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What Are Endocrine Disruptors? How to Identify and Ditch Them

You’re working out, eating plenty of leafy greens and the recommended rainbow of fruits and veggies, and doing everything right to live your best and healthiest life. But an emerging field of research is finding that there are things in your daily environment that may be undoing all of that hard work.

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, can be hiding in your beauty and cleaning products, your cookware, and even the fresh produce you get from the store. These potentially toxic chemicals do exactly what their name suggests: they enter our bodies and interfere with our hormones, the messenger molecules like estrogen and serotonin charged with keeping our biological processes (think your monthly cycle) and internal networks (like your metabolism and sleep cycle) operating seamlessly.   

Because EDCs were only identified in the 1990s, they still exist in many of the products we love and use every day, especially in the U.S. which has less regulation of these chemicals than the E.U. Yet research increasingly shows that they can have potentially serious ramifications on many aspects of our health, from fertility and hormonal balance to the development of diabetes and cancer.

What are Endocrine Disruptors and Where are they Found?

Not all chemicals are harmful; some, like water, pose no threat to human health and are even beneficial and necessary. But that is not the case with those now being classified as “endocrine disruptors.” This group includes both chemicals that naturally occur in certain plants and those that are manmade, but they all have the same effect: the potential to interfere with the normal functioning of your hormones.

“There are nearly 85,000 man-made chemicals in the world, many of which people come into contact with every day. Only about one percent of them have been studied for safety. However, 1,000 or more of these chemicals may be EDCs based on their probable endocrine-interfering properties,” says Dr. Barry Witt.

The most common synthetic chemical offenders are found in pesticides, plastics (by way of the chemical bisphenol A, or BPA), and beauty products (thanks to two types of chemicals: phthalates and parabens). They can show up in the food you eat, the cookware you use, and the products you put on your face, as well as in everyday objects like receipts and plastic bags.

On the naturally occurring side, the main endocrine disruptor is a category called phytoestrogens, which are most commonly found in soy products like tofu and soy milk. This natural chemical is considered a possible EDC as it mimics estrogen and can be mistaken for the real hormone by the body. Many still consider soy a healthy food, and more research is needed to determine how disruptive it is and whether it has the same effects in all people. A current line of research is also exploring whether phytoestrogens can have a beneficial effect in raising estrogen levels in post-menopausal women, though research in this area also remains inconclusive.

Research into EDCs is a rapidly growing field of study and we are learning more about these chemicals – what they are, how they affect us, and where they might be hiding – every day.

How do EDCs Affect Your Health?

There are several different ways in which EDCs can disrupt our inner ecosystems. “Some chemicals mimic natural hormones,” Witt says. “Other endocrine disruptors block the effects of a hormone, and others directly stimulate or inhibit the endocrine system and cause overproduction or underproduction of hormones.”

EDCs can affect various organ systems throughout our bodies and disrupt the normal functioning of a variety of biological processes. But one of the most well-researched aspects is their negative impact on reproduction. “Fertility is dependent on a normally function[ing] endocrine system. The reproductive process is very sensitive to disruptions,” Witt explains. This is why EDC education is so important and why many doctors, particularly those working in fertility, are beginning to discuss these chemicals with their patients.

Several different EDCs interact with reproduction. Phthalates, for example, are often used in synthetic fragrance and can be found in many beauty products and cosmetics under that generic ingredient name. (They can be present in everything from shampoos and lotions to perfume.) When these chemicals enter your body, they latch on to hormone receptors and interfere with the production of your sex hormones, primarily testosterone, which can lead to decreased egg quality, increased infertility, and a disruption to your menstrual cycle.

BPA is another EDC that can affect fertility. It is what’s known as a xenoestrogen, or a synthetic chemical that mimics the look of estrogen. When you ingest BPA particles, primarily through the use of plastic, your body mistakes this chemical as estrogen, which can affect the proper production and functioning of the real hormone. Exposure to BPA has been shown to reduce the quality and viability of eggs, interfere with the egg maturation process, and it may be linked to PCOS and miscarriage. It can also affect other functions ranging from the thyroid to your immune system. 

Each EDC has a particular way in which it interacts with hormonal function and its own set of potential health effects. While that may seem overwhelming at first, when it comes to EDCs, the saying is true: knowledge is power. While your interaction with these chemicals over a single day may not seem like a big deal, continuous exposure can compound the effects they may have on your health. So, it’s worth trying to limit your contact with them, especially when there are some easy tweaks you can make to reduce the EDC’s present in your daily life.

How Can You Minimize Your Exposure to EDCs?

The good news is awareness of EDCs is spreading and more research continues to be published every day. While Witt points out that “it is still important for consumers to be educated to recognize where these chemicals are used and to limit their exposure,” more regulations are being placed on EDCs and more companies are actively promoting products that do not contain endocrine disruptors.

He recommends the following lifestyle modification to minimize your contact with EDCs.

  1. Wash your hands frequently. Cleaning your hands before eating can help remove any chemical residue you might have picked up throughout the day and can minimize your risk of ingesting EDCs.

  2. Eat more organic foods. Because of the prevalence of pesticide use in farming, eating organic, pesticide-free food can limit your exposure.

  3. Choose paraben-free beauty products. When it comes to beauty products ranging from your hair care to your cosmetics, choose brands that have dumped the parabens in favor of clean formulas.

  4. Ditch the fragrance. Choosing fragrance-free creams, cleansers, and detergents as much as possible can help you avoid phthalates that are often found in fragrance.

  5. Reduce plastic use. Swap plastic food containers that may contain phthalates and BPA with glass or stainless steel. While BPA-free plastic is better than the regular version, studies have shown that even those products have the potential to interfere with hormone health.

  6. Avoid canned foods. Some cans also contain BPAs, which helps keep them from corroding. Sticking to fresh or frozen foods can minimize your contact with this chemical.

  7. Vacuum and dust furniture and electronics. EDCs that exist on objects can sometimes leave the objects and enter the air. Keeping furniture and electronics dusted can minimize the EDCs floating around in your home.

Barring massive legislative changes or a move to a remote island, completely avoiding exposure to these chemicals is nearly impossible. And that’s ok. It’s more important to minimize your overall contact with these chemicals rather than stressing over any single episode of exposure. Begin to take the steps necessary to kick EDCs out of your home and your life and help your hormones maintain the balance and harmony they need to keep your body working at peak performance.

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