It’s not news that environmental pollutants are bad for us, but did you know they can even disrupt and alter your gut microbiota? These pollutants—which include pesticides, heavy metals, antibiotics, food additives and more—have become increasingly common in our everyday lives. A constant bombardment of chemicals or a buildup of heavy metals can have a negative impact on short-term and long-term health.
We have more than 100 trillion bacteria in our guts that make up the microbiome. A healthy, diverse microbiome is necessary for a healthy immune system as well as neurotransmitter production. When our gut is exposed to too many pollutants or our diets don’t include a diversity of fresh fruits and vegetables, the balance in our microbiome can be thrown off. This, in turn, can leave us vulnerable to illnesses and serious health conditions, from eczema, depression, and joint pain to cancer, heart disease, and obesity, among others.
Studies have shown that foodborne chemicals like pesticides and herbicides have a major impact on the gut microbiome and the GI tract and can significantly alter the structure and functionality of the microbiome. A recent paper published in Scientific Reports on a study conducted by the University of North Carolina and the University of Georgia shows “strong toxic effects” on mice of a low-dose auxin herbicide. Researchers pointed out that a disturbed microbiome can negatively impact overall health and can increase disease risks. This is study is extremely relevant to humans because we have the same kind of gut dynamic as mice.
We’ve heard a lot lately about the dangers of two particular chemicals: glyphosate (the herbicide used in Roudup weedkiller) and the pesticide chlorpyrifos. Glyphosate, which is banned in several other countries, is known to cause cancer and can also cause birth defects, liver damage, mental illnesses and more. And now, glyphosate appears to also contribute to weight gain and obesity.
Glyphosate works on weeds by killing bacteria and targeting amino acids. The herbicide is sprayed in crop fields, and the crops take in the chemical through the soil. Genetically modified (GM) crops have been scientifically shown to contain concentrated amounts of the glyphosate. When we eat non-organic foods, that bacteria-killing chemical goes to work on the good bacteria in our gut, creating a dangerous imbalance and making us susceptible to disease. In addition, Maastricht University Medical Centre’s research has shown that creating an imbalance in our gut microbiome by killing off good bacteria can lead to such diseases as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (a condition that’s rapidly on the rise), type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, all of which put you at risk for weight gain and obesity.
Chlorpyrifos (also called Lorsban)—which is banned in Hawaii and New York and will be banned in California as of February 2020—is basically a nerve agent that breaks down the ability of nerves to communicate and attacks chemical pathways. This pesticide is used on about fifty different crops including apples, peppers, oranges, peaches, wheat, soybeans…and even Christmas trees. It’s also used on golf courses and in insect baits, though it was banned from in-home use in 2000.
Chlorpyrifos has been shown in studies to “significantly” alter the gut microbiota in mice, causing “intestinal inflammation and abnormal intestinal permeability”, which increases the risk of numerous illnesses. In addition, chlorpyrifos has been linked to lung and prostate cancer, endocrine disruption, and has been found to cause cognitive developmental difficulties and lower IQs in children. Women living within a mile of a field being sprayed with chlorpyrifos (which tends to drift) have a 60 percent higher chance of giving birth to a child with autism.
While washing and scrubbing produce can reduce the amount of chemicals on the skin, it can’t get rid of these chemicals completely. And as toxicologist Dave Stone told The New York Times, veggie washes are no better than a 60-second wash under running water and may actually be harmful if some of the detergent remains on the fruit or vegetable; it can also be absorbed into produce with porous surfaces. In addition, because pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides get into the soil and are drawn up into the plant, they end up in the fruit or vegetable itself.
Protecting your gut microbiome is essential to protecting your health. The best way to avoid ingesting these toxic chemicals is to eat certified organic, non-GMO produce, avoid food additives and artificial colors, and take antibiotics only when absolutely necessary.