I find that doing research about the world of health and wellness is often bittersweet. On the one hand, I love increasing my knowledge about the field and spreading it onto others so we can all save ourselves time, money, and energy in the long run. On the other hand, sometimes the things I discover through research are unpleasant, scary, or just downright disappointing. Ignorance is bliss, right?
Environmental toxins is one such topic that I certainly wasn’t very happy researching solely because it just blows my mind that we’re surrounded by so many toxic chemicals every single day without even knowing it.
However, the world of environmental toxins can lead you down a rabbit hole that makes you afraid of every product that has ever been made if you’re not careful, and I certainly don’t want to make any of you overly paranoid. With everything I researched, I tried to be realistic about how to minimize your exposure to these toxins while still living like a normal human being.
First Thing’s First: What Are Environmental Toxins?
Environmental toxins are naturally-occurring and manmade chemicals that act as endocrine disruptors. Translation: they’re substances that interfere with the production, transportation, metabolism, and elimination of your body’s natural hormones.
The main job of your hormones is to send messages between cells so that certain processes can occur in the body. In order for these messages to be processed, hormones have to bind to receptor sites, which allows for a sort of “handshake” to occur between hormones and cells. This “handshake” is confirmation that the cells have received the message and are going to follow through with the “instructions” provided.
Let’s use the analogy of going to the bar to explain how endocrine disruptors work. If you’re going to a bar, a bouncer asks you for your ID, you give it to him, and it’s only when he sees that you’re of age that you’re let into the bar. In this analogy, you’re the hormone, the bouncer is the receptor site, and getting let into the bar is that “handshake” that allows you to go into the bar and do your thing.
Endocrine disruptors are like people who use fake ID’s. These people trick the bouncer into thinking they’re legal to drink when really they’re not. Next thing you know you’ve got a bunch of 16-year-olds running around the bar barfing all over the place and causing absolute mayhem— and that’s essentially what happens when your body is filled with endocrine disruptors! Endocrine disruptors are able to trick your body into thinking that they’re natural hormones, meaning they can lock onto receptor sites that would otherwise be reserved for other specific hormones. Once the “handshake” occurs, endocrine disruptors wreak havoc on your system. Scary stuff, isn’t it?
But What Does That All Mean?
Remember: all hormones send specific messages to your cells. Endocrine disruptors essentially give your cells the wrong messages, meaning your bodily processes could get messed up. For example, what if there were certain chemicals that mimicked estrogen and sent the wrong message to cells? You could stop getting your period, get horrible PMS symptoms, lose your sex drive, etc. And the scary part? Many environmental toxins do, indeed, affect estrogen levels. I told you this stuff was scary.
Common Environmental Toxins and Where They’re Found
Bisphenol A (BPA)
BPA has gotten quite a bit of attention in recent years (thank goodness). It is commonly used in plastic products like sports bottles and baby bottles but is also found in the lining of canned foods and some infant formulas. BPA exposure occurs when the chemical leeches into the liquids or products that you’re drinking from, which happens at a faster rate when that plastic is exposed to heat. According to a research review done by Reproductive Toxicology, BPA has been linked to: reduced male sexual function, reduced sperm quality, altered thyroid hormone concentrations, blunted immune function, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, altered liver function, obesity, oxidative stress, inflammation, birth weight, embryo quality, and behavioural effects in children, and the list goes on.
REDUCE YOUR EXPOSURE: Glass is your best friend. Stop packing your lunches in plastic containers and start using glass ones. Don’t heat anything in plastic containers that are covered in plastic wrap; use glass bowls, plates, or containers that are covered with a piece of paper towel. Swap bottled water for a Swell or canteen instead.
Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are a group of chemicals that can be used to either make plastics more flexible or to act as dissolving agents for other materials. They’re found in plastic, PVC, cosmetics, fragrances, soaps, shampoos, raincoats, detergents, hairsprays, and nail polishes (among other products). The best way to know if something contains phthalates is if it contains artificial fragrance. See “fragrance” on the bottle? That product contains pthalates. According to a study in Occupational & Environmental Medicine, some phthalates have been associated with developmental and reproductive toxicity. That being said, the good news is that they do not accumulate and can be excreted through urine, meaning you’re certainly able to control your own phthalate exposure to a certain degree.
REDUCE YOUR EXPOSURE: Staying away from all phthalates would be downright impossible, but you can certainly make changes to dramatically reduce your exposure. Firstly, opt for glass instead of plastic whenever possible. Secondly, choose products that do not contain artificial fragrances like phthalate-free shampoos and conditioners or soaps and body lotions that are made with essential oils. Limit your use of perfume or cologne to date nights or weekends (again, this is about not being totally paranoid) and try to use natural cleaners whenever possible.
NOTE: Spa Rituals is a nail polish that is phthalate-free!
Parabens are an extremely popular preservative that’s used in personal care products like makeup, shampoo, body lotion, etc. Their job is to stop fungus, bacteria, and other microbes from growing on your favourite beauty products, but they have estrogen-mimicking properties that could disrupt your hormonal system over time. The good news, however, is that many popular makeup brands are making paraben-free products, which they highlight on their labels or website a lot of the time. In fact, a ton of brands from Sephora are paraben-free, which is excellent.
REDUCE YOUR EXPOSURE: Whenever you’re considering buying a new beauty product, check the website for the list of ingredients. As an example, you’ll see here under the “formulated without” section that parabens haven’t been used in this product.
Dioxins have a sad, sad history. Used in the war in Vietnam between 1961 and 1971, it was a main component of an herbicide called “Agent Orange” that the Americans sprayed across plants and trees in an attempt to expose any enemies that may have been hiding in jungles. However, about 150,000 children are suffering from birth defects as a result of exposure to this toxic chemical according to the Vietnam Red Cross—and this was less than 50 years ago. Although we aren’t being sprayed with the stuff today, dioxin is a byproduct of some industrial manufacturing processes and can accumulate in the fatty tissue of animals.
REDUCE YOUR EXPOSURE: Buy lean meats, trim off the fat, and be sure to get your calories from plant-based proteins too if you’re a meat-eater.
5. Pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides
Pesticides are chemicals that kill fungus, bacteria, insects, and/or weeds. Insecticides and herbicides are types of pesticides designed to kill specific insects like ants or weeds, respectively. You not only ingest pesticides from eating food, but they can also infect our drinking water and air. According to the journal Canadian Family Physician, pesticide exposure can affect cognitive function, psychomotor dysfunction, and neurodevelopment.
REDUCE YOUR EXPOSURE: Obviously a surefire way to avoid pesticides is to buy organic produce. If that’s not an option though, just make sure you thoroughly wash all of your fruits and vegetables with a natural bristle brush.
6. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
GMOs are organisms that have had their genetic make-up changed due to genes being scientifically mutated, inserted, or deleted. (It’s like a scientist injecting something into you so you have a completely different hair colour!) Much research needs to be done on GMOs, but what we do know is that these organisms simply do not naturally occur in nature. This is precisely why countries like Russia, China, Switzerland, and Australia are GMO-free; we simply don’t know enough about them yet. That being said, some animal studies have concluded that GMOs may be associated with: infertility, immune disruption, cell signalling, and changes in the gastrointestinal system according to the American Academy of Environmental Medicine. Packaged foods, soy products, canned foods, and high fructose corn syrup are just some examples of foods that can contain GMOs.
REDUCE YOUR EXPOSURE: Look for the “Non-GMO Project Verified” stamp on different foods and use their website to discover which brands and products are 100% non-GMO.
The Bottom Line
It’s easy to look at this list and become terrified about how many chemicals are floating around in your body at the moment. And the harsh reality is that you might be full of a lot of these bad guys. However, while it’s practically impossible to avoid environmental toxins altogether, there are certainly things you can do to significantly minimize your exposure. Always go with glass containers or bottles, use natural shampoos, conditioners, deodorants, and body lotions whenever possible, buy paraben-free makeup, avoid artificial fragrances, use perfume only on special occasions, and try switching to natural cleaners if you can. And if possible, buy organic whenever you can.
You Tell Me!
What other environmental toxins do you try to avoid? How do you go about avoiding them? Let me know in the comments section below!