The body’s hormone or endocrine system is a complex system of chemical messengers that help organs communicate with one another. This is a delicate system that requires the hormones to remain in the right balance.
But, there are many things in our environment, food, and lifestyle that can disrupt the delicate balance. These are called endocrine disruptors. Although you can’t avoid all endocrine disruptors, you can significantly reduce your exposure to them by making specific lifestyle choices.
What’s the role of the Endocrine System?
The endocrine system, and the hormones that are part of it, have a role in almost every bodily function. The system is made up several glands located all over the body that secrete various hormones. Hormones are messengers, used by organs to send signals to different parts of the body. There are over 50 known hormones in the body that help with processes such as reproduction, metabolism, energy, and utilizing nutrients from food.
Hormones travel from the glands where they are produced, through the blood stream and to a receptor in another area of the body. The hormone acts like a “key” on the receptor, telling the organ to carry out a specific function. For example, when you eat the hormone insulin is released from the pancreas, telling the cells to begin to absorb the nutrients from the food.
The endocrine system is a delicate system that requires the hormones to work together and remain in the right balance. When this does not occur, multiple bodily processes can be negatively impacted. Unfortunately, our modern lives are full of potential endocrine disruptors that could throw the whole system off.
How to Endocrine Disruptors Work?
Environmental chemicals, toxins, and other contaminants can disrupt how the endocrine system functions, leading to multiple health problems. These endocrine disruptors impact the body in a few different ways:
- Imitate the body’s natural hormones, activating processes unintentionally.
- Block the action of other hormones.
- Alter the message being sent by the body’s hormones.
- Disrupt the production of hormones or receptors.
Most endocrine disruptors are found to act like the sex hormones estrogen or androgens in the body, which means many can impact reproductive and developmental functions.
What are Common Endocrine Disruptors?
Endocrine disruptors can be natural or man-made. They are simply substances known to alter the hormones in our bodies that may lead to illness. They are found in many household products, such as cans, plastic, detergents, cleaning products, fire retardants, food, toys, and cosmetics.
A few common endocrine disruptors include:
- Bisphenol A (BPA). A common chemical used in plastic and resins. May have a negative effect on the brain and prostate of infants and children.
- Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP). Used in plastic food packaging and children’s products, may impact normal development and increase the risk of cancer.
- Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT). A banned pesticide in the US, it is still used in many other countries and unfortunately tends to persist in the environment. It may alter reproductive function and increase the risk of certain cancers.
These are substances that act like the hormone estrogen in the body. They may increase the risk of certain types of cancer, alter behavior, and modify the function of other hormones. They can be found in soy-derived foods.
- PCBs are industrial chemicals that were commonly used as a coating for electrical equipment, such as televisions and appliances. They were banned in the United States. But, they are still being released into the environment via landfills and waste dumps.
- Dioxins are produced by plastic manufacturing and processing of other industrial chemicals. It may increase the risk of diabetes and thyroid disease.
- Phthalates. These are chemicals used to soften plastics, making them easier to bend. They are common in food containers and medical supplies. They may cause problems with reproduction and development.
More important than knowing the common endocrine disruptors, you want to know how you can avoid exposure for yourself and your family.
How to Avoid Endocrine Disruptors
Many of the chemicals above are in our environment, so there is little that can be done to reduce our exposure. But, there are many changes that are in your control. Here are a few of my favorite tips to reduce your exposure to endocrine disruptors:
- Use stainless steel or cast iron cookware. Non-stick cookware may contain certain endocrine disruptors that breakdown over time and can enter the body.
- Reduce your use of plastic. Swap water bottles, food containers, and other plastic products for stainless steel, glass, or high grade silicone.
- Avoid fake fragrances. Limit air fresheners, scented dryer sheets, and synthetic personal fragrances. All of these products may contain phthalates. Look for natural ways to fragrance your home with essential oils or other natural products.
- Choose personal care products carefully. Many cosmetics contain harmful endocrine disrupting ingredients such as parabens. Look for products with clean labels and a recognizable ingredient list.
- Filter your water. City water may contain endocrine disrupting chemicals, but in order to remove them you will need to know which ones. Contact your city to ask for a report so you can purchase the correct filter.
- Wash your hands regularly. Simply washing your hands with regular soap, without fragrance, can help remove chemical residues.
- Dust and vacuum often. Endocrine disrupting flame retardants can collect in household dust, so it’s important to remove it. Purchase a vacuum with a HEPA filter to remove these particles.
- Avoid canned food. Cans used for food are lined with BPA or other similar chemicals that have not been proven to be safe. Choose fresh, dried, or frozen options instead.
- Choose organic foods. Although organic foods are not pesticide-free, they can help limit your exposure to hormone disrupting pesticides. If you are concerned about the cost, consider at least avoiding the conventional versions of those on the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list.
Before you purchase cosmetic or home cleaning products, consider checking out a few resources to see how your products rate in terms of safety. For example, the EWG has a large database for cosmetics called the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. When looking for cleaning products, look for the Safer Choice Label that indicates safety for human health. It may take a bit of planning ahead, but you can reduce your exposure to endocrine disruptors in your home and environment.