You’ve been hearing about the dangers of plastic for decades now, and the news isn’t getting any better. Plastics, both single-use and reusable, are wreaking havoc on the environment, filling land and flooding oceans. Even when it’s meant to be recyclable, more than 90 percent of all plastic never actually winds up being recycled. 

And it’s no secret that plastic is super sneaky. Over the years, studies have shown that plastic winds up everywhere, from the air to water to the food you eat. So, it really shouldn’t be any surprise that plastics are popping up in other places… like your bloodstream. 

Plastic is wrecking your health on a molecular level. And now, researchers suggest that it might have a particularly important effect on your heart.

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The chemicals used to make plastics can wind up in your gut – and elsewhere within your body

The dangers of plastic-associated chemicals, like bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalate plasticizers, are already well-known. Multiple studies have confirmed that exposure to these all-too-common chemicals can increase your risk for cardiovascular diseases, including conditions like coronary artery heart disease, angina, heart attacks and high blood pressure. But experts have yet to uncover how, exactly, those plastic chemicals are tied to heart health.

Now, research conducted by biomedical scientists at the University of California, Riverside suggests that plastics are winding up inside the bloodstream and causing health problems for both the short- and long-term through one key source: the gut.

This study, which was published in December 2021, studied phthalates from plastics in mice. And the results offer some key insights into how these very chemicals are likely also affecting humans. The researchers found that the mice had dicyclohexyl phthalate (DCHP), a phthalate that’s used to make plastics more durable, in their bloodstream. In the mice, DCHP bound to a receptor called pregnane X (PXR), which plays a role in cholesterol absorption.

It turned out that the presence of DCHP within the mice actually changed the way their guts handled cholesterol – a key factor in heart disease and related conditions like high cholesterol and hypertension. DCHP essentially “turned on” PXR in their guts, giving rise to an increase in cholesterol. And that, in turn, led the mice to have higher levels of cholesterol in their plasma.

While the researchers only examined this plastic phenomenon in mice, it does suggest that something similar may be happening in humans. More research is needed, but this provides one of the first clues to how, exactly, the phthalates in plastic are shaping humans’ heart health.

How you can protect your heart health

DCHP, the phthalate found in the above study, is pretty prevalent. It’s actually so widely used that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has suggested it be a high-priority substance. As of right now, it hasn’t been deeply studied, and there’s not much known about how it may adversely affect human health.

But based on these new mice findings, we have a starting point. The plastics we’re encountering in our daily lives—in the form of baggies, food containers, water bottles and countless other common products—may be sneaking into our bloodstream and, ultimately, our guts. And that may be causing heart-related health problems like high cholesterol and a potentially increased risk for cardiovascular disease. 

So, what can you do about this so your heart is as healthy and well-protected as possible? Limiting plastics as much as you can is a great place to start. Completely cutting out plastic is a great goal, but starting small to limit your exposure will help make the transition easier. Look to swap out plastic storage containers with glass ones; swap your plastic wrap and baggies for plastic-free alternatives. And don’t forget about the stuff you buy at the store – switching to reusable mesh or fabric produce bags, buying products in non-plastic packaging and opting for bulk (and using your own containers) are all simple changes to make.

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