Having a good sex hormone balance is part of overall health for men and women. Sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone and testosterone) impact all of our body systems. Stress, thyroid function and body fat percentage are some of the major factors that impact hormone balance, but I want to talk about an insidious hormone-disrupting pollutant in our environment and what to do out it.
Phthalates are chemicals used in plastics. There are many different types of phthalates, and they can be found in many different products we buy: personal care products, cosmetics, building materials and children’s toys, for example. We are also exposed to phthalates through our food and drinking water because of pollution. Every one of us has phthalates inside our bodies.
It is difficult to study the health effects of phthalates because there are so many different ones. However, evidence is accumulating that they do have at least a mild, negative health impact. Associations have been found between phthalates and pregnancy outcomes, sexual development, asthma, eczema and childhood behaviour, among other things.
Most recent research has focused on how phthalates affect men and boys. Phthalates reduce production of testosterone, and our cells’ ability to respond to testosterone. A recent study found that among couples who wanted to have children, higher levels of phthalates in the men was associated with a longer period spent trying to conceive before pregnancy occurred. Higher phthalate levels were also associated with a lower semen volume and lower sperm count.
Avoiding phthalates in the things you buy reduces your level of phthalates. One study found that when the participants stopped using any plastics for preparing, serving or storing food, urine levels of three different types of phthalates dropped by 50% or more after three days. Glass food storage containers are now widely available. As a replacement for plastic wrap, check out beeswax-infused cloths. One brand is Abeego, found at www.abeego.com. P’lovers at 123 Princess St. carries it.
The Skin Deep Cosmetics Database produced by the Environmental Working Group can help you find personal care products, fragrances and makeup that are phthalate-free. In addition to having access to the database at their website (www.ewg.org/skindeep), you can also get their app for your smartphone. This app allows you to scan the barcode of a product you’re interested in and pull up all the safety information. You can do it as you shop!
In Ontario, it is an accepted practice for farmers to spread processed municipal waste on their farmland, as a fertilizer. This is one way that phthalates could appear in the vegetables we buy. Purchasing your veggies at small farms is one way to avoid it. Two farms I can recommend are Kitchen Garden (www.thekitchengarden.ca), whose vegetables you can buy at the Market Square, and Fat Chance Farmstead (www.fatchancefarmstead.com/), who sell their vegetables through a community-supported agriculture program. There are many other well-established vegetable farms in the Kingston area.
There may be ways to help our body handle the phthalates that we cannot avoid being exposed to. One study conducted in India found that supplementing with resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine, protected against the detrimental effects that one particular phthalate had on the testicles of rats. This research should be further developed to see if it can apply to humans, and to determine if other antioxidants are helpful as well.
To summarize, phthalates affect our hormone systems, but they are not the most important factor when it comes to sex hormone balance. When we can avoid them, we should.