Our microbiome is a complex ecosystem made up of trillions of microorganisms. Our digestive system provides a home to these microbial species and although no two people have an identical microbiome, we all are very similar. As we age, the bacterial species in our gut, also known as gut flora, will continue to diversify into adulthood. From the moment we are born, these microorganisms will increase in number as our diet and immune health matures (1).
The microbiome fulfills numerous critical roles in maintaining our health and wellness. Throughout our lifetime, the diversity of our gut assists in food digestion, anxiety/mood/cognition/pain regulation, vitamin and mineral production, energy metabolism, and immune system modulation. Without these functions, we would become more susceptible to infection, illness, and even long term chronic diseases (2).
So what happens when our microbiome environment is disrupted?
Unfortunately for us, exposure to intrinsic factors, such as stress and anxiety, as well as extrinsic factors, such as diet and drugs modify the composition and activity of our microbiome. Through long term exposure, the environment of our gut shifts out of balance, resulting in major health issues. Depending on your lifestyle, some of these negative exposures are more regular, such as stress and dietary intake; however, there is one category that we consider far less: environmental toxins.
What are Environmental Toxins?
Our gut flora prefers to live in a controlled, balanced environment. In terms of pH, hormone production and regulation, and so much more, the microbiome needs to maintain certain parameters in order to do its job. When it’s exposed to chemicals that disrupt this sensitive biological system, it can cause a significant amount of damage to our bodies over time.
Environmental toxins are chemicals, both human-made and naturally occurring. Some of the most common toxins include heavy metals, such as cadmium, lead, and arsenic, pesticides, antibiotics or other medications, bisphenol A (BPA), and artificial sweeteners. Although different in nature, all of these toxins affect our gut in a similar manner (3).
They all produce gut microbiome toxicity
First and foremost, microbiome toxicity is a primary outcome of this long-term exposure to the environmental toxins listed above. Although the effects are not all adverse, disruptions to the microbiome tend to do more harm than good, oftentimes leading to human diseases through changes in metabolite profiles, interference of energy metabolism, and loss of diversity. These connect us to the next three topics.
They alter the metabolite profiles
The gut plays a role in producing various integral metabolites, including neurotransmitters, vitamins, and minerals to supplement our body. Through the mechanisms of microbiome toxicity, a reduction in metabolite profiles can be seen as a result. This has major implications on our health as many of these microbiome-derived metabolites play a role in brain functions through a “gut-brain” connection. Some of these are neurotransmitters and their precursors, including serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), contribute a great deal towards our health. For instance, a serotonin deficiency can lead to anxiety, panic attacks, obesity and even depression (4).
They interfere with energy metabolism
Research suggests that the microbiome plays a direct role in energy metabolism. For instance, our inability to break down plant polysaccharides, which are long-chain carbohydrate molecules, instead allows our gut bacteria to utilize it. When environmental toxins prevent the microbiome from performing proper energy metabolism through means of toxicity, it can lead to diseases such as obesity, diabetes or malnutrition.
They cause diversity loss
When the microbiome experiences diversity loss, such as through the use of antibiotics, it increases our susceptibility to pathogen invasion which can lead to illness or infection. A microbiome that’s rich with diverse species of bacteria is much more resilient to these pathogens. Without the species richness and diversity, we could be at risk of potential dysfunction that leads to various microbiota-related diseases such as irritable bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and diarrhea (5).
5 Signs That Your Gut May Be out of Balance
1. Stomach Disturbances
An unhealthy gut has more trouble processing and digesting food as well as excreting the waste. These problems can lead to numerous digestive disturbances including bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, etc.
2. Unintentional Weight Changes
When weight changes are occurring without any adjustments in your diet or exercise habits, you may be experiencing gut issues. Shifts in your microbiome balance can impair your body’s ability to adequately absorb nutrients, regulate blood sugar, and store fat – all of which can fluctuate your weight, unintentionally.
Weight loss is linked to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, also known as SIBO, which is an abnormal increase in bacteria in the small intestine – specifically types of bacteria that are foreign in this area of the digestive system. On the other hand, weight gain is linked to either insulin resistance or decreased nutrient absorption causing you to overeat.
3. Sleep Disturbances
An unhealthy gut can cause different sleep disturbances such as insomnia or irregular sleeping patterns (variable REM patterns). This occurs because serotonin, a hormone responsible for mood and sleep is produced by the gut. When your microbiome is unhealthy, the production and secretion of this hormone can be affected, ultimately affecting your sleep.
4. Autoimmune Conditions
More evidence is surfacing that links our microbiome health to our immune health. When the gut is presenting as “unhealthy” a major sign is systemic inflammation. This sort of uncontrolled inflammation can lead to symptoms of autoimmune disorders such as fatigue, joint pain and/or swelling, abdominal pain, digestive issues, recurring fever, swollen glands, etc.
5. Food Intolerances
Food intolerances, which are different from food allergies (caused by your immune system), are a direct result of digestion problems to specific foods. A poorly diversified microbiome can lead to these intolerances. It’s important to note that histamine intolerance is one type of food intolerance.
The majority of environmental toxins that disrupt our microbiome do so by altering the presence and activity of our good gut bacteria, hormones, pH, and more. In doing so, it causes our gut health to shift out of balance either temporarily or over long periods of time. Although we all want to try and avoid environmental toxins, we may not be able to over our lifetime – such as in the case of taking antibiotics to treat an infection. In order to mitigate the effects of this, we need to take action by keeping our microbiome healthy. Here are a few ways that help you do this!
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Probiotics help to improve and restore your good gut bacteria, while prebiotics is a type of fibre that feed this good bacteria. When taken in tandem, you can re-establish a stronger microbiome over time (6).
Eating Vitamin and Nutrient-Rich Food Sources
Providing your body with the right foods to help grow your microbiome environment is a necessary step after being exposed to environmental toxins throughout your life. As mentioned previously, chemical exposure that causes microbiome toxicity can lead to a loss of diversity in the gut. Eating a well-rounded diet that consists of nutrient-dense foods can combat this loss. Another tip to gain the most out of your meals is to eat fruits and vegetables in their seasons.
When you consider all the ways to boost your gut health, oftentimes proper hydration is neglected. However, the growth and longevity of your gut bacteria depend on adequate hydration. It assists in digesting food, flushing away toxins from your body, and improving the mucosal lining of your digestive tract.
Knowing Your Microbiome
Valuable insights into your microbiome signature can be gained through stool analysis. Such tests are available through your functional medicine practitioner. One example is the GI-MAP, which includes not only measurements of a sampling of key organisms, such as parasites, bacteria, fungi and Helicobacter pylori, but also key markers of intestinal health. Examples are Zonulin for “leaky gut”, Elastase for enzyme sufficiency and Calprotectin for intestinal inflammation. The GI-MAP test helps guide when interpreted carefully in conjunction with your health professional.
Bringing It All Together
Environmental toxins come in many forms. Although they’re all different in nature, they influence our body’s microbiome in a similar manner. Through mechanisms of microbiome toxicity, these chemicals can cause a reduction in metabolites, an interference of energy metabolism, and a loss of bacterial diversity. The interaction between the gut microbiome and the host is a complex relationship whose manipulation can be critical in preventing or even treating various gut disorders. Through a better understanding of the symptoms of an unhealthy gut, and appropriate testing, you can begin to establish a plan to fight back and restore your microbiome health.
For more personalized guidance, request an integrative medicine consultation with Dr. John Gannage, MD.
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