Updated: Feb 12
Hormone imbalance is on the rise. Whether we're experiencing difficulties with our menstrual cycle, peri menopause, menopause, fertility, thyroid function, or male hormone pattens, our hormone secretions and interactions are being altered thanks to the many lifestyle, environmental and dietary factors we choose or are exposed to on a daily basis.
The great news is that many of these factors are modifiable, or even avoidable, meaning there is much that we can do to improve hormone balance without reaching for synthetic hormone medication or other drugs.
Changing our diets, improving our digestive function and managing stress are all areas that can really help hormones flow with ease, but one area that is trickier to navigate is our exposure to environmental toxins and pollutants. These endocrine (hormone) disrupting chemicals interfere with the delicate balance of our hormones from a young age, causing unwanted symptoms physically and emotionally.
For women, a very common expression of hormone imbalance often caused by modifiable diet and lifestyle factors is a shift towards oestrogen levels becoming dominant in relation to progesterone levels. You can read more about oestrogen dominance here, but let's now take a closer look at the endocrine disrupting chemicals many of us are exposed to, and what we can do about it.
What is an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC)?
An EDC is any chemical capable of interfering with the endocrine (hormone) system. Common endocrine disruptors include dioxins, polychlorinated bi-phenyls, pesticides, and plasticizers such as bisphenol-A (BPA) and bisphenol-S (BPS). They cause problems by mimicking natural hormones in the body, such as oestrogen, testosterone and thyroid hormones. This may lead to a hormone deficiency, excess, or cause overstimulation. These EDCs can also block receptor sites, preventing the real hormone from binding and carrying out its important function, or they can alter hormone metabolism in the liver. In all cases, the natural hormone balance has been altered and the body is unable to carry out its normal function or respond appropriately, and this may lead to disorders of hormone imbalance such as PCOS, endometriosis, impaired fertility, thyroid dysfunction and cancer. There is also risk to the developing foetus and post-birth babies regarding organ and neurological system development.
Where are endocrine disrupting chemicals found?
BPA - the starting material for the manufacture of polycarbonate plastics and widely used in water bottles and food containers, as well as the lining inside tin cans. BPA is also present in white dental fillings and forms as a result of the interaction between saliva and dental sealing treatments. Several studies have found it to harm brain and reproductive development in foetuses, babies and children.
BPS - an alternative to BPA thought to leach less readily. Animal studies suggest that BPS impacts hormone health in the same way as BPA.
Phthalates - used in the manufacture of a wide variety of consumer food packaging, children’s products, plastic flooring and medical devices. A particularly hazardous phthalate, di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP), has been found to pose a risk to human development.
Cosmetics and feminine hygiene products
Dioxins – including polychlorinated dibenzo dioxins (PCDDs) and polychlorinated dibenzo furans (PCDFs) found in bleached tampons and sanitary pads. Risks connected with repeated exposure include hormone disruption, cancer, pelvic inflammatory disease and endometriosis.
Parabens – widely used in cosmetic products as a preservative and fragrance. Believed to mimic synthetic oestrogen, capable of altering hormone signaling. Exposure has been linked to reduced fertility in both men and women. Research suggests that when methyl paraben is included in sunscreens, it can react with UVB, leading to skin aging and DNA damage.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) - synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives in cosmetics such as lipsticks and moisturisers. Believed to mimic sex hormones and alter hormone balance.
Phthalates- widely used as a fragrance ingredient in cosmetics. Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is a plasticiser found in nail varnishes. Capable of interfering with fertility and hormone function.
Siloxanes – silicon based compounds used in facial, hair and deodorant products. Classed as endocrine disruptors and found, in large doses in laboratory experiments, to cause uterine tumours and harm the reproductive and hormone systems.
Triclosan – a preservative and antibacterial agent used widely in deodorants and hand washes, as well as laundry detergents and cleaning products. Suspected of interfering with hormone function.
Oxybenzone – a chemical UV filter widely thought to behave like oestrogen in the body. Also found to alter sperm production in animals and linked to endometriosis in women. Other sunscreen filters with similar endocrine disrupting concerns include avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, octinoxate and homosalate.
Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) - found in many laundry detergents and known to alter gene expression and mimic oestrogen. Believed to be responsible for male fish transforming into female fish in waterways around the world.
BPA, triclosan and phthalates, as above.
Home furnishing and kitchenware
Flame retardants - polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are added to sofas and curtains, carpets, cars, mattresses, TV cabinets, wire insulation, personal handheld gadgets, car seats and changing tables. Exposure has been found to disrupt hormone signaling and is linked to fertility problems, thyroid issues, cancer and neurological delays in children.
Perfluorooctanoic (PFOA) – the coating found on most non-stick cookware (as well as stain resistant clothing). A study of more than 4000 individuals found that those with the highest levels of PFOA in their blood were more than twice as likely to suffer with thyroid disease.
Food and water supply
Perchlorate – a powerful thyroid-hormone-disrupting chemical widely used in the defense and pyrotechnics industries. It contaminates soil and water, working its way up the food chain and impacts regular and organic foods alike.
Synthetic and natural oestrogens – found in drinking water and capable of disturbing hormone balance.
Pesticides – there are many pesticides capable of disrupting hormones of all kinds, falling within the categories of insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, rodenticides and nematicides.
Toxic metals - arsenic, lead and mercury in water supplies are capable of interfering with hormones and promoting reproductive problems. Especially damaging to children.
How to minimise exposure
It can be easy to feel overwhelmed when we realised just how many products we may be exposed to every day, and the impact this may be having on our own health, and the health of our loved ones, not to mention the environment. But there are lots of practical ways to reduce exposure, thanks to great toxin-free household and personal care alternatives. It's easy to make the switch - go through your cupboards, get into the habit of reading labels and commit to making changes gradually. Check out your local health food shop, online ethical superstore, or one of the many natural cosmetic and beauty brands and online stores that now exist.
· Avoid storing or wrapping food in plastic – use glass, stainless steel or ceramic containers instead. Beeswax wraps are a great, reusable alternative. Wrap sandwiches in environmentally-friendly paper bags instead of cling film.
· Avoid drinking tap water or mineral water from plastic bottles - choose glass bottles for mineral water, use stainless steel portable water bottles, and filter your drinking water.
· Choose organic food where you can – to avoid exposure to hormones in meat, and pesticides on fresh foods.
· Choose natural, organic feminine hygiene and cosmetic products – many companies make products free from bleach, pesticides, preservatives and other harmful chemicals.
· Switch to eco-cleaning products – to avoid exposure to chemical fragrances, cleaning agents and anti-microbials.
· Choose chemical-free home furnishings – where possible and appropriate, replace toxic mattresses, sofas, fabrics, flooring, paint and kitchen products with greener options.