It is necessary to understand the impact of endocrine-disrupting chemicals especially for patients with endometriosis and other auto-immune diseases. But before we go into all that, what is the Endocrine System?
The Endocrine System
The body is controlled by a host of controllers and messengers that send messages all around the body (i.e. hormones) and make sure that the body works exactly as it should. Without a healthy and functioning endocrine system, the body might experience issues such as puberty problems, stress, reproductive issues, easy weight-gain, fatigue, bone issues, mood swings etc.
The organs and glands that make up the endocrine system include:
- Hypothalamus (in the brain) – This portion of the brain links the nervous system with the endocrine system. It is responsible for regulating body temperature, controlling hunger, thirst, moods, sleep and even sex drive. It sends messages to other organs, such as the pituitary gland (also in the brain) to create these hormones or chemical messengers.
- Pituitary Gland (in the brain) – This is found at the base of the brain, and is the size of a pea. It is usually called the master gland because it produces many hormones that affect many processes in the body, and controls other glands that produce hormones as well. Hormones produced by the pituitary include:
- Prolactin – which causes the production of breast milk.
- Growth Hormone – which stimulates growth and helps to maintain bone and muscle mass.
- Follicle-stimulating hormone – which causes the production of eggs in the follicles of the ovaries in women, and production of sperm in men.
- Luteinizing Hormone – which stimulates the release of the egg in women (ovulation) and production of testosterone in men.
- Thyroid-stimulating Hormone – which stimulates the thyroid gland to product hormones which manage body metabolism, energy etc.
- Adrenocorticotropin Hormone – which stimulates the adrenal glands to product cortisol, also known as the ‘Stress Hormone’. This hormone is important to the body in times of danger, injury or illness.
- Antidiuretic Hormone – which helps to regulate the body’s water balance.
- Oxytocin – makes the flow of milk possible in breastfeeding mothers, and helps in labour.
- Pineal Gland (in the brain) – This is near the centre of the brain, and produces the hormone melatonin. This hormone is responsible for regulating the sleep patterns by controlling the biological (or circadian) rhythm and controlling some reproductive functions. The production of melatonin is regulated by light. Secretion is low during the day and high at night.
- Thyroid (including Parathyroid) – This is located in the front of the neck (just below the Adam’s apple) and uses Iodine to secrete thyroid hormones. These hormones control the metabolic functions and protein synthesis, helping to convert oxygen and calories to energy.
- Thymus – This is located just below the breast bone and has a lot to do with the immune system. They produce progenitor cells which grow into T-cells (Thymus-derived) and these help to fight infections and disease. It is usually large in infants and grows till puberty, and then begins to shrink at adulthood and replaced by fat.
- Pancreas – This is in the upper left abdomen behind the stomach. It creates insulin which helps to regulate blood sugar. It also converts food into fuel and aids digestion.
- Adrenal Glands – Also in the abdomen, these produce the hormones responsible for sex drive, and also cortisol, the Stress hormone.
- Ovaries (for females) and Testes (for males) – The ovaries are responsible for secreting oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone in order to control the reproductive cycle and conception. The testes produce testosterone, which create the sperm
Now that we understand what the endocrine glands are, and what exactly they do, let us talk about chemicals that disrupt or affect their proper functioning.
There are many chemical pollutants in the environment and in everyday products that we use, which studies show have an effect on the proper functioning of the endocrine and nervous systems.
These chemicals are able to mimic or block the hormones that are created by our endocrine glands, hence disrupting proper functioning. These chemical/pollutants include things like phthalates, alkylphenolic compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polychlorinated dibenzodioxins, organochlorine pesticides, bisphenol A, and heavy metals including lead, mercury, and cadmium
have been shown to disrupt endocrine function in animals.
The impact of these chemicals include thyroid issues such as hypothyroidism i.e. under-performing thyroid gland and hyperthyroidism i.e. over-performing thyroid glands, low sperm counts, fertility issues etc. Research has also shown that exposure to lead can cause impairment in cognitive functions, in learning and in concentration.
Everyday Products that contain these Chemicals
There are many everyday products that we use and are in our environment that act as endocrine disruptors. This is how we are exposed. They include:
- Children’s products such as toys, pacifier etc
- Food contact materials
- Electronics and building materials
- Personal care products
- Medical tubing
How can we minimise exposure?
Even though it might be hard to completely eliminate these chemicals from finding their way into our body, there are steps we can take to minimise exposure.
- Try to buy and eat organic food i.e. fruits and vegetables as much as possible.
- Rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly.
- Reduce consumption of processed foods. Cook healthy meals at home whenever possible.
- Reduce the use of plastics, especially those which go into the microwave. Never heat food in plastics. Opt for glassware instead.
- Reduce the use of household sprays,
- Use BPA-free and Phthalate-free plastics.
- Use paraben-free cosmetics. Try to use cosmetics with natural or organic ingredients
- Dont use products with synthetic fragrances. Try and use essential oils which are natural for fragrances.
- Use water fiilters.