How Environmental Toxins Impact Your Gut Health

Do you ever feel like there is so much information out there about toxins that it’s almost too much information? We get it!

If you have found your way to this podcast and blog post, we take it you’re curious about the impact environmental toxins can have on your gut health. Perhaps you are unsure if this is something you really need to pay attention to, or maybe you have been on a toxin reduction mission for weeks, months or years and are looking for more information! Whatever the case is, we am glad you are here. Knowledge is power and here at Empowered Nutrition we want nothing more than for you to have the information you need to make the best decisions for your health goals.

So if you’re wondering why you should care about environmental toxins, and you’re thinking “don’t we have a great internal detox system to take care of all of that stuff?”. You are correct! However, in our modern world we are truly bombarded with toxins to the point that our body’s capabilities to effectively rid ourselves of these toxins can become impaired. The science has shown that toxins can negatively impact the gut microbiome and a dysbiosis in constituents of the gut microbiome or of its functionality, and this can lead to elevated disease risks.1

Due to this, it’s important that we are informed about where these toxins come from in order to make strategic decisions to limit our exposure without overextending ourselves or overspending on our budgets. Let’s dive into it!

During our podcast episode, we unpack:

  • The science linkages between gut microbiome and human health and disease.
  • What are the most common toxin sources?
  • The common signs that you might be experiencing environmental toxin overload.
  • How do we reduce toxin exposure?
  • Are there foods I should aim to eliminate as much as possible?
  • What foods are the best in helping reduce my toxin levels?
  • Where else can toxins squeeze into my life unnoticed?

Let’s get started!

Tell me More about the Gut and Environmental Toxin Connection!

Scientific evidence continues to suggest that the metabolic activities in the gut microbiome are intertwined with human health and disease. The gut microbiome is recognized for performing critical functions including the biosynthesis of vitamins and minerals, immune system modulation and colonization resistance. It also has major effects on distal organs outside of itself including the brain, liver and muscles. 1 In order for the gut microbiome to function properly, normal gut microbial homeostasis must be maintained. Studies suggest that when there is dysbiosis in the constituents of the gut microbiome or of its functionality, this can lead to elevated disease risks.1 Some of these adverse health outcomes include:

  • Irritable bowel disease (IBD)
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular Disease
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Liver disease
  • Neurological disorders 

It’s necessary to consider not only the ways in which known toxic chemicals can lead to or exacerbate human disease but to further examine the health effects and acceptable daily intake (ADI) of widely used chemicals such as food additives in the context of their contribution to gut microbiome toxicity.1

What are the Most Common Toxin Sources?

First, a quick definition. Xenobiotics. These are chemical substances that are foreign to animal life. Can include: plant constituents, drugs, pesticides, cosmetics, flavorings, fragrances, food additives, industrial chemicals and environmental pollutants. 2

The following xenobiotics have been shown to functionally alter the gut microbiome via alterations in the bacterial production of metabolites, diversity loss in the bacterial community and interference in energy metabolism which are further linked to the development of gut microbiota related diseases:


Antibiotics not only change the composition of the gut such as loss of diversity and imbalance but it changes the functionality as well. A recent study used a multi-omics approach to resolve the changes induced by beta-lactam in human gut microbiome. The results showed that beta-lactam treatment caused both taxonomic (the type) and functional alterations in the  gut microbiome.1  Furthermore antibiotic exposure in mice has been linked to diseases such as obesity and diabetes.1

Heavy metals

In the 2017 study by Chi et al., 16S rRNA sequencing and metagenomics sequencing was used to investigate how exposure to 100 ppb arsenic (an environmentally relevant dose) for 13 weeks alters the composition and functional capacity of the gut microbiome in mice. Arsenic exposure altered the alpha and beta diversities as well as the composition profile of the gut microbiota. Metagenomics data revealed that the abundances of genes involved in carbohydrate metabolism, especially pyruvate fermentation, short-chain fatty acid synthesis, and starch utilization,  were significantly changed. Additionally, lipopolysaccharide biosynthesis genes, multiple stress response genes, and DNA repair genes were significantly increased in the gut microbiome of arsenic-exposed mice.5


Di(2- ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP)-one of the more common phthalates and is commonly added to plastics to make them flexible. Has been shown to decrease both Rothia spp. and Bifidobacterium longum in newborn infants receiving IV infusion due to respiratory distress versus those infants who did not receive IV infusion4


The argument that certain pesticides are safe to humans because their targeted pathways do not exist in the human body fails to consider the microbes living in the gut. For example, herbicides like 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), which impact plant hormones, may affect gut bacteria because not only plants but also bacteria can synthesize plant hormones. Likewise, the shikimate pathway, the target of herbicide glyphosate, is commonly present in human gut bacteria, meaning that those bacteria in the gut could become affected. 

Artificial sweeteners and Emulsifiers

Many artificial sweeteners are considered safe because they are poorly metabolized by the human body. However, the gut bacteria are actively involved in the biotransformation.. Artificial sweeteners stevioside and xylitol can also be metabolized by gut bacteria. Saccharin consumption was shown to induce compositional and functional changes in mouse gut microbiome that might be involved in the development of glucose intolerance

Even certain dietary emulsifiers including Polysorbate 80 (P80) and carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) have shown to impact the gut microbiome of mice along with elevated inflammatory levels.

Signs you might be struggling or experiencing environmental toxin overload
Obesity, Depression, Anxiety, Chronic fatigue, Cancer, Insulin sensitivity/diabetes, Autism, ADHD, Allergies, Digestive problems, Intestinal permeability, Autoimmune disease, Fibromyalgia, Migraines

OK, I want to reduce my toxin exposure-tell me how!

3 Things you can start doing straight away that are 100% free: 

  1. Sleep! I know, you’ve heard it a million times, but seriously, get some sleep! Aim for 7-8 hours/night of quality sleep. 
  2. Reduce your stress levels. Try starting with  5 mins of intentional breathing or meditation per day, you will feel great. 
  3. Stop using plastic! Especially for  food and beverage storage, opt for glass water bottles and pyrex containers to limit your bisphenol such as BPA  exposure. Cans can be lined with BPA and other bisphenols as well. Glass is best. 

Foods to reduce/limit:

  • Artificial Sweeteners: diet sodas, sugar free baked goods or snacks, sugar free gum
  • Emulsifiers: P80 and Carboxymethylcelllose (CMC). These are common in ice cream, candy, gelatin, salad dressings, and cheese. Read your food label and check for these emulsifiers. 
  • Avoid grilling or charring meat: If so, use an acidic  marinade (think vinegar, lemon or citrus juice) as this can reduce the carcinogenic heterocyclic amines (HCA’s) produced by grilling meat.  

Foods to consume3

  • Tea – (black, green, oolong)
  • Cruciferous vegetables (i.e. broccoli, greens, spouts, kale, cabbage)
  • Spices (turmeric, curry, rosemary – eat a variety)
  • Berries
  • Pomegranate
  • Garlic and onion
  • Citrus fruits
  • Leafy greens & microgreens
  • Cocoa
  • Sesame (oil, seeds, sesame butter, tahini)

**Pesticides are all over our food supply. But, buying everything organic is not always cost effective. If you want to reduce your pesticide exposure in a budget friendly way,  focus on purchasing your produce (fruits and vegetables) organically.  Look at the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) ‘Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Clean 15’ lists.  Aim to purchase organically the foods listed in the Dirty Dozen list as these have been shown to have the highest pesticide residuals. 

Let’s not forget your skin-did you know skin is your largest organ!? What goes on us can eventually make its way in us so take a moment and do an inventory of your personal care and hygiene products. They might be loaded with unnecessary chemicals!  For personal care products with lower toxin load use the EWG’s Skin Deep Database.

Looking to further optimize your health?

Want to dive even deeper on environmental toxins? Our dietetic intern, Nikki Glick, has also created an informative handout that you can use on the go!

Think your metabolism could some healing or a reboot? We’ve got you covered! Our Lean for Life Membership phase one and two called “Heal” and “Optimize” will help you feel empowered to reverse previous metabolic damage with the support of our team of Registered Dietitian Nutritionists. Check out our website for more details!

Want to learn more about our one-on-one Empowered Nutrition coaching? Book a free chemistry call to discuss your story and see if we’re a good fit.

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Do you have questions you would like answered on the Empowered Nutrition podcast? You can propose your questions/ideas by email to: podcast@empowerednutrition.health

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Nikki’s references for this topic:
  1. Tu P, Chi L, Bodnar W, et al. Gut Microbiome Toxicity: Connecting the Environment and Gut Microbiome-Associated Diseases. Toxics. 2020;8(1):19. Published 2020 Mar 12. doi:10.3390/toxics8010019 
  2. Patterson AD, Gonzalez FJ, Idle JR. Xenobiotic metabolism: a view through the metabolometer. Chem Res Toxicol. 2010;23(5):851-860. doi:10.1021/tx100020p
  3. Romilly E. Hodges, Deanna M. Minich, “Modulation of Metabolic Detoxification Pathways Using Foods and Food-Derived Components: A Scientific Review with Clinical Application”, Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, vol. 2015, Article ID 760689, 23 pages, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/760689
  4. Yang YN, Yang YSH, Lin IH, et al. Phthalate exposure alters gut microbiota composition and IgM vaccine response in human newborns. Food Chem Toxicol. 2019;132:110700. doi:10.1016/j.fct.2019.110700
  5. Chi L, Bian X, Gao B, Tu P, Ru H, Lu K. The Effects of an Environmentally Relevant Level of Arsenic on the Gut Microbiome and Its Functional Metagenome. Toxicol Sci. 2017;160(2):193-204. doi:10.1093/toxsci/kfx174

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