In today’s world, it is exceptionally challenging to minimize one’s exposure to environmental toxins.
This is because virtually all the food we ingest and the household products we utilize have been processed. In fact, organic foods and products now carry a higher price tag because of the costs involved to minimize cross-contamination.
To make things worse, these environmental toxins have lengthy and complicated names. Reading the labels at the back of food, personal care products, and household items is not informative because of the complex chemical nature of these toxins.
Furthermore, it is difficult to identify these chemicals because they are often colorless and odorless. In this article, we discuss one of these environmental toxins – xenoestrogens.
What Are Xenoestrogens?
Xenoestrogens are chemicals that are similar to estrogens produced by the human body. Xenoestrogens may act as synthetic estrogens or even interfere with the actions of customarily produced estrogens.
Proponents of men’s health have widely discussed xenoestrogens. This is because current thinking holds that they can disrupt normal human hormones.
There are concerns that xenoestrogens can enter human cells and turn genes on or off, by binding to human DNA (Eubanks, 2004). Xenoestrogens can be considered to be ‘foreign’ estrogens. They are close enough in molecular structure to human estrogen.
This means that xenoestrogens can bind to estrogen receptors, which are normally present in human cells. Although xenoestrogens sound foreign, they are present in many household items, foods, and water systems that we interact with daily. Examples of xenoestrogens are listed below:
- Herbicide used to control weeds that grow in corn, wheat, and sugarcane.
- Applied to Christmas trees and golf courses
- 2nd largest selling pesticide globally
- Bisphenol A (BPA)
- Used to manufacture polycarbonate plastic
- Used to make epoxy resins
- One of the highest-volume chemicals produced globally
- Used in pesticides until being banned in 1972
- Continues to be used in other parts of the world
- Accumulates in fat cells
- Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
- Used to produce insulating fluid and coolants
- Banned in 1979, but continues to persist environmentally
- Provide durability and flexibility to plastics
- Used in flooring, wall coatings and medical devices such as tubing
- Found in cosmetics, perfumes, varnishes, and lacquers
- Used as a steroid growth enhancer for cattle in the USA
- Banned in European countries since 1985
- Present in meat products as a contaminant
Although the xenoestrogens described above are mainly from chemical sources, they can come from plants as well. Xenoestrogens, which are present in plants, are termed as phytoestrogens.
Phytoestrogens are plant derivatives that are similar in structure to estrogen. They also bind to estrogen receptors but are usually weaker than human estrogens.
In this article, we discuss the benefits and harms of xenoestrogens. We go through the differences between xenoestrogens and phytoestrogens. We also talk about the effects of these estrogen mimics on men’s health and health in general.
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The Importance of Estrogen
Before we discuss the effects of xenoestrogens, it is essential to understand the normal function of estrogen. Although many people believe that estrogen is only present in females, this could not be further from the truth.
Indeed, the natural hormone estrogen is present in both men and women and is involved in both male and female reproduction (Hamilton et al., 2017). The functions of estrogen are listed below (Wise et al., 2009; Cauley, 2015; Giordano et al., 2015):
During puberty in men and women, estrogen aids in the development and fusion of the bones
Estrogen protects bones by inactivating osteoclasts. Osteoclast activity can lead to osteoporosis.
Estrogen increases high-density lipoprotein (HDL). HDL can be construed as healthy cholesterol
Estrogen reduces low-density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL can be construed as unhealthy cholesterol.
Estrogen lowers total plasma cholesterol and reduces the risk of coronary artery disease in both men and women.
Estrogen has scientifically validated neuroprotective effects.
Estrogen protects against neuronal death and stimulates the birth of new neurons.
Estrogen can mitigate the effects of a stroke.
Estrogen is responsible for the development of breast tissue.
Estrogen facilitates changes in breast development during puberty.
During pregnancy, estrogen stimulates the production and secretion of breast milk.
Estrogen helps to stimulate the growth of uterine-lining cells during the menstrual cycle.
Estrogen thickens the uterine lining in preparation for pregnancy.
Estrogen supports the growth of vaginal and vulval cells.
In the absence of estrogen, women experience thinning and dryness of the vagina.
The role of estrogen is multi-faceted. Estrogen is essential not just for women’s health, but for men’s health as well. Estrogen is vital for strong bone development, the maintenance of healthy coronary arteries, and neuroprotection.
What Effects Can Xenoestrogens Have On Health?
Just as estrogens have effects on virtually every organ system in the human body, xenoestrogens too affect different systems. In this section, we comprehensively evaluate the systemic effects of xenoestrogens on the human body.
Pregnancy and Fetal Development
Xenoestrogens have been shown to negatively impact fertility, pregnancy and even the development of a fetus (Paterni et al., 2017)
Exposure to xenoestrogens has been shown to have cancer-causing and mutating effects on the cells of a growing baby (Palmlund, 1996)
One 2014 study found that exposure to xenoestrogens, while a woman is pregnant, leads to changes in the genetic sequence in the placenta.
The placenta is a vital tissue for fetal growth and development. Hence, genetic changes in the placenta can negatively affect growth and development (Vilahur et al., 2014)
Fertility in Men & Women
Xenoestrogens have been found to be responsible for the decrease in both the quantity and quality of human sperm in the last five decades (Götz et al., 2001)
Xenoestrogens impair the development of the testes and the male reproductive tract.
This is because estrogens are responsible for facilitating puberty in adolescent boys.
Xenoestrogens competitively inhibit human estrogen and selectively bind to estrogen receptors.
In the same way, xenoestrogens also interfere with the development of the female reproductive tract.
Xenoestrogens can lead to the formation of cysts in ovaries. This condition is known as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) (Götz et al., 2001)
Xenoestrogens such as DDT have been shown to interfere with neural development in pregnancy.
Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) have also been shown to cause neurological diseases. These diseases include long-term neurological deficits and problems with learning and memory function.
Children who have been exposed to PCBs through the consumption of fish during pregnancy have been shown to exhibit problems with intellectual functioning.
Children who have been exposed to PCBs have a poorer gross motor function and reduced visual recognition memory.
Adult men and women with high PCB levels have symptoms of neurotoxicity. These symptoms include slower reaction time, reduced color discrimination, and constricted visual fields. They also have diminished vocabulary and verbal recall (Crinnion, 2011)
Cardiovascular Effects in Men & Women
Xenoestrogens are an independent risk factor for systemic inflammation and cardiovascular disease.
Higher xenoestrogen levels are correlated with metabolic dysfunction.
Several environmental xenoestrogens such as aldrin, lindane, and DDE accumulate preferentially in humans.
This accumulation of xenoestrogens can accelerate the accumulation of fat, both inside and outside the blood vessels.
This leads to the development of obesity as well as coronary artery disease due to the accumulation of fatty plaque (Teixeira et al., 2015)
Xenoestrogens and Men’s Health
Several of the health effects of xenoestrogens apply to both men and women. Indeed, xenoestrogens can affect one’s health negatively from conception, all the way through adulthood.
One impact of xenoestrogens in men is the increased risk of prostate cancer. There is growing evidence from both human and animal studies, that specific xenoestrogen can disrupt the endocrine function in men and either cause or accelerate the development of prostate cancer (Prins, 2008).
Examples of these xenoestrogens include PCBs, inorganic arsenic, ultraviolet filters, BPA, and cadmium. On that note, xenoestrogens have also been associated with the development of breast cancer and ovarian cancer (Fucic et al., 2012).
One recent 2019 study found that xenoestrogens exacerbated the growth of prostate cancer cells by interfering with the signaling actions of estrogen that are usually produced in the human body (Watson et al., 2019).
Estrogen dominance occurs when the ratio of estrogen to progesterone levels sways too much one way or another., resulting in a hormonal imbalance. The adrenal glands and testes in males produce natural progesterone.
The reduction in testosterone levels in an aging man and the increase in estrogen levels are natural occurrences of aging. However, the degree to which these things occur and how early they occur are consequences of diet and lifestyle.
DHT is a highly active form of the sex hormone testosterone that irritates the prostate. That irritation can initially cause enlargement and inflammation of the prostate.
When the high levels of DHT become chronic, it causes benign prostate hyperplasia (BHP). If the chronic condition persists, it can also, if neglected, turn into prostate cancer. This position was widely accepted for years, but it is now controversial in the current medical literature.
Estrogen and progesterone are two of the primary sex hormones involved in the many everyday biological functions that occur in our bodies.
How Can You Minimize Your Exposure to Xenoestrogens?
There are several steps that you can take to minimize your exposure to xenoestrogens. By now, you should be aware of the types of xenoestrogens and their harmful effects on the various systems in your body. The following steps will effectively mitigate against exposure to these invisible compounds.
- Limit your intake of meat and dairy products
- If not, opt for organic and free-range meat and dairy.
- Limit your intake of fish, mainly canned fish which is high in mercury and PCBs
- Opt for hormone-free meat and dairy products
- Opt for pesticide-free fruits and vegetables where possible
- If not, thoroughly wash your fruits and vegetables immediately after purchasing them.
- Take public transport where feasible. Automobile exhaust is high in xenoestrogens.
- If you smoke cigarettes, try to cut down or quit. Use nicotine replacement therapy (NRT)
- If you live in a household with someone who smokes, encourage them to smoke outside of the house. This will help to minimize exposure to second-hand smoke.
- Household Products
- Use glass and/or ceramic ware to store food at home instead of plastic containers.
- Avoid microwaving plastic containers. This is because BPA leaching can occur.
- Avoid placing your plastic bottles or containers in direct sunlight.
Personal Hygiene Products
- Avoid cosmetic products that have toxic chemicals and xenoestrogens.
- Cross-reference the labels at the back of these products with the list we have provided above.
- In particular, please avoid parabens and phthalates as the cosmetics industry commonly uses these
Xenoestrogens are virtually everywhere. They exist in meats, fruits, vegetables, household items, and personal hygiene products. Because they are usually colorless and odorless, they are difficult to detect by visual inspection alone.
We strongly encourage our readers to scrutinize the labels of whatever they purchase. You should also be wary of drinking continuously from plastic water bottles. Xenoestrogens interfere with the normal functioning of estrogen and can have harmful effects on the human body.
These adverse effects do not occur overnight, and instead, take years to develop. Recent evidence suggests that xenoestrogens play a significant role in the development of cancers, particularly prostate cancer. Although organic foods and glass/ceramic ware are more costly, the upfront cost of investing in these is significantly less than the long-term costs of poor health and cancer.