What you need to know about xenoestrogens

In one of my earlier articles, I wrote about hormone imbalances in women. In the article, I described how oestrogen dominance can lead to a lot of uncomfortable, and sometimes, debilitating symptoms in women who suffer from chronic hormone imbalance.

I received a lot of feedback from women who were particularly concerned about the issue of xenoestrogens, which I touched on briefly in the article.

Xenoestrogens are chemicals - mostly industrial compounds - that mimic natural oestrogen when we are exposed to it through the use of these chemicals.

The presence of xenoestrogens in our daily lives is a cause for concern, as they are believed to produce oestrogenic effects in our bodies and cause the symptoms of oestrogen dominance, not only in women, but also in men and children.

Foreign oestrogens

It comes as a surprise to most people that oestrogens are not only found in our bodies, but are present in some form in our environment as well.

A lot of these chemicals are found in our homes and workplaces, such as pesticides, detergents, petroleum products, plastic products and cosmetics.

These chemicals produce oestrogenic effects in our bodies, compounding the imbalance of oestrogen against progesterone, and causing the body to react by producing problematic symptoms.

Oestrogen dominance is thought to increase the risk of endometriosis, uterine fibroids, polycystic ovaries, breast cancer, uterine cancer and thyroid imbalances.

Unfortunately, we live in a world today where we cannot escape exposure to these xenoestrogens, as our everyday habits and routines depend on a lot of industrial items. Even our cleaning products, carpeting, furniture, toiletries and plastic products may contain these compounds.

I will explain more about some of the common products containing xenoestrogens found in our daily lives, and how we can try to reduce our exposure to these compounds.

Pesticides

Pesticides

Some of the pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilisers used in agriculture contain compounds that have a chemical structure similar to oestrogen, and thus, are believed to contribute to hormone imbalance.

These xenoestrogen-containing pesticides find their way onto our dinner table through fruits, vegetables, grains and animal meats.

The solution is not to cut out these foods completely, of course. Instead, we just have to be more circumspect when doing our grocery shopping.

As much as possible, buy organic produce and foods, because organic farming reduces the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, while using natural pest control and fertilisation.

If you are unsure of the origins of your food, be sure to clean them thoroughly to rid them of any possible traces of pesticides.

Wash and soak all your produce, and discard the water before cooking or eating them.

Try to use natural pest control products and organic fertilisers in your own gardens.

If you must use chemicals at all, follow all the safety precautions, such as wearing gloves and masks, and using very precise amounts.

Store these products away from your house, garden and water supply.

Plastics

Plastics

Apart from being bad for the environment, plastics are also getting a bad reputation for health because of the components found in many plastic products.

Two of the most notorious compounds are Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, both of which have recently appeared in the news.

The Health Ministry recently banned polycarbonate baby milk bottles containing BPA, while a number of Taiwanese food products were taken off the shelves after they were found to contain diethylhexy phthalate (DEHP).

Both BPA and phthalates are believed to be xenoestrogens, and have been linked to many health problems.

BPA is not only found in polycarbonate plastic bottles, but also in the lining of canned foods, which is worrying because the BPA could leach from the containers into the foods.

To reduce your exposure to BPA and other xenoestrogens found in plastic products and canned foods, try to avoid using plastics or buying canned foods.

Is this easier said than done?

If you make an effort, you can do it. Instead of eating canned foods, buy frozen or fresh foods, or foods in glass containers.

Try to avoid buying food that uses plastic packaging, or at least eliminate the use of plastic at home. Instead of buying meat that is packaged in styrofoam trays and plastic wrap, buy fresh meat from the market.

If you do need to use plastic wrap, bags or containers for storing food, look for plastic products that are BPA-free. Some plastic bottles and containers have "#7" or "PC" on the bottom, which indicates that they may contain BPA.

Heat is thought to be a particularly bad combination with plastic, as it can increase the leaching of BPA into food. So, do not microwave food in plastic containers or store hot liquids in plastic boxes and bottles.

Food and drinks

Food and drinks

Am I about to tell you that even the food we eat every day could contain xenoestrogens?

Well, this is partly the case, although there are also some foods that are important in helping us counter the effects of xenoestrogens.

As we have seen above, foods that are grown using synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, and animals that are fed with these produce, have a high chance of containing xenoestrogens as these compounds carry on into the food chain.

Certain foods also contain oestrogen-like compounds, called phytoestrogens.

These are plant-based foreign oestrogens, but have a much weaker effect on the body, compared to xenoestrogens. Examples of food containing phytoestrogens are soy products, beans, whole grains, and dark green, leafy vegetables.

There are different opinions about the benefits of phytoestrogens on the body. Some experts believe that phytoestrogens can protect the body from excessive oestrogen stimulation by binding to oestrogen receptor sites, so that xenoestrogens cannot attach to the receptors.

Other studies, however, have shown that some phytoestrogens should not be taken excessively as they may boost oestrogen levels in the body.

A study on coffee consumption in women found that drinking more than two cups of coffee daily may boost oestrogen levels in women. The study suggests that such an imbalance in oestrogen could exacerbate or increase the risk of conditions such as endometriosis and breast pain.

Until there is definitive evidence to support claims about the risks and benefits of phytoestrogens, it would be best to eat everything in moderation.

Do not drink more than two cups of coffee per day, and eat a variety of foods, instead of excessive amounts of one type of food.

Be more conscious of the food, plastic products and pest control products that you buy - it is the best way to ensure that you are not damaging the sensitive hormone balance in your body.

Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar is a consultant obstetrician & gynaecologist (FRCOG, UK). For further information, visit www.primanora.com.

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