by Millie Ruth Lytle, ND, CNS, MPH, is a naturopathic doctor and works as part of the Live Well / Stay Well Program at Tournesol Wellness
We live in a toxic world. All around us there are thousands of FDA-approved chemicals in the air we breathe, the food and water we consume, the products we apply, and the surfaces we touch. Natural and synthetic chemicals enter our bodies through our organs of elimination; skin, lungs, and digestive systems1. Contaminants in our food, food containers, personal care items, and household cleaning products have been linked to disease outbreaks, cancer, birth defects, and brain impairments.2,3 Some of these chemicals were approved prior to fully understanding their safety levels. What we face now, as citizens, is an accumulation of toxic chemicals in our water, food, and air supply that are difficult to avoid and have the potential to cause health problems. As these chemicals accumulate in our environment, they also accumulate in our bodies.
There is a particular classification of synthetic and naturally occurring chemicals known as xenoestrogens that mimic natural estrogens found in our body. These estrogens are persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. That they are persistent means they don’t degrade, instead remaining for generations in our environment, food supply, and in fat cells. These pollutants remain in storage sites in estrogen sensitive organs like the breasts, prostate, as well as in our fat cells. The presence of these xenoestrogens can cause metabolic changes in the body.3 They have also been classified as endocrine disruptors because they disrupt the body’s natural hormone system including estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, insulin, cortisol, and appetite control.3 Xenoestrogens are part of a large group of endocrine disruptors because of their capacity to disturb normal hormonal actions. Some endocrine disruptors may contribute to the development of hormone-dependent cancers.4
Xenoestrogens, or foreign estrogens that the body does not make, increase the size of our fat cells, promoting obesity in exposed people.4 A literature review identifying connections between exposures to these Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and type 2 diabetes was found, proving the “obesogen” theory that these chemicals make us fat and may lead to chronic disease. The review also identified support for the “developmental obesogen” hypothesis, which suggests that chemical exposures in utero may increase the risk of obesity in childhood and later in life by altering fat cells and the hormones that regulate appetite and eating behaviors. When pregnant women are exposed to POPs, including cigarette smoke, their children are more likely to get diabetes type 2 and obesity, particularly when they consume a diet high in calories, carbohydrates, or high-fat diet later in life.5
Despite the fact that ingestion is a major source of exposure to these known reproductive and developmental toxins, thousands of chemicals have still been approved for use in the food supply, including hormone disrupting chemicals like BPA and phthalates found in the commonly consumed plastics:
What plastics are you eating?
Lining of tin cans
Ziploc food storage
Frozen dinner trays
Take out containers
Plastic forks, spoons, and knives
Styrofoam and plastic cups
What adds to the concern are recent studies that show residues on food may be an important route by which kids are exposed to harmful hormone disruptors e.g. pesticides, phenols, phthalates, BPA, phytoestrogens, genistein, dietary fat, and ionizing radiation. Exposure before and during puberty might set the stage for pre-pubertal overweight, obesity as well as increased breast cancer risk in adulthood.6 Studies have shown that the risk for breast cancer among those with an earlier age of menstrual onset is up to twice as high when contrasted with girls with later age of first period (menarche).6 An increased duration of hormone exposure over a lifetime promotes the development of breast cancer.6 Obesity during childhood may be associated with increased risk of obesity later in life as well as pre- and post-menopausal breast cancer.6 Obesity represents a collection of physical attributes that include Body Mass Index (BMI) and waist and hip circumference. New York University Women’s Health Study and the EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) Study found that obesity markers such as BMI, waist, and hip circumference were associated with increased breast cancer risk.6
The good news is… you can get rid of them, at least to some extent. Try to do it before you nurse your babies since women pass our toxic load onto the next generation. But keep in mind, even breast milk with these contaminants has been shown more beneficial than any brand of infant formula.
Health Tips to Reduce the Accumulation of Harmful Xenoestrogens:
Maintain a healthy weight: Prevent higher exposures to endocrine disruptors by never becoming overweight. Once overweight, it can be difficult to rid the body of these stored chemicals, making weight loss more difficult as well.
Go chemical free: You can’t control the whole environment but you can avoid cigarette smoke in the home and purchase natural cosmetics and cleaning supplies that reduce your household exposure to harmful endocrine disruptors.
Eat organic, non-GMO foods: By selecting organic food when possible you reduce your overall load of chemicals added to the food supply such as pesticides and synthetic hormones. Avoid the “Dirty Dozen” fruits and vegetables that absorb the most pesticide. Each year this changes. According to the Environmental Working Group, the 2015 list is apples, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas, and potatoes. “Each of these foods tested positive for a number of different pesticide residues and showed higher concentrations of pesticides than other produce items”. A single grape sample and a sweet bell pepper sample each contained 15 pesticides. Dont’ forget to check out the “Clean 15″ to see which fruits and veggies are better than others. Genetically Modified cash crops such as soy, corn, sugar, canola, Hawaiian papaya and, cotton seed produce their own endocrine-disrupting pesticides that cannot be washed off and get sprayed more heavily than conventional crops. Choose organic versions of these foods unless you think Round Up is somehow a good food option. Go for free range, pasture-fed, transition, or organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products have not been fed GMO crops, or injected with synthetic hormones.
Detox: Help the body get rid of harmful xenoestrogens by consuming foods with nutrients that eliminate harmful extrogen metabolites. Flax seeds, sprouts, and cabbage family vegetables; broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, cabbage, kale, bok choy.
Elimination: Prioritize daily bowel movements, as these hormones can be packaged up in fiber and eliminated from our stool. Fruits, veggies, whole grains, lemon water, and a diet low in animal products improve size and ease of bowel movements.
1. Environmental Protection Agency website retrieved March 1 2015 athttp://www.epa.gov/heasd/chemicalsafety.html
2. Natural Resources Defence Council website retrieved March 1 2015 athttp://www.nrdc.org/health/fda/
3. Thayer KA, Heindel JA, Bucher JR, Gallo Role of Environmental Chemicals in Diabetes and Obesity: A National Toxicology Program Workshop Review. Environ Health Perspect. 2012 Jun; 120(6): 779–789.
4. Sonnenschein C and Soto AM. An updated review of environmental estrogen and androgen mimics and antagonists. The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology 1998 April;65( 1–6: 143–150.
5. Thayer KA,Heindel JJ, Bucher JR, Gallo MA. Role of environmental chemicals in diabetes and obesity: a National Toxicology Program workshop review. Environ Health Perspect. 2012 Jun;120(6):779-89.
6. Hiatt RA,Haslam SZ and Osuch . on Behalf of the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers. The Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers: Transdisciplinary Research on the Role of the Environment in Breast Cancer Etiology Environ Health Perspect. 2009 Dec; 117(12): 1814–1822.