Triclosan: The Thyroid-Disrupting Ingredient In Your Soap

During the 1990’s, antibacterial soaps went from a being a small-scale medical industry product to a billion dollar consumer industry. Soap manufacturers poured in millions into advertizing, and quickly nearly every household in the western world had antibacterial soaps at their sinks.

The pitch for antibacterial soaps was fairly simple - bacteria cause disease, so killing the bacteria on our hands at every opportunity would surely reduce the occurrence of disease.  

Furthermore, the antibacterial ingredients seemed to have no toxicity issues for humans - so where was the risk?

Well, we’ve learned quite a bit in the intervening 20 years-or-so.  Our understanding of the bacteria that inhabit our skin and digestive tract has changed pretty dramatically, and we now know that most of these bacteria are not only harmless, but quite beneficial and necessary for our health.  

Nuking the bacteria on our skin with antibacterials several times a day no longer seems like such a great idea.

Triclosan: The Secret Toxin

By far the most common antibacterial ingredient over the past 20 years has been triclosan.  A survey done in 2007 showed that 76% of commercial soaps contained triclosan. [1]  

Triclosan works by disrupting a critical enzyme (called ENR) that bacteria use in the synthesis of fatty acids.  When ENR is disrupted by triclosan, the bacteria can no longer form or repair cell walls, resulting in the death of the cell.

Because humans do not have the ENR enzyme, triclosan initially seemed to not have any toxicity issues for us.

As we’ll discuss below, we now know that triclosan does in fact have meaningful effects in the body.

Because triclosan is particularly adept at leaching into our bloodstream via our skin, any toxicity are a major concern.  A 2007 study done on over 2,500 participants showed that 75% had biologically-significant levels of triclosan in their urine. [1]

Because our skin is a permeable membrane, it’s good practice to assume that any chemicals in your soaps and skin care products will also end up in your bloodstream (which is why I recommend using only food-grade skin care products whenever possible).  Some chemicals are more likely to leach into our bodies, and triclosan appears to be among these.

Issue #1: Hormone Disruption

In recent years, it’s been noted that triclosan shares a few key chemical similarities with triiodothyronine (T3), one of the primary hormones produced and regulated by our thyroid gland.  (both molecules have two phenyl rings bearing a total of three halogen substitutions)

As you might expect, this chemical similarity between triclosan and T3 creates problems for the thyroid gland and the associated cell receptors throughout the body.

Several studies have demonstrated that exposure to triclosan produces a dose-dependent decrease in serum levels of both T3 and T4 thyroid hormones. [2][3]

These thyroid hormones are a primary regulator of metabolic activity throughout the body - so reducing levels of T3 and T4 in the body could lead to weight gain, decreased energy levels and the other symptoms commonly associated with hypothyroidism.

Troublingly, triclosan has also been shown to have estrogenic activities in the body. [4]  Other synthetic foreign estrogens (such as BPA) have been linked to feminization and decreased sperm counts in men [5] - and weight gain and inflammation in women. [6]

Issue #2: Allergic Sensitization

Several studies in recent years have correlated triclosan exposure with increased allergic sensitivity in human studies.

Researchers found that children who showed levels of triclosan in their urine were significantly more likely to develop increased sensitization to both aeroallergens and food allergens. [7]

Interestingly, all studies found that males were more likely to experience an increase in allergic sensitization as a result of triclosan exposure. [8]

Issue #3: Disrupts Gut Microbiome

This is likely the biggest problem that triclosan exposure creates.  In recent years we’ve learned so much about the role our gut microbes play in everything from immunity to digestion to weight management - the potential health impacts of disrupting our microbiome is huge.

There;s no question that exposure to triclosan disrupts the microbes in our digestive system.  A 2006 study found significant alterations in fecal bacteria of mice exposed to levels of triclosan similar to what is commonly found in human urine samples. [9]

Researchers looking at the correlation of triclosan and allergic sensitization didn’t propose a mechanism for how such a phenomena could occur in the body.  My own opinion is that this is very likely a byproduct of gut flora disruption.  

Our gut bacteria play a huge role in the formation of our immune system.  From the time we’re born, our gut bacteria “train” our immune cells to recognize what is a threat and what is not a threat (and thus, what to attack and what not to attack).

Allergies are effectively an unneeded reaction of our immune system to organic particles that are not actually a threat to the body (like pollens or proteins in food).  When gut flora is disrupted by triclosan, the interaction of the gut flora with the immune system is also disrupted, possibly leading to a poorly tuned immune system and thus, allergic sensitization.

This is just one example of countless examples of how disruption of gut flora (by triclosan or other antibiotics/antimicrobials) could negatively impact our health.

Not Just Triclosan

Triclosan is the most widely used and thus, most widely studied antimicrobial compound used in consumer products.  It would be foolish, however, to assume that other antimicrobial ingredients in soaps or skin care products are any safer.

While other antimicrobials may not share the hormone-disrupting properties of triclosan, we know for certain that they will disrupt the microbiome of our skin and gut if given the opportunity (it’s what these chemicals are designed to do, after all).

As we’ve discussed, triclosan is quite good at leaching into our bloodstream through our skin even from normal use of antibacterial soap products.  This is due largely to triclosan being a relatively small, water-soluble molecule - characteristics shared by most other antimicrobial compounds used in consumer products.  We should assume that these chemicals will be just as likely to absorb through the skin as triclosan.

Indeed, several studies investigating triclosan toxicity have also looked at triclocarbon, another common antimicrobial, and found it too leaches readily into the bloodstream from consumer soap products.

The reality is, these antimicrobial products are not only dangerous, but unnecessary.  Studies have shown that traditional soaps are just as effective in removing bacteria from the hands. [10]

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[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2265044/

[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24897554

[3] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21783810

[4] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24740835

[5] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1519239/

[6] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S001393510900084X

[7] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3515701/

[8] http://www.jacionline.org/article/S0091-6749(12)00779-8/abstract?cc=y=?cc=y=

[9] http://www.fasebj.org/cgi/content/meeting_abstract/23/1_MeetingAbstracts/977.10%20

[10] http://phys.org/news106418144.html

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4 Reasons Why Modern Milk Can No Longer Be Considered Healthy

If you're lactose intolerant or have an allergy to milk proteins - you're well aware of how milk wrecks your digestion and generally makes you feel like shit.

If you don't have either of these conditions, you could be forgiven for thinking that dairy is a reasonable thing to eat and might even be healthy. After all, the dairy industry has spent countless millions trying to convince you of this over the years (remember those "got milk" ads?).

I will make the case that dairy is simply not a healthy thing to eat for anybody, regardless of whether you have a specific intolerance or not. As I'll lay out below, there are simply too many troubling issues - if even one of these were present in a food it would be wise to avoid it - the combined effect of these factors makes it impossible to consider dairy even a remotely healthy food.

Mold Toxin Contamination

I've written previously about how dangerous mold toxins ("mycotoxins") can be. Not only are mycotoxins strongly oxidative and pro-inflammatory in the body, some mycotoxins can actually mimic our hormones and disrupt our endocrine system. Creepy stuff.

The primary way mycotoxins enter our food system is via large-scale grain production, specifically wheat and corn production. These grains sit in grain silos for months at a time and almost invariably become contaminated with mold in the process (some years, as high as 92% of corn crops test positive for mycotoxin contamination). So while minimizing consumption of these grains is a good step, it's not enough.

The digestive system of a cow is designed to process grass, and essentially grass alone. Yet, because it's cheaper and easier, 99% of dairy cows in the world are fed grains (generally corn). Beyond this, the corn fed to dairy cows is of a lower quality than what makes it to market for human consumption. This means cows are almost guaranteed to be eating feed that is significantly contaminated with mycotoxins.

The dairy cow effectively serves as a "mycotoxin accumulator", storing the mycotoxins in its fatty tissues, including in the milk fats. As several studies have shown, levels of mycotoxins in milk are often dangerously high. [1]

This "toxin accumulator" effect doesn't only apply to mycotoxins either. Other persistent organic pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB's) and pesticides have also been shown to accumulate in dairy milk. [2]

Because organic grains are also highly likely to be contaminated with mycotoxins, buying organic milk does not reduce your risk of exposure.

Inflammatory Proteins (A1 vs A2 casein)

This is a somewhat new revelation, but perhaps the most compelling reason of all to minimize your milk consumption. 

Casein, one of the primary proteins in milk, comes in two forms, referred to as A1 and A2 casein. Historically, the casein produced by dairy cows was almost entirely of the A2 variety. In the past few decades that has changed dramatically as dairy farmers discovered that cow breeds with genetics for A1 casein also happen to produce more milk. 

These cow breeds naturally became preferred by commercial dairy producers and have increased dramatically in numbers over the past few decades. Far and away the most common breed of dairy cow today is the Fresian Holstein, which produces the highest levels of A1 casein. Almost all milk on supermarket shelves at this point contains significant levels of A1 casein.

Here's the problem:

Researchers have recently discovered that A1 casein triggers gastrointestinal inflammation in nearly everyone they test. [5] Studies on mice have confirmed that A1 casein, unlike A2 casein, triggers the pro-inflammatory Th2 pathway leading to gastrointestinal and systemic inflammation. [6] 

I don't need to reiterate why inflammation is the enemy of a healthy body and brain. As I've written about at length, minimizing inflammation in the body is perhaps the single most important factor in preventing disease and improving mental and physical performance. Removing pro-inflammatory foods like dairy from your diet is the critical fist step.

Hormone and Antibiotic Residues

I don't know how else to say it - commercial dairy production is a dirty, dirty industry. Cows are confined to small spaces and fed low-quality feeds comprised of things they were not designed to eat in the first place. These are not healthy animals.

It's been well publicized that antibiotics are commonly used in commercial dairy production, but the reason why might surprise you. Decades ago, dairy and beef farmers started giving cows antibiotics to treat the diseases that were becoming a problem in new factory farm conditions. This did cut down on disease, but something unexpected also started happening - the cows started getting fatter and producing more milk. Very quickly, antibiotics started to be used as a tool for fattening animals and improving yields. Today, the vast majority of antibiotic use in dairy production is for this reason.

Unsurprisingly, antibiotic residues consistently show up in milk samples when tested. [3] As with mycotoxins, buying organic dairy products does not significantly reduce risk of exposure, as restrictions on use of antibiotics in organic milk production are lax and unenforced.

Consistently consuming any product with antibiotic residues will have a meaningful impact on your gut microbiome, which will have major adverse effects on your digestion, immunity and overall health. After all, the reason cows get fat when given antibiotics is because their gut bacteria is completely destroyed.

Non-organic dairy products add the risk of exposure to hormone residues. Bovine somatotropin (rBST) is widely used in conventional dairy production (also to increase yield). Studies have shown that residues of this cow hormone show up in conventional milk, along with increased levels of IGF-1. [4]

Histamines and Nitrosamines 

This is a bonus for you cheese lovers, as I've learned that you are generally the most emotionally attached to your dairy and perhaps need a bit of extra encouragement to make some shifts in your diet.

You probably recognize the term histamine, these are one type of organic compound our bodies use to trigger an inflammatory response. When you have allergy symptoms, you take an anti-histamine, which will remedy your stuffy (i.e. inflamed) nose and sinuses.

Well, as it turns out , when you ferment a food with protein in it, histamines are one of the byproducts of this process. Most of the fermented foods we eat are low in protein (cabbage, grape juice, etc), but cheese is one of the notable exceptions. [7]

Generally, aged or ripened cheeses are allowed to ferment the longest, making them the most likely to have high histamine levels.

Also produced during the fermentation of some cheeses are nitrosamines, related organic compounds that have been connected to gastric and oesophageal cancer.   [8] [9]

The Only Time It May Be Safe(r) To Eat Dairy

As you can probably tell, it's my opinion that the negative effects of consuming dairy make it near-impossible to justify eating with any regularity. I know countless people who have seen their health and performance improve radically after dropping dairy from their diet. Most of these people likely did not have a lactose intolerance or specific milk allergy, but were just consistently eating a food that was pro-inflammatory and exposed them to numerous toxins. Pulling this out of the diet is inevitably going to produce big improvements.

Hypothetically, however, there may be a type of dairy that removes enough of these risks to make it a reasonable food to eat on occasion. If you can find a completely organic (eliminate risk of rBST), grass-fed (eliminate risk of mycotoxins) milk produced by exclusively Guernsey cows (lowest levels of A1 casein) - this milk would be free of a lot of the problems that plague 99.9% of dairy products on shelves today.

I haven't looked extensively, but I've never been able to find a milk that meets all of these criteria. Grass-fed dairy is rare enough, but compounding the problem is that most farmers do not know the genetics of their cows with enough certainty to guarantee they are full-breed Guernsey. Still, if you MUST have milk, this could be something worth inquiring about at your local farmers market.

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[1] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S027869151100490X

[2] http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/24200021

[3] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0039914011004498

[4] http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/1998/an/a804923h/unauth#!divAbstract

[5] http://www.nature.com/ejcn/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ejcn2014127a.html

[6] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24166511

[7] http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s000110050463

[8] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6831466

[9] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16865769

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Looking For More On Avoiding Toxic Foods?

Solving The "Alcohol Dilemma"

Oxalates, Phytates and Saponins: The Secret Anti-Nutrients In "Healthy" Foods

How To Shop For Groceries Like A Nutrition Expert

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