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.