Your hormones help control different functions in your body and impact everything from your metabolism to how you feel. And if your hormones don't function the way they should, it can affect your health.
While you've probably come across the term "endocrine disruptors" at some point before. But you may not necessarily know what that means. So what are endocrine disruptors exactly, and how worried about them should you be? Here's the deal.
What are endocrine disruptors?
Endocrine disruptors are natural or man-made chemicals that can mimic or interfere with your body's endocrine system, which produces your hormones, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).
There are a lot of endocrine disruptors out there, but the NIEHS says these are some of the most common:
Bisphenol A (BPA), which is used to make certain plastics and epoxy resins
Dioxins, which are produced as a byproduct in herbicide production and paper bleaching
Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), which are used in non-stick pan, paper and textile coatings
Phthalates, which are used to make plastics more flexible
Phytoestrogens, found in in plants that have hormone-like activity, such as tofu or soy milk
Triclosan, which can be found in some anti-microbial and personal care products
How common are endocrine disruptors?
They're really common. Endocrine disruptors "can be found in the air, soil or water supply in addition to food sources, personal care products and manufactured products," Dr. Karl Nadolsky, an endocrinologist at Spectrum Health, tells Yahoo Life.
You can be exposed to endocrine disruptors through the food and drink you consume, the pesticides you come into contact with and the cosmetics that you use, NIEHS says. Basically, they're nearly everywhere.
Still, endocrine disruptors "are becoming less common as we become more aware of them," Dr. Jamie Alan, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Life. Case in point: Many water bottles are now labeled "BPA-free" to signal that they don't contain the common endocrine disruptor.
How harmful are endocrine disruptors?
Nadolsky says it's "difficult to quantify" how bad endocrine disruptors are, based on the data we have. "We certainly need more research, but there are strong associations with obesity, insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes, PCOS, gestational diabetes, reduced birthweight, reduced semen quality, endometriosis and breast or prostate cancer," he says.
Alan says it also "depends on where you are in life" in terms of how harmful endocrine disruptors may be for you. "If you are going through puberty, these can be incredibly disruptive," she says. "Similarly, if you are trying to conceive. If you are pregnant, they can disrupt development of the fetus, potentially resulting in birth defects."
In fact, research has found a link between babies exposed to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in utero and an increased risk of rapidly gaining weight from birth to age 9.
For most people, though, "these are encountered at low levels and don’t cause much harm unless you are in one of these stages," Alan says. She adds, "Most documented effects in humans have occurred during these 'sensitive' stages, or at high doses."
How to reduce your exposure to endocrine disruptors
Nadolsky says it's "very difficult in our current environment" to avoid endocrine disruptors entirely. However, he says, there are a few steps you can take to minimize your exposure. Those include:
Don't microwave things in plastic containers. "This may leach endocrine disruptors into food," Nadolsky explains.
Try to avoid plastic containers. "Drink from and store food in non-plastic containers" when possible, Alan advises.
Be smart about personal care products and cleaners. Unscented options are best, Nadolsky says.
Replace your nonstick pans. Nadolsky recommends switching older nonstick pans with ceramic-coated ones.
Consider using a water filter. Water purifying systems are unlikely to remove all endocrine disruptors from your drinking water, but you can try to use one to reduce the amount, Alan says. (Just read the water purifying system label to know for sure.)
A study from the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics also found that if you are pregnant, you may be able to lower your exposure to endocrine disruptors by taking the following steps:
avoid plastic containers, bottles and packaging
avoid canned foods and drinks
consume fresh and organic food
avoid fast and processed foods
supplement your diet with vitamin C, iodine and folic acid
Again, it's tricky to fully eliminate your exposure to endocrine disruptors. However, experts say that doing your best to minimize exposure will help lower your risk of developing complications from the chemicals, now and in the future.