Much of the concern about synthetic chemicals surrounds their potential for hormonal imbalance. You’ve probably heard many of these toxins described as “estrogen mimickers” and “endocrine disruption.” But what do these terms mean? Why are they harmful?
The green-living movement tends to appeal to women because, per our society’s gender roles, they are often the ones providing child care and keeping house. As we achieve greater equality, though, it’s important that everyone understand the roles of these chemicals in our lives.
Just as men, women, and nonbinary people all have both testosterone and estrogen, we are all susceptible to hormone-disrupting chemicals. Read on to learn about the health effects of estrogen mimickers and testosterone detractors.
Estrogen and Testosterone: A Delicate Balance
How Estrogen Works
Many people assume that women have estrogen and men have testosterone, but in truth, all humans have both hormones. They are each responsible for key organ functions — and not just for reproductive health.
Estrogen regulates everything from synapse formation in the brain to osteoblast activity and resulting bone strength. The estrogen decline during menopause is a primary reason that older women are prone to osteoporosis. Along with vitamin D, a crucial hormone, estrogen promotes cardiovascular health by helping arteries and heart tissue absorb calcium.
And of course, estrogen works alongside progesterone to stimulate egg release, breast milk production, and vaginal/uterine health.
You may be thinking: estrogen sounds pretty great. Why shouldn’t we want more of it?
As with anything, hormones require balance. More is not always better. While low estrogen levels can contribute to cardiovascular disease, loss of bone density, and general malaise, excessive estrogen is linked to increased cancer risk, inflammation, and depression. We can see some effects of estrogen imbalance during puberty in the form of acne, anxiety, and weight gain. Puberty entails a new flood of estradiol, a type of estrogen that is actually converted from testosterone.
Chronically high estrogen levels exacerbate these symptoms. Worse, they disrupt the body’s signals for cell growth and activity in the reproductive system. That’s why exposure to bisphenol A (BPA), a known estrogen mimic, has been linked to a higher risk of cancer in the breasts and genitals. Often found in reusable plastic containers and food liners, BPA is one of the most common xenoestrogens.
And that applies to biological males as well.
How Testosterone Works
Testosterone is often portrayed as estrogen’s male counterpart, and in a sense, that’s true. It is responsible for the development of male reproductive organs and the production of sperm. It’s also linked to muscle strength and body hair growth, which we typically associate with men.
However, testosterone is crucial to overall bone and muscle health. In biological females, it is produced in these ovaries, where it played a huge role in egg release. Studies have also linked testosterone to assertive social behavior and physiological motivation — such as our urge to achieve our desires or defend ourselves. This does NOT mean that testosterone = aggression, although it plays a role.
For all those reasons, testosterone provides a vital balance to estrogen’s effects and functions. While estrogen encourages bone density, testosterone boosts the accompanying muscle strength. While estrogen can lower our mood, testosterone can boost it.
And as with estrogen, too much testosterone can be just as harmful as too little. Low testosterone can impair reproductive function, muscle-building, and libido, but high testosterone can cause weight gain, acne, low sperm count, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart disease.
When estrogen levels are abnormally high, though, they negatively affect reproductive systems, energy levels, metabolism, and overall mood. Like women, as men age, their sex hormone production drops. Also, their age and lifestyle impact the level of aromatase, an enzyme that converts testosterone into androgen.
So, those declining testosterone levels can no longer counterbalance the estrogen. And if chemicals are mimicking estrogen’s effects, men may become estrogen-dominant. This condition causes weight gain, lethargy, depression, anxiety, high cholesterol, and a much higher risk of prostate, testicular, or urinary disease.
In short, the imbalance of estrogen and testosterone is the problem. But we’re much more likely to have extra estrogen because of these synthetic chemicals, also called xenoestrogens.
Lifestyle Effects on Hormone Disruption
We are surrounded by xenoestrogens, which appear in everything from personal care products to lawn chemicals to food packaging. Even if we don’t come into actual contact with them, they are embedded in our soil and flowing through our rivers. This means our food and water could be contaminated. Environmental xenoestrogens have been linked to reproductive defects, delayed puberty, and cognitive impairment.
It isn’t just the chemicals, though. The stress hormone, cortisol, suppresses testosterone. It may sound counterproductive, given that testosterone is linked to aggression. However, cortisol mediates the “fight or flight” response — and fighting isn’t always ideal for survival. High cortisol evolved to help us escape a saber-toothed cat.
In modern society, though, chronic stress is much more likely to kill us than any predator. With chronic stress comes elevated cortisol that can reduce testosterone levels, allowing estrogen to dominate. For both men and women, this can lead to fatigue, low social behavior, poor mood and libido, and cardiovascular strain.
As menopause is associated with declining estrogen, you may wonder why we should worry about xenoestrogens. Could the increased level be beneficial? In short, no, because estrogen mimics are exactly that: fakes. In fact, exposure to xenoestrogens has been linked to early menopause. In one study of more than 31,000 women, those with the highest blood levels of phthalates, pesticides, and PCBs started menopause almost 4 years earlier on average.
It’s all about balance. The problem is that our modern lifestyle introduces estrogen overload from multiple factors. We are not only overstressed but also surrounded by parabens, phthalates (found in fragrance and thin plastic), PFAS, and PCBs, industrial chemicals that have been banned yet linger in our soil and many buildings — all xenoestrogens.
How to Correct Estrogen Dominance or Hormone Imbalance
While we’re making strides to remove parabens and other endocrine disruptors from products, we’ll likely still be exposed to them in our environments. It’s crucial to restore your hormonal balance as soon as possible. In addition to removing as many xenoestrogens as possible from your household, here are some lifestyle changes to consider.
Reduce your stress. Easier said than done, right? But often, we have greater control over our stress than the larger problems of pollution and toxic products. Make an effort to de-stress with regular relaxation, low-impact activities, and positive relationships. Be willing to unplug from your job and social media.
Eat healthier. Hormones are made from cholesterol — the good kind. By consuming healthy fats such as omega-3s, you also improve your cell membranes’ permeability, allowing hormones to work more efficiently. Nuts, seeds, certain fruits, and seafood are all excellent sources of omega-3s (Tip: Choose wild-caught fish whenever possible.)
Consume lots of cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, etc.). They contain indole-3-carbinol that helps your liver remove excess hormones and restore balance.
Avoid omega-6 fats (canola oil, safflower oil, corn oil) and partially hydrogenated oils (aka trans fats) as much as possible. They are inflammatory agents that lead to higher blood pressure and cardiac stress, which can lead to estrogen dominance.
Consume plenty of Vitamin D, which acts as a hormone. It stimulates estrogen production (in moderation) and helps osteoblasts convert calcium in your bones. (And in turn, estrogen modulates osteoblast activity.)
Note: If you’re male, don’t worry about the alleged “feminizing” effects of phytoestrogens found in fruits, legumes, seeds, and nuts. These have much less of an effect than the estrogen mimicry of synthetic chemicals, and the heart-healthy benefits of these foods are especially important for males, who are more prone to cardiovascular disease.
In an ideal world, we would live in perfect balance with nature and within ourselves. Sadly, that’s not the case. Both internal and external toxins are throwing hormones out of whack — for men, women, and non-binary people alike. With conscientious consumption and specific lifestyle changes, we can benefit more fully from both estrogen’s and testosterone’s effects.
This article is inspired by an interview with Dr. Deborah Matthew, also known as America’s Happy Hormones Doctor.