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How many credit cards have you eaten this month? The Microbiome & Plastic

Plastic is a hot topic. It’s not just being discussed in regards to bags in supermarkets and in environmental debates about the health of our planet, oceans and marine animals, but also in the cosmetic industry, where products are advertised as being microplastic-free. This topic is everywhere.

It’s not a far stretch to conclude, that it might also be relevant for our microbiome. Did you know that micro- and nanoplastic particles (MNPs) can be found in our gastrointestinal tissues? Microplastics are 0.0001 to less than 5 millimeters and nanoplastics are less than 0.0001 millimeters in size.

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In 2022, research from MedUni Vienna showed, that five grams of plastic enter our digestive systems each week. To make this more tangible: Five grams equal the weight of a credit card. You heard that right! This means, that on average, we ingest a credit card worth of plastic each week. [1]

Plastic passing through our gastrointestinal tract can negatively impact our microbiome, leading to metabolic diseases like diabetes, obesity and chronic liver disease. Nanoplastics in particular have been shown to trigger inflammatory and immune responses that play a part in the development of cancer.

(I wrote this article for and publish it here with kind permission of MyMicrobiome.)

But how does the plastic get into our bodies in the first place?! Think about how all-pervasive different forms of plastics are: We find them in food boxes, receipts, cosmetics, pacifiers, toys, cleaning products, pesticides, and the list goes on. We mainly ingest them through consuming sea food or sea salt. Drinking 1.5 to two liters of water from PET plastic bottles a day, adds up to 90,000 plastic particles entering the body per year.

Amongst others, plastic contains chemicals that are called ‘xenoestrogens’, as they mimic the body’s own estrogen and thereby interfere with its endocrine (hormonal) system. Many studies show the adverse health effects of xenoestrogens and other so-called endocrine disruptors on the body – which can lead to conditions like premature puberty, infertility, uterine and ovarian cancer, lower testosterone levels and reduction of sperm quality in men as well as other reproductive disorders. [2]

While ingested plastic is unhealthy for everyone, it is especially harmful for people with chronic diseases. According to Lukas Kenner, co-author of the Viennese study, a healthy gut and microbiome act as protectors against harmful effects of MNPs. [1]

Showing once again, how important the health of our microbiome is. [3] In addition to taking care of our microbes, we also need to lower the exposure to plastic that might burden our bodies – be it orally or via our skin, i.e. with cosmetics. [4]

Especially this time of the year, where plastic seems to be even more present (pun intended), we should consider using it more carefully, finding healthier alternatives for wrapping papers, toys and gift bags. May we – instead of “ingesting” them – use credit cards to enable exciting experiences with our loved ones. So that our microbiome can have a healthy, happy holiday season too.

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I appreciate you sharing your thoughts, Aha’s and questions in the comments below this blog.

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