‘Microplastics’ is a scary word - and it seems we’re finding more and more ways that these little particles could be affecting our bodies.
But new research suggests that probiotics could help us defend against some of the effects of plastics in our digestive systems in particular, reports the Guardian.
We already know that the good-for-you type of bacteria, found in foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and yoghurt, help support our immune systems and protect against inflammation and allergies - so could they help us fight microplastics too?
What do microplastics do to our stomachs?
Several studies have shown that nanoplastics can be absorbed into our blood and organs as well as our gastrointestinal tracts, and while more research is needed, it’s safe to assume that consuming plastic probably isn’t good for us.
A June 2023 study from Tufts University showed that high levels of polystyrene particles “significantly triggered the secretion” of cytokines in in-vitro gut models - a type of protein linked to inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.
Over-processed diets, smoking and air pollution have also been linked to inflammatory bowel diseases, but researchers believe microplastics, which include bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates and flame retardants, could also be a trigger. A Chinese study conducted in 2021 showed that participants with inflammatory bowel disease had 50 per cent more microplastics in their faeces than those with healthy guts.
A 2022 Spanish study found that when gut microbes feed on microplastics in the stomach, their chemical composition can change , causing “negative effects, including changes in gut metabolic profiles and inflammation”.
This could also lead to a condition called dysbiosis, where bad bacteria overtakes the amount of good in our stomachs and increases the chances of developing diabetes, colorectal cancer or Crohn’s disease.
How do probiotics interact with microplastics?
Probiotics can’t, of course, remove microplastics from our bodies, but good bacteria could lessen some of the negative effects.
Iranian researchers recently published a review study exploring this, writing that probiotics could interact with polystyrene particles to “modify their toxic effects on different tissues”.
They pointed to other studies which show probiotics absorbing and neutralising toxic metals like mercury and cadmium in animals, as well as two 2021 studies which showed that probiotics like lactobacillus plantarum - in pickles and fermented dairy products - could degrade BPA and phthalates.
“The use of probiotic supplementation for improving the microbiome could be an effective intervention to counter different toxins,” they wrote.
A 2023 Chinese study found that mice exposed to microplastics suffered decreased sperm health, testicular inflammation, and lessening of healthy gut bacteria, while giving them probiotics improved the vitality of their sperm.
Probiotics could even help reduce the toxicity of plastics before they get into our bodies - promising research shows that probiotics interact with BPA in plastic containers. A 2019 study found that when the probiotic lactobacillus reuteri was added to teas and juice in BPA-containing cans, it reduced the concentration of the chemical in the drinks by at least 90 per cent in just one day.
Do we need to be careful about probiotic consumption?
It’s still early days when it comes to the science behind how plastics are affecting our bodies.
But researchers are finding more support for the theory that probiotics, like the lactic acid bacteria found in yoghurt, pickles and sourdough bread, could help lessen the effects of the chemicals in microplastics on our bodies.
You should talk to your doctor before taking probiotic supplements - like other supplements and vitamins, they are not regulated by Medsafe in New Zealand.
But probiotics found in fermented foods are generally considered to be both safe and good for you - so there’s no harm in eating more of them. Just stick to the recommended serving size, since large servings of probiotics can upset your stomach .
So next time you go for cereal for breakfast, top it with a dollop of yoghurt.