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All About Endocrine Disruptors

Blue plastic bottles with a shadow on the wall behind them

All About Endocrine Disruptors

There are low-level toxins in many (many!) things we use, eat, touch and breathe — here’s what you need to know to protect yourself.

"Almost every function in the body is dependent on hormone communication, so an interruption can cause a cascade of problems."

What They Are

An endocrine disruptor (ED) is a toxin that may be hazardous to your health even at very low doses. A medium-to-high level of toxic exposure will typically trip the body’s alarm system, sending out signals to remove the toxin ASAP. Exposure at a lower level, however, doesn’t elicit the same response, allowing the toxin to sneak in undetected. One breach isn’t that big a deal, but repeated break-ins can create toxic buildup in your body.

What’s worrisome (and how EDs got their moniker) is the negative impact low-dose EDs can have on the body’s endocrine system, a.k.a. our internal messaging service. The endocrine system works by releasing message-carrying hormones that travel around the body, binding to receptors and transmitting essential information. But when a low-dose ED creeps into the body, it can be mistaken for a hormone. As a result, the toxin binds to a receptor, elbowing out a real hormone and interrupting — and disrupting — proper communication.

RELATED: 5 Signs Your Hormones Are Out of Balance

How They Affect Your Body

Almost every function in the body is dependent on hormone communication, so an interruption can cause a cascade of problems. “There are at least fifty known hormones and they are involved in everything in the body,” says Carol Kwiatkowski, PhD, executive director of TEDX, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, who gave a deep-dive explanation on The Genius Life podcast. “Hormones impact how organs grow, sexual maturation, brain development, bone density, the metabolic system, the immune system and how we handle stress. Even our muscles and skin have hormone receptors in them.” So, when an ED binds to a hormone receptor, it can create a bad game of telephone, causing the final message to come out garbled.

In a child (or fetus), this can negatively impact their development. “When this happens to a developing organism, where the systems are growing so fast, it can wreak havoc, misdirecting and causing the body to be formed under false pretenses,” says Dr. Kwiatkowski. This may result in physical developmental issues at birth. There is also some evidence that EDs may be linked to developmental issues that present later in childhood, such as earlier-than-normal sexual maturation (and menstruation), delayed or abnormal cognitive development (e.g. ADHD and autism), even an increase in fat accumulation (childhood obesity). From the womb through puberty is a critical span for human development, and ED exposure then can have lifelong repercussions.

In an adult, EDs may not affect development, but they can still cause myriad health issues, says Chika Okoli, MD, a functional-medicine doctor at THE WELL. “Low-dose EDs can interfere with our levels of important hormones like estrogen, testosterone and insulin. The disruption can negatively impact our metabolism, immune system and reproductive health. Just a few common complaints include irregular menstruation, migraines, fertility issues, thyroid problems and erectile dysfunction. Chronic, cumulative exposure to low-level toxins can also lead to serious illnesses like cancer.”

Where Exposure Comes From

Here are some of the most common sources of EDs, according to Dr. Okoli and the Endocrine Disruption Exchange—as well as some suggestions for minimizing your exposure.

Plastics

Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are two EDs commonly found in plastic water bottles, plastic food containers, kitchen utensils and even plastic children’s toys.

How to Protect Yourself

Avoid plastic as much as possible (even BPA-free options, as there is research that suggests they may contain other EDs as well). Get a water filter and drink from the tap, use stainless steel beverage bottles, store food in glass, opt for wooden utensils and toys — you get the idea. Also, avoid heating plastic; don’t put items in the microwave or dishwasher, as that can accelerate the leaching of the EDs from the plastic into the liquid or food inside. Finally, if you can’t avoid plastic all the time (e.g. you’ve stopped at a gas station to grab a bottle of water), at least “opt for the hardest plastic bottle you can find,” says Dr. Okoli, “The softer or more flexible the plastic, the more apt it is to leach.”

Pesticides

Glyphosate (an ED found in pesticides such as Roundup) has been shown, after chronic long-term exposure, to cause liver and kidney damage, as well as cancer.

How to Protect Yourself

Eat organic (pesticide-free) produce whenever possible. Also, if and when eating organic is not an option, Dr. Okoli recommends using the Environmental Working Group’s 2021 Dirty Dozen list, a shopper’s guide that can help you avoid the most toxic non-organic produce in a given year. Finally, “glyphosate has been found in processed snack foods, cereals and pasta too,” warns Dr. Okoli, who says that is likely because of the non-organic corn and oat product used in many of these foods.” Add that to the list of reasons to eat whole, fresh foods as often as possible.

Nonstick Cookware

Until 2013, the coating that makes non-stick pans, well, non-sticky contained ED perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), shown to pose a health risk to humans. It has since been replaced with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), but that chemical is still believed to be problematic when heated to high temperatures.

How to Protect Yourself

Switch to cookware made of stainless steel, cast iron, stoneware or ceramic.

Store Receipts

Yep, BPA and another ED, bisphenol S (BPS), can often be found in the coating of a printed store receipt — something most of us touch repeatedly without any thought of toxic exposure.

How to Protect Yourself

Decline the paper receipt and ask that it be emailed to you instead. And if you do accept the paper receipt, store it separately (in an envelope) so it does not contaminate anything else in your purse or wallet. Then wash your hands after touching it!

Fast Food Wrappers

The slick inner lining of paper wrappers often used by fast food restaurants is frequently laced with phthalates. During her chat on The Genius Life, Dr. Kwiatkowski cited a study that showed teenagers who ate fast food on a regular basis had 55 percent more EDs in their system than teenagers who ate most meals at home.

How to Protect Yourself

Try to minimize eating at restaurants that serve their food in these wrappers — that’s really it.

Personal Care Products & Cleaning Supplies

The formulas we use to wash, style and treat our skin and hair — as well as keep our homes clean — can be rife with low-level EDs. Common offenders include: phthalates, triclosan and parabens. Many of these products also often contain artificial fragrance, which can be laced with EDs as well.

How to Protect Yourself

Opt for personal care and household cleaning products that are free of the aforementioned EDs, that are unscented— or that use only natural fragrance. Dr. Okoli says shopping with retailers that specialize in curating a selection of cleaner, non-toxic products can help eliminate some of the guesswork for you. Some to try: THE WELL, Whole Foods, Thrive Market and The Detox Market. Dr. Okoli also likes Branch Basics, a toxin-free cleaner concentrate that can be used to clean almost anything in your home.

RELATED: How Nutrition Impacts Cognition

The Bottom Line

In addition to minimizing ED exposure, “you should also do whatever you can to support your body’s ability to naturally detoxify itself,” says Dr. Okoli. “The easiest, most effective strategy is eating lots of cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. They are natural detoxifiers.” Dr. Okoli also says herbal supplements and teas that contain ingredients such as milk thistle, ginseng, green tea and ginger that support liver functioning can be helpful since the liver’s job is to get rid of toxins. Finally, Dr. Kwiatkowski says getting a good sweat on — either via vigorous exercise or in a sauna — can literally help flush EDs out of the body.

Feel like you need to jumpstart your body’s detox system? Consider booking a Functional Medicine Session or doing THE WELL Cleanse.

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