Everyday Toxins and Menopause
As important as regular physical activity and a nutritious diet are to maintaining our health throughout middle age, there is one other factor that deserves equal attention: personal toxins. These are substances we are exposed to on a daily basis simply by living, breathing, eating, and drinking, and participating in modern society. Often without even realizing it, these toxins are getting into our bodies and having a detrimental impact on our health.
What kind of toxins should you be worried about?
Some of the most attention-worthy personal toxins are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which include substances like phthalates, BPA, parabens, PBDE’s, heavy metals and PCBs, that we frequently hear about in everyday things like plastic bottles and food containers. Because EDCs are found so widely in consumer products and are persistent in our environment (even if they were banned years ago), it is estimated that nearly 100% of people have detectable amounts of endocrine disruptors in their body today, as a result of lifetime exposures. Many people are not aware that EDC exposure is ubiquitous in daily life and may include drinking water, household cleaners, laundry detergents, perfume, cash register receipts, personal care products, mattresses, and furniture.
Why endocrine disruptors impact menopause
Endocrine disruptors are called this for a reason; they mimic hormones that are inherent in the body, like estrogens, androgens, and thyroid hormones, and actually block or interfere with natural hormone processes. One study on flame retardants and thyroid disease in middle-aged women in the United States found that exposure to certain EDCs appeared to be associated with thyroid disease, especially in post-menopausal women, which suggests that hormone disruption could be further affected by menopausal estrogen levels. Menopausal and postmenopausal women may also have age working against their favor when it comes to EDC exposure, having less ability to fend off toxic effects of these substances in the body.
Long-term effects of toxins
The long-term effects of having these chemicals in our bodies are not yet entirely understood, but presumably the more they accumulate (through ingestion, inhaling, and absorption through the skin), the higher our risk for adverse impacts later in life. Research has shown correlations between certain toxins and increased risk for developing chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.
Even more concerning for women, both animal and human studies have shown damage to reproductive function from exposure to certain EDCs, leading to things like endometrial, breast, and ovarian cancer. Other impacts include early puberty, infertility, miscarriage, polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, painful uterine fibroids, and shortened lactation. Environmental contaminants appear to play a role in the timing of menopause. One study from 2015 on organic pollutants and early menopause found that women who were exposed to EDCs were six times more likely to experience earlier menopause onset (prior to the average age of onset of 51 years). The study also suggests 15 chemicals that warrant further investigation into their harmful effects on the ovaries specifically.
What are the toxins in your everyday life?
Chemical ingredients in the consumer products we use every day are unfortunately widely untested and unregulated, requiring no clinical trials or prior approval from the FDA before entering the marketplace. Even consumers who are aware of potential concerns may be fooled by convincing or confusing labels that don’t really mean anything, like the words “natural” or “gentle”. Until the impacts of personal toxins are more clearly understood, it is important to know what we may be exposed to on a daily basis and what we can do to reduce our exposures right now.
Some of the major ways through which we are exposed to EDCs in everyday life, and what we can do about them, are outlined below.
Endocrine disruptors can be found in both food and food contact products, or the packaging food comes in, is heated in, or stored in. The Centre for Food Safety lists some of the major endocrine disruptors in our food system as being organochlorine pesticides (found in fatty foods such as dairy and fish, as well as contaminated drinking water), PCBs (found in animal fat), and BPA (found in foods packaged in plastic and coated containers or cans). Purchasing foods that are local and organic as much as possible can help reduce EDC content that may be present in items from the larger industrial food system. Eating a more plant-based diet can reduce exposure to hormones often added to farmed animals that end up in consumer meat products. Colorful plant foods are also high in antioxidants, which have a protective effect on our health, especially when grown organically. When choosing produce at the grocery store, get to know the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15 lists provided by the Environmental Working Group, which tell us which fruits and vegetables typically have the most, and the least, endocrine-disrupting pesticide contamination.
2. Your Home
Think about everything you have inside of your home that your family uses and touches every day. How many of those items contain, or are stored in, plastic? Plastic is a popular vehicle for BPA exposure. That means it’s time to ditch those Tupperware sets, or at least find a new non-food use for them, like arts and crafts. Instead, store food and beverages in glass containers or mason jars with screw top lids. When defrosting or heating food, use a microwave safe glass dish and avoid covering with plastic wrap. Trade in those old nonstick pots and pans for some cast iron or stainless steel ones. Rather than purchasing a case of water in plastic bottles, put a water filter on your sink (most new refrigerators come with a filter now, too!) and use this to fill a stainless steel or glass water bottle. Replace plastic cooking utensils with bamboo or stainless steel versions. In this interview, I recommend other good household practices for reducing EDC exposure, like removing shoes before coming inside, opening windows often for ventilation, avoiding petroleum-based air fresheners, dusting weekly to remove common pesticides and allergens, and placing a filter in the shower.
3. Personal Care Products
Some of the biggest EDC contributors are the products we use on our bodies on a daily basis, like cosmetics, soaps, fragrance, and other toiletries. In fact, the Harvard School of Public Health says that the average American is exposed to over 100 harmful chemicals before leaving the house in the morning. Avoid triclosan in antibacterial hand soaps, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, and ammonia lauryl sulfate in shampoos, toluene in fragrances. The Environmental Working Group recommends avoiding the ingredients DMDM hydantoin, Diazolidinyl urea, Imidazolidinyl urea, Ceteareth PEG, and polyethylene in cosmetics and perfumes, and Retinyl Palmitate and Oxybenzone in sunscreens. The good news is that there are brands out there working to raise awareness about the toxins found in personal care items and create safer products for us, many of which can be found at stores we regularly visit. Check out Skin Safe or the Skin Deep Cosmetic Database to find better options.
4. Your Cleaning and Pest Control Products
Harsh chemicals used for cleaning and pest control have a significant impact on public health as well as the environment. When your kids (or spouse) have made everything disgusting again, remember that basic ingredients can work well for everyday cleanup, too, like various concoctions of baking soda, lemon juice, white vinegar, rubbing alcohol, and salt. Natural weed killers can be made with white vinegar or simply boiling water or salt water for the ones that grow on sidewalk and driveway cracks. A flame-weeder tool applies direct heat to weeds and can be found at most garden stores. Homemade pesticides made from soapy water, garlic spray or vegetable oil with a mild soap can effective at keeping insects away without spreading hazardous chemicals around your home.
Whether in premenopause, perimenopause, or postmenopause, we can take action right now when it comes to reducing our EDC exposure from everyday consumer products and lifestyle habits. Just a few simple changes can create a cleaner and less toxic household, which can have significant impacts on midlife changes as well as protective effects on our overall health, now and in the years to come. For more information and support around your menopause journey, as well as ideas for symptom relief, join us over at Lisa Health.
Dr. Melissa Young is board-certified in Internal Medicine and is a Certified Functional Medicine specialist through the Institute for Functional Medicine. She has completed a two-year Residential Integrative Medicine Fellowship with the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, Tucson, studying with Andrew Weil, a pioneer in the field of Integrative Medicine. Dr. Young practices Functional Medicine at the Center for Functional Medicine at Cleveland Clinic and specializes in women’s health.