics, pesticides, herbicides, and more, along with vegetables like spinach, kale, and celery (heard of the Dirty Dozen?)
Heavy metals are in the ocean.
There’s fluoride in our drinking water.
It’s all around us.
Chemicals and toxins can have harmful effects on the human body… that much is clear. What is less well-known, however, is their impact on the gut microbiome – the community of microbes that resides in our digestive tracts.
There is growing evidence to suggest that chemicals and toxins can have a number of harmful effects on human health.
For example, they have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, birth defects, and developmental problems. Additionally, exposure to chemicals and toxins leads to a number of health problems, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), obesity, and diabetes. Chemicals and toxins also disrupt the gut microbiome, which is foundational to overall wellness and vitality.
What are toxins?
Toxins are poisonous substances that can cause harmful effects on the human body. They can be either natural or synthetic.
Natural toxins are produced by living organisms, while synthetic toxins are created artificially in laboratories.
Ten Most Common Toxins
- BPA: This chemical is found in plastics and can leach into food and beverages. It has been linked to a variety of health problems, including cancer. Many people have heard that BPA can be harmful and have switched to BPA-free plastic, thinking they’re doing their bodies a favor. That doesn’t mean that it’s safe. In fact, it’s quite the opposite! BPA-free plastics are actually MORE toxic. (Use glass or stainless steel instead).
- Phthalates: These chemicals are used to soften plastics and are also found in personal care products like shampoo, soap, and makeup. They have been linked to hormone disruption and reproductive problems.
- Lead: This heavy metal is found in a variety of products, including paint, pipes, and cosmetics. It can cause developmental problems and damage the nervous system. It’s also difficult to detox from since it has an affinity for bones.
- Mercury: This heavy metal is found in fish and dental amalgams. It can damage the brain and nervous system.
- PVC: This type of plastic is found in a variety of products, including food packaging, toys, and pipes. It can release chemicals that are harmful to the liver and kidneys.
- Arsenic: This naturally occurring element is found in water, soil, and air. It can cause cancer and other health problems.
- Formaldehyde: This chemical is used in a variety of products, including particle board, VOC paint, and cosmetics… and can also be cancer-causing.
- Flame retardants: These chemicals are added to a variety of products, including furniture, electronics, and clothing. They can cause hormonal disruptions and other health problems. Be careful where you buy your next couch or mattress!
Pesticides and Herbicides: Pesticides are chemicals used to kill pests such as insects, rodents, and fungi. Herbicides are chemicals that are used to kill weeds. Both can be found in both synthetic and natural form, and are commonly used in agriculture and other places. They are found in a variety of products, including food, pet food, and gardening products, many of which (including RoundUp®!) have been found to lead to cancer.
Chemicals in tap water: A variety of chemicals can be found in tap water, including chlorine, fluoride, and lead. These chemicals are especially known for causing neurological disruption. Antibiotics, used to kill bacteria and treat infections, are also found in our tap water supply.
What are industrial chemicals?
Pollutants are chemicals that are released into the environment. They can come from a variety of sources, including factories, cars, and power plants.
More specifically, industrial chemicals are chemicals that are produced for use in industry, agriculture, and other commercial applications.
Natural chemicals are those that occur naturally in the environment, while synthetic chemicals are those that are artificially created in laboratories. While these are not as commonly discussed in the functional medicine world, they’re still just as important to note… especially since you’re breathing them in and absorbing them through your skin!
Here are some common industrial chemicals:
Sulfuric Acid (H2SO4) comes from the burning of coal and is used in the production of fertilizers, plastics, and detergents.
Ethylene (C2H4) comes from the burning of fossil fuels and is used in the production of plastics, resins, and other products.
Benzene (C6H6) comes from the fracking of petroleum and is used as a solvent and in the production of plastics and lubricants.
Sodium Hydroxide (NAOH) comes from the electrolysis of salt brine and is used in the production of paper, soap, and detergents.
Toluene (C6H5CH3) comes from the distillation of petroleum and is used as a solvent and in the production of plastics and adhesives, among other products.
Propylene (C3H6) comes from the fracking of petroleum and is used in the production of plastics and resins.
- Nitrogen (N2) comes from the air and is used in the production of fertilizers and explosives, to name a few.
It’s not important to know the names of all the chemicals you’re exposed to on a daily basis, but rather, to be aware of the frequency of potential exposure and what it can mean to your overall health and the health of your gut microbiome… and what to do about it! Don’t be discouraged; there is always hope for healing! Keep reading to find some clear action steps later in this article to take your health into your own hands. But first, we need to dive into why this information matters… for your health and the health of your family and loved ones.
What are the consequences of chemicals and toxins on gut health?
The consequences of chemicals and toxins on gut health depend on the type of chemical or toxin, the dose at which it is ingested, and the individual’s response to it.
For example, chemicals have been linked to an increased risk of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), while toxins have been implicated in the development of metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes.
In fact, the National Institute of Health estimates that two-thirds or more cancers are linked to toxic chemicals in the environment.
Chemicals have also been linked to an increased risk of autoimmune disease and irritable bowel syndrome, and studies have shown that constant exposure to toxins, such as triclosan, found in anti-bacterial products like soaps, body washes, toothpaste, and cosmetics can cause bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics and increase the risk of skin cancer.
Too much exposure to heavy metals can lead to environmental toxicity, due to it decreasing the number of healthy bacteria in the gut. This imbalance can lead to chronic digestive diseases, such as Crohn’s, leaky gut, GERD, gas, and hemorrhoids.
Chemicals and toxins can disrupt the structure of the gut microbiome, alter its composition, and reduce its overall diversity. There are, in fact, a few ways in which chemicals and toxins can hurt the gut microbiome.
First, they can directly kill or damage gut bacteria.
Second, they can alter the production of metabolites – small molecules that are involved in various biochemical processes in the body.
Third, they can disrupt the interactions between gut bacteria and the cells of the digestive system.
All of these effects can lead to an imbalance in the gut microbiome, which can then result in a number of health problems. The gut is the foundation of our immune system and our health (and the liver is very important, too!). Therefore, it is important to be aware of the potential dangers of chemicals and toxins and to take steps to avoid them where possible. There are also a few things that can be done to support the gut microbiome and help it recover from the damage caused by chemicals and toxins.
What can be done to support the gut microbiome?
It’s important to note bio-individuality, as there is no single correct approach that works with everyone. Individuals will be affected differently, based on the type and level of exposure. The individual body’s response to exposure will impact overall well-being, as well as the health of the gut and microbiome.
If you are already stressed by other root causes, such as Lyme Disease, parasites, or high levels of heavy metals, your total toxic burden will be even greater, and you will have more of a challenge to maintain good health.
There are a few things that can be universally done to support the gut microbiome and help it recover from the damage caused by chemicals and toxins.
For example, eating a diet rich in fiber is thought to be beneficial for gut health, as it can help to encourage the growth of healthy bacteria.
Probiotics, which are live microorganisms that are consumed for their health benefits, are also thought to be helpful, as they can work to restore the balance of the gut microbiome.
Finally, exercise has been shown to be beneficial for gut health. It can help to reduce inflammation, which is thought to be one of the main causes of gut problems. Additionally, exercise has been shown to promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria. This is thought to be because exercise increases blood flow to the gut, which helps to deliver more oxygen and nutrients to the gut microbiome.
How can we decrease our toxic burden and support gut health at home?
Along with supporting gut health, you can steer clear of conventional cleaning and beauty products and opt for healthier and safer option.
You can limit our exposure to processed foods and conventionally grown produce by buying organic and non-GMO.
You can filter your water with a system like the Berkey.
You can eat probiotic- and prebiotic-rich foods that are beneficial for gut health and can add digestive health supplements, such as probiotics, aloe vera, ginger, and garlic.
You can support our detox pathways by taking binders.
No matter how healthy you eat or how clean your lifestyle is, you will still be exposed daily to the toxic soup we live in. It’s unavoidable.
What you can do, now that you have information, is make good, safer choices for yourself and your family.
We don’t tell you this information to scare you. In fact, quite the opposite. Use it to empower you to take control of your healing journey and make better choices for your body.
By taking these steps, you can help to protect your gut microbiomes from the harmful effects of chemicals and toxins. In doing so, you can reduce your risk of developing a number of health problems and improve your overall health.
After all, who wants to be ingesting enough plastic weekly to form an entire credit card? Certainly not me!
Let’s do this together. Healing is always possible. And we’re here for you every step of the way!
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