Last year, my friend Helen introduced a new policy for her household: plastic-free holiday gifts only. A great idea… and surprisingly difficult. Plastic seems to be absolutely everywhere.
I asked Helen what had inspired this new tradition, assuming the driver was a concern for the environment.
“That was how it started,” she said, but after researching the impact of certain kinds of plastic, she’d stumbled upon a couple of frightening facts about their effects on hormonal health.
Helen has struggled on and off with estrogen dominance for years, and the idea that so many items in her household could be contributing to the problem was unsettling, to say the least. And she was about to learn just how many items around her– plastic or not– had the potential to disrupt her hormonal balance.
Most women I know are intimately familiar with the changes that hormonal imbalance can bring to their bodies.
After all, they’ve dealt with mood swings, bloating, weight gain and cramps every month for years – even decades. They’ve watched their teenage daughters wrestle with puberty, and they’ve heard dire warnings about what happens in menopause.
What many of these women don’t know, however, is that there are myriad external factors (like the chemicals found in certain plastics) that can impact hormonal balance, making these symptoms worse!
All around us, in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the products we use are chemicals that can change the balance of hormones in our body. These are called endocrine disruptors because they interrupt proper hormone function – and can lead to extremely uncomfortable symptoms.
Let’s take a quick look at how the endocrine system functions, how endocrine disruptors change that function, and some of the most common endocrine disruptors. Then I’ll give you some natural strategies to avoid exposure and keep your hormone system working well — and you feeling well!
How does the endocrine system work?
The endocrine system is the compilation of all your body’s hormones. This system is responsible for regulating your body’s biological processes from the time you are conceived until you die.
These processes include brain and nervous system development, development and function of the reproductive system, regulation of blood sugar levels, and metabolism function.
The major components of your endocrine system are female ovaries, male testes, and the pituitary, thyroid and adrenal glands. Other components include the pineal gland, thymus, hypothalamus, parathyroid glands and the pancreas.
While some of these components are major players and others are in a supporting role, all are important when it comes to proper endocrine system function. For a detailed overview of the endocrine system, refer to my article Understanding the Importance of a Healthy Endocrine System.
What’s most important to know when considering endocrine disruptors is that all of these glands must be working in harmony to regulate the communication your body receives from the hormones they secrete.
If even one gland is malfunctioning, big problems can result, from fertility issues to exhaustion to weight gain. That means it’s vitally important to avoid external factors that can skew the hormonal messages your body receives.
What are endocrine disruptors?
The National Institute of Environmental Health Science defines endocrine disruptors as chemicals that can interfere with the endocrine system and result in adverse effects – not only in humans, but in wildlife as well. These include problems in development, reproductive and immune system issues, and impaired brain function.
This may call to mind major environmental disasters, such as oil spills or chemical dumping. But, unfortunately, our exposure is far more frequent than that. Endocrine disruptors are everywhere; most of us bring them into our homes ourselves, often without even knowing it!
That’s because these chemicals are hiding in plain sight – in our cleaners, clothing, beauty products, detergents and food packaging – even in our tap water!
This is a major problem! Research has linked endocrine disruptors to thyroid disease, birth defects, developmental disorders, infertility, metabolism issues, obesity, decreased IQ, cancer, and many other conditions. And those most at risk are infants and children!
The problem is so widespread that one analysis in Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology estimated that a median of $340 billion dollars is spent treating these negative effects each year in the US.
I think it’s safe to assume that no one wants to expose themselves to chemicals that can cause such devastating issues. But lack of awareness and poor regulations mean that they are doing just that – far more often than they realize!
What are some common endocrine disruptors and how are we exposed to them?
While there are far too many chemicals that can cause problems to mention them all, there are some that have been studied extensively and are well known to have serious health consequences. But despite the best efforts of activists and health care professionals, these still show up in common household products.
The best thing you can do is know what they are and where to look for them; then, you can avoid them.
- Bisphenol A (BPA). Unless you never look at mainstream media, you’ve likely heard about BPA, used in some plastics and resins. Food packaging materials, some plastic bottles, and cash register receipts commonly contain BPA. While more companies are advertising “BPA-free” products, be careful. The substitutes are sometimes just as bad!
- Phthalates. Plasticizer chemicals commonly found in synthetic fragrances, PVC plastic, toys and plastic food wrap.
- PFAS chemicals. This collection of fluorinated compounds includes more than 4,700 chemicals. They’re used in cookware, waterproof clothing, carpet and upholstery coating, and in food packaging. They’re also found in drinking water from the tap. These chemicals are so ubiquitous that the CDC says nearly every American tested has PFAS chemicals in their blood.
- Atrazine. If you eat products containing non-organic corn, or your water system is near corn crops in the US, it’s likely you’ve been exposed to Atrazine due to its widespread use on these crops.
- Flame retardants. These chemicals are used in mattresses, upholstery, insulation, electronics, foam cushions, clothing, even infant car seats. While use of some of the worst has ceased, the replacements aren’t much better. And since they don’t stay put in the product, but end up in the air, even if you avoid touching treated materials, you may be exposed.
- Perchlorate. This potent chemical is a component in rocket fuel that ends up in the drinking water supply of far too many Americans. It also ends up in food, especially dairy products since the chemical accumulates in the milk of cows. It also accumulates in human milk, so breastfeeding mothers should be especially aware of their water source.
10 Natural Ways to Defend Yourself from Endocrine Disruptors
In a perfect world, we’d be able to prevent synthetic chemicals from attacking our endocrine system. But the love of modern conveniences, along with corporate greed, has created a world filled with these chemicals that surround us every single day.
That makes it impossible to avoid exposure altogether, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to limit it as much as possible! Chemical build up in your system is likely to bring you to a breaking point if you don’t address the issue.
The good news is that there are many small steps you can take to protect yourself. These may make life a little less convenient, but the trade off is a healthier, more vibrant, and potentially much longer life!
Choose organic foods
You hear a lot of talk about produce, the chemicals used in growing, and the importance of choosing organic fruits and vegetables to avoid pesticide exposure. The Environmental Working Group puts out a “dirty dozen” list annually to warn against the most contaminated produce. That’s important, but it doesn’t go far enough.
Milk, cheese, meat, poultry, farm-raised fish, and grains can all be contaminated as well, so it’s best to choose organic food whenever possible. Research has shown that eating organic only can decrease the pesticides in your body significantly in just a few days.
Eat fresh foods (not processed or canned)
Food cans are typically lined with BPA or similar chemicals to avoid corrosion. Instead of opening a can of vegetables to add to a casserole, try fresh or frozen instead. Whole foods are far better than processed, and don’t need elaborate packaging either.
Prepare food without the chemicals
Non-stick cookware and utensils are made with PFAS chemicals, so choose stainless or cast iron pots and pans and stainless or wooden utensils. Make popcorn on a stovetop, not in the microwave.
Stop using plastic products
With a little effort, it’s easy enough to stop using plastic for food storage, water bottles, dishes, and toys. For dishes and food storage, glass or stainless steel are great choices. Wooden toys (as long as they don’t have toxic paint) are a great alternative to plastic.
If you must use plastic, at the very least don’t heat it up. That means keeping it out of the microwave and dishwasher. Heat breaks plastics down, allowing food to absorb those harmful chemicals.
Avoid buying products packaged in plastic as much as possible as well. While tap water can be a concern, buying water bottled in plastic isn’t any better!
Read – and understand – labels
Know what to look for in the ingredients list. Don’t be fooled by labels that say “BPA-free.” All that means is that one specific chemical isn’t included.
Look for the words “bisphenol-free” instead. Checking labels extends beyond food; discover what’s in your cleaning products, detergents, clothing and beauty products to help guide your choices. And if you’re in the market for new carpeting or furniture, make sure they haven’t been treated with flame retardants.
Say “No, thank you” to receipts
More and more places are offering a digital receipt option. Take it, if you really need the receipt. If you must have a receipt, and digital isn’t an option, be sure to wash your hands after handling it. Often, taking the receipt is more habit than necessity; an added bonus to declining is less clutter in your pocketbook!
Keep the house – and your hands – clean
Chemicals collect in dust and dirt, so there’s a really good reason to keep things tidy. Invest in a high-quality vacuum cleaner that has a HEPA filter, and dust frequently with a damp cloth. Remember not to undo all your hard work by using harsh chemicals in your cleaning; homemade options from basics like white vinegar and baking soda are just as effective and a lot less dangerous!
Wash your hands frequently, but don’t use chemical-laden soaps. This is particularly important before eating, to avoid transferring pollutants from your hands to your mouth.
Avoid scented candles (and anything else with artificial fragrance)
Scents may invoke pleasant memories or soothe your nerves, but when synthetic they may also wreak havoc on your hormones. Freshen the air by opening windows, try an essential oil in a diffuser, and use fresh flowers, citrus peels, coffee grounds or baking soda to handle undesirable odors.
Choose filtered water – not straight from the tap OR bottled
Contaminated water systems are so common that you should avoid drinking tap water unless a filter is installed. But bottled water isn’t a better option due to the packaging. So what’s the best solution? Invest in a properly installed water filter. If you get a whole house filter system, you won’t absorb the chemicals when you shower or wash your hands either!
Speak up (and vote with your dollars)
The effects of endocrine disruptors are increasingly well known, but the industries that manufacture and sell chemicals and other products continue to thrive. The more we can all push back by choosing to buy non-endocrine disrupting products and by sharing our concerns with others, the more of a difference we can make, not only for ourselves but for future generations.
A healthy endocrine system is key to feeling your best
When you do your best to keep your endocrine system functioning well, hormonal balance is much easier to achieve. Since the world we live in is filled with chemicals that can throw our bodies off course, it’s important to control the things you can, rather than worrying about those you can’t. Knowing what’s in the products you choose, eating with intention, and giving your body an extra boost with high quality supplements will support your endocrine system so you can enjoy the life you live!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD