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10 facts: what plastic does to the intestines

Plastic is ubiquitous and it's hard to imagine our lives without it. However, we are becoming increasingly aware of the many dangers that plastics pose: plastic is not only a major problem for the environment and many animals , but it also has harmful effects on our health. The smallest plastic particles can be found even in our chair . Does that mean that some of the plastic is already swimming through our veins? What consequences does this have for our body? All these effects of microplastics are shown here in 10 steps.

1. What is microplastic?

Plastic comes in all shapes, sizes, and materials. The plastic that is dangerous for us is present in smallest particles , the so-called micro and nanoplastics. Microplastic is smaller than 5mm, nanoplastic is even less than 0.0001mm and is not visible to the naked eye. There are two ways to create micro- and nanoplastics: on the one hand, tiny plastic pearls are manufactured industrially to later fuse them into larger pieces or to use them as smaller particles in cosmetics . On the other hand, a large part of our plastic waste ends up in the oceans, where it breaks down into tiny particles for decades. (1)

For more than 450 years, a plastic bottle has released the smallest plastic particles into the sea.

2. Where is microplastic going?

Now two things can happen with the resulting micro and nanoplastics. During the production of plastic, some of the smaller particles can fly. This allows microplastics to become airborne and inhaled, possibly damaging the lungs. (2)

But the biggest problem is in the oceans . There, the smaller marine creatures ingest the plastic particles with their food . Start with plankton and continue. Through the natural food chain, where crabs and smaller fish eat the plankton, and then larger fish eat them, micro- and nanoplastics find their way into large animals. Once there, the plastic comes back to us, right on the dining room table . (1)

3. How does plastic end up on our plates?

By eating shellfish, we not only risk eating delicious fish, but also micro and nanoplastics . There are fish and shellfish that are more or less contaminated with plastic. Sea fish seem to absorb more plastic than inland water fish. This is probably because the oceans are more polluted with plastic than most lakes and ponds. But there are also differences between the oceans: Studies have shown that fish off the Norwegian coast are significantly less contaminated with plastic than on long stretches of the Chinese coast and the Mediterranean Sea. European inland fisheries also appear to have much lower proportions of plastic particles in their waters than, for example, Canada. (3)

Fish in the ocean ingest plastic particles with their food.

4. Do microplastics enter the body?

Unfortunately, we have to answer this scary question with yes . In any case, the plastic particles reach our digestive tract , since when we eat contaminated food (see point 8) we take the plastic with us . Whether nanoplastics also find their way into our bloodstream has not yet been proven for certain, but it is likely. Animal studies have shown that the particles penetrate further into the body and reach various organs. (4, 5, 6)

5. What does plastic do to the intestines?

A new study has already shown that there are plastic particles in human faeces . Although it was a small study with few participants, they came from different European countries, Russia and Japan. Plastic particles were detected in the feces of each (!) participant . This means that contact with plastic in the intestine is not uncommon. However, to determine what effects micro- and nanoplastics have in the gut, we must rely heavily on animal studies. There it was possible to demonstrate in zebrafish that plastic particles cause considerable damage in the intestines left behind. Especially nanoparticles (in the range of 0.0001 mm), but also microparticles caused big problems. The structure of the intestinal mucosa was damaged, intestinal cells were destroyed, and oxidative stress was triggered, which can also affect genes. (4, 5)

By using plastic plates and bottles, we load our bodies with plastic particles.

6. Is plastic absorbed into the blood?

Now the question arises whether the plastic particles are reabsorbed from the intestines and enter the whole body with the blood . Here, too, the data is mainly available from animal studies, but similar conditions could apply to humans. It has been shown in mice that microplastics are absorbed in the intestine and from there reach the liver and kidneys . Plastic particles settle there and can contribute to cell damage and have a significant influence on metabolism. With a weak gut barrier, such as leaky gut syndrome and chronic inflammatory bowel diseases, more particles are absorbed. Micro- and nanoplastics are also supposed to be involved in the development of obesity, infertility, genetic mutations, and cancer in humans. However, one should not panic now, because even if plastic components contribute to these diseases, they are only one of many factors . It is important to ensure a healthy lifestyle and use plastic in a considerate way. (1, 3, 6)

7. How can I save plastic?

The first step is to think about where you can best save plastic in your daily life. This is not only good for your health, but also for the environment . Do you really need a plastic bag or can you go shopping without one? Do you regularly use plastic plates and bottles during lunchtime? This is precisely why you absorb extra plastic particles with your food. A good investment would be a reusable glass bottle and real cutlery for work.

Seafood is particularly affected by plastic particles.

8. Be careful with the origin of the shellfish!

Fish is extremely healthy and offers valuable nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids . But be sure to pay attention to the origin and storage of the fish (wrapped in paper or plastic) - as explained in point 4, the burden of plastic varies from region to region . Fish from inland and inland waters is particularly safe, but fish from the North Sea and North Atlantic are also likely to be less contaminated. On the other hand, you should eat shrimp less frequently, since they feed mainly on plankton and are therefore subject to greater stress . (3)

9. No finished products

Finished products are unhealthy not only because of their additives, such as flavor enhancers, emulsifiers and colourings , but also because they are stored longer in plastic or aluminum and micro-ingredients could migrate into food. So, try to avoid convenience foods and eat fresh instead.

10. Buy real fruits and vegetables!

Most supermarkets sell fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic . Small plastic particles can also settle on the fruit from longer contact and you can eat them. That's why you should definitely wash packaged vegetables and fruits before eating them! Also, try to buy lightly packaged fruits and vegetables; instead, visit a local farmer's market . In this way, you get regional and seasonal ripe vegetables: this is not only good for your body and the environment, but also tastes better!

It is best to wrap fruits and vegetables in paper or cloth so that plastic particles do not accumulate on them.


About the Author

Medical student with a passion for the microbiome and good food

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Gabriela De Pasquale

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Estepona, Spain

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(1) Sharma S, Chatterjee S. Microplastic pollution, a threat to the marine ecosystem and human health: a brief review. Environ Sci Pollution Res Int. 2017;24(27):21530-21547.

(2) Silver JC. Microplastics in the air: Consequences for human health?. Pollution. 2018;234:115-126.

(3) Revel M, Châtel A, Mounejarc C. Micro(nano)plastics: a threat to human health?. straight science. 2018; 1:17-23.

(4) Schwabl P, Liebmann B, Koeppel S, Reisberger T, et al. Assessment of microplastic concentrations in human feces: final results of a prospective study. 2018

(5) Lei L, Wu S, Lu S, et al. Microplastic particles cause intestinal damage and other adverse effects in the zebrafish Danio rerio and the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. Total environment sci. 2018;619-620:1-8.

(6) Deng Y, Zhang Y, Lemos B, Ren H. Mice microplastic tissue accumulation and biomarker responses suggest widespread health exposure risks. Sci Rep. 2017;7:46687.


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