Your endocrine system is one of the most sensitive communication networks — it influences all aspects of your health and well-being, including your reproductive potential, cognitive function, thyroid and metabolism, digestion and hormonal balance.
How an individual reacts to hormonally active chemicals varies, but one thing is certain: never before have there been so many diverse, human-made and unregulated synthetics at work in our bodies. Many now think that we are the guinea pigs in the largest uncontrolled science experiment in history.
An endocrine disruptor is a synthetic compound that mimics a natural hormone when it is absorbed by the body. It can turn on, turn off, or change normal signals. It can have the effect of altering normal hormone levels, triggering excessive action, or completely blocking a natural response. Any other bodily function controlled by hormones can also be affected.
We are often asked about plant estrogens, “Aren’t they endocrine disruptors? Don’t they mimic estrogen?” Much research has shown that phytoestrogens, such as those found in soy, are not disruptive to the natural workings of the endocrine system. The reason behind this is that the human body has co-evolved over time with plants and generally moderates the impact of phytoestrogens through an adaptogenic response. Some plant estrogens are naturally neutralized, others are easily excreted, and most do not accumulate in body tissue (unlike synthetic compounds and heavy metals). The half-life of a phytoestrogen is measured in minutes, while the half-life of various synthetic compounds, like DDT, may be years or even decades.
Human-made chemicals that are known or suspected to influence the endocrine system are everywhere. All the latest and greatest, next-best-things that we now accept as “however-did-we-live-without-them” inventions are made with these chemicals. They make our plastic products softer and easier to handle, our cosmetic creams and lotions smoother and longer-lasting, and our clothes and furnishings inflammable. They are used in clothing dye (especially denim!), cars and computer casings, Teflon coatings, and disinfectant bleaches. They are diffused throughout the atmosphere by the burning of industrial waste and leach into groundwater from landfills. Scientists are concerned because these chemicals biomagnify in the food chain.
In humans, the natural level of circulating hormones needed to orchestrate bodily functions is relatively low. Synthetic endocrine disruptors are now being found in living tissue at dramatically higher concentrations than natural hormones. A CDC report from July 2005 found that the bodies of Americans of all ages contain an average of 148 synthetic chemicals.
Do these chemicals really have any effect, or are they inert? Why can’t the body neutralize humanmade chemicals? The good news is, we probably can, but the pace at which new chemicals are being introduced is outdistancing our body’s ability to adapt. We have a rigorous detoxification system in place in the form of our blood, lymph, liver, kidneys, intestines, lungs, and skin. But we are moving very quickly with humanmade chemicals — experts estimate that 40 million pounds of hormonally active chemicals are produced in this country per annum, with 2000 new varieties introduced to market each year. Even the healthiest person may have trouble filtering this kind of load.
There are many unanswered questions regarding the long-term effects of endocrine disruptors. Because they are a recent phenomenon, studies are just beginning to show possible connections. Research into the link between pesticides and frog deformities, fish sex reversals, and bird infertilities is well-documented. How this plays out further with mammals seems to be highly individualized, relative to variables such as age at exposure, genetics, level and length of exposure, gender, and detox capability. Some humans seem to be better at dealing with these substances, but we suspect that the increase in chemical and medical sensitivities, childhood cancers, infertility rates, learning disabilities, autism and mood disorders may relate in some way to the sea of endocrine disruptors in which we all swim.
The hopeful aspect here is that these hormonally active contaminants do not seem to alter most people’s basic genetic blueprint — although our understanding of DNA and protein changes is expanding daily. We understand that what one inherits can be molded, and that while a person cannot change his/her eye color, certain genes directing metabolism can be changed — for good or bad. It is all too soon to tell just what the next generation will inherit, but in looking back, we now realize that DES affected not only daughters but sons as well, and in more ways than just genital abnormalities. New evidence points to epigenetic possibilities, meaning that we can pass along certain effects without actually changing our offspring’s DNA. In addition, not all genes will be expressed under all conditions — that is, some effects may only get turned on generations from now, or only under certain circumstances.
The Most Common Endocrine Disruptor Chemicals
While we realize that the alphabet-and-number soup of all these chemicals can be quite confusing, even for those of us with a science background, we thought we would list some of the major offenders. Please feel free to skip this section if you prefer not to dwell on the negative. We include it because we believe information is power.
- Bisphenol–A: A synthetic substance widely used to make polycarbonated plastics found in food and drink containers, the lining of tin cans, toys, baby bottles, dental sealants, flame retardants, and plastic wraps. This chemical easily leaches out into food and water.
- Phthalates: Synthetic substances added to plastics to make them softer, more flexible and resilient. They also extend staying power. They are found in IV tubing, vinyl flooring, glues, inks, pesticides, detergents, plastic bags, food packaging, children’s toys, shower curtains, soaps, shampoos, perfumes, hair spray and nail polish.
- Parabens: Compounds used as preservatives in thousands of cosmetic, food and pharmaceutical products.
- PBDE’s (polybrominated diphenyl ethers): Found in flame retardants used on furniture, curtains, mattresses, carpets, television and computer castings. Categorized as a persistent organic pollutant (POP), this substance is stored in animal fats and thus found in dairy products, meat, fish, and human breast milk, and has been banned in several countries. It has also been detected in house dust.
- PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyls): Another group of highly toxic synthetic chemical compounds found on the list of POP's , once used widely as insulation fluid in electrical transformers, lubricating oil in pipelines, and components of plastics and mixed with adhesives, paper, inks, paints and dyes. Since 1976 PCB’s have been banned in new products, but they are highly stable compounds that degrade very slowly, and these chemicals still persist.
- Dioxin: Dioxin is a general name applied to a group of hundreds of chemicals that are highly persistent in the environment. The most toxic compound is 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or TCDD. Dioxin is formed as an unintentional by-product of many industrial processes involving chlorine such as waste incineration, chemical and pesticide manufacturing, and pulp and paper bleaching. Small molecules are diffused into the atmosphere, then land on soil, where they are eaten by soil microbes. From there they pass up the food chain into meat, fish, and dairy products and breast milk. We absorb 90% of the dioxin in our bodies through food sources, though you won’t find it listed on any label. Levels have been decreasing since the 1990’s with environmental measures, but it is still probably the most prevalent toxic chemical in our environment.
- Pesticides and herbicides: In particular, atrazine, simazine, and heptachlor and other organophosphates and organochlorines have been found to be toxic to the nervous system and to show damaging reproductive (e.g., decreasing sperm motility) and developmental effects.
- Heavy metals: Cadmium and arsenic are two heavy metals in widespread use whose endocrine disrupting mechanisms of action have been described. Mercury and lead are also implicated, and more studies are underway on heavy metals.
Endocrine Disruptors at Work in the Body and the WorldIn her prophetic book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson drew attention in the 1960’s to the effects of humanmade hormonally active chemicals, particularly pesticides such as DDT, on birds and wildlife. DES (diethylstilbestrol), the medication given in the 50’s and 60’s to prevent miscarriages (and for other misguided reasons), turned out to be a tragic mistake, as the daughters of women who took this medication developed vaginal cancers and other reproductive abnormalities. It is an interesting coincidence that DES and DDT were first synthesized at around the same time and both originally declared miracles of modern science.
Some 40 years later Theo Colborn and her associates continue the story in their book, Our Stolen Future. This provocative book documents how synthetic chemicals are not only affecting reproduction in wildlife but having effects on humans. Breast cancer activists in the early 1990’s started asking questions about the environment and the rising incidence of breast cancer. The answers have not come easy, but the 2010 edition of the State of the Evidence by the Breast Cancer Fund documents many connections between environmental toxins and breast cancer.
Labeling these potent chemicals as simply “disruptors” may be understatement because their effects are quite insidious and the chemicals ubiquitous. The effects are often described as a “loss of potential.” We now know that these compounds have effects on thyroid function and brain development as well as reproductive potential. While early on they were referred to as estrogen disruptors or xenoestrogens, we now realize they play a much broader role.
In addition, cellular disorder can be manifested at quite low doses, perhaps lower than accepted toxic doses. These chemicals can have synergistic and additive effects upon each other, and some can even cancel others out — but in most cases one small bit of two different EDC’s used together, as in many pesticides, do not add up to two small bits, but rather five or six times the effect.
Also critical appears to be the timing of exposure to these chemicals. Many of these compounds are lipidophilic — they “like fat” and accumulate in fat tissue. They are not easily detoxed or cleansed from the body and thus are stored up over decades, particularly in women’s bodies — we just have more fat naturally. These contaminants can be transferred across the placenta to a growing fetus. We know that there is a critical window of time for fetal reproductive development as well as for the behavioral, nervous and immune systems.
And while I as a woman dislike singling out mothers to shoulder more responsibility, the facts can no longer be denied. Gestational exposure for the fetus reflects this critical window of time and perhaps even the mother’s entire lifetime of exposure before she gets pregnant. This means that your tissues and breast milk are like a warehouse for all the synthetic compounds you’ve ever been exposed to. All the more tragic is that women are often unaware of their exposure and cannot avoid these ever-present chemicals in their environment.
But the news is not all bad. The first step in fixing any problem is to understand that there is a problem.
What’s Being Done About Endocrine Disruptors?The federal government is funding research into the effects of these industrial pollutants. Check out the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Toxicology Program websites for more information. There is still uncertainty about exact causes and effects in humans, and testing and assaying chemicals on people is obviously difficult. Comparisons with effects on animals are helpful but not perfect. Dosage levels, exposure times, and combinations of toxins make the work very complicated.
Risk management programs have only just gotten started, with some states being more progressive than others. The European Union is perhaps the most progressive in taking action on identifying and reducing the most offensive agents. In June 2005, over 100 research scientists actively involved in research on endocrine disrupters from 15 countries issued a joint, signed statement raising concerns about endocrine disruption:
In view of the magnitude of the potential risks associated with endocrine disrupters, we strongly believe that scientific uncertainty should not delay precautionary action on reducing the exposures to and the risks from endocrine disrupters.For the entire report see the Prague Declaration on Endocrine Disruption.
For decades scientists have been quantifying and analyzing the impact of chemicals on living organisms, and have known for many years of manmade chemicals on the market that are harmful to both small and large life forms. Unfortunately, countless such chemicals have never been thoroughly tested for human safety, and we simply cannot assume that because a chemical has been approved for use that it is necessarily “safe.”
More recently developed biomonitoring techniques have become available for sampling human tissues and fluids, helping us gain a better sense of our body burden, or the amount of stress our detoxification systems are under due to the presence of these chemicals in our bodies. This has helped to land the issue of endocrine disruptors onto the radar screen of the mainstream media and the political arena. Both Health Canada and the CDC in the US are conducting biomonitoring testing programs. Biomonitoring, however, is quite expensive and has not been standardized — and, perhaps most important, it only measures exposure. It cannot describe the full effects and consequences of these amounts of chemicals. A direct link from a dose of one chemical to one disease can rarely be made.
Nor do we have the time or desire to test them on each other. No one would ethically expose fetuses or young children to different doses of toxic chemicals and watch them over their lifetime. We are also realizing that an individual’s DNA and genes make an important contribution, known as individual susceptibility. There are people who show no effect from exposure, then others who are exquisitely sensitive, and most of us lie somewhere in-between.
For the most part, scientists are left to make assumptions based on animal and lab data. Many are questioning prior assumptions and seeing that these endocrine disruptors not only affect the estrogen receptors but all signaling mechanisms that make our body function. It’s no wonder so many scientists are alarmed.
But how does this affect your health on a day-to-day basis? How does it affect perimenopause and hormone balance? We can only make conjectures at this point but feel that endocrine disruptors must make a significant contribution to why some women are experiencing such severe symptoms.
What Can you Do About Endocrine Disruptors?
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.It is important to become aware of endocrine disruptors in your daily life. This means assessing the potential load of contaminants you come into contact with each day, including plastics, pesticides, housing and clothing material, cleansers, bleach and cosmetics.
– Margaret Mead
Additionally, an understanding that the health of your air, water, and earth has an effect on your health is also relevant. Just as the functions within our bodies are all connected, we are all connected to the world around us. And while it can seem overwhelming, small changes add up to significant improvements, personally, locally and globally. To get started, we recommend the following.
choose your food intelligently
eat as organically as possible, and watch animal fat and fish consumption. Because endocrine disruptors and heavy metals magnify in the food chain, the higher your protein source t
he greater the potential toxic load. Large deep water “fatty” fish like tuna may contain high levels of synthetic chemicals and heavy metals, so eat them in moderation.
if you can’t buy all organic food, try to pick & choose
Certain crops are more heavily sprayed than others. Data on the worst offenders vary, but the following 12 fruits and veggies are among those with the highest pesticide residues: peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, grapes, pears, spinach, and potatoes. Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before consuming, or peel them if they are not organically grown. We recommend a fruit wash, but you can also use dilute soap — it’s better than nothing.
take a wide–spectrum daily multivitamin with essential fatty acids
To ensure rich nutrition and support your body’s optimal functioning. In today’s world this is no longer an option but a mandate. You must equip your body with the essential tools it needs to do its job, particularly when it is embattled on a daily basis by so many toxins. Unfortunately, much of our food supply is contaminated and lacks the necessary nutrients, even if you think you eat well. The only vitamins that I recommend are whole food ones like this one; it is organic as well.
support your body’s natural ability to detox by exercising & sweating on a regular basis
Try a gentle detox program a few times a year. Use a sauna or steam bath. Get regular sleep (you detoxify at night) and drink plenty of filtered water. If you are on a lot of medication, it could influence your body’s ability to detox. You may wish to have a toxic screen to identify your current detoxification capabilities. These are not widely available, but you can contact Doctor’s Data or Genova Diagnostics for more information, or consult a functional medicine practitioner for an individual work-up.
eat plenty of fiber and take a daily probiotic
With bifidobacteria and Acidophilus strains in the billions. Certain foods and beverages like green tea contain flavonoids, which help the body rid itself of toxins. Pomegranate juice, blueberries, and red wine are also good choices — but be cautious of drug interactions — and everything in moderation!
Once the has liver has changed the environmental estrogens into a form that that body can more readily excrete it goes into the bile and then the digestive tract to be finally removed in the stools. You need to make sure that your bowels are moving well at least once or twice a day.
Eat more organic whole grains, fruit, vegetables, seeds and beans. Try taking 1 – 2 tablespoons freshly ground flax seeds a day with breakfast if your bowels need a push . Do a bowel cleanse if necessary.
investigate the chemicals in your cosmetics, bug spray, lotions and toiletries
Visit the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website for a list of chemical-free alternatives.
know your water supply
Find out whether your local community’s water testing program checks for hormone-disrupting chemicals and heavy metals. Not all household filters work effectively on chemicals and, unfortunately, not all bottled water is checked either. Read your water quality reports. If you drink purified water out of plastic bottles, do not leave the bottles in your car or the hot sun for any length of time; heat activates the molecules in the plastic, which increases the rate at which the polycarbons leach into the water.
increase cruciferous vegetables
Eat more cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, mustard, turnip, bok choy, kohlrabi and rutabaga (swede). They contain the phytochemical indole-3-carbinol, that improves detox of environmental estrogen and improves the balance of all hormones.
increase natural plant estrogens
Phytoestrogens are compounds that occur naturally in plants and are thought to help protect against the effects of estrogen dominance. The two that have been studies the most are isoflavones, such as soy and lignans which occur in flaxseed, grains and vegetables.
There are over 300 foods are known to contain phytoestrogens. The main sources are soy beans, tofu, tempeh, soy beverages, flaxseed, sesame seeds millet, barley, rye, dried beans, lentils and fennel.
increase calcium d-glucarate
D-glucarate is a natural subtance is found in apples, oranges, broccoli, spinach, and Brussels sprouts. To detox the toxic estrogens your liver joins it to glucoronic acid. D-glucarate can inhibit an enzyme produced by gut bacteria called beta-glucuronidase that can break this bond and allow the estrogen to be recirculated from the bowel.
Take it in supplement form as well. One 500 mg tablet or capsule of Calcium D-Glucarate is equivalent to the phytonutrient activity found in 82 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables.
take milk thistle
The herb Milk Thistle (Silymarin) enhances the detox of toxic estrogens from the liver.
consider a supplement of DIM
Scientific research shows DIM (diindolylmethane), a phytonutrient found in cruciferous vegetables, increases the level of “good” estrogens while reducing the level of “bad” estrogens.