Environmental Toxins and Gut Health
Last year I did a series on the toxic burden of chemicals on our bodies. A key factor is that we don’t know what the cumulative effect these built up toxins have on our body. A main point in the series, which covered a paper by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), was how these toxic buildups can lead to cancer. Here we’re going to get back to the gut and look at how toxins interact with the gut and link to diabetes, obesity, dysbiosis and the immune system.
What are Toxins?
Toxins are any substance which is dangerous to the body. What makes something a toxin is generally dependent on the level of its presence in the body; which can be pretty difficult to determine because of the fact that we are exposed to so many chemicals, the interactions of which we don’t fully understand the impact.
At this point, we understand there are many toxins in the environment; and we’ll cover the big players shortly. What many people don’t realize is that our bodies create toxins as well. We’ll call them internal toxins. There are many chemical processes going on in our bodies all the time. You may have heard the terms oxidative stress and reactive oxygen species (ROS). You may have even heard these in conjunction with aging of the body. These natural processes and byproducts are not foreign to the body, but their buildup can become toxic to the body. As long as the liver is healthy and not overtaxed, and the body is receiving an adequate level of antioxidants from diet, the body is able to break these down and eliminate them. We’ll cover this topic next week when we cover detoxification.
Another type of toxin is external, or environmental, toxins. We are exposed to external toxins via objects in our home, the air, water and even the food we eat. Many of these chemicals have not been tested for safety. Some are highly controversial, like glyphosate (Roundup); and others we know have no safe level of exposure, like lead. There are also many chemicals in our cleaning products and personal care products that, in small amounts may not do much harm, but we just don’t know what the impact of their accumulation and combination are on the body.
I want to talk about glyphosate a little more because it is so controversial, and so much a part of the American diet. Did you know that glyphosate is an antimicrobial that is patented as an antibiotic? When I learned this it gave me an entirely different perspective on glyphosate. We already know antibiotics affect gut health. When we take antibiotics both bad and good bacteria are wiped out. This leaves our gut lining open to overgrowth of and injury from bad bacteria, yeast and pathogens. The good bacteria are necessary, as they aid in nutrient absorption, hormone and enzyme production and signaling, proper elimination, immune system function, neurotransmitter production and more.
Use of antibiotics alone can create dysbiosis of the gut, leading to leaky gut and all the disorders, diseases and imbalances we’ve discussed over the past several months. But when you add in the antibiotics taken in from the consumption of non-organic animal products, fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, etc., the amount of antibiotics consumed becomes overwhelming to the gut. I doubt we could take enough probiotics and organic prebiotics to counteract this daily damage. So here’s the short list of some sources of toxins:
- Chronic use of NSAID medications
- Oral antibiotics (in addition to those from food)
- Chronic constipation – toxins that can’t get excreted are reabsorbed by the gut lining and put back into circulation in the body.
- Non-organic farming practices – you may think food covers it, but conventional farming and animal feedlot practices pollute our environment in more ways than the end product. Runoff gets into waterways and groundwater, and overspray of pesticides and herbicides can drift in the air making them air pollutants as well.
- Pollutants in our air or water – these can come from vehicle and aircraft emissions, manufacturing processes in addition to farming chemicals. Drinking water contains toxins like flouride, chlorine and heavy metals. Flouride can be an endocrine disruptor and chlorine can kill off our good gut bacteria. Oh, and there are also antibiotics (and other drugs) in our water supply due to drugs being flushed down the toilet and excreted in urine. Air pollution can negatively affect short-chain fatty acid production, altering the gut lining and increasing inflammation, contributing to leaky gut.
Toxins in our Home
In addition to choosing organic foods, especially those on the dirty dozen list, and filtering the water you use for drinking and bathing; there are other sources of toxins you can take control over and reduce or eliminate.
For an in-depth discussion of chemicals in our personal care products and other products regularly used, see my article mentioned earlier. Here is the short list, and then we’ll look at how these interact with the gut:
- BPA, and plastics generally
- “Fragrances” and other petroleum distillates
- Sodium Laurel Sulfate (SLS)
- Sodium Hydroxide
Toxins can be absorbed through the lungs, skin and gut. Ironically, these are also three of the elimination pathways for toxins. That being said, we don’t want to take in more toxins through these pathways than absolutely necessary. Damage to or dysbiosis of the gut can manifest itself in many ways, including visibly through the skin. We’ve discussed inflammation in the body when we looked at the effects of food on our gut. I mentioned some skin conditions, but it deserves being mentioned here that there is a connection between the skin, the microbiome and the gut.
You may have heard that how we look on the outside is a reflection of what is happening on the inside. Internal disorders and diseases are not always readily evaluated like the external organ, the skin. And trying to treat skin disorders that originate in the gut with toxic chemicals may only make matters worse, and contribute to additional problems. When struggling with issues, common irritants include food allergies and intolerances, stress and chemical exposure.
Next week we will look at natural, daily support in detoxifying the body. Before we get to that point, we need to look at all the ways we can reduce the body’s toxic burden. There are a lot of toxins we simply can’t avoid, making it that much more important to starting picking off the ones we can. We talked about food choices. Now let’s talk about the chemical list above.
Recall, we discussed endocrine disruptors and how they can wreak havoc on our hormones. Our hormones are a delicate system, all working together to keep our essential processes working properly. When they are thrown out of balance we experience a whole host of effects like type 2 diabetes, PMS, infertility, thyroid disorders, and more.
BPA, phthalates, synthetic fragrances and parabens are endocrine disruptors. These chemicals interfere with normal hormone function and have been linked to hormone-based cancers. When they pass through the gut (remember the gut is an organ of elimination), they can affect blood sugar and increase the risk of diabetes. When they get into the body and are not eliminated, they are stored in fat cells (like many toxins) and promote weight gain, which also increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer. BPA and phthalates are commonly found in plastic. Parabens, phthalates and synthetic fragrances are in many personal care items like shampoos and conditioners, hair dyes, tanning sprays, sunscreen, deodorants and makeup.
Synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum and found in just about everything from personal care products to laundry detergents, softeners and dryer sheets, cleaning products, air fresheners and scented candles. Whenever you see “fragrance” listed as an ingredient you should put it back on the shelf. The Environmental Working Group is a great resource for checking products for safety. Here is a link to the different databases they have built for checking food, cleaning products and personal care products. They also have apps for your phone so you can check while you are shopping.
You may have heard the buzz about triclosan in the news over the last couple years. Triclosan is an antibacterial agent that originated for hospital use before finding its way in consumer products like antibacterial soaps. As of 2017 triclosan and other antibacterial agents have been banned from cleaning products. Triclosan has been added to the list of agents believed to have contributed to the creation of superbugs – bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.
Sodium laurel sulfate (SLS) is an emulsifier and foaming agent found in most soaps and shampoos. An emulsifier is a bonding agent that keeps the ingredients from separating. You know how like oil and water don’t mix unless you shake the crap out of them? Well, emulsifiers help to keep them together. Unfortunately, emulsifiers are highly processed end products of what started out as something not so harmful. They can cause inflammation and skin irritation.
Most of the chemicals used in personal care products have not been assessed for safety, and some (like the content of “fragrance”) are not even listed on the packaging. You want to read the ingredients and find a few products you like as go-to’s. With the growing demand for clean products, they are becoming easier to find and more affordable. Consider limiting your use of personal care products to essentials to keep it simple. And the cleaner your diet and care regime, the fewer personal care products you will find you need. For example, eating a healthy, antioxidant-rich diet without all the processed foods will improve the health and appearance of skin, hair and nails. You’ll be nourishing from the inside out. A healthy gut will produce a healthy glow.
As for the remaining three items on the list; these are generally found in household cleaning products. Bleach is an antimicrobial that is as damaging as the antibacterials. It affects our gut microbiome in the same way as antibacterials and antibiotics. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen found in dishwasher soap, cleansers, fabric softeners, and some paper and plastic products. Sodium hydroxide is a caustic found in drain cleaners.
Alternatives to Toxins
I’m sure you’ve heard about DIY products you can make yourself with some common items like vinegar, baking soda and essential oils. I’ve started making my own lotion bars for dry winter skin, face wash and other skincare items. Every once in a while I’ll splurge for some high-quality, clean, organic products. But for the most part, I’ve got a short-list of blends I make myself. For surface cleaning? We keep a spray bottle of vinegar, distilled water and essential oils on hand.
Here are two DIY recipes you can try yourself:
Surface cleaner – fill a spray bottle with 1/2 distilled water and 1/2 white vinegar. Add essential oils as a cleaning boost or for scent. I usually add around 20-30 drops of citrus oil for additional cleaning power and a fresh smell.
Scrubbing cleanser – baking soda and water. That’s it. mix it into a paste and coat generously. Let set for around 15 minutes and scrub off with the appropriate brush or pad for the surface. Rinse. Repeat if necessary.
Baking soda can also be used as an air freshener by placing in a glass jar and adding essential oils. Baking soda can also be used as a rug deodorizer.
Getting back to basics is one way to increase our microbiome health. The key to all of this is maintaining gut health so the microbiome can assist in binding and removing toxins, as well as performing all the key activities like assisting with hormone balance, immune modulation, neurotransmitter creation and nutrient absorption and assimilation. The gut is the center of wellness in so many ways. The more it has to act like a sewer system, the less its ability to perform higher level functioning. And that’s when the trouble begins.
This was just a short-list of the common chemicals that are all around us and damaging our gut health by disrupting our microbiome. When our microbiome is damaged it can’t do the work it needs to do to keep us functioning optimally. Replacing all of the products and foods can be overwhelming and daunting. My suggestion is to pick one area at a time. I replaced everything in one fell swoop because I was facing a health crisis that I needed to stop quickly. I noticed the difference right away. Even if you go slower, you will notice the difference too.
If you are local to me (Chicago, IL vicinity), you can sign up for my essential oils workshop taking place on August 9, 2018. Here’s the link to the page for more information. I’ll be covering some basics on what essential oils are, how to shop for them, and how to safely incorporate them into your life. We’ll also be making a blend for you to take home with you.
Yours in Wellness,