Like many of you, my wellness journey began with food—learning about nutrition, cooking, juicing and so on. I knew that what I put in my body mattered to my long term health and survivorship. But not long after that, I also learned that personal care products, plastics, household cleaners, packaging and so on really mattered, too. The choices we make in these areas and more can really impact the state of our delicate inner eco systems. That’s when my research expanded beyond food, and I discovered that some of the biggest offenders were a group of chemicals called endocrine disruptors.
So, what’s safe to eat? To drink? To lather up with in the shower or pull out of my makeup bag while getting ready for a night on the town? And, what exactly are endocrine disruptors?
In the past, I’ve covered topics like pesticides in our food, toxic chemicals in household cleaners and body burden. But today, I want to talk more specifically about endocrine disruptors. What are they? Where are they? And, how can you reduce your exposure? We’ll cover all of these questions and most importantly, help you understand how you can avoid them (for the most part) without driving yourself crazy. So, let’s start with the basics.
What are endocrine disruptors?
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can mess with our bodies’ endocrine systems. Some are natural and some are synthetic. Regardless, when absorbed through our skin, breathed in or ingested through our food or drink, they essentially mimic hormones in our bodies and can make our natural hormones act wacky. Sometimes, endocrine disruptors cause our natural hormones to go into overdrive and other times, they dial down their functionality. They can even cause new hormonal reactions to happen. We’ll talk more about the health implications of this in a moment.
In addition, these chemicals aren’t broken down quickly in the environment. That’s why they’re used in products and food production in the first place. Companies add these chemicals to the things you buy in the store to extend their shelf lives. Unfortunately, endocrine disruptors also take a long time to break down in the body, meaning that your body has a difficult time getting rid of them—giving them more opportunity to wreak havoc.
So what does that mean for our health?
Endocrine disruptors can have a negative impact on many functions of the body, but they’re most harmful to the thyroid, sex hormones and reproductive system. More specifically, endocrine disruptors can mess with puberty—causing it to occur earlier in girls and later than normal in boys (study).
Boys exposed to endocrine disruptors in the womb or as young infants may also develop genital abnormalities, including hypospadias (a congenital defect in boys in which the urinary opening is on the underside of the penis), undescended testes and smaller penises. These consequences can lead to infertility and other reproductive issues, upset immune function and mental health, decrease responsiveness to vaccines, increase cancer risk and even impair sensory development in children.
Where do you find endocrine disruptors?
Basically, everywhere. They’re in our food, the packaging it often comes in, beauty products, household cleaners, water, soil and even in the dust that gather on our bookshelves. But just because they’re all around, doesn’t mean we have to wear hazmat suits or go off the grid. Let’s review the most common endocrine disruptors and where they’re most prevalent.
- Atrazine: An herbicide used to control weeds and grass. Found in drinking water.
- Bisphenol A (BPA): A chemical used to harden plastics. Found in plastic bottles, the inside lining of some canned foods, medical devices, dental sealants and in the water, dust and air.
- Dioxins: A family of toxic chemicals. Found in the environment as a byproduct of industrial processing; mainly in fish, seafood, meats, eggs and cheese.
- Flame Retardants: A group of chemicals added to many manufactured items. Found in fabrics, plastics, surface coatings, furniture and baby products.
- Parabens: A preservative. Found in personal care products, such as deodorants and lotions to stop bacterial growth.
- Perchlorate: An industrial chemical. Used in rocket propellant, fireworks and road flares, and can end up in drinking water.
- Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs): A family of chemicals. Found in food packaging and non-stick cookware.
- Pesticides: Substances used to destroy insects and other harmful organisms. Used in farming and food production.
- Phthalates: Chemicals widely used in production. Found in plastics, scented beauty products and household cleaners—and also many other everyday items, including nail polish, carpeting and even your car’s steering wheel.
- Zeranol: A naturally occurring mycoestrogen (estrogen made by fungi). Used as a growth promoter in the meat industry, which has been banned in the European Union.
- Others include: Arsenic, DDT, glycol ethers, lead, mercury, PCBs (banned in 1980, but still present in the food supply), polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) and phytoestrogens (naturally occurring plant estrogens found in greatest quantities in soybeans and flax seeds, although these have also been shown to lower breast cancer risk).
How can you decrease your exposure to endocrine disruptors?
Despite emerging research that endocrine disruptors may be linked to various health problems, they are still used in manufacturing and food production. Even the ones that have been banned exist in our soil and water today.
So while it’s impossible to avoid endocrine disruptors completely, there are simple things you can do to greatly limit your exposure. Pregnant and nursing moms, as well as parents of small children, should pay extra attention because these are the stages of life when little humans are extra vulnerable.
9 Simple Ways to Avoid Endocrine Disruptors
- Choose fresh, unpackaged foods and BPA-free cans. This will greatly reduce your exposure to BPA, phthalates, PFCs and other endocrine disruptors that come into play in food processing and packaging.
- Cook with stainless steel, cast iron, titanium or ceramic pans rather than non-stick. Not only are these pans free of PFCs, but they often last longer and give you better tasting foods.
- Make sure you get enough iodine in your diet. Iodine can reduce effects of perchlorate and keep your thyroid gland healthy. The recommended intake is 150 micrograms daily, and 1/2 teaspoon of iodized salt has about 200 micrograms. If you don’t eat sea vegetables on a regular basis, I’d recommend using iodized sea salt for cooking. And, your doc can order a simple blood test if you’re curious about your levels.
- Buy organic produce when possible, following Environmental Working Group’s guidelines. This will help limit your exposure to endocrine-disrupting pesticides and herbicides. Follow EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list found here to guide you in which produce items are more important for buying organic.
- Filter your water and consider using a reverse osmosis filter. Filtering your water with an activated carbon filter, such as Brita or Pur, will reduce arsenic, atrazine, lead and the presence of other endocrine disrupting metals. If you can go the extra step and invest in a reverse osmosis filter, you will reduce perchlorate content, as well.
- Vacuum your house with a HEPA filter. Since so many endocrine disruptors are found in dust, a HEPA filter on your vacuum cleaner can help reduce dusty toxins in your home. Keeping your home clean and tidy on a regular basis will also help your air stay cleaner and healthier.
- Buy fewer plastics in general. BPA and other endocrine disruptors can leach out of any kind of plastic, including children’s toys, plastic wrap and all the various plastic recyclables, especially #3, #6 and #7 in the United States. Don’t forget that your skin is an organ, so holding, touching and using plastics will increase your exposure to the various endocrine disruptors. Try to store food in glass containers and buy wooden and cloth toys for kids.
- Choose fragrance-free and paraben-free cosmetics, beauty products, household cleaners and soaps. This will reduce your exposure to phthalates, parabens and other endocrine disruptors. Products naturally scented with lavender, lemon, orange or tea tree oil are likely to be endocrine disruptor-free, but double check that the fragrances are from pure oils.
- Eat fewer animal products. Since environmental chemicals and toxins, such as dioxins, lead and mercury, often end up in greatest concentrations in meat, fish, seafood and other animal products, limiting these foods in your diet (even organic ones) will greatly reduce your intake of endocrine disruptors. Plus, choosing plant proteins (even whole soy foods, which are rich in phytoestrogens) over meats will help you to limit your intake of zeranol, which is given to animals to boost their growth and production.