You probably know that estrogen is the “female” hormone that makes things like puberty and pregnancy possible, but did you know all humans—both male and female—need estrogen? It helps regulate bone health, metabolism and cholesterol.
In addition to the estrogen both male and female bodies produce naturally, we are also exposed to environmental estrogens. Many chemicals we come into contact with in our environment or food supply are known as xenoestrogens — “xeno” meaning foreign. Although they are chemically different than the estrogen we naturally produce, our bodies tend to react to them similarly. Therefore, depending on exposure levels, we can suffer the effects of excess estrogen.
So where are all these xenoestrogens lurking? Sadly, everywhere. First, take a look at the most common non-food sources of xenoestrogens, and ask yourself how many of them you have in your home right now.
- Parabens. Often found in shampoos, lotions, soaps, cosmetics and other healthcare items, parabens are used as preservatives. Because parabens usually come into direct contact with our skin, they do not get detoxified by the liver, meaning this exposure is one of the most potent.
- Phthalates. Used in the manufacture of soft plastics, including cling wrap and disposable food containers. Phthalates make plastic more flexible and harder to break, and are often called plasticizers. They can also be found in detergents, plastic raincoats, inflatable toys and plastic packaging.
- BPA. Yes, BPA (bisphenol A) is still abundant in consumer goods, most notably in plastic water bottles, plastic food storage containers and the lining of metal cans. Exposure to heat (the sun, microwave or dishwasher) increases the amount of BPA that will leach out into your food.
- PCB. Polychlorinated biphenyls are a mixture of individual chemicals. They were used as lubricants and coolants in electrical equipment, but were banned in 1977 because of their harmful side effects. However, they are still found in the environment as they do not break down easily. Humans are often exposed through the seafood we eat.
- Weed killers. Popular herbicide atrazine has been shown to turn male frogs female — and at extremely low levels (far lower than those recommended as safe by the EPA). It is the most common pesticide found contaminating U.S. drinking water. It is banned in the EU.
Aside from the BPA in your plastic water bottle or the parabens in your lipstick, there are many sources of estrogen in our food. In addition to xenoestrogens, which are manmade, some foods naturally produce their own estrogen. These are known as phytoestrogens. Here are the biggest food sources of unwanted estrogen:
- Commercially raised meat and dairy. Many animals (including dairy cows) are injected with growth hormones to speed growth and increase size. These hormones can be in everything from our burgers to the milk in our coffee or even the yogurt our kids eat.
- Insecticides. Our most significant exposure to insecticides is probably through food and its residue can be on everything from our fruits and vegetables to nuts, beans and grain.
- Tap water. It’s full of all sorts of contaminants, including run-off from manufacturing plants that use products containing xenoestrogens. While water utilities filter out a lot of those harmful particles, there is a large body of evidence supporting the likelihood that there is estrogen in your drinking water.
- Soy. Soy sauce, tofu, edamame and tempeh all contain isoflavones, a weak form of estrogen, but studies on its overall impact in the human body have provided mixed results. Some studies show soy to decrease your body’s natural production of estrogen and increase the rate of estrogen degradation.
Now that you know the sources, let’s talk about the effects. Just how bad is all this excess estrogen lurking in our food, our water and our plastic cups? Xenoestrogens are known as endocrine disruptors, which means they interfere with hormone biosynthesis and metabolism. This can have adverse effects on developmental, reproductive, neurological and immunological systems in humans and animals.
One of the biggest concerns with endocrine disruptors is that exposure to a fetus or infant can have lifelong damaging consequences. This can include everything from stunted fetal growth, improper development of the male reproductive tract, impaired neurological development, and even obesity. It has also been shown to encourage early onset, or “precocious,” puberty in both boys and girls as young as age seven. Research shows there may be a relationship between precocious puberty and the amount of xenoestrogen children are exposed to.
Adult women can suffer a host of reproductive problems from endocrine disruptors, including uterine fibroid tumors, endometriosis, fibrocystic breasts, weight gain, hair loss, and trouble sleeping. Men have been known to suffer issues with fertility (specifically, low sperm count), gynecomastia (“man boobs”) and erectile dysfunction. There is also some research that suggests endocrine disruptors may play a role in increased incidence of breast, prostate and testicular cancer.
While the large incidence of endocrine disruptors in our everyday environment is alarming, there are some common-sense steps that can greatly limit your exposure to xenoestrogens. Make sure you check out our next blog post to learn what you can do to protect the health of you and your family.