When my doctor recently found some abnormalities with my thyroid, I began learning everything I could about this tiny gland located in my throat.
I was surprised when it took me down a path that seemingly had little to do with my actual body.
What I started learning about instead was the importance of paying attention to what I put on, around and in my body. It turned out that my issues may have arisen from endocrine disruption.
In school I remember teachers devoting their focus to our other body systems such as the circulatory, digestive, muscular or nervous systems. The endocrine system was tucked into the few short pages related to puberty. This system is actually a lot more important than many of us have realized, and it affects everyone, no matter what age.
The endocrine system includes the ovaries, testes, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal glands, pituitary glands, pineal body and pancreas, as well as the cells that release hormones found in the gastrointestinal tract, kidney, heart and placenta. With all of these parts of the body involved, the endocrine system is responsible for many complex functions.
Endocrine glands are different from other glands in that they secrete hormones (while other glands produce fluids like tears or sweat). The hormones produced, stored and released by the endocrine system include adrenaline and noradrenaline, estrogen, testosterone and insulin.
There is a thyroid hormone that is secreted and produced in the thyroid and influences every other cell function in the body: growth, development and metabolism. These hormones are then necessary for the coordination and regulation of many essential body functions and healthy development.
The hormones affect:
- our growth and maturation
- our behavior
- our ability to reproduce
- the energy we are able to produce, use and store
- our ability to balance and maintain electrolytes
- our reactions to stress
The thyroid is incredibly important to our ability to feel good in our bodies and for it to function correctly. The problem is that there is a wide variety of substances — both naturally occurring and man-made — that can disrupt the functions of the endocrine system.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, commonly referred to as EDCs, can mimic a natural hormone, interfere with the way hormones are made, or prevent a hormone from binding to a receptor. When disruption occurs, the amount of hormones produced can increase or decrease. Any amount of disruption can have a detectable effect, no matter how small.
It’s not just the thyroid that can be affected.
It’s not just the thyroid that can be affected. Remember, the endocrine system affects all parts of the body, increasing chances of obesity and diabetes.
But the most well-documented health concerns for exposure to EDCs are reproductive and developmental issues. Tests have revealed that repeated exposure to EDCs can result in altered sperm quality, low sperm count, testicular cancer, early puberty, endometriosis, disorders of ovulation, metabolic issues, breast cancer, immune function and more.
Some EDCs have a positive function and are used intentionally (e.g. birth control, cancer treatment), but the vast majority of them are affecting our bodies negatively, without our intention. These EDCs, whether we are aware of it or not, are everywhere: in the air we breathe, in our water supply, in our food, in our personal care products and other products we buy. We can digest EDCs, or they can even be absorbed through the skin.
Here are the most common disruptors and where they can be found:
Phthalates: Studies have linked phthalates to hormone changes, lower sperm count, and thyroid irregularities. This chemical can be found in plastics, children’s products, food storage and personal care products.
Parabens: These chemicals mimic estrogen in the body, and estrogen disruption has been linked to breast cancer and reproductive issues. Parabens can be found in many personal care products.
Fragrance: This catch-all term can be used for any cocktail mix of EDCs. The ingredient is usually included in personal care products, cleaning supplies and many other goods.
Triclosan: Studies suggest that triclosan may alter the thyroid hormone. It is often an ingredient in antibacterial soaps and toothpaste.
Bisphenol A (BPA): BPA imitates estrogen and has been linked to breast and other cancers, reproductive problems, obesity, early puberty and heart disease. It can be found in plastics, canned food linings and food storage materials
Perfluorochemicals: These are so widespread that 99% of Americans have these chemicals in their bodies. They have been linked to lower sperm quality, kidney disease and thyroid disease. They can be found in clothing, microwave popcorn bags and non-stick cookware.
When your endocrine system is disrupted, your response to psychological stress may be affected, giving you a reduced ability to handle stress. Your metabolism, ability to reproduce and potential for cancer will also be affected.
The fact that these disruptors are everywhere and in everything can be distressing. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that those most impacted are those who are in contact with EDCs the most.
You can take steps to avoid endocrine disruption, and here are some tips for doing that:
- Wash your hands frequently with fragrance-free soap and water.
- Always wash fruits and vegetables well before eating them, and try to purchase organic.
- Never microwave plastic food containers.
- Eat less canned and processed foods.
- Use glass, porcelain or stainless steel containers for food and drinks.
- Replace non-stick pans with newer ceramic coated ones.
- Choose products labeled “Phthalate-Free,” “BPA-Free,” and “Paraben-Free”.
- Choose “Fragrance-free” products.
- Dust with a damp cloth and vacuum with a HEPA filter.
- Substitute synthetic chemical-laden cleaning supplies with EDC-free versions.
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