Treatment of PCOS irrefutably begins with lifestyle changes. In my own practice, I have helped thousands of women learn to control their PCOS symptoms by upgrading their diet, exercise and supplements, reducing stress, practicing self-care, and getting enough rest. There is one more piece, though, that is often overlooked- detoxification and avoiding endocrine disruptors in your environment.
Are you feeling the effects of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals? Click here for my infographic, “Signs You Need to Cleanse.”
What is an endocrine disruptor and what does it do?
PCOS is one of the most common endocrine (hormone) disorders in women. Our endocrine system is a collection of glands that secrete hormones. These hormones act as chemical messengers and regulate everything from metabolism, growth and development, to sex drive, sleep, appetite and even your mood. The endocrine system is very sensitive, and very subtle changes in hormone levels can affect any of the systems regulated by those hormones.
The endocrine system functions in a sort of hormone and receptor “lock & key mechanism.” Your endocrine system is made up of “locks” called hormone receptors. Hormones traveling through your body fit into those locks and act like “keys” – turning on and off various signals and functions within the body that regulate all those things I just mentioned – hunger, weight, metabolism, etc. Many of the chemicals we encounter very closely resemble our own natural hormones and actually act as synthetic hormones.
These synthetic hormones, found in the products that we’re using every day, are able to mimic or block estrogen and testosterone in those hormone receptors. As they move throughout your body and engage those hormone receptor “locks,” they will start to turn on or off the hormonal signals in our bodies that naturally would never have been turned on or off, throwing our systems out of balance. Your body’s natural estrogen can bind with estrogen receptors, but so can bisphenol-A (BPA) and lots of other chemicals. These artificial keys called Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) can block out the natural, helpful keys that keep our system in check.
Does PCOS make me more susceptible to toxins?
In short, yes. Women with PCOS already have disrupted endocrine systems. Adding further endocrine disrupting chemicals worsens the symptoms and makes easy prey of the weakened system. The extent to which PCOS women are at risk is still being studied, but at least 5 recent studies indicate our increased risk:
- PFCs, PFOA and PFOS– PCOS subjects had higher serum concentrations of two PFCs, PFOA and PFOS.
- Increased bodily retention of environmental organic pollutants-including PCBs, pesticides and PAHs-was associated with PCOS.
- Adolescents with PCOS had higher serum bisphenol A (BPA) levels than controls, independent of obesity. Bisphenol A concentrations were significantly correlated with androgen levels, indicating that bisphenol A might play a role in the aetiopathogenesis of PCOS in adolescents.
- Higher BPA levels in PCOS women compared to controls and a statistically significant positive association between androgens and BPA point to a potential role of this endocrine disruptor in PCOS pathophysiology.
- Prenatal exposure to environmental phthalates may be associated with oestrogenic and/or anti-androgenic reproductive effects in adolescent girls.
For more information about this research, read Dr. Rashmi Kudesia’s article, “Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals & PCOS: What’s the Connection?”
You may be surprised at all of the places you can find EDCs. The problem is that the chemicals we’re exposed to on a daily basis expose us at constant low levels. Many are able to be ‘biologically active,” meaning they can have an impact, like pharmaceuticals, at very low levels or amounts.
A lot of people think, “Oh, but it’s such a small amount, it can’t really matter.” Conventional thinking tells us that for something to be toxic, a bigger amount of it is going to be worse and more dangerous than a smaller amount of it. In many cases, this IS true, except when it comes to chemicals that interfere with our endocrine system, in which case smaller amounts of certain chemicals matter more. Chemicals we bring into our homes and our lives, sometimes unwittingly, are silently invading and altering our bodies.
- Pharmaceuticals There are countless drugs on the market that function as EDCs. For women with PCOS, there are a few common offenders.Avandia, a diabetes drug that’s intended to improve insulin sensitivity, has a side effect that causes people to gain weight. This drug has been highly restricted in the US after it was also discovered that it was increasing the risk of heart attacks, and it was outright banned in the European Union.Antidepressants like Lexapro, Paxil, Prozac and Zoloft can all cause weight gain, sometimes significant amounts. Even birth control pills can have a tremendous impact on weight – they may even cause insulin resistance. Sometimes just one dose that can leave someone with 10, 20, 40 extra pounds, and they can spend the rest of their lives taking that weight off.
- Household cleaners These products which we hope are making our homes clean and safe, actually contain many endocrine disruptors. Look out for triclosan & “quats” (antibacterial) and perchloroethylene or “perc” (drycleaner and carpet/upholstery cleaner).
- Health & Beauty products (and anything scented) Among other things in your beauty products, watch out for parabens and phthalates.
Parabens are a preservative used in thousands and thousands of products. Their main purpose is to prevent the growth of microbes and bacteria in products, particularly products that have water as an ingredient. They are most common in products that are liquids, such as shampoo and lotion, because of the higher water content in these products. Parabens are linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity, and skin irritation. They are also a synthetic estrogen.
Phthalates are responsible for making things pliable (i.e. your rubber ducky squishy, your shower curtain flexible, or your garden hose bendy). In personal care products, their primary role is as a fixative for color and fragrance. For example, phthalates are used to hold scent onto your skin – think of coconut-lime body lotion.
Increased phthalate levels in the body suppress thyroid function which can lead to weight gain, constipation, fatigue, infertility, abnormal menstrual cycles, and depression. These are especially hazardous to sexual development and should be on the radar of women who are trying to conceive or already pregnant. Phthalates can disrupt the neural development of the fetus by binding with androgen receptors.
- Drinking water There are many possible contaminants in your water, but specifically look out for Atrazine. Atrazine is directly linked to abdominal obesity (that’s the dreaded belly fat) and insulin-resistance. One animal study showed that chronic low-dose exposure, particularly when paired with a classic American high-fat diet, resulted in weight gain.
Atrazine’s effects on the nervous and reproductive systems of animals and humans have been widely documented and it has been banned in Europe since 2003. Since atrazine is commonly found in our public water supply, the water that we drink every single day should be considered a chronic low-dose exposure source.
- Food storage containers and utensils We find BPA in plastic bottles, storage containers and utensils, in the lining of canned foods, and in many other less obvious products such as thermal-printed cash register receipts and some dental sealants. Every day, you touch it; you eat it; you drink it. In very low doses, it has a dramatic effect on insulin production in beta cells, increases hyperinsulinemia, leads to higher levels of fat deposition, greater sugar cravings, and metabolic disturbance.
BPA is one of the chemicals whose obesogenic properties change the way our fat cells grow and develop, resulting in bigger and more plentiful fat cells.
- Cookware Non-stick cookware and some food packaging is made with a chemical calledPerfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA). PFOA is an ingredient in the non-stick coating itself, which is known as PTFE or polytetrafluoroethylene. Unlike BPA, PFOA doesn’t ever break down or get excreted, so it accumulates in our bodies.
- Fire retardants One of the biggest culprits of EDCs is all the fire retardants in our mattresses and other products. Studies that show that these fire retardants are potent chemicals that break down very slowly over the course of 10 years.
- Pesticides Over 1 BILLION pounds of pesticides are used on US crops each year, and 9 of the top 10 pesticides used are EDCs. The average consumer is exposed to between 10 to 13 pesticide residues in their food and water every single day, MULTIPLE times per day. Meaning, in each glass of water you drink, and in each meal that you eat, you can pretty much bet that you’re consuming between 10 and 13 different types of pesticides which translates intolow-dose chronic exposure.
A number of different types of pesticides act as EDCs in the body by disrupting the weight-controlling hormones – things like thyroid hormone, estrogens, testosterone, insulin, growth hormones, and leptin. Leptin is a hormone that tells your body you’re full and normally suppresses appetite, but EDCs interfere with the release of this hormone in a way that researchers believe leads people to become resistant to it. Becoming resistant to the hormone that tells you you’re full means that you don’t feel full when you should, and you over-consume food.
How can I undo the damage that has already been done?
Don’t Panic. Instead of becoming fearful, neurotic, or obsessive about toxins in your home and environment, I invite you to look at the situation like a Diva – the same way you approach managing your PCOS. Does this mean that you can’t ever eat a non-organic apple, use a Ziploc bag or drink tap water again? Certainly not. You simply need to begin making small changes that will make a big difference.
- Filter your drinking water.
- Transition from plastic storage containers to glass.
- Avoid products with the word “fragrance” or “parfum.”
- Check out the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists and chose your produce accordingly.
- Twice a year, do a gentle detox cleanse like my Sparkle 14 Day Detox program. Do not choose a harsh, full body, “only drink special shakes” cleanse- it may do more harm than good.
In my Jumpstart Program, we talk about how thriving with PCOS isn’t about diet, deprivation and denial. It is about nourishment in mind, body and spirit. It is about movement, mindset, positive thinking and self-care. Part of nourishment is making sure we do our best to eliminate those things that are toxic to us be they dietary, emotional or chemical.
The point is, any chemical introduced into your body, be it a pharmaceutical, pesticide, or preservative, can have negative and unintended side effects on our endocrine system. From this moment on, we must be more diligent about defending our bodies from these toxins and careful to equip our systems to excrete these chemicals when they do make their way in.
Yes, endocrine disrupting chemicals are all around us.
Yes, women with PCOS are more susceptible.
Yes, EDCs worsen our PCOS symptoms, but YES, there is something we can do about it!
As a certified health coach, Amy Medling often hears from women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) who are frustrated and have lost all hope when the only solution their doctors offer is to lose weight, take a pill and live with their symptoms. In response, she has developed a proven protocol of supplements, diet and lifestyle programs that offer women tools to help gain control of their PCOS and regain their fertility, femininity, health and happiness.