Environmental Toxins and Gut Microbiome

Can Environmental Toxins, Like Glyphosate, Affect Our Gut Microbiome?

Glyphosate, a weedkiller also known as Roundup, has made many headlines in the past year.
It was named a “probable human carcinogen” in 2015 by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. And shockingly, levels found in the human bloodstream have increased by more than 1,000% in the last two decades.

Now, more recent research is pointing to the negative effects that glyphosate has on our gut microbiome.

So, what is glyphosate exactly?

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s weedkiller, Roundup. It is used to kill weeds that interfere with agricultural crops like soy, canola, corn, and wheat.

What is the gut microbiome?

The gut microbiome may be one of the most complex biological systems on Earth. It contains trillions of microbes and bacteria and is the entire system of organs that is in charge of digestion, removing waste from your body, and taking in energy and nutrients.

Research suggests that when the gut microbiome is in balance, it may prevent and treat many common diseases.

And alternatively, when the gut is out of balance it can be linked to dozens of chronic diseases, potentially being the origin point of dis-ease. The gut has a direct effect on our body’s inflammation, immune system, brain health, hormonal balance, and even skin. Studies show that obesity, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and depression all have been linked to an imbalance of the gut microbiome (and this is an incomplete list!).

Environmental toxins like Glyphosate can affect our Gut Microbiome
Image: Getty Images

How do environmental toxins impact our gut health?

Pesticides and other toxic chemicals, like glyphosate, can make their way from our food, into our mouths and into our gut. Anything we put in our mouths will impact the health of our gut, negatively or positively. For example, an organic vegetable may provide the necessary nutrients and fiber, called prebiotics, to help our gut microbes thrive. But, lace that vegetable with a toxin like glyphosate, and this healthy produce is no longer a source of just nutrients and fiber – it’s now also a vehicle for a harmful toxin.

In a 2018 study, rats were exposed to what was considered “safe” doses of glyphosate in their drinking water, over a 13-week period. The study “provided initial evidence that exposures to glyphosate, at doses considered safe, are capable of modifying the gut microbiota and warrant future studies on potential health effects of Glyphosate-based herbicides.”

Glyphosate and Leaky Gut

Glyphosate and other pesticides are also thought to increase intestinal permeability, commonly known as “leaky gut”, by irritating the gut lining. Leaky gut develops when the intestinal lining is damaged, allowing for undigested food and toxins to leak into your bloodstream, causing an immune reaction.

What symptoms should I look out for to know if my gut is imbalanced?

If there is one thing you should know, it’s that it is possible to feel well 100% of the time! As stated earlier, a lot of chronic dis-ease begins in the gut! If you have any of these symptoms, it might be attributed to an imbalance in the gut:

  • Chronic diarrhea, constipation or bloating
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Moodiness, anxiety, depression
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Skin problems like acne, rash, eczema
  • Joint pain

Tips to avoid environmental toxin exposure

While you might not be able to eliminate exposure of pesticides and glyphosate 100% of the time, there are steps you can take to minimize your exposure risk:

  1. Read your labels and choose foods that aren’t genetically engineered. Genetically modified crops are typically sprayed heavily with pesticides and glyphosate. So, choosing foods that aren’t genetically engineered is a simple way to avoid unnecessary exposure to this chemical. You can find labels on foods that let you know if they are genetically engineered or not. Labels to look for could be, “Partially produced with genetic engineering”. Alternatively, the label “No genetically engineered ingredients” suggests that there are no GMOs in the product. Not every single brand uses these labels, so it’s hard to tell 100% of the time, but you can start to remove extra known sources of these foods by simply reading the label.
  2. Buy organic when you can. Pesticides are never sprayed on organic crops. So you can try to buy as much organic food as possible. The good news is that you don’t have to buy 100% organic all the time. The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization that specializes in research and advocacy in the areas of agricultural subsidies, toxic chemicals & pollutants and corporate accountability, releases their “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” Food lists every year.
    Fruits and Vegetables that have the highest amount of harmful pesticides are on the “Dirty Dozen” list . Foods that have the lowest amount of harmful pesticides are on the “Clean Fifteen” list. Focus your attention on buying organic from the Dirty Dozen list to lower your exposure to pesticides and glyphosate. And you can buy conventional fruits and vegetables from the Clean Fifteen list without worrying about toxic exposure. Keep this list handy for reference.
    Additionally, many carbohydrate-type crops are most likely sprayed with glyphosate like wheat, oats, soybeans, corn and rye. Most recently it was discovered that some hummus (chickpea) brands contain high levels of glyphosate. Knowing which crops might be contaminated and can help you choose which to buy organic as well.
    A study done by Environmental Health News showed that levels of glyphosate fell by more than 70 percent in both children and adults, with reductions seen after just three days after switching to an all organic diet.
  3. Support Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and Organic Food Co-Ops. CSA’s in New York are a great way to obtain high-quality organic foods from ethical farmers. If you are in New York, I like Local Roots, but you can find a full list of CSAs here. An added bonus of buying organic produce from your local farmer, you are working to maintain a healthy environment, a vibrant community, and a strong and sustainable local economy for you and your kids to thrive in.

Being Realistic

It might be completely impossible to avoid toxic chemicals like glyphosate 100% of the time, so making small changes and buying organic when you can to minimize your risk can be very helpful. If you are exposed to glyphosate and other pesticides, make sure to keep your microbiome in the best shape possible by eating a variety of organic fruits and vegetables, reducing processed foods and seed oils, and taking high-quality probiotics.

Next step

If you need help to stabilize and reverse chronic medical conditions including a variety of illnesses related to gut health, look for a certified functional medicine practitioner here. Or simply call our practice at 212-696-HEAL. In our practice, we test for glyphosates and recommend treatment protocols to detoxify you from glyphosate and toxicants alike. We also prescribe treatments to stabilize and enrich healthy beneficial microbes in your gut with nutrition and food like supplements. Feel free to call our office to schedule a consultation with Elena Klimenko, MD IFMCP at 212 696 4325.

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