Discover how everyday chemicals can disrupt your endocrine system and learn how to avoid them to stay healthy.
The modern world is full of toxic compounds. Nearly everything from the fish we eat to the water we drink is affected by modernity. Microplastics have made their way into the most remote parts of the ocean. Crops are sprayed with man-made pesticides to keep pests away. And, in some places, pollution is thick enough to cloud the air.
Many of these modern-day chemicals are known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals. They affect your endocrine system—an important bank of internal glands and hormones that help maintain processes like appetite, libido, sleep, metabolic functioning, and mood.
Let’s take a look at the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) “dirty dozen” endocrine disruptors so you can be on the lookout for them as you protect yourself and your body’s terrain.
Below, you’ll learn more about the endocrine system and why endocrine disruptors pose significant risk to your health and wellness.
What Is the Endocrine System and Why Is It Important?
The endocrine system controls and regulates complex activities in the body by secreting hormones into the bloodstream. Hormones are messengers that bring information to cells and help maintain whole-body balance or homeostasis.
When you think of hormones, you might think about a bad outbreak of acne when you were a teenager. Or a fit of sadness your own teenager went through last week. But hormones play an important role in maintaining your health.
Hormones regulate everything from your reproductive processes to your metabolic functions.
They’re produced by a collection of glands throughout your body. The major endocrine gland include your:
- Pituitary gland,
- Pineal gland,
- Adrenal glands,
- Pancreas, and
- Gonads (testicles and ovaries)
Each gland is responsible for producing different hormones. For example, the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland located in your neck, is responsible for producing hormones that regulate metabolism and other important functions. The pancreas, on the other hand, is responsible for secreting insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream to regulate blood sugar levels.
The endocrine system and its hormone messengers have a say in nearly every important internal process. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to which chemicals are disrupting your endocrine system.
What Are Endocrine Disruptors?
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are chemicals that interfere with your hormone processes. EDCs can be natural or manmade, and they’re abundantly found in things you interact with everyday such as food, cosmetics, and plastic water bottles.
EDCs can throw off your endocrine system in a number of ways. Mainly, they:
- Mimic hormones,
- Block hormones,
- Interfere with hormone production, and/or
- Modify the body’s sensitivity to hormones.
Endocrine disruptors can play many tricks on the body. They have a hand in increasing production or certain hormones, decreasing the production of others, imitating hormones themselves, turning one hormone into another, binding with hormones, and interfering with hormone signalling.
Let’s take a deeper look at 12 of the top endocrine-disrupting chemicals and discover how to avoid them so you can keep your endocrine system in good working order.
Endocrine Disruptor #1: BPA
BPA is a chemical that’s added to many commercial products. It was first discovered in the 1950s, though chemists didn’t realize it’s true versatility until the 1980s. Now, it’s commonly mixed with other chemical compounds to make strong plastics. It’s important to remember, though, that not all plastics contain BPA.
BPA is found in plastic baby bottles and epoxy resins which are used as inner linings in canned foods to ensure the metal can doesn’t corrode.
BPA can trick the body into thinking it’s estrogen, an important sex hormone. It has been linked to the proliferation of breast cancer cells and is often associated with obesity, heart disease, and early puberty onset.
How to avoid BPA: When possible, eat fresh foods rather than canned foods. Containers can be lined with BPA, though many companies are moving toward BPA-free packaging. Also, when possible, avoid plastics with recycling label #7, since many of these plastics contain BPA (though not all).
Dioxins are environmental pollutants. They’re produced most often as a result of industrial activities. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), they have a highly toxic potential, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been hard at work trying to reduce the amount of dioxins let off into the environment.
Once dioxins enter the body, they’re absorbed and stored in fat tissue. Disturbingly, they have a half-life estimated to be 7 to 11 years. This means they stick around for a long time.
Dioxins disrupt the delicate ways that both male and female sex hormones communicate in the body. They have been linked to a number of diseases and disorders, such as lower sperm count in men and low psychomotor scores in babies in utero.
How to avoid dioxins: Dioxins contaminate much of the American food supply. Factory-produced meat, fish, milk, eggs, and butter are most likely to be contaminated, so you can cut down on your exposure by eating plenty of vegetables and organic products.
Atrazine is an herbicide product widely used on corn crops. It’s sometimes called the most popular herbicide used in the United States. Consequently, it’s also a contaminant of drinking water.
Researchers have found that exposure to atrazine can have a profound effect on sex hormone production. It can turn male frogs into females that produce viable eggs. It’s also been scientifically linked to breast tumors and prostate inflammation in animals.
How to avoid atrazine: Atrazine is extremely common in the agricultural industry. To limit your exposure, buy organic produce whenever possible and be sure to invest in a robust water filter.
Phthalates are used as plasticizers in PVC plastics. Since phthalates are not chemically bound to PVC, they often leach into food and air. Humans are typically exposed through direct contact and general environmental contamination. We ingest, inhale, and come into contact with phthalates over the course of our entire lifetime, including during intrauterine development.
Research has shown that phthalates can prematurely signal testicular cells to die. Though it’s normal for cells to die off in the body, premature cell death isn’t typical. Studies have also tied phthalates to significant hormone changes, lower sperm count, and thyroid irregularities.
How to avoid phthalates: Avoid plastic food containers and plastic wrap made from PVC (which has the recycling label #3). Cosmetic products also popularly contain phthalates, so be sure to buy cosmetics from a company that promotes phthalate-free personal care products. My personal favorite natural skincare brand is Annmarie.
Perchlorate is a chemical compound that is both natural and man-made. It is a component in rocket fuel, explosives, fireworks, and road flares. Ironically, it also contaminates much of our produce and milk, according to EWG and government testing data.
When perchlorate enters the body, it interferes with iodine uptake—an important nutrient that promotes healthy function of the thyroid gland. If you ingest too much perchlorate, you can alter your thyroid hormone balance, ultimately affecting your metabolism and brain and organ development in infants and children.
How to avoid perchlorate: Buying a water filter is a good way to reduce your ingestion of perchlorate in your water source. Also, ensuring you have adequate intake of iodine in your diet may mitigate the effects of perchlorate on your thyroid.
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are flame retardants found in consumer products. They are so widespread that they’re used in everything from TVs to mattresses.
In recent years, PBDEs have generated concern because of their widespread distribution in the environment and their potential to bioaccumulate in humans and wildlife.
These chemicals can imitate thyroid hormones in your body and alter thyroid functions. They’ve been linked to hyperthyroidism and lower IQ.
How to avoid flame retardants: You can avoid exposure to flame retardants by wearing an industrial mask when you replace old carpet. Often, the padding underneath carpets contains PBDEs. You might also consider using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter, which can cut down on toxic-laden house dust.
You probably already know how dangerous lead is, but it’s worth reiterating here. Lead (Pb) is toxic to a variety of internal organs and has been linked to many health defects such as brain damage, lower IQ, hearing loss, miscarriage, increased blood pressure, kidney damage, and nervous system impairment.
Namely, lead disrupts the hormone signaling that regulates your body’s major stress system (also called the HPA axis). When lead affects your body’s ability to deal with stress, you’re more susceptible to immune function impairment, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression.
How to avoid lead: Lead is found prevalently in old paint. Particles are easily inhaled through crumbling old paint, so wear a mask if you’re doing home renovation.
Arsenic (As) is something you might associate with a murder mystery or your favorite true-crime TV series. But arsenic is a toxin sometimes found in food and drinking water. Of course, if you ingest enough arsenic, it can be fatal. But many people unknowingly ingest small doses that lead to widespread, chronic health problems.
Arsenic is a hormone disruptor. Specifically, it interferes with hormone functioning in the glucocorticoid system that regulates sugar and carbohydrate metabolic processes. Disruption in the glucocorticoid system has been linked to weight fluctuations, immunosuppression, insulin resistance, and osteoporosis.
Arsenic exposure has also been linked to increased risk for skin, lung, and bladder cancers.
How to avoid arsenic: A trusted water filter can reduce your exposure to arsenic in drinking water. Also, since arsenic can be found in contaminated soil, washing and peeling vegetables is a good idea.
Mercury (Hg) is a naturally occurring, though toxic, metal. It is most often let into the air by burning coal. It can also be found in contaminated seafood.
Pregnant women are at high risk for the toxic effects of mercury, since mercury has been known to concentrate in the fetal brain and can affect brain development.
Mercury is known have adverse effects on the adrenal glands, as well as the thyroid, hypothalamus, and pituitary gland.
How to avoid mercury: Eat sustainable, low-mercury seafood. Wild salmon and farmed trout are good choices since they contain lots of healthy fats without the risk of mercury contamination. Higher mercury fish include king mackerel, shark, and swordfish.
Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) include a variety of man-made chemicals used across many industries since the 1940s. They’re used to make non-stick cookware and are also found in certain textiles, leather, water-resistant apparel, rubber, and plastics.
People can be exposed to these chemicals through food, which is contaminated through soil, water, food packing, and processing equipment. PFCs are notorious for being resistant to biodegradation, meaning they easily build up in humans and the environment.
Researchers are still hard at work determining the widespread biological effects of PFCs, but it is thought that they namely affect thyroid and sex hormone levels in the body. PFOA in particular has been linked to decreased sperm quality, low birth weight, kidney disease, thyroid disease, and cancers.
How to avoid PFCs: Opt for pans without the non-stick coating. A well-seasoned cast iron pot is a wonderful replacement. Also, beware of water-resistant coatings on clothing, furniture, and carpets.
Organophosphate pesticides were developed to target the nervous systems of insects that disrupt agricultural practices and crop maintenance.
Many studies have linked organophosphate exposure to brain development and reproductive defects, though they are still widely used today. Namely, organophosphates affect the way testosterone, a male sex hormone, communicates with cells in the body. It has been shown to alter thyroid hormone levels.
How to avoid organophosphate pesticides: Buying organic produce will help limit your exposure to all pesticides, including organophosphate pesticides.
Glycol ethers are man-made chemicals used since the 1960s as solvents and stabilizers in a wide variety of personal, household, and industrial products. They’re used in degreasers, adhesives, cleaners, dyes, inks, water-based paints, lacquers, perfumes, and cosmetics.
Some studies have linked exposure to certain glycol ethers to blood abnormalities and spontaneous abortion. Research is also discovering that aerosol ether products may be linked to asthma and allergies.
How to avoid glycol ethers: Since glycol ethers are so prevalent, it’s hard to avoid them completely. The safest way to avoid exposure is to avoid products with ingredients such as 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME). When possible, opt for natural cleaning products.
Buy organic and natural products to mitigate your risks of endocrine disruptors
All in all, endocrine disruptors are everywhere in the modern world. They’re in our conventional food practices, furniture, cookware, and cosmetics. They’re in our air and our soil.
It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the ubiquity of EDCs. But you do have the power to make safe, smart, healthy choices in your everyday actions.
To limit exposure and protect your body, buy products from ethically driven and environmentally conscious brands that have your best interest at heart. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Buy organic food products from Thrive Markets
- Buy safe skincare products from Annmarie
- Buy water filters from Berkey
- Buy air purifier from Air Doctor
- Buy an organic mattress from Plush Beds
To learn more about toxins and see what other steps you can take to limit your toxic burden, click here.