As with most body systems, the endocrine system is fascinating and it is complex. The endocrine system is one of the body’s communication systems (the other being the nervous system) — it translates messages between the brain and other systems in the body.
One of the biggest takeaways I’ve learned while studying the endocrine system is the impact that certain chemicals have on the body. You may have heard these chemicals referred to as endocrine disruptors. But what does that mean? And how might they impact your life?
A little background on how hormones work
To understand endocrine disruptors, you first need to understand some basics about the endocrine system and how hormones work:
- Hormones are chemical messengers produced by specialized cells in the different glands of the endocrine system (like the pituitary, thyroid, adrenals, female ovaries, and male testes).
- Hormones speed up or slow down our body’s chemical reactions through the messages that they send. There is a feedback mechanism between the various hormones and the glands in the body.
- For example, when the body senses stress, the pituitary gland secretes adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) and the body’s stress response is initiated (more on that in another post!).
- Hormones would not function if there were not specific matching receptor sites on our body’s cells for them to attach to, similar to a key that fits one specific lock. This binding of a hormone to target cell initiates a response from the target cell.
What do endocrine disrupting chemicals do?
The problem with endocrine disruptors is that they mimic the hormone that is produced within the body so that they fit into the receptor site and take the place of the hormone that is trying to send a message in the body. Essentially, they trick the body into thinking that they are the hormone. The hormone mimic (which is exogenous, or coming from outside of the body) blocks the naturally-occurring hormone (which is endogenous, or produced from within the body) from binding to the receptor site. The normal signal then fails to occur and the body fails to respond properly.
How are we exposed?
Endocrine disrupting chemicals are in many common items such as cosmetics, sunscreens, cleaning products, soaps, food (as pesticides), food packaging (plastics), and tap water. They can even be present in things like electronics, furniture (as flame retardants), automobiles, and building materials.
Some remain in the environment for many years and can build up in our bodies. Others do not, but are always in us due to constant exposure. Research shows numerous endocrine disruptors in most people who are tested, including newborns.
What happens when you are exposed?
Research is constantly being performed to better understand the effects of endocrine disruptors, but here’s what we do know: endocrine disruptors can impact:
- The body’s response to stress: they can cause neurological and behavioral changes, and can reduce the body’s ability to handle stress (by impacting the steroid hormone, cortisol)
- Immunity: increased levels of cortisol cause a reduction in the immune system’s inflammatory response which decreases resistance to infection and response to allergens.
- Reproduction: endocrine disruptors can mimic male and female sex hormones, therefore blocking the intended messages from being received and affecting reproductive health
- Metabolism: endocrine disruptors can interfere with thyroid function, which helps to regulate the body’s metabolic processes
What can you do to avoid them?
- Avoid buying and using products that contain known endocrine disruptors: Not sure where they are hiding? Check out the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) guides to cleaning and cosmetics. The EWG is the same organization that puts together the Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen lists of pesticides in produce that I reference in this post about buying organic vs. conventional. Also, the Think Dirty app lets you scan products in stores to get a safety rating and comments on potentially-harmful ingredients.
- Filter your water: The EWG also has a Tap Water Database that allows you to search the chemicals present in your tap water by entering your zip code. You can search the different type of tap water filters, from a countertop pitcher to a whole-house system.
- Support companies that aim to exclude harmful chemicals from their products: For household products, I like Branch Basics, Puracy, and Molly’s Suds. For personal care products, be aware that the last legislation around safe cosmetics was put into place in 1938, well before many of the current-day chemicals were introduced, so the laws that exist around safety aren’t particularly useful. Luckily, there are several brands that DO care. Native is my favorite deodorant (use code HEALTH10 for 10% off), and Beautycounter is a great option for cosmetics, skin care, and even baby items, as they’ve banned more than 1,500 questionable or harmful chemicals from their products (including over 1,400 chemicals banned or restricted in personal care products by the EU, who is ahead of the US in recognizing the need for tighter restrictions on these chemicals).
- Limit your use of plastics: This means plastic water bottles, #3 and #7 plastic food wrap and containers, etc. If you can’t exclude them completely, try to avoid heating food or water in plastic (heat can cause more chemicals to leach out).
- Clean up your diet: Of COURSE I threw this in. But for good reason. Buying organic can limit your intake of endocrine disruptors in the form of pesticides on fruits and vegetables. Check out this post for a discussion of which produce to prioritize buying organic. When it comes to meat, you ideally want the animal to to eat a pesticide-free diet. Why? Because those pesticides and any other toxins ingested by the animal are stored in its fat, and ultimately ingested by you. And finally, avoiding processed and refined foods means that you avoid all of the chemicals and additives that they contain (can you pronounce the ingredients?). Plus, the lack of fiber and added sugar common in these foods can overwhelm your body and disrupt digestion so that circulating hormones are reabsorbed by the body rather than eliminated.
You can’t avoid every single potentially-harmful chemical that your body absorbs, so just try to control those that you can and not stress about the rest.