Endocrine Disruptors: The Invisible Cause to Internal Chaos

What is an Endocrine Disruptor?

Let’s first define what endocrine means. Endocrine is the body’s system of hormones (chemical messengers that are both produced and used throughout the whole body). An endocrine disruptor (also known as endocrine disrupting compound, EDC, or hormone disruptor), is anything that gets in the way of proper messaging throughout the body. The unfortunate fact is that we are exposed to such disruptors everyday through our environment and the products we use.

Biphenols (ex. BPA), phthalates and parabens are the most commonly known and researched hormone disruptors but most research looks at less than 5% of known endocrine disrupting compounds.

EDCs can interrupt the messaging system in several ways. Some mimic hormones and bind to receptors causing too much of a hormone to be produced or released. Others actually block the activation of a hormone or cause too little of one to be produced or circulated in the blood. The more these compounds are being researched, the more we are learning about how they can effect expression of DNA and the metabolism (removal) of hormones resulting in disease passed on to subsequent generations.

Why should we care about them?

The description of what an EDC is should explain most of it but in case you still aren’t convinced, I’ll break it down a bit further. Hormones literally run and regulate every system in our body. This includes sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone etc.) as well as the thyroid hormones, insulin which regulates blood sugar and our stress response (cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine). We may think about these different hormone loops as separate when in reality, they are extremely tied together. Cortisol effects insulin effects thyroid which effects estrogen and thats just ONE connection. So you can get an idea of how disruption in ANY of these messaging loops will have a cascade effect throughout the whole body.

This is how EDCs have been shown to be the cause of disease and dysfunction in literally every system of our body. The diseases and conditions most heavily researched include heart disease, cancer (especially breast, prostate and testicular), infertility (male and female), immune and autoimmune conditions, ADD/ADHD and lower IQ, autism, birth defects, obesity and type 2 diabetes. And just a reminder, this is looking at 5% of known EDCs.

The other alarming fact is that the effects of these synthetic chemicals are not dose dependent. Research shows that for some, a low dose exposure can be more harmful than a high dose. Research is also demonstrating that although most of these chemicals are often eliminated from the body within a few days, they can leave lasting effects which can be passed on from generation to generation through the effect they have on gene production and expression.

In 2012 the World Health Organization and United Nations Environment Program published a report calling the endocrine disrupting chemicals a “major and emerging global public health threat” and yet most of these chemicals still aren’t regulated. I don’t mean to instill any sort of fear into you but I do think its important that we all know what the ingredients are in the products we use and how they effect us so we can make educated decisions in purchasing and using them.

So where are these EDCs commonly found?

I’ll start with the heavy hitters…

BISPHENOLS: used to line food and beverage cans as well as in thermal paper receipts. Bisphenol A (BPA) is most commonly known but replacements including BPP, BPF, BPS, BPZ and BPAP are just as harmful, if not worse.

PHTHALATES: used to make plastics softs especially in food packaging. Also used in lotions, deodorants and cosmetics to enhance scents.

PARABENS: preservatives used in cosmetics to prevent growth of bacteria and mold.

But also…

Flame retardants (organohalogens especially polybrominated biphenyl ethers or PBDES): found in plastics used for furniture (sofas, chairs and mattresses), electronics, wire insulation, carpets and foam used in car seats.

Perchlorate, thiocyanate and nitrate: found in food packaging such as plastic wrap, baggies and to-go containers.

Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs): used in teflon or any non-stick surface. GenX, a chemical developed to replace teflon, has also been shown to have similar harmful effects.

Pesticides (organophosphates): used to prevent, destroy, repel or mitigate any pest on crops.

Small changes can go a long way.

I know this information can be overwhelming and it’s tempting to ignore all of it instead of going down the rabbit hole. I lived in that space for quite sometime until my daughter’s skin and gut issues forced me to do otherwise. But I’m here to tell you that small changes can have a dramatic effect on your overall toxic burden. Here are some tips for where to start:

  1. Eliminate products that you use daily first.
  2. Prioritize products that you consume or place on your skin.
  3. Use the rest of what you have and gradually replace as you run out of something.
  4. Look at the ingredients of the products you use and prioritize eliminating what is most relevant to your health concerns (EWG.org).

And here is a list of steps to take. By doing any of these swaps, you are significantly decreasing your exposure to EDCs so always remind yourself, something is always better than nothing.

  1. Buy organic for the “Dirty Dozen”: strawberries, apples, cherries, celery, spinach, grapes, pears, potatoes, nectarines, peaches, tomatoes and peppers.
  2. Minimize consumption of foods stored in cans and plastic. Glass storage is ideal but stainless steel is a great alternative as well. Remember, “BPA-free” doesn’t mean much when the BPA replacements have been found to be just as harmful. When you do use plastic, never microwave it, never wash it in the dishwasher, don’t reuse it and keep an eye out for the recycle number 3 which indicated phthalates.
  3. Avoid all “non-stick” cooking surfaces. If you do use them, avoid metal cooking tools and store carefully to avoid scratching. Also cook at the lowest possible temperatures. Stainless steel and cast iron are the most ideal substitutes.
  4. Avoid all cosmetics that contain the term “fragrance” and eliminate products that contain phthalates or parabens (commonly found in lotions, creams, nail polish, hair sprays and deodorants). Look for products that are labelled to be free of phthalates, parabens, triclosan and benzophenones (the EWG database called Skin Deep is a great resource).

Human safe and effective products.

There are a few companies that I stand behind and I will continue to look for more. At this point I have personal experience with these products and can say that they actually work! I am hopeful that one day many of these EDCs will be regulated so we can all purchase anything on the shelf without being worried about harmful ingredients but until then, we need to be our own health advocates. By purchasing only human safe products, our dollars can help contribute to the movement toward permanent change.

Beautycounter: a certified B corporation that has banned the use of 1,800 ingredients from their products, has a large presence in the movement to change legislation and produces some of the most effective products I have ever used.

Primally Pure: completely natural skin care.

Branch Basics: plant and mineral based, fragrance free, biodegradable cleaning products.

The Research

  1. Diamanti-Kandarakis E, Bourguignon J-P, Giudice LC, et al. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals: An Endocrine Society scientific statement. Endocrine Reviews. 2009;30(4):293-342.
  2. Bergman A, hinder JJ, Jobling S, Kidd KA, Zoeller RT, eds. Global assessment of state-of-the-science for endocrine disruptors. 2012; Available at http://www.who.int/ipcs/publications/new_issues/endocrine_disruptors/en
  3. https://cerch.berkeley.edu/publications/directory-publications
  4. https://med.nyu.edu/faculty/leonardo-trasande

Resources

  1. https://www.ewg.org
  2. https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/
  3. Sicker, Fatter, Poorer: The urgent threat of hormone-disrupting chemicals to our health and future…and what we can do about it. By Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP
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