Our society is suffering from estrogen overload. No, I’m not referring to Sex and The City reruns—estrogen overload refers to the increasing amount of estrogen in our environment, our food and our bodies.
Estrogen, the primary female sex hormone, is responsible for normal body processes in women such as secondary female sex characteristics, menstruation, fertility, protein synthesis, bone density, metabolism and much more. Actually, there are three kinds of estrogens in the body: estrone, estradiol, and estriol, which all have specialized roles to play at different points in a woman’s life.
Although estrogen levels are greater in women, estrogen is also needed for libido and maturation of sperm in men.
Sources of Environmental Estrogens
Synthetic (or environmental) estrogens are known as xenoestrogens, or estrogen-mimickers. Although they are not strictly estrogen, their similar structure allows them to bind to estrogen receptors in the human body, causing estrogenic activity.
- Drugs and Medicines
A primary source of estrogen comes from taking oral contraceptives, which contain high amounts of synthetic female sex hormones. And what happens to all the hormones in drugs and oral contraceptives? Well, the excess estrogen leaves the body in urine, which then enters the water supply which everyone (men and children included) consumes daily.
Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), is another form of synthetic hormones, often used for women suffering from menopause symptoms. HRT has been linked to breast cancer, blood clots, heart disease and strokes.
- Natural Food Sources
Plants with estrogenic activity are called phytoestrogens, the most common of them being soy. Although this estrogen is not synthetic, it can still affect one’s health by raising estrogenic activity. For this reason, people, especially men, may wish to avoid excessive soy intake. (For a great look at the issues surrounding soy, read Liz Thompson’s Green Blog article “Soy: Super Food or Troublemaker?”)
- Synthetic Food Sources: Dairy and Meat
In the USA, dairy and beef cattle are given synthetic estrogens so they grow faster and produce more milk. In Canada, growth hormones are only allowed in beef cattle. However, since hormones are stored in fat cells in the body, these growth hormones end up in the milk, cream, yogurt, cheese and meat we eat on a daily basis.
- Synthetic Food Sources: Pesticides and Herbicides
Pesticides can be dangerous estrogen-mimickers, and unfortunately, its hard to tell what has chemicals and what doesn’t. Generally, most food that is not 100% certified organic has come been grown with pesticides and herbicides, or has come into contact with the chemicals during processing. As well, many lawns, gardens and parks receive chemical treatments on a regular basis.
Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a harmful xenoestrogen found in number 7 plastics. Primarily, is used in water bottles, tin cans, baby bottles and food storage containers. Heating and freezing these plastics (even by leaving a water bottle in a hot car) further the release of the toxins into the water, to be ingested. (See “BPA Update: Examining the Plastic Debate 1 Year Later” in this blog for more details.)
While bisphenol-A was designed to keep plastics hard and unbreakable, phthalates are a type of plastic designed to keep plastics soft and flexible. Research has shown that phthalates are powerful endocrine disruptors for growing bodies and can even cause birth defects. The iconic rubber duck is a prime of example of phthalates at their worst. Even worse, they’re marketed to the most vulnerable demographic—children. The recent book Slow Death By Rubber Ducktackles this issue in full http://slowdeathbyrubberduck.com/. The writers also analyse many other household toxins, including more examples and effects of xenoestrogens.
- Cosmetics and Other Products
Sadly, so many products marketed to women and used every day contain dangerous chemicals. Cosmetics, hair dyes, nail polish, chlorine-bleached feminine sanitary napkins, sunscreens and household cleaning products are just some of the products that contain dangerous xenoestrogens.
Effects of Environmental Estrogens
So we’re getting lots of estrogen…does it matter? Well, although big business doesn’t want you to think so, it matters. It is well known that oral contraceptives with synthetic estrogens can cause breast cancer, strokes and blood clots. What is less publicized, however, is how the smaller amounts of environmental estrogens affect people.
In women, environmental estrogens can wreak havoc on the body’s delicate reproductive system, causing all kinds of problems. Some examples include: early puberty, painful period cramps, irregular menstrual cycles, heavy periods, PMS, fibroids, endometriosis, cysts, low sex drive, infertility and menopause symptoms.
Unfortunately, when these conditions become too difficult and painful to deal with, doctors recommend (often unnecessary) hysterectomies. Canada and the USA have the highest rates of hysterectomies in the world. However, even after childbearing years, the uterus is important extremely important. Removal of the uterus has been linked to depression, osteoporosis, risk of heart disease and stroke, loss of libido, and increased rate of reproductive cancers.
But…I’m a Guy
Men can be affected too! In fact, recent research has suggested that men are being affected in extreme ways that we are only beginning to realize. The CBC documentary “The Disappearing Male” provides an insightful look at these issues and is definitely a must-watch! To give a glimpse, here are some scary but true statistics from the documentary:
- “The quality of sperm is declining. Eighty-five per cent of the sperm produced by a healthy male is DNA-damaged.
- The average sperm count of a North American college student today is less than half of what it was 50 years ago.
- The number of boys born with penis abnormalities and genital defects has increased by 200% in the past two decades.
- Paternal exposure to solvents, pesticides, and metals has now been associated in animals and humans with the occurrence of spontaneous abortion, low birth weight, birth defects, childhood leukemia, brain cancer, change in the male to female sex ratio of offspring.”
Prevent Estrogen Dominance
Dietary estrogens are one of the easiest to avoid. If you eat meat or dairy, avoid commercially produced brands. Instead, opt for local or organic dairy and meat products which do not contain growth hormones.
If you consume soy on a regular basis, look for alternatives. Other protein sources include beans and lentils, lean meats and fish, nuts and seeds, and grains like quinoa. Non-dairy milk alternatives include beverages made from almonds, hemp, potatoes or rice.
Whenever possible, eat organic produce and grain products as well. Remember, xenoestrogenic activity is caused by pesticides and herbicides as well.
At your local health food store, you can find supplements to reduce environmental estrogens, while restoring the healthy estrogens. Examples include herbs like vitex and black cohosh. Women’s supplements can treat menopause symptoms, low libido, PMS and more. There are hormone-balancing supplements for men as well.
Liver supplements (milk thistle, green tea extract, etc) are extremely important for men and women, since the liver is responsible for cleansing the body of toxins.
- Avoid Environmental Estrogens
Try to avoid plastics as much as possible, especially in children’s toys. In water bottles and food containers, avoid number 7 plastics. Never freeze or heat plastic containers or bottles. Don’t use pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals on your lawns or gardens. Use natural cosmetics, skin, nail and hair care products whenever possible. Use natural cleaning products in your home.
Photo credit: x-ray delta one