What Are Endocrine Disruptors?

molecular structure of bisphenol A, a known endocrine disruptor

In recent years, there has been growing concern about the potential health risks associated with exposure to certain chemicals commonly found in our daily lives. A class of potential toxins known as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) has a particularly concerning impact on the female endocrine system. But what are endocrine disruptors? And how can we avoid them? 

The Endocrine System

First, let’s discuss the role of the endocrine system within the body so we can better understand the wide-reaching effect of endocrine disruptors. Broadly, the endocrine system is a network of glands that secrete hormones into your bloodstream. The type and purpose of these hormones vary, but all regulate critical functions within the body. The major endocrine glands found within the human body include:

  1. The pineal gland: located in the brain, this gland secretes melatonin, a hormone needed for sleep regulation.
  1. The pituitary gland: a tiny gland located in the brain, the pituitary gland serves myriad functions. These range from metabolism regulation via TSH to stimulating uterine contraction and mother-child-bonding through oxytocin secretion. Much of the function of the anterior pituitary gland is actually stimulated by another gland, the hypothalamus. 
  1. The pancreas: controls blood sugar levels by secreting glucagon and insulin as-needed into the bloodstream.
  1. Ovaries: these glands secrete estrogen, which triggers the body to develop female secondary sex characteristics, such as breasts. They also secrete progesterone, which prepares the uterus for childbirth and works in tandem with estrogen levels to promote regular menstruation.
  1. Testes: in males, the testes secrete testosterone to signal the body to produce sperm and androgens. Testosterone is also responsible for the development of sexual secondary characteristics, such as body hair and vocal deepening.
  1. Thyroid: thyroid hormones play a vital role in many physiological functions, including metabolism, heartbeat and temperature regulation, and brain development in infants. They are also important in sexual function, libido, and menstruation. 
  1. Adrenal glands: located above the kidneys, the adrenal glands secrete corticosteroids, which regulate blood pressure and metabolic rates. They also secrete adrenaline and norepinephrine-the “stress” hormones associated with the human fight-or-flight response. 

Common Hormone Disruptors and Their Effects on the Endocrine System

As you can see, the endocrine system is responsible for triggering and regulating virtually every physiological function in the human body. It is no surprise, then, that even small disruptions can have profound consequences. Recent research has found that certain chemicals we come in contact with every single day can have a negative affect on our body’s hormones. This is especially true for women, toward whom certain products are specifically marketed. Collectively, these toxins are known as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals, or EDCs.

One of the most common and heavily researched endocrine disruptors is bisphenol A, or BPA. You most likely have seen a label or two with the words “BPA-free.” But what is BPA, and why is something with this label desirable?

What is BPA?

BPA’s primary application has been in plastics. It is a chemical compound: an odorless solid that does not readily dissolve in water. Its use has extended to virtually every industry, from shopping receipts to dental fillings. In 2022 alone, the world produced an estimated 10 million tons of BPA. 

BPA as an Endocrine Disruptor

One of the primary concerns surrounding BPA is that it is a xenoestrogen: it mimics the effects of estrogen in the body. Although it exerts a much weaker effect than estrogen overall, it is important to consider the sheer frequency with which we are exposed to this chemical. A 2015 study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency found traces of BPA in 93 percent of urine samples. 

Estrogen is especially critical in women’s reproductive health. Studies have shown that exposure to BPA, even in small amounts, can cause significant disruption to the female endocrine system. This includes issues with fertility and even tumors. What’s more, BPA has been shown to decrease the efficacy of chemotherapy in treating other types of cancers. 

Other Chemical Endocrine Disruptors

Unfortunately, BPA is only one of literally hundreds of known toxins that have the potential to affect the body’s endocrine system. Many of these toxins are found in personal care products, like shampoos, moisturizers, and cosmetics. Data shows that women between the ages of 18 and 34 are the ones most likely to buy these products. Two of the main endocrine disruptors found in these items are parabens and phthalates. 

Parabens

Parabens are another estrogen-mimicking chemical. They are used as a preservative in many, many beauty products. Often, more than one type of paraben may be used in a single product. The FDA maintains that parabens are safe and quickly excreted by the body, whether absorbed or consumed. But studies support the need for an alternative preservative. A 2018 study, for example, found that parabens negatively affect the thyroid gland. As we learned above, the thyroid is critical in regulating multiple functions within the body, including the menstrual cycle, libido, and other sexual functions.

Phthalates

Phthalates are chemicals used to enhance the durability of plastics. They are often found in the packaging material of personal care products, like soaps and shampoos. The CDC acknowledges that phthalates have been shown to negatively affect the reproductive systems of animals, and that further studies on humans in this regard are warranted. 

Current data show that phthalate exposure can have a profound effect on ovarian function, leading to “full spectrum disorders associated with reproduction,” including premature ovarian failure. These effects can even extend to future generations. 

Reducing Exposure to Endocrine Disruptors

Given the potential risks associated with endocrine disruptors, we recommend implementing some practical lifestyle changes to reduce your exposure. Here are some simple steps you can take in your daily life:

1. Choose BPA-Free Products: Opt for BPA-free plastics or glass containers when storing food and beverages. You may see “BPS” on the label for certain products. This has been touted as a safer alternative, but studies are lacking. We suggest avoiding this, too.

2. Avoid Canned Foods: Reduce your consumption of canned foods, as the linings of cans often contain BPA and other EDCs. 

3. Be Mindful of Receipts: Handle thermal paper receipts with care, as they can also contain BPA. Wash your hands after touching them.

4. Use Alternatives: Explore alternatives to plastic, such as stainless steel or glass water bottles.

5. Check Cosmetics Labels: Only purchase cosmetics that have a comprehensive ingredients label that does not include parabens, phthalates, or BPA. You can also explore ways to make your own cosmetics with botanicals, clays, and other non-toxic ingredients. 

How Do I Know if My Hormones Have Been Affected?

Symptoms of a hormone imbalance are as varied as the functions they carry out within the body. The first and most important step you can take in understanding your body’s hormones is to meet with a functional medicine provider. Functional medicine is a holistic approach with a goal of making meaningful health and lifestyle changes to treat the source of symptoms, not just the symptoms themselves.

Balanced Body Health & Wellness is Omaha’s top functional medicine clinic. We begin with a thorough medical history to discuss your current symptoms and goals to achieve lasting relief. Based on your unique needs, you will have access to a variety of therapies, including bioidentical hormone replacement, supplementation, nutritional advice, and medical weight loss. Please go online today to schedule a free 15 minute consultation to see how we can help you.