How air pollution might damage our gut health – and what we can do about it


Our gut bacteria affects our overall physical and mental health in ways researchers are only now starting to understand. A new study has found that air pollution may play a role in the impact of gut bacteria on our health as well – and not in a good way.

UCLA researchers have found that mice exposed to air pollution in the Los Angeles area experienced changes in their gut bacteria, leading to an increase of blood cholesterol and the subsequent formation of plaque in the arteries. Over time, the buildup of plaque and lead to a hardening and narrowing of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, resulting in damage to the heart.

"This research tells us that we need to be very cautious about our daily exposure to air pollution," said Dr. Tzung Hsiai, professor of medicine and bioengineering at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the study’s lead author.

While air pollution has been known to cause damage to the heart and the lungs, this new research gives us a glimpse into the fact that other organ systems can be affected, too.

This study, published in Scientific Reports in February, highlights the role of the gut biome in that cascade of negative health effects, by demonstrating the mechanism by which the ultrafine particles making up air pollution affect normal gut flora and the formation of plaque.

Dr. Zhaoping Li, director of UCLA's Center for Human Nutrition and one of the researchers involved in the study, said the results will help “inform public and environmental health experts, including public policy makers, ultimately helping them improve environmental conditions.”

While further studies are needed in humans, the findings lend more support for the need for a healthy diet, says Li. Nutrient-rich foods, especially vegetables and fruits, supply the bacteria necessary for a healthy gut and could potentially provide defense against some of the risks of air pollution.

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