The term “Xenoestrogen” may not be familiar to you, but it is one that you must learn about, if your health is important to you, that is. Breaking down into its Greek origin, the term “xenoestrogen” literally translates into: “foreign estrogen”, in other words estrogen that is not made by the human body. It is important to note that phytoestrogens (plant estrogens) is included in this category. Phytoestrogens can have a great deal of health benefit to us. However, the focus of this article is on health issues xenoestrogens can cause. Therefore we are focusing on artificially-manufactured xenoestrogens.
As you may already know, the human body’s functions are regulated by the complex interplay of hormones known as the endocrine system. These hormones include: growth hormone, adrenalin (epinephrine), insulin, testosterone and estrogen, to name a few. In order for the human body to function optimally, these hormones are delicately balanced with respect to one another. Any interruption to any one of the hormones will affect a number of others, which can lead to a plethora of health consequences. For example, if a woman’s testosterone level is higher than normal, it would affect her menstrual cycle, fertility and even blood glucose regulation.
Xenoestrogens affect our health by disrupting the delicate balance of our endocrine system by mimicking the effects of our endogenous estrogen. In other words, when our bodies are exposed to xenoestrogens, it is as if there is an over-production of estrogens. As a result, health issues such as menstrual irregularity, PMS, endometriosis, fertility problems, precocious puberty in children, and obesity can arise. Risks for certain cancers such as breast and uterine cancer can also increase due to exposure to xenoestrogens.
Unfortunately, these harmful substances are found in a wide range of products that we come into contact with on a daily basis such as: medications (i.e. birth control pills), plastics, processed foods as well as cosmetic products. Two specific and commonly found xenoestrogens are phthalates and BPA (Bisphenol-A).
Phthalates are added to plastics to increase flexibility, transparency and durability. Although Canada is phasing out the use of this chemical in plastics, it is important to keep in mind that plastics are not the only place where phthalates exist. Pharmaceutical medications that are enteric-coated contain phthalates, nutritional supplements also may contain phthalates as emulsifiers and binders etc.
Children’s toys (such as the rubber ducky) can also contain this toxic chemical. In the home, phthalates can be found in the materials that are used to make vinyl shower curtains, floor tiles, paint, and cleaning supplies too. Personal care products that we use on a daily basis such as make-up, perfume, shampoo, moisturizers and liquid soaps can also contain phthalates. Worst of all, our foods can also contain phthalates, as they can be used not only in processed foods as binders and emulsifiers, but also in food containers and wrappers too. Fresh produce are not necessarily free of phthalates either, as pesticides can contain this substance as well.
BPA (Bisphenol –A) is yet another ingredient used for the manufacturing of plastics. Common places where BPA can be found include plastic food containers, baby bottles, liquid baby formula , and thermal paper (the paper that receipts from most retail stores are printed on).
While it may seem that it would be overwhelmingly difficult to avoid all sources of phthalate and BPA, the following rules of thumb can certainly help you minimize your exposure.
- Avoid Plastics Wherever Possible
Plastics are ubiquitous these days, if it is impossible to avoid ALL plastic, at the very least stop using them in your kitchen. Use glass, ceramic and stainless steel containers instead. Also, remember the following rules if you cannot completely avoid the usage of plastic containers.
1. Throw them out when you start to see scratches on them. Older plastic would have more xenoestrogens that can leak into your food item/water contained in them.
2. Never expose plastics to extreme temperatures such as the microwave, dishwasher and the freezer. Containers may say they are microwave/dishwasher/freezer safe, but this does not guarantee no breakdown of the plastic and hence xenoestrogen leakage into your food. It simply means that when exposed to extreme temperatures, these “safe” containers will not melt/warp/crack.
3. Keep your plastic containers away from sunlight. UV ray exposure will speed up the process of chemical leaching from plastics. This is easily achievable in the home. However what about the plastic bottles of water that are displayed by the large sunny windows of retail stores? Definitely avoid grabbing a case that is sitting by the window. Better yet do NOT buy water in plastic bottles at all.
4. Pay attention to the recycling label on any plastic ware you may have. According to the US Department of Health & Human Services, if the number in the recycling label is 7, then the plastic may contain BPA. So avoid plastics that have the number 7 written in the middle of the recycling label.
5. If you carry a plastic water bottle to help keep yourself hydrated, you would be better off switching it to a glass or stainless steel one. However if you insist on continue to use the plastic one, at the very least do NOT put lemon/lime into the bottle to flavor your water. Lemon and lime juices contain ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which because of its acidity will encourage any xenoestrogen into your water.
6. This one is simple: do NOT buy plastic baby bottles, period. Babies and children are especially vulnerable to BPA, as not only do their bodies lack the full ability to detoxify harmful chemicals, their sexual organs are still developing which means exposure to BPA can lead to permanent damage.
- Choose foods that are minimally processed
This is simple, but difficult to do. Avoid processed foods as much as possible, as they can contain phthalates as well as BPA. The former can be used as additives in foods to keep their texture, flavor and colours, while the latter is found in the plastic lining of cans used for canned foods (including soups sauces vegetables and meat). Even when you buy fresh produce, know what you are buying. Try to buy organic if you can, if not, make sure that you wash your fruits and veggies with a good veggie wash to get rid of as much of the pesticide as possible before consumption.
- Go natural with your personal care routine
When it comes to products used for personal hygiene and beauty routine, it is no different than shopping for your groceries. Remember this, the simpler, the less number of ingredients, the better. Thanks to the increase in consumer demand, natural soaps, shampoos, moisturizers and even make-up are widely available and not less affordable than some of the department store conventional varieties. Do NOT rely on TV commercials, read the label and see for yourself if a product is truly a healthy choice. One place I highly recommend for everyone to check out is the Enviornmental Working Group website (www.ewg.org). It is a non-profit organization that strives to educate the public about healthy living.
Every little step you take in the direction of better health makes a difference. When it comes to xenoestrogens, if you can make a drastic change right away, take one step at a time. I would recommend starting to make the changes from the most important place first, your food, your kitchen utensils and then move into other areas.
Blog brought to you by Lei Gu, BSc ND , Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine
Active Natural Health
71 Baldwin St. N.
Brooklin, ON L1M 1A3
Scarborough Naturopathic Clinic
1585 Markham Rd, Suite 211
Scarborough, ON M1B 2W1