Sometime in my early twenties, I began to notice that many of the women around me were experiencing reproductive disease in some form: endometriosis, cervical dysplasia, ovarian cysts, infertility, uterine fibroids, breast cancer etc. It didn’t seem to me that the evolutionary process would select for such faulty equipment, especially given the healthy lifestyles and organic whole foods diets enjoyed by many of these women. So when I first heard about xenoestrogens, or environmental estrogens, something really clicked for me; this was a possible explanation of why the rate of
female reproductive disease is so high in most industrialized nations.
Hormone disruptors, or endocrine disruptors, are human-made chemicals in the environment that interfere with the development and function of body systems in animals, including humans. Xenoestrogens are a subclass of endocrine disruptors. The endocrine system is the body’s messenger service, integrating all other systems through hormones, which deliver the actual messages. Hormones regulate metabolism, sexual development and reproduction, mental processes, growth and maintenance and prenatal development.
Hormone disruptors interfere with the healthy functioning of the endocrine system by binding to hormone receptor sites, thus producing a number of unnatural responses. They may mimic the natural hormones in our bodies, such as estrogens. This is how xenoestrogens increase the body’s estrogenic load. They may also block our natural hormones, such as androgens (male hormones), thyroid hormones and progesterone. Finally, they can alter the way in which natural hormones are produced, eliminated, or metabolized.
So what does this all mean to our bodies?
Higher rates of reproductive system cancers: breast, prostate, and testicular cancers. The rate of breast cancer has been rising consistently over the last fifty years, paralleling the rise of our industrialization, and widespread use of chemicals.
Rising infertility: In the United States, one couple out of six currently has trouble conceiving. Many studies have shown that sperm counts (sperm concentration in semen) have decreased by almost fifty percent in the last fifty years!
Increasing incidence of female health problems such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and menstrual and breast disorders. Some estimates show that as many as fifty percent of all women in the United States have uterine fibroids, benign tumors in the smooth muscle layer of the uterus. More than 500,000 hysterectomies are performed in the United States every year, and uterine fibroids are the number one cause for these surgeries. Fibroids are driven by estrogenic compounds—natural or environmental. Many commonly occurring pesticides and environmental chemicals have demonstrated estrogenic action such as cell proliferation. Researchers in India found that DDT levels in the blood of women with uterine fibroids was three times higher than in women without fibroids.
What are these chemicals and how do they enter our bodies?
Since the 1940s, approximately 87,000 synthetic new chemicals have been produced in the United States alone. Only between 1.5 and three percent of synthetic chemicals have been tested for their cancer-causing properties, and even fewer have been tested for hormone disrupting properties.
These human-made chemicals are the building blocks or byproducts of pesticides, fuels, detergents, plastics, and many everyday household objects. They can be found anywhere from cheese and the plastic wrap that it is sold in to children’s toys and teething rings. Some common examples are dioxins (created when plastic is manufactured and burned), PCBs (previously used as electrical insulator, adhesive, and lubricant), and DDT (banned from use in this country but still manufactured domestically and sold abroad). These chemicals do not observe political boundaries and travel freely through air and water currents. For example, DDT sprayed in Peru to control mosquito populations can end up in the breast milk of an Aleutian mother five years later.
Environmental chemicals enter our body through the food we ingest, the water we drink and bathe in, and the air we breathe. They evade our body’s natural internal “checks and balances” and may persist in the body for decades or even a lifetime. Whether you live in remote Alaska or Calcutta, India, your fat cells are harboring a dozen to 500 chemicals in measurable quantities. On every continent and in every body of water, hormone-disrupting chemicals are found in the air, soil, water, plants, and in the bodies of animals, including humans.
Of particular concern is the process of bio-magnification. As hormone disruptors move up the food chain, they become more concentrated. A herring gull eating a diet of trout from the Great Lakes stores a chemical in its tissue that is 25 million times more magnified than it was in the plankton where the chemical first entered the food chain. This process is often illustrated with the wolf as the predator on the top of the food chain. But in reality, it is the wolf pups that the mother nurses who are higher on the food chain.
Mammals, including humans, pass on the majority of their lifetime stores of fat-soluble chemicals when they nurse their first-born. Human infants are exposed to a higher concentration of fat-soluble chemicals, such as PCBs and DDT, during breast-feeding than at any other time of their lives. In the United States and Europe a six-month old baby is fed five times the allowable daily levels of PCBs set by international health standards for a 150-pound adult. They will also have already received via breast milk the maximum recommended lifetime supply of dioxin.
This said, breast milk is still vastly superior to formula in its nutritional, immunological, and developmental capacities. As a breast-feeding mother and breast-feeding advocate, I believe every mother considering breast-feeding should be empowered with this information so we can work towards a healthier planet and healthier babies.
How can we reduce our exposure to these chemicals?
1. Go Organic! Growing your own organic food and supporting local organic farmers affects not only your health, but also the integrity and future of the entire planet. Eating organic whole foods is the number one way to avoid endocrine disruptors.
Ninety percent of our exposure to PCBs and dioxins comes from the food we ingest, especially conventionally grown (non-organic) meat and dairy products and processed foods. Non-organic meat and dairy products contain the highest levels of environmental contaminants for a number of reasons. Conventional animals are fed the most heavily sprayed crops and often contain rendered fat laced with melted plastics. In addition, they are often given synthetic growth enhancers such as BGH (Bovine Growth Hormone), which has been implicated in the increased risk of breast cancer. Finally, toxins such as pesticides and pharmaceutical residues concentrate and persist in fat cells. According to the EPA, 90–95 percent of pesticide residues are ingested through conventionally-produced meat and dairy products.
2. Purify the water you drink and bathe in.
3. Avoid letting plastic touch your food and water. Bisphenol A (BPA), a component of plastic, is one of the top fifty chemicals currently being produced. According to laboratory studies it exerts an estrogenic effect in the human body. BPA can be found in invisible linings of metal food cans, in dental composite fillings, and in polycarbonate plastic containers used for some types of baby bottles, and the hard, clear water containers sold in stores to refill purified water. It is also used in the manufacturing of water bottles used in sports or camping. Instead use glass or stainless steel water and food containers. Avoid using cling-wrap next to food and don’t microwave food in plastic containers.
4. Live simply for the health of all beings. The plastic toy you buy for a child may have created dioxins during its manufacturing process, and contains phthalates, a group of common plasticizers, which are known endocrine disruptors. Buy used and natural items instead, and practice being contented with what you already have. Avoid dry-cleaning clothing and don’t use synthetic body-care and housecleaning products.
How can we remove endocrine disruptors from our bodies?
We can limit our exposure to environmental contaminants, but we cannot completely avoid them. Minimizing toxins stored in the body is beneficial for all people, but especially important for the woman considering pregnancy and breast-feeding. Detoxification is an intense and rewarding process, but should not be undertaken during pregnancy or nursing as toxins being flushed from fat cells may enter the bloodstream and reach the fetus or breast milk. Remember that your body is sacred and amazingly powerful at protecting itself from foreign substances with which it has not evolved. Visualize fasting and cleansing as augmenting the light and beauty you already possess!