Harmful chemicals are all around us, from the air we breathe to the household products we use each day. Emerging research has shown that certain chemicals, known as endocrine disruptors, may negatively affect our health and put us at increased risk of developing a number of health conditions, including type 2 diabetes and cancer. (12)(32) In this article, we’ll discuss some of the most prolific endocrine disruptors, their common sources, and important health implications.

What is the endocrine system?

The endocrine system is a complex bodily system consisting of numerous endocrine glands, hormones produced by these glands, and receptors that help organs and tissues respond to circulating hormones. (22) The endocrine organs include the pituitary gland, thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, thymus, adrenal glands, pancreas, ovaries, and testes. (22)

The endocrine system’s primary responsibility is to regulate numerous bodily functions, including blood sugar control, growth and development, and energy production, as well as to balance hormone levels, helping to maintain homeostasis. (22)

What are endocrine disruptors?

Endocrine disruptors are naturally-occurring or man-made chemicals that can mimic the effects of hormones in the body, such as estrogen, androgens, and thyroid hormones. Endocrine disruptors interfere with the delicate hormone balance regulated by the endocrine system. These harmful chemicals can bind to hormone receptors, preventing hormones from properly binding to the receptors and eliciting the desired response. (5) Some research has indicated that even small doses of endocrine disruptors may be unsafe and have detrimental effects on our health, particularly our reproductive and metabolic health. (12)(21)

Types and sources of endocrine disruptors

There are approximately 1,000 known endocrine-disrupting chemicals. (8) These chemicals are found in numerous products, including food and beverages, personal care products, polluted air, and contaminated water. Exposure can occur through ingestion, inhalation, or skin contact. The table below outlines some of the common endocrine disruptors and their sources.

Graph showing endocrine disrupting materials

Endocrine disruptors are prevalent in many household items, foods, and other materials.

Did you know? BPA has been found in urine samples of approximately 90% of the population in North America. (26)

Adverse health effects of endocrine disruptors

Since humans are exposed to numerous endocrine disruptors every day, it can be challenging to determine the health implications of a single chemical. Consequently, much of the research available today is conducted on animal subjects. Current research indicates that exposure to endocrine disruptors can negatively affect hormonal health and promote certain cancers, and may be linked to some endocrine disorders. (32)

Male and female reproductive health

Endocrine disruptors have been shown to negatively affect male fertility and semen quality. (26) PCB and phthalate exposure have also been linked to lower sperm count and impaired sperm motility. (14) One study found that men exposed to environmental dioxins near a municipal waste incinerator had more abnormal sperm and poorer sperm motility. (11) Another study identified an association between organophosphate exposure and decreased semen volume as well as increased semen pH. (2)(14)

Furthermore, endocrine disruptors have been shown to impair female reproductive function, potentially resulting in infertility, subfertility, irregular hormone production, menstrual cycle irregularities, and early menopause. (25) Numerous studies have discovered a link between BPA and female infertility. It’s believed that BPA impairs normal function of the uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes. (37) One study of 700 couples trying to conceive determined that preconception urinary concentrations of BPA in female urine were associated with increased odds of infertility and decreased probability of conceiving within one menstrual cycle, known as fecundability. These effects were more common in women over the age of 30. (35) Additionally, both human and animal studies have identified an association between PCB exposure and subfertility, uterine fibroids, and diminished fecundability. (6)(28)

Organophosphate-based pesticides and herbicides are commonly sprayed on conventionally grown produce. Minimize exposure by choosing organic produce.

Thyroid function

Several endocrine disruptors negatively affect thyroid health, including PFCs, perchlorate, and organophosphates. Some animal studies indicate that PFCs may disrupt normal thyroid hormone balance. (7) The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) has concluded that high serum PFOA and PFOS, two types of PFCs, are associated with an increased incidence of thyroid disease among adults in the United States. (19)

Some research suggests that organophosphate pesticide exposure may disrupt thyroid function by increasing thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and thyroxine (T4) serum levels, as well as decreasing triiodothyronine (T3) serum levels. (15) Further research has shown that environmental perchlorate exposure inhibits iodine uptake by the thyroid, thus decreasing thyroid hormone production. (16)

Obesity and type 2 diabetes

A meta-analysis of 16 studies identified a positive correlation between high urinary and serum concentrations of BPA and the risk of type 2 diabetes. (12) By mimicking the effects of estrogen, BPA binds to estrogen receptors and may disrupt the pancreatic islets of Langherans, which are necessary for normal glucose metabolism. BPA may also alter glucose homeostasis and increase the risk of inflammation, oxidative stress, obesity, and insulin resistance. (12)

Additionally, phthalates are a cause for concern due to their association with an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, a collection of risk factors for type 2 diabetes that include excess fat around the midsection, high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. Phthalates have also been shown to contribute to insulin resistance and obesity by modulating hormones and inflammatory pathways. (13)

Certain cancers

Numerous endocrine disruptors have been identified as carcinogenic. (32) A meta-analysis of 31 studies identified an association between higher serum levels of dioxins and cancer incidence and mortality, especially non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, lung cancer, and soft-tissue sarcoma. (36) Human studies have also found that pesticide and PCB exposure may increase the risk of prostate cancer. (24) Exposure to cadmium, a type of heavy metal that behaves as an estrogen and androgen agonist, has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and postmenopausal endometrial cancer. (1)(17)

Many personal care products, such as cosmetics and lotions, are sources of endocrine disruptors. Choose products that are formulated without harmful chemicals.

How to minimize your exposure

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are becoming increasingly prevalent in our environment and the products we use every day. However, there are actionable steps you can take to reduce your exposure and reduce the adverse effects of these chemicals, including:

  • Choosing organic produce when possible
  • Drinking filtered water when possible
  • Opting for fresh foods instead of canned or microwavable meals
  • Selecting personal care and cleaning products that are free of harmful chemicals
  • Storing food and beverages in glass containers instead of plastic (9)

Visit the Fullscript blog for more tips on how to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals.

The bottom line

Endocrine disruptors are found in many parts of our lives, including water, food, air, and many household products. Exposure to these chemicals may have adverse health effects and contribute to certain health conditions. The best way to minimize your risk is to identify their most common sources and avoid using products that may increase your exposure. If you are a patient, consider consulting with an integrative healthcare provider for guidance on how to avoid endocrine disruptors.

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