We live in a toxic world these days. It seems as though chemicals are everywhere and can't be escaped! They are found in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. Chemicals are so rampant in our environment, and it doesn't look like that will be stopping any time soon. The 20th century saw chemical production and use triple from about 50 million tons in 1970 to about 150 million tons in 1995, and those numbers have only increased since then.
Why is this concerning? There is a specific category of chemicals that have been shown to interfere with our endocrine system, which is our hormonal system. These chemicals are known as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs). It is estimated that there are approximately 1000 chemicals that fall into the EDC category due to their interference with hormones.
While our ancestors relied on the natural world, each generation increasingly relies on manufactured products containing many chemicals for everyday living. In fact, current generations are exposed to EDCs every day, starting in the womb. While the placenta does an incredible job overall at protecting the fetus in the womb from toxic substances, it seems as though many of these EDCs are making their way into the bloodstream of the fetus. According to an analysis of the umbilical cords of 10 babies, over 200 chemicals were found.
So if we know that we are constantly interacting with chemicals that are affecting our hormones, we need to be consistently and actively reducing our exposures as much as possible and using functional medicine to help our bodies triumph over this assault.
How Chemicals Are Affecting Our Hormones
EDCs have been shown to interact with our hormones in three different ways:
- They can either increase or decrease certain hormone levels.
- They can mimic our hormones, which our body will interpret as an increase.
- They can alter the natural production of hormones.
Because hormones communicate with each other in our bodies, even a slight disturbance can throw off the total balance. This is a more direct way of how chemicals are affecting our hormones. However, if we look at how our body processes chemicals, we can see that there is an indirect effect as well.
It is essential to understand our bodies' processing to clear these disruptors. If our body struggles to remove these EDCs, we are likely to begin to see the effects in our hormones and symptoms.
Biotransformation is the metabolic process responsible for processing and clearing exogenous chemicals and toxins and endogenous substances such as our hormones. This process is also referred to as liver detoxification.
The process of biotransformation mainly occurs in the liver, where special enzymes assist in transforming these chemicals and compounds into active forms, inactive forms, or even more toxic forms. There are three phases of biotransformation, and each phase has its own pathways that must be functioning appropriately and efficiently for the proper excretion of chemicals and waste products.
Phase I mainly utilizes the process of oxidation with the help of the enzyme cytochrome P450, although reduction and hydrolysis are also occurring. At the end of phase I, many of the products are still active and even more toxic than the original substance.
Phase II takes the byproducts from Phase I and makes them inactive and water-soluble to be ready for excretion from the body. This phase utilizes methylation, glucuronidation, acetylation, sulfation, and conjugation to get this job done.
Phase III is finally where the byproducts get excreted via the organs of elimination. The colon, kidneys, skin, lungs, and lymph are all considered organs of elimination because these organs are responsible for the excretion of waste products out of our bodies. As an essential role in this overall biotransformation, making sure that each organ of elimination functions optimally is equally as important as liver health.
What if this biotransformation pathway is suboptimal? When too many chemicals/toxins are in our bodies, biotransformation in the liver can get overburdened, and the whole pathway may not be able to keep up with the high workload. When this happens, the chemicals cannot leave the body and can recirculate, causing systemic inflammation and disrupting our hormones.
Hormonal Imbalance Symptoms
Because our hormones are the major communicators in our body, they affect every body system, including our metabolism, mental health, and reproductive systems. Specific symptoms that might be experienced with a hormonal imbalance are:
Metabolism Symptoms of Hormone Imbalance
- Fatigue or feelings of energy depletion
- Bowel movement changes such as constipation and or diarrhea
- Noticeable changes in the heartbeat
- Heartbeat feels slower or,
- Heartbeat feels more rapid than usual
- Dry and coarse skin
- Thin, warm, and moist skin
- Darkened skin on the back, sides of the neck, or in the armpit (acanthosis nigricans)
- Skin tags
- Acne on the face, upper back, or chest
- Changes in hair
- Dry and coarse hair or,
- Hair loss
- Increased thirst and frequent urination
- Unexpected and unexplained weight gain or weight loss or irregular body fat distribution
- Intolerance to heat or cold temperatures
- Numbness and tingling in hands or feet
- Mental Health symptoms such as depression or anxiety
Female Specific Symptoms of Hormonal Imbalance
- Noticeable changes in the menstrual period
- Heavy periods
- Irregular periods
- Changes in vaginal health
- Vaginal dryness
- Vaginal atrophy
- Hirsutism (excess body hair)
- Hot flashes
- Loss of interest in sex
Male Specific Symptoms of Hormonal Imbalance
- Erectile dysfunction (ED)
- Decrease or loss of body hair
- Enlarged breast tissue (Gynecomastia)
- Loss of interest in sex
- Loss of muscle mass
What Products Contains Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
While there are about 1000 known chemicals that are in the EDC category, below are the most common chemicals and where they are found:
- Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical used to make certain plastics. It is found in many plastic products, such as food storage containers and plastic water bottles.
- Dioxins are chemicals used in paper bleaching and are also the byproduct of herbicide production. They enter our environment most commonly during waste burning and wildfires.
- Perchlorates are chemicals typically found in drinking water and fireworks. It's a byproduct of rocket fuels, the weapon industry, and the pharmaceutical industry.
- Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are a group of chemicals used in various everyday products such as non-stick pans, paper, and clothing/textiles. It is also found in firefighting foams.
- Phthalates are chemicals that are used to make plastics more flexible. They are commonly found in everyday products such as cosmetics and other personal care products, children's toys, food packaging, and some medical devices.
- Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) are chemicals that are commonly used to make flame retardants and other household products such as furniture foam and carpets.
- Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are chemicals used in industrial applications such as plasticizers in paints, pigments, dyes, plastics, and rubber products. They are also found in electrical equipment like transformers, hydraulic fluids, heat transfer fluids, and lubricants.
- Triclosan is a chemical commonly found in personal care products, specifically body wash, and certain antimicrobial products, such as hand sanitizers.
Functional Medicine Labs to Test for Chemicals and Toxins
Functional Medicine labs commonly look for toxins via urine and hair samples and can easily be done in the office or sent home with the patient. There are also a few laboratories that use blood markers.
There are many great functional medicine lab options for analyzing environmental toxins. Both urine and hair tests can provide information on what types of chemical exposures have occurred.
Specifically, an Organic Acids Test might be a good starting point. These tests are a type of urine test that can help screen for many different environmental pollutants by looking at various metabolites in the urine. The CDC also explains that various toxic heavy metals can be taken up by the hair, and therefore, the presence of some of these metals in the hair may correlate with recent exposures.
A different yet still practical approach to testing is looking at a blood test for delayed hypersensitivity to various environmental toxins. This is different from just looking for exposures. A delayed hypersensitivity measures how your immune system is reacting to the exposure. This test would be beneficial if unexplained symptoms are being experienced.
Pairing the two types of tests together would be valuable to look for an overall evaluation of the chemical exposures and a well-rounded look into how these chemicals are affecting the body.
Functional Medicine Labs to Test for Hormone Imbalance
In standard medical practice, hormones are typically measured via serum (blood). This is the gold standard. While blood will show very accurate results, the most significant limitation of this type of lab is that it is a snapshot of what your hormones look like at the time of the draw. For hormones that fluctuate either throughout the day (i.e., cortisol) or throughout the month (i.e., estrogen and progesterone in premenopausal women), it would require multiple blood draws to gather enough information.
The Comprehensive Hormone Profile by Doctor's Data is a saliva test that will give great baseline results for both men and women. It measures the sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone), which are all important to measure regardless of sex or gender. It measures cortisol throughout the day with four separate saliva collections. Saliva is particularly useful for testing the active/bioactive portion of hormones and can give us a better idea of the hormone levels at the tissue level rather than what is circulating in the bloodstream. It is also important to note that saliva is the most accurate way to measure bio-identical hormone replacement therapy and topical hormone therapy. This test is a wonderful option if hormonal imbalance symptoms are present.
The DUTCH Complete by Precision Analytical (DUTCH) is another possible tool for assessing hormone imbalance. This is a dried urine test, which extensively measures the sex and adrenal hormones and their metabolites. Just as there are benefits to measuring hormones in the saliva, there are also benefits to measuring hormones via the urine. Urine testing is the best way to analyze the metabolites of the hormones. This is beneficial to know because not only will we see the levels of hormones present but actually how our bodies are breaking them down, using them, and excreting them.
The Thyroid Panel by Vibrant America is an in-depth look at thyroid hormones and overall thyroid health. It is essential to look at the thyroid whenever hormone imbalance symptoms are present since the thyroid communicates with all other hormones. If thyroid levels are off, it can disrupt the communication pathways of the other hormones and cause symptoms.
Other Lab Tests to Check
Because hormones must be processed and detoxified by the liver, it may be beneficial to run a liver panel to check the health status of the liver. Similarly, checking GI health and kidney function is valuable for understanding how efficiently the metabolites of the hormones are being excreted out of the body.
Functional Medicine Treatment for Hormone Imbalance Due to Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
When treating hormone imbalances created from endocrine-disrupting chemicals, it is best to address our biotransformation/detoxification pathways and support them. By doing so, we will assist our bodies in excreting these chemicals via the routes that it already prefers.
By revisiting the organs of elimination, we know that we will want to specifically support the colon, kidneys, skin, lungs, and lymph to excrete the byproducts effectively. Once these organs are optimized, we can move to full liver support.
By eating a well-rounded whole food diet, the organs of elimination will be well supported. A diet high in fiber has been shown to be beneficial for the microbiome and, therefore, overall gut/colon health. This would include vegetables, fruit, and whole grains.
For kidney health, it is recommended to reduce red (processed meat) and sugar (especially sugar-sweetened beverages).
Nutrition for liver health is important. The best way to support the liver is to refer back to the three phases of biotransformation. Phase 1 utilizes the P450 enzymes. The best nutrition to support these enzymes comes from the following food sources: cruciferous vegetables, grapes, peanuts, green and black tea, turmeric, garlic, fish oil, rosemary, salmon, trout, algae, chicory root, and berries. For phase II, cruciferous vegetables, resveratrol, and citrus fruits are particularly supportive. Phase III will be supported by supporting the organs of elimination.
Herbs and Supplements
Curcumin, quercetin, and fish oil have all been shown to support the various phases of liver detoxification, and it would likely be beneficial for biotransformation to supplement these.
Because methylation is such an essential part of phase II biotransformation, making sure there are enough methyl donors in the diet is important. Supplementing with methylated B vitamins such as methylated Vitamin B12 and MethylFolate is a simple way to support this process.
Supporting liver health is key to having efficient liver detoxification/biotransformation. Some herbs particularly helpful for liver support are Milk Thistle, licorice root, and cinnamon.
Furthermore, certain activities such as exercising and using a sauna regularly may also help your body excrete excess toxins.
Medical-Based Detox Programs
Medical-Based Detox Programs combine a combination of nutrition and supplements that supports all 3 phases of detox under the care of a healthcare practitioner to ensure proper guidance and support.
How to Avoid Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
Avoiding endocrine disruptors is imperative for optimal health. While it would be impossible to completely avoid them due to how intertwined they are in our modern living, there are certainly many measures that can be taken to cut down our exposures significantly.
Eating organic food as much as possible is the first step to avoiding pesticides and herbicides. The Environmental Working Group has a great resource that they put out each year called the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen, which are lists of produce that have the most pesticides (dirty dozen) and should be only consumed organically and the least pesticides (clean 15), which can safely be consumed organically or conventionally grown.
Since EDCs can also be airborne, using a Hepa air filter is a simple way of cleansing the air that you breathe. Placing these around the home and place of work will help reduce the number of toxins in the air. If purchasing multiple filters is out of the budget, buying one for the bedroom to be used while sleeping will be the most efficient way of using this filter.
Water filters are also very important since EDCs are commonly found in our water supply. Reverse Osmosis and Carbon filters are of the highest quality and will perform the best. Many companies also make water filters for your shower heads to help reduce exposure in the bathroom. You can check the chemical status of your local water supply here.
Avoiding plastics may seem impossible today, but reducing them is absolutely possible. Key places to reduce plastics are:
- Switching to glass or stainless steel water bottles
- Switching to glass food storage containers
- Moving away from plastic children's toys (by using traditional wooden blocks or cotton stuffed toys)
Discontinuing the use of non-stick pots and pans in the kitchen will also help reduce exposure to EDCs. Instead, cast iron or stainless steel cookware is recommended.
Personal care products are another major source of EDCs. More natural alternatives are always better. Consider handmade soaps from goat's milk, using shea or cocoa butter instead of lotion, diluted essential oils instead of perfumes, and even homemade toothpaste with coconut oil, baking soda, and peppermint.
Cleaning products can also be swapped out for more natural products. Vinegar, baking soda, and essential oils can make powerful products that are safe to use around the home.
Follow Up Labs
After establishing routines to reduce exposures and support your body in eliminating these endocrine disruptors, follow-up labs are recommended in order to check on progress. Every lab is likely a little different regarding how often they recommend a recheck. However, most labs suggest retesting between 3-6 months after making appropriate lifestyle changes.
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) are ubiquitous in our modern society. While we can't avoid them entirely, there is a lot that we can do to reduce the chance of harm done to our endocrine system.
Now that you are made aware of just how many chemicals there are in our modern world, where you can find them, and are equipped with the tools to reduce exposures, you are already on the right track toward having healthier hormones.
As far as all the EDCs you already have been exposed to, eating whole food organic diet, drinking filtered water, and breathing the cleanest air, you can are all important and necessary for supporting your body.
If you feel that more support is necessary or know that you have had significant EDC exposures, seeking assistance from a qualified functional medicine practitioner is the best option for taking a deeper look and determining a support plan that may be unique to your detoxification pathways.
Articles That May Interest You
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