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Hormone Disruptors – Could Your Environment Be Affecting Your Health?

Hopefully at this point you have a bit of a better understanding of your hormones – how they work, how they affect your body systems and what can go wrong when they get imbalanced. While there are some things that are out of our control (genes, our past birth control use, etc.), we can absolutely do our part to promote hormone balance.

It’s first necessary to understand that our body needs to be able to metabolize and rid the body of our sex hormones, mainly estrogen. The liver is primarily responsible for this function, and it works by converting fat-soluble compounds (such as hormones) into water soluble compounds that can be excreted in the urine, feces, sweat and with our exhalation. The liver doesn’t only metabolize hormones, but it also has to remove other toxins from our body, so it can easily get overloaded! Most of the toxins we are exposed to are fat-soluble, so they must be processed by the liver and if they are not eliminated, they can be stored in the fat in our body. That said, if we limit our exposure to environmental toxins, our liver has a better chance of effectively ridding the body of hormones.

Once the liver has conjugated (deactivated) estrogen, it must be eliminated through the bowel. If you have an unhealthy gut microbiome (bacteria in your in your intestinal tract), you will have a harder time metabolizing estrogen. Overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria (as is the case in SIBO, or small intestine bacteria overgrowth) actually can lead to reactivation of estrogen, which is subsequently reabsorbed into your body. That said, we will never be able to achieve hormonal balance if we don’t have a healthy gut microbiome.

Here are some of the biggest environmental toxins that can challenge our liver function:

  • Pesticides: Pesticide residue on produce is huge source of toxicity! See my previous blog post for a more in-depth discussion about this:
  • Mercury:  This metal is released into the environment from industrial plants (e.g. coal-burning power plants) and the mercury ends up in the water, where it is absorbed by the fish. Fish continue to absorb mercury throughout their lifetime, so older fish tend to contain more mercury. The biggest culprits: shark, swordfish and tuna, especially those caught off of the US coasts. Safer bets include mid-Atlantic blue crab, summer flounder and farmed trout.
  • Plastic: Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a compound found in plastics and it can actually leech out of plastic and into our food or water. Phthalates are another toxin found in plastics, and they have been found in milk, butter, margarine, and vegetable oils that were packaged in plastic! Both BPA and phthalates have been correlated with infertility, asthma, allergies, menstrual cycle irregularities and breast cancer. It’s important to note that ALL plastics contain phthalates, even if they are BPA-free. So, choose glass containers over plastic whenever possible!
  • Water: Tap water can be pretty scary, no matter where you live. It can often contain pesticides, heavy metals, chlorine (to disinfect the water) and pharmaceutical drugs, including birth control! Personally, I choose to limit my exposure to tap water by refilling glass jugs with filtered water when I do my grocery shopping and I also utilize a water filter. This is the one I use:
  • Air Quality: Now listen, I know that we don’t have a lot of control over how much pollution we are exposed to on a daily basis, but my point is to bring to your attention that we are being bombarded with pollutants, which taxes our liver. We can limit our exposure in the home, by using an air filter (such as a HEPA or ULPA filter). Having plants in the home can also help to clean our air – consider palm plants, bamboo or ferns!
  • Cosmetics: The personal care products often contain some nasty toxins that are absorbed through our skin and then circulated through our blood. The big things to look out for include: sodium or ammonium lauryl or laureth sulphate, sodium methyl cocoyl taurate, sodium lauroyl, cocoyl sarcosinate, cocomidopropyl betaine, polyethylene glycol, sorbic acid, and parabens. I’ve gotten a lot out of looking at this website: for information about what is safe and what isn’t!
  • Animal food sources: Dairy cows are often given hormones (specifically rBST) to up their production of milk. When cows receive rBST, they secrete Insulin-Like-Growth-Factor (IGF-1), which then ends up in their milk. Oh, and IGF-1 is linked with breast cancer. Furthermore, chickens, pork, beef and lamb may be given hormones to increase their growth; these hormones are fat-soluble, so we consume those hormones when we eat them! Bottom line:  when picking animal products, try to pick USDA organic (it will be free of antibiotics, pesticides and hormones). I plan to delve into this topic a little deeper in a future post!
  • What about soy? A lot of people mistakenly think that soy is bad because it disrupts our hormones. Let me explain: soy isoflavones are phytoestrogens and phytoestrogens block estradiol. Therefore, they have an anti-estrogen effect in women before menopause, but they may have a pro-estrogen effect in menopausal women.  Sure, we don’t want to overdo it with the phytoestrogens, but the real problem with soy is how it’s grown in the US. 90% of the soybeans grown in the US are genetically engineered (GMO’s).  
  • Let’s also keep in mind that the liver requires adequate vitamin B3, vitamin B12, folate, zinc, selenium and the amino acids cystine, glycine and glutamic acid (the three components that make up glutathione) in order to do its job. That said, it’s very important that we are eating a diet filled with whole, nutrient-dense foods, including adequate protein.

So why do I bring all of these scary toxins up? Well, they often mimic estrogen in our body (especially alcohol, dioxins, BPA, pesticides, phthalates, parabens and mercury), so they can contribute to development of breast cancer, worsen symptoms of endometriosis and perpetuate growth of uterine fibroids. There is also a strong association between high exposure to these toxins and infertility and miscarriage. So, if you’re struggling with any of these issues, take a look at your environmental exposure!

As I discussed earlier, having a healthy gut microbiome is very important to ensure that we can appropriately metabolize our hormones. This warrants its own post, but here are some tips to promote a healthy gut:

  • Avoid taking antibiotics unless they’re absolutely necessary.
  • Shun sugar – it feeds the unhealthy bacteria!
  • Limit alcohol intake.
  • Eat plenty of vegetables and fiber – this will help to feed good bacteria.
  • Incorporate fermented foods – they help to support your good bacteria.
  • Control stress levels and get enough sleep. Have you heard that one enough yet?
  • Consider taking a probiotic – be sure you get a living probiotic with multiple strains. I have had great success with this one in the past:
  • Note:  if you have bad heartburn, you likely don’t make enough hydrochloric acid, so you may want to consider seeing a professional to address this. We need adequate acid to kill bad bacteria! And in the meantime, try incorporating a digestive enzyme to ensure that you’re breaking down your food!

The last thing to take into consideration when trying to find our best hormonal health is to decrease systemic inflammation. Here’s what’s likely contributing to our systemic inflammation:

  • Lack of exercise: We now know that one of the best ways to reduce chronic inflammation is regular exercise. I’m not talking about super-intense exercise that leaves you feeling sore for days or breathless, I’m talking about moderate-intensity exercise that is sustainable for at least 30 minutes (think: walking, hiking, yard work).
  • Stress: Cortisol is our stress hormone, and its release does cause an inflammatory response. Consider, then, what chronic stress must do.
  • Smoking: Is this a no-brainer by now? I think yes.
  • Sugar: Excess sugar intake is one of the biggest contributors to systemic inflammation. It is known to cause cytokine release and also can lead to insulin resistance. And when we become insulin resistant, our body makes MORE insulin, which further exacerbates inflammation.
  • Alcohol: I know, I know, this is one that many women are really reluctant to give up, but hear me out. Alcohol is inflammatory. It is. That’s part of what makes hangovers so nasty – that ibuprofen you pop is an anti-inflammatory and meant to mitigate the inflammatory response your body had after consuming alcohol. Furthermore, alcohol also causes insulin resistance, depletes glutathione and creates an increased burden for the liver. Oh, and alcohol intake can also contribute to and perpetuate leaky gut (increased intestinal permeability; see my next point). We also know that alcohol consumption leads to a rise in estrogen. It also further taxes your liver, which is already being bombarded by toxins. Now, I’m not saying that you can’t ever imbibe, but if you’re really serious about getting your hormones in check, it would behoove you to eliminate alcohol until your symptoms are better-controlled.
  • Wheat: Yeah, I’m going there. Listen, I know that not everyone is gluten-intolerant. I know that I personally catch a lot of flack for being so adamant about being gluten-free. But, the thing is, wheat really is inflammatory for some people (myself included). So what’s the harm in trying to cut it out and see how it affects things? We know that some women have an actual allergy to wheat (this would be identified with a standard allergy test), and they often know it because they can develop anaphylaxis when exposed to wheat. Now, others can be reacting to gluten (a protein in wheat). Those with severe gluten intolerance have celiac disease, which is diagnosed with a blood test. Celiac disease is quite rare (1 in 100 have it), but it is becoming more prevalent. We now know that other people have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which is an inflammatory response to gluten that causes both digestive and non-digestive symptoms including: depression, IBS-like symptoms, headaches, ulcers, joint pain and eczema or psoraias.
  • Dairy: We all like to blame lactose, but that normally isn’t the problem. Now, that’s not to say lactose intolerance isn’t an issue, because some people certainly are lactose-intolerant, which means they don’t make the enzyme to break down lactose, but the big issue with dairy is often A1 casein – a protein in dairy that can cause a big inflammatory response. And another thing: A1 casein has been shown to decrease your production of glutathione (our natural anti-oxidant/anti-inflammatory molecule). A1 casein needs to be metabolized, and some people don’t have the digestive enzyme to do this, so there is an inflammatory response. Just for your information, A1 casein is only found in Holstein cows, so you can have dairy from goats, sheep or Jersey cows without issues if you have casein sensitivity.

Once again, I know that I just dumped a lot of information. But hopefully you see how we can really address underlying hormone issues with some relatively minor lifestyle changes. Again, some of these changes don’t have to be permanent (I hear you, ladies who don’t want to give up wine!), but if you’re really wanting to correct any hormonal imbalances that you may have, I strongly suggest you do your best to eliminate the majority of these sources for a good six weeks before you throw in the towel. Hormone imbalance doesn’t happen overnight, so we certainly can’t expect to correct it quickly.  On the other hand, some of these sources really should be avoided to the best of your ability (mercury, phthalates and BPA in particular). Our poor bodies really are being bombarded with a ton of toxins on a daily basis, so make the choices you can to limit your exposure in order to prevent hormone disruption!

I hope that you all have learned a bit about your hormones during this past month!

Join me next month as I delve into an in-depth discussion on the abdomen – both the muscle and viscera!

What topics would you like to learn more about?

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