Updated: Aug 7
WHAT IS THE ENDOCRINE SYSTEM?
Let’s start with the basics. Your endocrine system is your hormone system - it’s a collection of glands that produce and emit hormones responsible for functions including metabolism, sexual and reproductive functions, mood, sleep and much more!
Here are just a few glands, hormones and their role in the endocrine system:
ENDOCRINE DISRUPTORS & XENOESTROGENS
We hear a lot about endocrine disruptors - they’re everywhere. An endocrine disruptor is anything that disrupts or alters our hormones. Examples include:
Preservatives and food additives such as food colouring
Parabens and phthalates in our soaps, detergents, shampoos, body washes, lotions and cosmetics
Synthetic fragrances in perfume, cologne and soap
Chemicals like BPA and PCBs in plastic containers and cans
Pesticides, heavy metals and dioxins
They can block hormone receptors, or prevent the synthesis and transportation of hormones, preventing the action of that naturally occurring hormone. They can also mimic the action of the naturally occurring hormones.
Xenoestrogens are one of the most prominent endocrine disruptors out there. They are synthetic compounds shaped like estrogen which plug into estrogen receptors resulting in estrogen-like effects.
Xenoestrogens increase the total amount of estrogen resulting in estrogen dominance. It is important to note that this affects both men and women alike. Xenoestrogens build up in our bodies by getting stored in our fat cells.
These chemicals wreak havoc on our bodies and are linked to diseases including:
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
Metabolic diseases like diabetes and obesity
High blood pressure
Kidney and liver diseases
Cancer (particularly breast, prostate, testicular)
Fertility disorders such as endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, abnormal sperm
Birth defects, low birth weights and neurodevelopment disorders like autism and ADHD
Let’s take a deep dive into some of the more common Xenoestrogens that we all come across each day.
Parabens are a commonly used Xenoestrogens in many cosmetics (eg. foundation), soaps (face washes, body washes, shampoos), skin creams (eg. body lotions), sunscreen, and deodorants. They reek all kinds of hormonal havoc and yet we apply them to the largest organ on our body - our skin! All day long they sit in our face when we apply makeup and our bodies when we apply lotion.
Phthalates are another common Xenoestrogen. They are a family of industrial chemicals used in cosmetics and PVC plastic (vinyl shower curtains, car seats, wallpaper, toys, etc.). They have been linked to liver, kidney and lung damage; as well as issues to the reproductive system including sperm abnormalities and low testosterone levels. Studies have also shown prenatal exposure (ie. exposure in the womb, before birth) to phthalates can have adverse impacts on neurodevelopment, communication, attention and hyperactivity.
A cooperative study between the Harvard School of Public Health and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that sick infants in neonatal care units being treated with medical devices made of PVC, such as IV bags and tubing, were exposed to high levels of phthalates (DEHP specifically) and had high levels of this toxic compound in their bodies.
BPA - Bisphenol A
BPA is another industrial chemical still used today in plastics and epoxy resins. You will find it in plastic containers used to store food; bottled beverages such as water or pop bottles; baby bottles; drinking cups (think coffee cups from your favourite coffee shop); cans of food and even the inside or infant formula containers. It is also in containers storing cosmetics, lotions and detergents; toys, dental materials and healthcare equipment.
BPA leaches from the plastic container into food, beverages and whatever else it is housing. Like other Xenoestrogens, it plugs into the estrogen receptors and leading to disorders including female and male infertility, and hormone dependent tumors (primarily breast and prostate cancer).
BHA - Butylated Hydroxyanisole
BHA is a widespread preservative in processed foods. The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption listed BHA as a Category 1 priority for interference with hormone function. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies BHA as a possible human carcinogen.
Long term exposure has shown to be toxic; to promote tumors; and to cause problems in the liver, thyroid, kidneys, lungs and blood. It has also been shown to cause toxicity in aquatic organisms, according to the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic.
SOME SIMPLE LIFESTYLE SHIFTS!
Small lifestyle shifts are easy. When buying soaps and cosmetics, look for labels that say “free from” ingredients like parabens, phthalates and triclosan. Find products that are plant-derived and biodegradable; and always read the back of the label and/or check out the company’s website before buying.
Try switching to glass containers for storing food. Never put plastic in the microwave as the heat breaks it down. Minimize your consumption of canned foods. Use glass refillable water bottles instead of plastic.
Finally, avoid processed foods; avoid foods that come pre-made in boxes, bags or containers. Gravitate towards fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, meat, beans and whole grains. Essentially, avoid the center aisles in the grocery store, as well as items that have long ingredient lists filled with words you can barely pronounce. Keep an eye out for products that have non-GMO icons on them, and/or buy organic whenever possible.
Hormones and the Endocrine System, John Hopkins Medicine https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/hormones-and-the-endocrine-system
Pesticide-Induced Diseases: Endocrine Disruption, Beyond Pesticides
Xenoestrogens - What are they? How to avoid them?, National University of Natural Medicine https://womeninbalance.org/2012/10/26/xenoestrogens-what-are-they-how-to-avoid-them/
Phthalates and DEHP, No-Harm US Canada
Researchers Find High Levels of Phthalates in Infants Receiving Treatment in Neonatal Intensive Care Units That Use Medical Devices Containing Phthalates, Harvard
Health risk of exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA), US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health
The Dirty Dozen: BHA and BHT, David Suzuki Foundation.