Our modern world is replete with chemicals and plastics that make our busy lives easier. We may be paying the price for our daily exposure to these conveniences of modern life with our health.
Many common products are made from substances that are referred to as
'endocrine disruptors' because they contain chemicals that can alter our hormones.
An endocrine disruptor is an exogenous substance that, when absorbed by the body, mimics a natural hormone by interfering with or altering the function of the endocrine system, thereby causing damage or adverse effects within the body.
It can affect any bodily function that is powered by hormones. There are two classes of endocrine disrupting substances:
Man made substances, namely chemicals and synthetic hormones. Many chemicals are known to have an influence on the endocrine systems of humans and animals. These chemicals are everywhere, from plastics to cosmetics, clothing to cookware, foods to detergents. They exist in pesticides and as the byproduct of industrial processes.
Synthetically produced hormones, which contrary to popular belief are not identical to those produced in the body, include oral contraceptives, some hormone replacement treatments and animal feed additives.
These substances can have half lives of years and accumulate in the tissues of the body.
Natural hormones such as estrogen, testosterone and progesterone.
These can be found in bio-identical hormone replacement therapy.
Phyto-estrogens are another type of natural substance found in some plants that can exhibit estrogen-like activity. The important thing to remember about this classification is that while they affect the natural function of the endocrine system, they are easily broken down by the body and do not accumulate in body tissues.
In humans, relatively low levels of circulating hormones are necessary to maintain proper body function. Startling amounts of elevated concentrations of man made endocrine disruptors are being found in our tissues.
In its Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, the CDC identified 148 chemicals that we are exposed to in our daily lives that can cause us harm by accumulating in our bodies.
There are three main ways in which endocrine disruptors interfere with the normal functioning of the endocrine system:
- By blocking hormone receptors in cells by binding to them, consequently preventing the action of normal hormones.
- Altering the concentrations of natural hormones by affecting the production, transport, metabolism and excretion of hormones.
- Imitating the action of hormones produced naturally, locking onto a receptor within the cell. A signal stronger than normal may be given, or may occur at the wrong time.
As they have only recently gained attention, the long term effects of endocrine disruptors is unknown but research shows definite human health problems such as thyroid and immune impairment, and reproductive disorders that include cancers, infertility, tissue abnormalities, poor semen quality, and inflammatory diseases³. Physical and reproductive effects of toxic chemicals are well documented in animals, who have exhibited phenomenon such as sex reversal and severe deformities of limbs and organs.
It is obvious that a reduction in exposure to these substances is beneficial to our health. Since they are so ubiquitous, it seems impossible to do. Here are a few tips to try yourself and pass along to others:
- Monitor any symptoms and test hormones (saliva testing of the free-unbound hormone levels) for a baseline, then regularly follow up.
- Educate yourself further on endocrine disruptors and share your knowledge.
- Avoid the use of obvious sources such as pesticides and chemicals.
- Avoid using plastic containers to hold and/or reheat food.
- Buy organic food when possible.