Hormone Masqueraders Crash the Party
Hormone imposters enter our bodies as masqueraders from the toxic world we have created. Few areas of our world have not been touched by the vast array of chemicals produced in factories for mass consumption. That means few humans have escaped the effects that these endocrine disruptors have on our biological function. If they are so widespread and have such an effect, what can and should we do?
First, we must start with a basic understanding of correct hormonal function. Hormones are a critical messenger system in our bodies to coordinate metabolic function. Tissues and organs produce these diverse chemicals before sending their message out to other tissues and organs. Some hormones are proteins. Some are steroids made from cholesterol. Some are modifications of amino acids or other neurotransmitters. The recipients of these chemical messages use receptors to turn the signal into a desired action. Sometimes the hormone stimulates and sometimes it inhibits. Regardless, it modifies the activity of other tissue and organs. For example, the hormone insulin is produced in the pancreas, released into the blood stream in response to rising sugar, and causes the rest of the body to take up glucose into cells for energy production. Too much and the glucose drops too low. Too little and diabetes results from high sugar. There is always a balance.
Then we should look at how this balance may be disrupted. Chemicals in our environment which interact with these hormones and their receptors are called endocrine disruptors for good reason. In one way or another they either inhibit/block or overstimulate the proper hormone’s receptors. The finely tuned metabolic system is tipped one way or the other often leading to symptomatic dysfunction. Too much may lead to cancer, birth defects, or other unwanted symptoms. Too little may also lead to birth defects, unwanted symptoms as well as suboptimal body function. In no case are the disruptions beneficial.
From there we must learn to recognize these chemicals and their effects on our health. Thankfully, a number of individuals and groups took up the cause and today we have many more resources to learn about these dangerous chemicals. The Environmental Working Group provides a website to learn about various foods and products which may include such harmful chemicals. An article in Molecular Endocrinology from 2016 (see citation below) provides an excellent introduction to not only the chemistry of endocrine disruptors, but also the history of their production and regulation.
The list would stretch too long for this introduction if each were noted below. Instead, we can group most into categories for a good start. Plastic ingredients rose to the spotlight years ago with Bisphenol A (BPA). This chemical was initially considered as a estrogen like compound but was later used in the mass production of plastics. Then scientists discovered that BPA leeched out into water and food causing both human and wildlife negative effects. While BPA has been banned, other similar plastic chemicals exert similar effects yet are not restricted from production.
Other categories include industrial chemicals, personal care products, pesticides, and disinfectants. In each case, researchers discovered that low levels of these various substances could interact with hormone receptors resulting in unwanted consequences. Such consequences range from decreased fertility (in actual birth rates and sperm counts) to birth defects, cancer rates, and other diseases. At times, larger scale exposures cause more acute symptoms but the low grade chronic exposures to multitudes cause greater alarm. The other cause for public alarm lies in how these endocrine disruptors may affect the young to a greater degree, producing lifelong effects that are not reversible. Rather than attempt to list each disruptor and its effects, a full list of effects is better left to more specific and technical papers.
Finally, we must take our awareness of the problem and its sources and apply daily habits of choosing to avoid these chemicals. Our choices of personal care products must consider their potential for disrupting our hormonal messengers. Our choices of cleaning products must choose safe options. Our habits of cooking must avoid plastics as much as possible. Beyond our choices as consumers, our public advocacy must hold industry accountable for the chemicals it spreads into our lives.
As always, our healthier more abundant lives require constant diligence in the daily mundane choices for good health. Every time we make a healthy choice over an unhealthy one, we work towards a life of optimal health.