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Xenoestrogens: Plastic's Dirty Secret

Remember the BPA scare of a few years ago?  

Nalgene was pressured into doing a recall of all of their bottles and the rest of the industry was left scrambling to get BPA out of their products.  It's likely this sounds familiar to you, but do you actually know what the issue was?  BPA was (and realistically, still is) a common additive to plastics to make them more durable.  Unfortunately, it was also discovered to be a powerful xenoestrogen, a synthetic chemical that mimics the natural estrogen in our bodies.  

With the BPA scare of a few years ago, it was a connection to disrupted fetal development that made all of the headlines.  But in reality, this is only one of many (creepy) ways these synthetic estrogens negatively impact our bodies.  

While BPA use has decreased significantly in the past few years, it has not been eliminated by any means.  Even more troubling, BPA is only one of perhaps hundreds of chemicals we come into contact with on a daily basis that can act as xenoestrogens.  

What Are Xenoestrogens?

The prefix "xeno-", of course, means foreign.  Xenoestrogens are chemicals in our foods and environment that, when ingested, interact with our body's estrogen systems.  The birth control pill, for example, is a prescription synthetic xenoestrogen.

Xenoestrogens are particularly a concern because they often trigger our body's estrogen systems far more powerfully than our own naturally-produced (endogenous) estrogen does.  

Why is this a problem?  Estrogen is a common hormone in the body, a natural chemical released by the glands of our endocrine system used to send messages to other tissues in the body.  Although it is typically thought of as a female hormone, it is also present (and quite important) in men's bodies as well.  Essentially every organ and tissue in the body has estrogen receptors.  When estrogen circulates in the body it binds to estrogen receptors and triggers certain effects in that organ or tissue (the effect dependent on at what levels and how often it circulates).

Estrogen has well-established roles in fetal, childhood and adolescent development.  It also plays a central role in weight gain, sex-organ health, fertility, immunity and mental health. 

Clearly, this is not a system you want to screw with.

What Are The Negative Effects Of Xenoestrogens?

Here is a list of the impacts research has shown xenoestrogens to have in the body:

  • Impair development of reproductive organs in eutero.
  • Decreases sperm concentration and semen quality in adult male rats.
  • Correlated with infertility and decreased semen quality in human adult males.
  • Promotes early puberty onset in boys and girls.
  • Promotes weight gain in women and men.
  • Accelerates hair loss in women and men.
  • Glandular (hormonal) dysfunction. 

Only The Tip Of The Iceberg

The list above represents what has been studied thus far by endocrinologists and biochemists.  The reality is though, this is a partial list at best.  Xenoestrogens are a relatively new concept in endocrinology and are severely under-studied.  The research that has been done thus far is on only those effects that are the most easily observed and measured (such as disrupted fetal development). 

Estrogen and estrogen receptors are so widely distributed in the body, screwing with this system in any way is going to have significant effects on essentially every tissue in the body.  As much as is possible, we want to let our bodies regulate estrogen naturally, on their own.

Plastics - The #1 Source Of Xenoestrogen Exposure

For most people, still far and away the biggest source for xenoestrogen exposure is plastics, particularly soft plastics, that come into contact with foods and beverages we eat.  Even after the recalls of a few years ago, BPA is still used in many plastic products.  But BPA is not the only chemical commonly used in plastic production that has been shown to act as a xenoestrogen in the body.  Phthalates are widely used in softer plastics and have been shown to disrupt endocrine function.  

When plastics are exposed to heat or sunlight, or even just sit for a sufficiently long time, they start to break down and these chemicals will leech into your foods and beverages.  

Water bottled in plastic is essentially guaranteed to be contaminated. The soft plastics used for these cheap bottles are certain to be made using BPA and/or phthalates.  These bottles are manufactured at high temperatures and are actively off-gassing when they are filled with water.  The bottles are then capped and sit for months (sometimes years) in storage and transit.  The result is water significantly contaminated with xenoestrogens, solvents and other toxic chemicals.  

Another thing that deserves special attention here is your dishwasher.  Putting plastics in the dishwasher exposes them to high temperatures and water simultaneously, pretty much perfect conditions for leeching of chemicals.  DO NOT ever put plastics in the dishwasher.  Not only will that plastic be guaranteed to contaminate the next food it comes into contact with, but the rest of your dishes will be coated in a fine film of xenoestrogens and other chemicals as well.  

The bottom line is keep your foods and beverages away from plastics whenever possible.  Stop buying foods and beverages packaged in plastic and start replacing your plastic dishes and tupperware with glass and ceramic.  

Other Sources Of Xenoestrogen Exposure?

  • Pesticides + Herbicides - This is the REAL reason to buy organic produce as far as I'm concerned.  I've seen studies recently highlighting that there are no significant differences in nutritional quality between organic and non-organic produce.  This is a red herring of sorts and as far as I'm concerned, nutritional content is not really the point.  
         The real reason to buy organic is to avoid the pesticides and herbicides that conventional produce is so commonly contaminated with - many of which are known xenoestrogens and endocrine disruptors.  
    Atrazine (a common herbicide), Endosulfan and Glyphosate (common pesticides) are all known hormone disruptors
  • Processed Foods - Processed foods can contain a shockingly large number or chemicals unregulated by the FDA known to be xenoestrogens.  These include preservatives (BHA, propyl gallate) and colorings (Red no. 3).
  • Skin Care Products - Lotions, soaps, shampoos and makeups often contain known xenoestrogens (4-MBC, parabens, phthalates, etc).  Buying the "natural" or "organic" brands unfortunately doesn't always eliminate your risk for exposure, but it does reduce it significantly.  Of course, there's only one thing you should be putting on your skin anyways.
  • Teflon Cookware - If over-heated, teflon will leech a powerful endocrine-disrupting chemical.  It's a good idea to switch over to ceramic coated pots and pans or cast iron.  I use pans similar to this one. 
  • Conventional Meat and Dairy - Livestock are often given synthetic hormones to force them to gain weight.  These synthetic hormones remain in the fat and milk of the animal.

Be Proactive, Supplement + Protect Yourself

Following the guidelines above, you will significantly reduce your exposure to xenoestrogens.  Unfortunately though, no matter how diligent you are, some level of exposure is inevitable.  If you want to be proactive, there are supplements you can take to help your body breakdown and remove these foreign estrogens from your body.  Here are the two I take on a daily basis:

  • Calcium-D-Glucarate - Effectively a source of D-Glucaric Acid, a criticial component of your body's natural system for removing xenoestrogens from the body.  Our body packages certain toxins, including xenoestrogens, in little units called glucuronides such that they can be removed safely from the body.  D-Glucaric Acid assists in this process by preventing glucuronides from being broken down once they "capture" a toxin, as sometimes happens otherwise.  I take 400mg daily of Calcium-D-Glucarate from Life Extension Products.
  • Diindolmethane (DIM) - DIM is a natural compound found in kale and other cruciferous vegetables.  It aids your body in breaking down harmful estrogens including xenoestrogens.  I take 100mg daily of DIM from Source Naturals.

Stay Synchro, 

     Graham Ryan

      

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