You may not often think about it (or maybe you don’t even know it exists), but the endocrine system plays a crucial role in your health and wellness. The endocrine system involves a network of glands and organs that produce, store, and secrete hormones, according to the Endocrine Society. It’s made up of different glands, including the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and pineal gland in your brain, as well as the thyroid and parathyroid glands are in your neck.
When functioning normally, the endocrine system works with other systems to regulate your body's healthy development and function throughout life. But trouble can arise when endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs, or endocrine disruptors) interrupt the way the endocrine system works.
“Endocrine disruptors are man-made chemicals found in the environment that can change the way that hormones work in the body, often in harmful ways,” explains Dr. Jessica Chan, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Cedars-Sinai. (Learn more about how hormone levels can indicate your fertility here.)
They’re most commonly found in plastic bottles, food cans, cosmetics, and medications. The worst offender are BPA (Bisphosphenol-A), phthalates and certain pesticides, which are pretty prevalent in our environment, Dr. Chan says.
Effects of Endocrine Disruptors
Some endocrine disruptors mimic the way our natural hormones work, tricking our body into thinking that they are hormones, while other EDCs block natural hormones from doing their job. Other EDCs can increase or decrease the levels of hormones in our blood by affecting how they are made, broken down, or stored in our body.
These chemicals can disrupt the female (and male) reproductive systems and lead to conditions such as infertility, as well as obesity, diabetes, and even cancer, Dr. Chan explains. Other effects include altered reproductive function in males and females, abnormal growth patterns and neurodevelopmental delays in children, as well as changes in immune function.
“While everyone is at risk of exposure and the harmful impact of endocrine disruptors, children and pregnant women can be at higher risk,” Dr. Chan says. “Because EDCs are so pervasive in the environment, it is nearly impossible to avoid all EDCs. That said, it would be good for women of childbearing age to minimize their exposure as much as possible.”
5 ways to Minimize Your Exposure to Endocrine Disruptors
- Limit your use of plastic bottles for drinking water — use a reusable stainless steel/glass bottle instead
- Look for "BPA-free and BPS-free” on labels before purchasing plastic items.
- Avoid microwaving food in plastic containers.
- Swap out plastic Tupperware for glassware instead.
- Look for phthalate-free cosmetics and personal care products