It’s no surprise pollution is bad news for health.
You’re probably imagining chimneys belching out fumes and the thick industrial smog from decades ago, so you might be surprised to learn air today is dirtier than ever. Air pollution is increasing in many countries, while in the UK, it’s estimated to be responsible for over 60,000 deaths per year, with three-quarters of areas surveyed having illegal levels of air pollution.
Airborne pollution is often connected with breathing and lung issues, but did you know it can affect your gut, too? Read on to find out more.
Pollutants found in the atmosphere include carbon monoxide, released by burning wood; nitrogen dioxide, produced by diesel vehicles and burning fossil fuels; ozone, the main ingredient in urban smog; and sulphur dioxide, again from fossil fuels. Particulate matter comprises tiny particles of solids or liquids suspended in the air. Airborne pollutants are easily inhaled, or swallowed after landing on food.
While it’s easy to imagine the effect of this cocktail of substances on the respiratory system, causing asthma and other lung issues, air pollution has been linked with a range of other chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
At the heart of all these health issues lies uncontrolled inflammation, your body’s natural repair process. Although helpful in times of emergency, inflammation can cause serious harm if allowed to continue unabated.
Your microbiome consists of many thousands of different types of micro-organisms like bacteria and fungi co-existing with one another. This ecosystem inside you works hard, not only ensuring your digestion runs smoothly but also transmitting messenger substances all over your body. One of your microbiome’s most important roles is to regulate your immune system.
The immune system is tasked with recognising potential assassins and neutralising them before they can do you any harm. If it’s too enthusiastic, it can mistakenly attack parts of your body, believing they’re invaders. If this friendly fire attack continues, an autoimmune disease will be the result.
There are over one hundred autoimmune conditions in existence, but immune system dysfunction will likely be found to be behind many other diseases. There’s thought to be a genetic tendency to develop autoimmune disease, but something in the environment is needed to trigger these inherited tendencies.
It seems pollutants can cause the lining of the intestines to become leaky, allowing toxins, pathogenic bacteria and incompletely digested food particles into the bloodstream, all provoking immune responses.
Autoimmune diseases affecting the digestive system include Chron’s disease, where any part of the gut can become inflamed, and ulcerative colitis, painful ulceration of the large intestine or colon. Both are inflammatory conditions.
Research has found Chron’s disease occurs more often in people exposed to higher amounts of nitrogen dioxide, and it’s more common in urban than rural areas. Developed nations like Europe and North America, with more air pollution than developing countries, have a higher incidence of inflammatory bowel diseases, although cases are rising in countries like Africa, Asia and South America where industrialisation is relatively recent.
Studies have shown short-term exposure to air pollutants causes inflammation in the small intestine, whereas longer-term exposure tends to affect the colon. Further links have been found between air pollution, particularly ozone levels, and appendicitis. In areas of high air pollution, people tend to develop perforated appendicitis, a dangerous form of the disease.
You probably know the food you eat can affect the types of bacteria thriving in your gut, but science is discovering particles of pollution in the air can directly affect the microbiome, too. Your microbiome is a dynamic ecosystem and responds to its environment.
If the gut microbiome is disturbed, inflammation will increase, not only in the gut but all around the body. So it’s not surprising air pollution has been linked with inflammatory conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease.
One newly-recognised source of toxicity for gut bacteria are microplastics. These have become a global pollution problem in recent years, and because they’re so tiny, they can be inhaled or eaten with food, particularly seafood and bottled drinks but also fruit and vegetables. Research suggests they too can impair the gut microbiome and encourage inflammation.
Pollution is one of many factors adversely affecting the microbiome, including stress, poor diet, too little sleep and a sedentary lifestyle.
You are a product of your environment, but it’s impossible to avoid the toxic soup all around you. So it makes sense to ensure your microbiome is as healthy as possible in the face of attack from pollutants. Functional medicine understands how crucial a healthy microbiome is to optimum health. Contact me today to start your nutritional and lifestyle journey to a healthy microbiome.
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