You’ve probably come across the term “hormone disruption” or “endocrine disruption” many times in the last few years, as research has begun to shed light on ways the chemical soup we all live in may be affecting our health in unexpected ways.
You may have thought to yourself, well, how big a deal can this be? So my monthly cycle may be a little different. That doesn’t sound like it’s worth worrying about.
Many people fail to appreciate that hormones affect all parts of our bodies and development. Hormones control your appetite, your sleep cycle, your reproductive system, the development of unborn fetuses and more. Here’s a list of some of the things hormones do:
- Regulate mood
- Control sleep
- Manage reproductive cycles
- Regulate metabolism, affecting weight and how the body makes energy
- Determine children’s growth
- Affect the development of autoimmune diseases such as diabetes
Hormones also seem to play a role in the development of certain types of cancer. To understand how endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) might affect your health, we need to review a little basic biology.
A hormone is a chemical messenger that tells different parts of the body how to behave. Insulin, for example, regulates blood sugar, while serotonin affects mood, melatonin regulates sleep and wake cycles, and leptin and ghrelin control appetite. Other hormones govern the creation of sperm in men, the release of eggs in women, and numerous elements of pregnancy. Many of the produced by the human body regulate more than one function.
Now a little more biology review: The endocrine system consists of the hypothalamus, pituitary, pineal, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal gland, thymus, pancreas, and ovaries or testes. Together these organs control the production of hormones that regulate energy production, growth, glucose metabolism, the balance of salt and water, blood pressure, responses to stress, and reproduction.
When one or more of these glands gets chemical messages from hormone disruptors rather than natural hormones, you might feel sluggish, put on weight, develop diabetes, or suffer infertility. Researchers speculate some of these chemicals may help explain the dramatic decline in men’s sperm quality in recent decades. Cancers of these organs may also become more likely.
Bigger deal than you thought, huh?
Endocrinologists, doctors and researchers who study hormones and the glands that make them, look at the molecular-level changes that occur when compounds that resemble human hormones enter our bodies through food, skin contact, or inhalation. According to the Endocrine Society, the leading international organization of endocrinologists, “the data linking some EDCs or entire classes of EDCs to chronic disease is comparable in strength and breadth to the evidence that links tobacco smoking with lung cancer.” Many researchers suspect EDCs are at least in part responsible for the increase in rates of autoimmune disease, like Hashimoto’s or diabetes.
How do hormone disruptors work?
EDCs may alter the functioning of our own hormones in different ways. They can mimic our naturally-occurring hormones like estrogen or parathyroid, so our bodies think they’re getting more of a given hormone. Or they might bind to a receptor and prevent a natural hormone from binding, blocking the action of that hormone. They might also affect production of normal hormones.
Developing fetuses are exceptionally sensitive to hormones, which tell every cell in their tiny bodies how to grow. So when a pregnant mother encounters BPA, for instance, in the soup she eats for lunch or the water she drinks from a plastic bottle, these slightly different molecules may direct the cells of her baby to grow differently, which can affect brain development or the way the reproductive system forms.
Endocrine disrupting chemicals
- BPA and other bisphenols: found in plastics, canned food and most store receipts.
- Phthalates: found in plastics – especially PVC, used in soft plastics and vinyl products –and personal care formulas.
- Dioxins: found in the fatty tissue of animal byproducts.
- Atrazine: a common agricultural pesticide that affects sex hormones.
- Perchlorate: a compound in rocket fuel that’s in our water (and food produced with that water) that competes with iodine and can affect thyroid function.
- Fire retardants (PDBE): used in electronics, furniture and carpet padding; PDBE from these products migrates into household dust as an additional source of exposure.
- Heavy metals (arsenic, mercury, lead): arsenic may be found in drinking water and rice, mercury in contaminated fish, and lead in contaminated paint and soil as well as many consumer products.
- Perfluorinated compounds (PFCS/PFOA): found in non-stick cookware, coatings on takeout food containers and water repellent clothing.
- Pesticides with organophosphates: used widely in non-organic agriculture.
- Glycol ethers: found in paint and cleaners.
However, not all endocrine disruptors are industrial chemicals. Lavender, tea tree oil and other essential oils have been studied for estrogenic activity. Sometimes used as a “green cleaning” ingredient, borax also turns out to have endocrine-disrupting potential.
Some plants, notably soy, produce phytoestrogens, compounds similar to human hormones.
How to protect yourself from hormone disruptors
What does this mean for most of us, who have been encountering these chemicals daily our whole lives? No one’s entirely sure, though researchers in the field note there is mounting evidence linking EDCs to disease risk.
- Use a high-quality water filter to remove many of the contaminants above.
- Get as much plastic out of your life as you can. Use glass or metal water bottles and non-plastic food storage.
- Choose organic whenever possible to avoid common pesticides.
- Eat lower on the food chain and choose whole ingredients whenever possible.
- Use iodized salt to ensure you’re getting enough iodine for proper thyroid function.
- Switch to non-toxic beauty products.
- Remove dust with a moist cloth.
- Go easy on soy products, which are added to a lot of processed food.
- Choose plant-based cleaners or make your own.
- Consider choosing versions of your favorite skin care products that don’t contain lavender or tea tree oil.
- Consider the toxics profile of every purchase, since so many common consumer items have EDCs.
What else can reduce our EDC exposure? Saner chemical regulations. At present in the US, a chemical is presumed safe until proven otherwise and can be brought to market without proving its safety to human health. The EU, by contrast, requires testing before putting a product on the shelf, rather than turning consumers into unwitting guinea pigs. Letting your elected officials know you want stricter controls on these substances can help turn the tide of the flood of industrial chemicals in our air, water, food, and homes.
Signing up to receive notifications from groups like the Environmental Working Group or Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families will allow you to put in your two cents when there are opportunities for public comment on legislation.