The endocrine system: what role do hormones play?
We all know that maintaining a balanced diet and exercising regularly during pregnancy is crucial for your well-being and for your growing baby. But there’s another critical, yet often overlooked element that can also affect your and your unborn baby’s health: your exposure to chemicals and toxic substances in our daily environment.
You may vaguely remember learning about the endocrine system in biology class, the network of hormones and glands that regulate and control the activity of our cells and major organs. Although we seldom think about it, hormones coordinate vital bodily functions and play an essential role in your baby’s growth, tissue function, metabolism, nervous system and reproductive development.
When hormones are out of balance, so is everything else. Understanding the main triggers of imbalance can help prevent certain health issues that can potentially affect your unborn child. Read on to find out how certain chemicals, identified as endocrine disruptors, can negatively impact your baby's growth and healthy development when present in large quantities and used frequently, and how to best protect yourself from them during pregnancy.
What exactly are endocrine disruptors? How can they affect the fetus?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines an endocrine disruptor as: “an exogenous substance or mixture that alters function(s) of the endocrine system and consequently causes adverse health effects in an intact organism, its progeny, or subpopulations.” In other words, endocrine disruptors are natural or synthetic substances that can directly interfere with your and your baby’s normal hormonal functions, potentially causing developmental issues and health defects in infants, as well as disabilities, illnesses and disorders later in life.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) can alter a baby’s hormonal ecosystem in different ways, by:
- inhibiting, activating and/or modifying the natural production of certain hormones and interfering with cellular signaling;
- mimicking hormonal function and substituting natural hormones;
- increasing the production of certain hormones and decreasing the production of others, causing an imbalance.
Unfortunately, we’re exposed to a wide range of environmental pollutants, contaminants and chemical substances on a daily basis. In addition to being found in contaminated drinking water, processed foods, toys, food containers, plastic bottles, medication and pesticides, endocrine-disrupting chemicals also lurk in an alarming number of personal care and household products, including face and body washes, perfumes and fragrances, cosmetics, sunscreens, laundry detergents, cleaning products and more.
When ingested, absorbed or inhaled, these substances can potentially affect your baby’s health, especially during phases of accelerated development: in utero and throughout childhood. According to the Endocrine Society, a renowned international organization specializing in the field of endocrinology, the critical period of development, known as the “window of susceptibility,” is between the transition from a fertilized egg into a fully formed infant. As cells begin to grow and differentiate, there are critical hormone balances and protein changes that must occur for normal development.
Therefore, a potent dose of disrupting chemicals can cause substantial damage to a developing fetus. Frequent prenatal exposure to endocrine disruptors can adversely affect the growing fetus, especially when organs are developing. Also, young children, especially newborns, are highly susceptible to chemical substances. Because their organs are still immature, they’re incapable of metabolizing and eliminating toxins, making them more susceptible to potential developmental defects before birth and throughout childhood.
So how does it happen? EDCs can interfere with how genes are programmed in the unborn child’s developing tissues, changing how they would ordinarily respond to the normal chemical signals that control bodily functions as the child matures. As a matter of fact, a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found traces of numerous chemicals, pollutants and consumer products in the umbilical cord blood of the 10 american babies it tested. Of the 287 chemicals detected in the group, 180 were found to be cancer-causing, 217 to be toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 to cause birth defects or abnormal development in animals. Another study conducted by the EWG concluded that issues such as low birth weights, preterm births, birth defects and certain cancers were linked to EDCs found in cosmetics and other personal care products.
What are the long-term implications of prenatal exposure to EDCs?
Studies have shown that prolonged exposure to industrial chemicals and contaminants can affect a baby’s well-being over time by causing subtle, but important changes in early development that can manifest later in childhood and adulthood, such as learning and cognitive disabilities, behavioral problems, nervous system imbalances and autism.
Long-term repercussions depend on the amount, frequency, length of time and type of chemical to which a mother-to-be and her baby are exposed. While it’s difficult for researchers to predict their exact effect on your health or your baby’s, there appears to be a causal link between hormone-related malfunctions and continued exposure to endocrine disruptors, although more studies are underway to better understand this correlation.
Moreover, the combination of EDCs in consumer products we use on a regular basis can also exacerbate toxicity levels, otherwise known as the “cocktail effect”. Although very weakly active on their own, some chemicals have the ability to bind simultaneously to a receptor located in the cell nucleus and activate synergistically. In the long term, repeated exposure to EDCs at a young age can potentially lead to a number of health issues in adulthood, such as cancer, diabetes, fertility problems, neurodegenerative disorders and more.
What does this mean? Should I avoid certain skincare products altogether?
Let’s focus on personal care products for a moment. Did you know that the average woman uses around 12 personal care products every day, exposing herself to approximately 168 unique chemicals? Although face and body creams contain a negligible dose of endocrine- disrupting chemicals, when used daily and in conjunction with other personal care products, household products and more, those skin-penetrating chemicals — combined with our exposure to EDCs from other sources (the cocktail effect) —can accumulate and increase our chances of developing health problems in the long run.
By definition, cosmetics are products that are limited to act on the surface of the skin. If we cannot say that their ingredients are completely absorbed into the bloodstream, we can still decide to pay special attention to endocrine disruptors as advised by the EWG.
8 most common endocrine disruptors hiding in your personal care and household products
While it may be impossible to live entirely EDC-free, below are 8 common hormone disruptors found in many personal care and household brands, according to the EWG. Learn how they can impact you and your growing baby’s health and how to avoid them.
1) Bisphenol A (BPA)
Commonly found in: plastic food containers and jars.
BPA molecules leach into foods from plastic containers and can easily make their way into our body. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 93% of Americans carry traces of BPA in their bodies. In a study conducted by the EWG, BPA was detected in 9 out of 10 cord blood samples. This synthetic estrogen can trick the body into thinking it’s the real deal. BPAs have been linked to breast and other types of cancer, reproductive problems, obesity, early puberty and heart disease.
How to avoid it? Make sure that any canned or plasticized packaging you buy doesn’t contain BPA. Instead, look for plasticized packaging made of High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE). Avoid canned food altogether if you’re pregnant, and plastics marked with a “PC,” for polycarbonate. For more tips, check out EWG’s guide to BPA.
Commonly found in: plastic containers and toys, hair sprays, nail polish, perfume, household and hair care products.
Phthalates such as Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) are synthetic plasticizers used, among other things, to carry fragrance and make scents last longer, soften and strengthen plastic and help skincare products like lotions and cosmetics adhere to the skin. Phthalates may be particularly hazardous to pregnant women and babies. The chemicals pose risks to the fetus’ developing reproductive system, brain, and other organs. Studies have also shown that phthalates can trigger hormonal changes, lower sperm count and cause birth defects, obesity, diabetes and thyroid irregularities.
How to avoid them? Avoid plastic food containers and toys, and plastic wrap made from PVC. Read the labels carefully and avoid products that list added “fragrance,” since it may sometimes mean hidden phthalates.
3) Chemical UV filters
Commonly found in: sunscreens, cosmetics with sun protection such as lip balm, makeup and moisturizers.
Note that this type of ingredient has been analyzed and studied by major international scientific committees such as the CIR and SCCS. These committees determine if their use is safe or not in cosmetics, but they especially set limits on the quantity of use if necessary.
However, the European Commission recommends, for example, that oxybenzone is used in a concentration of up to 2.2%, but U.S. manufacturers are legally allowed to use it in a concentration of up to 6%. As a result, hundreds of sunscreen products manufactured in the U.S. far exceed the doses recommended by the European Commission. That's why the EWG recommends avoiding them altogether.
Found in nearly 65% of non-mineral sunscreens according to the EWG’s sunscreen database, Oxybenzone can penetrate deep into the skin and reach the fetus through the placenta. Research indicates that it can disrupt the hormonal system of newborns and has been linked to low birth weights.
Known to have a high skin absorption rate, this common sunscreen ingredient has hormone-mimicking effects on the body. It can interfere with cellular signaling and cause biochemical changes. Studies have shown that Octinoxate has a direct influence on reproductive hormones in animals.
How to avoid them? Choose natural mineral sunscreens that contain physical filters such as non-nano Zinc oxide to protect your skin — and your baby’s — from chemicals and the sun’s harmful rays.
4) Parabens or Methylisothiazolinone (MIT)
Commonly found in: pharmaceutical, cosmetic and personal care products, including sunscreen.
Parabens, which are often replaced by equally disturbing ingredients like Methylisothiazolinone (MIT), are preservatives used in many cosmetic and personal care products. They can be are associated with developmental disorders, immune dysfunction and reproductive disorders. While Methylparaben is the most commonly used, watch out for other parabens such as ethyl-, propyl-, isopropyl-, butyl- and isobutyl-parabens, which are known to be hazardous to health according to the EWG.
As with chemical UV filters, these ingredients have been analyzed and studied by major international scientific committees such as the CIR and the SCCS. These committees determine if their use is safe or not in cosmetics, but especially to set limits on the quantity of use if necessary. Unfortunately, the dosage used often exceeds the recommendations.
How to avoid them? Check labels and avoid products containing the aforementioned parabens.
Commonly found in: antibacterial soaps and hand washes, toothpaste, deodorant and facial cleansing wipes.
Triclosan is an antibacterial compound found in soaps, hand washes and toothpaste, as well as in other consumer products like cleansing wipes. When used frequently or in large amounts, it can interfere with the thyroid hormone, and may be linked to emotional problems and hyperactivity in kids between the ages of three and five. While it's not currently proven to be hazardous for adults in small doses according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), tests on animals have shown hormonal effects that warrant further scientific and regulatory review.
How to avoid it? Avoid "antibacterial" soaps and check for Triclosan in toothpastes and Triclocarban (an ingredient in the same family) in bar soaps.
6) BHA and BHT
Commonly used as a preservative and found in: lipstick and lip balms, makeup, deodorant, food packaging and chewing gum.
Usually combined, BHA (Butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (Butylated hydroxytoluene) are synthetic preservatives that can be absorbed through the skin and affect the baby’s endocrine system. Studies show that high doses of BHT may cause developmental defects, thyroid problems and behavioral issues in children. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies BHA as a possible human carcinogen. The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has also listed BHA as a Category 1 Priority Substance, based on its level of neurotoxicity and hormonal disruption.
How to avoid them? BHA and BHT are required to be listed on product labels, so keep an eye out for them in cosmetics, personal care and food items.
Commonly found in: shaving creams, disposable wipes, cosmetics, plasticizers, detergents, emulsifiers, hair dyes and medication.
Phenols such as Alkylphenols and Alkylphenols-ethonylates are known to have an estrogenic effect on the body. An epidemiological study carried out by Inserm (the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research) on 500 boys born between 2003 and 2006 and their mothers, demonstrated that exposure to certain phenols present in various products used daily by them during pregnancy that were associated with behavioral problems in children between the ages of three and five.
How to avoid them? Watch out for any naming ending with -phenol on product labels.
8) Glycol ethers
Commonly found in: cleaning products, certain cosmetics and paint.
These common solvents “may damage fertility or the unborn child.” Studies have linked exposure to certain glycol ethers to blood abnormalities and lower sperm count. There are also more cases of asthma and allergies in children who were exposed to glycol ethers from paint in their bedrooms.
How to avoid them? Consult the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning and avoid products containing 2-Butoxyethanol (EGBE) and Methoxydiglycol (DEGME).
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