The use of synthetic chemicals has grown exponentially since the mid 1900’s and of the more than 80,000 different chemicals now in use, many are known or suspected endocrine disruptors. These damaging chemicals build up and are stored inside our bodies. Ranging from bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates in plastics to certain pesticides, endocrine disruptors alter your hormone (endocrine) system in such a way that makes you more prone to numerous health maladies—everything from weight gain to heart disease to cancer has been linked to endocrine disruptors. This article provides a brief introduction to several common endocrine disruptors and a short review of the adverse impacts of endocrine disruptors on health.
What are endocrine disruptors?
Endocrine disruptors are compounds that alter the normal functioning of your body’s endocrine system, the complex network of glands and hormones that regulates numerous bodily functions. The endocrine glands include the hypothalamus and pituitary glands in your brain, your thyroid, your adrenal glands, and your ovaries or testes, and each makes hormones which act as natural chemical messengers. Hormones travel through your bloodstream to tissues or organs and affect growth and development, metabolism, digestion, elimination, breathing, blood circulation, body temperature, sexual function, reproduction, and mood.
How do endocrine disruptors work?
Endocrine disruptors can disrupt your endocrine system through a multitude of different mechanisms: altering normal hormone levels, halting or stimulating the production of hormones, or changing the way hormones travel through the body, thus affecting the functions that these hormones control. Endocrine disruptors can also have effects on hormone receptors, the sites to which hormones must bind in order to initiate changes. The most dangerous aspects of endocrine disruptors are related to their ability to either increase or decrease estrogen, block testosterone, disrupt thyroid function, and disruption of cortisol function. Through all these mechanisms, endocrine disruptors can have far-reaching health implications.
What substances are endocrine disruptors and where are they found?
Endocrine disruptors include synthetic chemicals used as industrial chemical solvents/lubricants and their by-products, plastic compounds, plasticizers, pesticides, pharmaceutical agents, and heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. Many endocrine disruptors, like bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates found in plastic) are colorless and odorless and have been found just about everywhere—flooring, plastic cups, beach balls, plastic wrap, intravenous tubing, cosmetics, and food. Phthalates, for example, are widely used in industrial food production and have been found to leech from packaging to contaminate food. Some endocrine disruptors, such as PCB’s, DDT, and older flame retardants, have been banned for years in most countries but nevertheless still show up in our dairy, meat, and fish. Many contemporary pesticides and personal care products are heavily suspected to be endocrine disruptors. Parabens, for example, are ubiquitous in soaps, lotions, and cosmetics, and are also used as preservatives in food and beverages. UV filters in sunblock and synthetic fragrances in personal care products are also suspected endocrine disruptors.
What health conditions are linked to endocrine disruptors?
- Obesity. Some endocrine disruptors, including DES, BPA, organotins (TBT, TPT), and phthalates, carry the additional label of “obesogens.” Obesogens are defined as chemicals that inappropriately alter fat balance to promote the synthesis and accumulation of fat. It is not surprising that certain endocrine disruptors are obesogens and promote obesity, given the fact that some are stored in fat tissue and given the important role hormones are now known to play in appetite regulation and fat development and storage. In fact, it is now known that fat tissue is itself an endocrine organ, capable of making and responding to hormones.
- Diabetes. Many endocrine disruptors, including some pesticides and BPA, cause insulin resistance and high insulin levels which can lead to diabetes.
- Cancer. There is considerable evidence indicating that endocrine disruptors contribute to the risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
- Infertility. Endocrine disruptors have been shown to cause lower sperm levels and motility in men and endometriosis and fertility problems in women.
- Metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is characterized by high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high triglycerides, low HDL concentrations, and too much fat in the waist area. Pesticides, flame retardants, and phthalates have all been directly linked to higher rates of metabolic syndrome.
- Cardiovascular disease. Some endocrine disruptors, such as phthalates, have been shown to inhibit the function of heart cells and cause oxidative stress that compromises the health of arteries. Phthalates have also been directly linked to high blood pressure.
- Thyroid disease. Many endocrine disruptors contribute to disruption of thyroid gland function, including PCBs, additives in detergents, phthalates, BPA, some pesticides, the antibacterial agent triclosan, and some UV-filters.
How to avoid endocrine disruptors
Your exposure to endocrine disruptors depends on many factors, some of which are not under your control. But there are many documented ways to reduce your exposure through your personal choices and activities. Here are some ways to avoid endocrine disruptors:
- Purchase consumer goods or personal care products labeled phthalate-free or BPA- free, which are becoming more commonly available.
- Replace foods in your diet that involve plastic food packaging with “fresh” alternatives, which has been shown to reduce exposure to BPA and phthalates by over 50%.
- Replace conventional produce with organic produce to significantly reduce exposure to organophosphate pesticides.
- Make your own chemical-free insecticides and herbicides for your lawn and garden: Safe DIY Pest Control & Weed Repellants.
- Consume a diet lower in animal fats (high-fat meat and dairy) to reduce exposure to pollutants that persist in the environment like the flame retardant PBDE, as well as the older toxins PCBs and DDT.
- Use cleaning practices to reduce indoor dust exposure (e.g., cleaning carpets and dusty surfaces regularly, using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter) in your home, office, daycare, and cars.
Tell Us What You are Doing to Protect Your Family from these Endocrine Disruptors
Let’s help each other within our natural health community. Please tell us what steps you are taking to protect your family from these stealth toxins that have invaded our modern society. Go to the Add Your Comments section below, click in the box and share your insights.