Every day, we are surrounded by hundreds or thousands of chemicals. They are in our food, drinking water, consumer products, furniture, medicines and even the air we breathe.
Many of the chemicals we use are essential to life. Such as the water we drink is a chemical. The oxygen we breathe is a chemical. Many like these are necessary but are not harmful.
However, next to the long list of safe chemicals is also a list of toxic substances. When browsing the beauty, haircare or supermarket aisles, you may see more products described as 'BPA-free, “paraben-free” or “phthalate-free.”
These three (of hundreds) can hurt our environment and health, interfering with how our body’s hormones function. These are called hormone-disrupting chemicals or endocrine disruptors.
Our endocrine system plays an essential role in our bodies. It produces hormones that regulate stress, fertility, growth, blood sugar and much more. When these are thrown off balance, it can cause many problems.
“Our quality of life is tied to our endocrine system,” said Mahmoud Alsayed, MD, an endocrinologist with Banner Health in Phoenix, AZ. “Hormones affect everything from our well-being, growth, puberty, mood, and energy levels to reproductive health. At the same time, everything around us can affect our hormones. Certain hormones increase in our blood under stress while others decrease. Stress can be physical, emotional, or chemical. Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC's) are chemicals that mimic or interfere with our hormones and can give rise to negative health effects.”
While these chemicals may affect anyone, they could be most harmful to women and children. Read on to learn more about endocrine disruptors, their potential health effects and how to avoid them.
The role of our endocrine system
Your endocrine system is made up of glands in your body, including the hypothalamus, pituitary, thyroid and testes. These glands send hormones into your bloodstream that tell cells and organs what to do.
“Your hormones are like your body’s communications system,” Dr. Alsayed said. “They take messages from one part of the body to another part to do something important. Sometimes those messages are perfectly timed but not completely understood, like puberty. We are still learning how puberty is triggered. It is a complex process and can be affected by numerous factors. Environmental factors can disturb it which might lead to early or late puberty.”
Hormones work slowly, over time, and affect many different processes, including:
- Growth and development (puberty)
- Hunger and weight control
- Metabolism and energy levels
- Sex hormones (testosterone, progesterone and estrogen)
- Breastfeeding and childbirth
- Blood pressure and heart rate
- Fertility (producing eggs and sperm)
- Sleep cycles
How do endocrine disruptors affect our hormones?
“Because hormones communicate with each other in our bodies, even a slight change or disturbance can throw off the total balance,” Dr. Alsayed said. “Things like stress, autoimmune diseases and genetics can affect endocrine balance, but ongoing research shows endocrine disruptors may also be to blame.”
When our body absorbs these chemicals, they can confuse the regulating hormones into thinking there is too much or too little of that hormone. They can also block hormones from doing their jobs. Because these substances can act out in various ways, they may contribute to a wide range of health problems over time.
“Some studies have linked exposure to endocrine disruptors to hormone-related cancers, heart problems and issues with fetal development,” Dr. Alsayed said. “In women, specifically, it can possibly lead to hormonal imbalances, ovulation problems and sleep issues. However, it may be hard to prove direct associations.”
Studying the effects of endocrine disruptors on humans has been challenging. Most of the current research is based on animal studies rather than humans. Plus, people are exposed to many chemicals at once, so isolating the effects of one chemical or another is challenging. More studies are needed to better under the risk to humans.
Where are endocrine disruptors found?
Endocrine disruptors are human-made or occur naturally. There are a lot out there, but the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) indicated these are the most common:
- Bisphenol A (BPA): This chemical has been used to make plastics, like water bottles and food storage containers, and can leak into food and drink.
- Dioxins: These pollutants are formed as unwanted byproducts from the incomplete burning of household and industrial waste. They can also be produced during the bleaching of paper pulp and from pesticides.
- Parabens: These are found primarily in beauty and personal care products like shampoos, conditioners and cosmetics (makeup).
- PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances): These are used in nonstick pots and pans.
- Phthalates: These are used to make plastics flexible. They are found in personal care products, cosmetics, detergents, adhesives, children’s toys, and more.
- Phytoestrogens: These are found in plants that have hormone-like activity, such as tofu or soy milk.
- Triclosan: This chemical is found in some anti-microbial and personal care products, like soap and hand sanitizer.
Steps to avoid hormone-disrupting chemicals at home
It is not possible to altogether avoid endocrine disruptors, but there are steps you can take to cut down on your exposure.
- Buy organic fruits and vegetables when you can.
- Don’t use single-use water bottles.
- Look for products that say “phthalate-free,” “paraben-free,” or “BPA-free.”
- Avoid perfumed beauty and wellness products. Instead, check for “fragrance-free” products.
- Drink filtered water.
- Avoid microwaving plastics.
- Use non-plastic cookware.
- Move away from plastic children’s toys.
- Choose silicone nipples for baby bottles.
- Reduce chemicals in the home by vacuuming often and wiping away dust.
- Choose natural cleaning products.
The endocrine system is our body’s sensitive communication messaging system responsible for releasing hormones. As a result, the tiniest changes can significantly affect our health.
Endocrine disruptors, or hormone-disrupting chemicals, can mess with our natural hormones, causing many problems. Unfortunately, these chemicals can be found everywhere, but there are things you can do to reduce your exposure.
Have questions or concerns about your hormones?
Schedule an appointment with an endocrinologist.