What Are Endocrine Disruptors? (And Should You Avoid Them?)

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The endocrine system plays an important role in our bodies—it’s responsible for producing a variety of hormones that regulate stress, metabolic functions, fertility, growth, blood sugar levels, and much more. Our endocrine system hangs in a delicate balance, and if that balance is off, hormone levels can become erratic and lead to a whole host of issues.

“Our quality of life is related to the endocrine system,” says Ebru Sulanc, M.D., an endocrinologist with Henry Ford Health System. “It affects everything from our energy levels and mood to our reproductive health. When the thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormones, for example, we can get tired, sluggish, nervous, anxious, depressed. Some of my patients have said their relationships suffered because of unrecognized thyroid issues. It influences how we behave.”

Factors That Affect Endocrine Function

While stress, pre-existing conditions, autoimmune diseases and genetics can affect endocrine balance, there’s ongoing research that shows substances called endocrine disruptors may also be to blame.

“Endocrine disruptors are a wide variety of chemicals found everywhere in our environment—food, pesticides, clothing, plastics, personal care and beauty products, cleaning products,” says Dr. Sulanc. “We absorb and use these chemicals on a daily basis, and we don’t even know what all of the endocrine disruptors are yet.”

Research shows these chemicals may behave like hormones in our bodies, confusing the regulating hormones into thinking there’s too much or too little of that hormone, or blocking the effects of our own hormones.

“It might be hard to prove association—there’s an innocent until proven guilty factor with endocrine disruptors—but there are some that are known to be more concerning than others right now,” says Dr. Sulanc. Here, she shares ones to watch out for.

The Most Well-Known Endocrine Disruptors

  • BPA: This is a chemical that’s been used to make plastics (like water bottles and food storage containers) since the 1960s. These chemicals can leach into food and drink, but several brands are now creating plastics without BPA and labeling them as BPA free.
  • Pesticides: In large amounts, pesticides may cause cancer, reproductive and neurological disorders. Wash fruits and vegetables well, and when you can, try buying organic.
  • Flame retardants: These chemicals are used to prevent the growth of a fire. They’re in furniture, clothes, furnishings, construction materials, and may lead to cancer, neurological problems, thyroid disruption, and more.
  • Phytoestrogens: Phytoestrogens are naturally occurring plant compounds that are found in a variety of foods including soy. While soy has other health benefits, in large amounts it can act like estrogen in the body, leading either to an overload of estrogen, or blocking the effects of estrogen, leading to too little estrogen.
  • Perfluorinated chemicals: Used in non-stick pots and pans, perfluorinated chemicals may negatively influence female reproductive health, among other concerns.
  • Phthalates: These are used to make plastics more flexible. They’re found in everything from personal care products and cosmetics to detergents, adhesives, vinyl flooring, children’s toys, medical tubing, and more, and may have negative effects on hormonal health.
  • Triclosan: Triclosan is found in cleaning products and acts as an antibacterial and antifungal agent. The FDA recently banned its use in hand soaps, as it may harm the immune system, contribute to antibiotic-resistant germs, and alter hormonal regulation.
  • Parabens: Found mostly in beauty and personal care products like shampoos, conditioners and cosmetics, these artificial preservatives may increase cancer risk and alter hormonal regulation and the reproductive system.

Limiting Exposure to Endocrine Disruptors

While it may not be feasible to avoid all endocrine-disrupting chemicals, try to lower the amount you come into contact with on a daily basis.

“Read the labels of things that you buy,” says Dr. Sulanc. “Go natural when you can. And fill your home with plants—they help clean the air and add oxygen so that you breathe in less of these chemicals. It’s not about being perfect, but being aware and making smart choices when you can.”


To make an appointment with a doctor, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7036). Learn more about endocrinology at Henry Ford. 

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Ebru Sulanc, M.D., is an endocrinologist specializing in diabetes and metabolism. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center in Novi and Detroit. 

Categories: FeelWell