Endocrine Disrupting Compounds and Fertility

Dr. Jolene BrightenPublished: Last Reviewed: Balancing Your Hormones, Fertility Leave a Comment

Endocrine disrupting compounds or chemicals (EDCs), may contribute to various reproductive health and fertility issues. As we’ll discuss in this article, EDCs may contribute to endometriosis, worsen symptoms of PCOS, and negatively impact male fertility.

Endocrine disruptors are found in various sources — in the plastic bottles you drink from, in your favorite cosmetics, and in the cleaning products that promise a sparkling home. They're more common than we'd like to believe.

Here are the top things you should know about endocrine disrupting chemicals and fertility:

  • Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) can mimic hormones, block their production, and make it difficult for the cells in your body to use the hormones made available to them.
  • EDCs are associated with female fertility issues such as increased risk of miscarriage, implantation failure, lower quality of sperm and viable eggs, and a shortened number reproductive years.
  • Environmental exposures to EDCs may be linked to uterine fibroids, endometriosis, and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
  • Negative effects of EDCs on thyroid function, which can affect ovarian follicle development.
  • While impossible to eliminate all exposure, reducing exposure to environmental chemicals known as EDCs can have a positive impact on hormones and fertility. 

Knowledge is power when it comes to endocrine disruptors. By understanding these chemicals and their sources, we can take proactive steps to minimize their impact.

It can feel very overwhelming when learning about EDCs, which is why I recommend focusing on small steps and the things you can control. Even little changes, like we'll discuss

How Do Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals Affect Fertility?

Because of their influence on hormones that are crucial for reproductive health, EDCs can negatively affect fertility in both men and women, potentially leading to issues such as reduced sperm count, abnormalities in sperm, menstrual irregularities, and trouble conceiving or sustaining a pregnancy.

Additionally, exposure to these chemicals during critical periods of development, such as in the womb or during early childhood, can have lasting effects on babies and children. These can include developmental disorders, congenital disabilities, and early onset of puberty.

There's also growing evidence that some disruptors can contribute to obesity and diabetes, as they can affect the hormones that regulate appetite, metabolism, and fat storage. Both of these health conditions are known to disrupt fertility and contribute to complications during pregnancy.

The effects of EDCs on thyroid hormone also affects egg maturation and quality. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals can affect the synthesis of thyroid hormone, as well as their metabolism and ability to act on the target cells. Thyroid hormones are found in the ovarian follicular fluid aid in egg maturation, making them an important fertility hormone. 

The way in which endocrine disrupting compounds affect reproductive hormone levels, reproductive outcomes, and pregnant women are not fully understood. However, the general consensus is that taking steps to reduce exposure is an important step towards better reproductive health.  

Effects of Endocrine Disruptors on Women's Fertility

Exposure to endocrine disruptors may lead to conditions and complications including:

  • Irregular menstrual cycles, including disruption of ovulation due to effects on estrogen and thyroid levels.
  • Compromised embryo implantation, meaning a harder time becoming pregnant and a higher risk for miscarriages.
  • Impaired fecundity (the ability to produce offspring) and a higher chance of negative IVF outcomes (including decreased egg yield, pregnancies, and births).
  • Structural and functional impairments of the reproductive system, such as endometriosis and uterine fibroids that can disrupt implantation.
  • Development of ovarian cysts, endometriosis, and PCOS, which can delay or compromise normal ovulation.
  • Altered germ cells (egg and sperm cells) due to DNA damage, as well as epigenetic changes that are passed down to offspring and affect fetal development. Altered germ cells can lead to low egg quality in women as well as malformed sperm in males.
  • Shortened reproductive lifespan and overall lower fertility rates, including infertility at an earlier age.

Effects of Endocrine Disruptors on Men's Fertility

In about half of all infertility cases, male factor is the main cause of infertility. In men, endocrine disruptors may contribute to:

  • Lower sperm counts and issues with sperm quality and motility due to changes in testosterone levels and potentially DNA damage. This means that sperm may not only be fewer in number but also less capable of moving effectively or having the right shape needed for fertilization.
  • Decreased libido, erectile dysfunction, and other reproductive disorders.
  • Higher risk for testicular issues such as undescended testes in boys, which has an adverse effect on sperm production.

What Are Endocrine Disruptors?

Endocrine disrupting compounds are chemicals that can interfere with the endocrine (or hormone) system in mammals, including humans. These chemicals have been described as “omnipresent” (widespread in our environments), considering they're found in the air, food, drinking water, household products, toys, furniture, and cosmetics. They're also called endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs).

But why should you be concerned about them?

EDCs make their way into your body, via products on your skin, scents in your space, or the food and water you consume. They can cause hormonal confusion and chaos, potentially compromising your fertility (making it more difficult to become and stay pregnant), wreaking havoc on your metabolism, and even disrupting your cells’ instructions to the point that you end up with an increased risk of certain cancers.

ECDs can have profound and wide-ranging effects on the body because they impact the normal production and functioning of hormones, including sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone.

Essentially, the reason that endocrine disruptors can be dangerous is because they confuse the body into over-producing or under-producing hormones.

You might have heard that small amounts of exposure to ECDs in everyday life, such as via the type of lotions or detergents you use or the household products you use, doesn't matter much in terms of your hormones or fertility. However, these chemicals are more than just a background concern; they are active players in the narrative of your hormonal and reproductive health. In addition, we haven't had any large, quality studies demonstrating that the use of multiple products over years of our life that contain EDCs is in fact safe. 

Exposure to EDCs can add up when you consider the average woman uses at least 12 personal products daily.

It can all feel a bit scary when you put into perspective how many endocrine-disrupting chemicals are found in everyday products. Rather than feeling afraid, I want you to feel empowered, which is why we'll be discussing how to take small steps that lead to big benefits.

Here's how endocrine disruptors work and why exposure to these chemicals can be hazardous:

  • Mimic natural hormones: Many EDCs are structurally similar to natural hormones such as estrogen and testosterone that govern the female and male reproductive systems. Because of this similarity, they can bind to hormone receptors in the body, effectively impersonating natural hormones. This can lead to overstimulation of certain hormonal pathways or block the natural hormone from binding, leading to reduced effectiveness.
  • Block hormone receptors: Some endocrine disruptors work by blocking hormone receptors. This prevents the natural hormone from binding to its receptor, which can reduce its normal activity and lead to imbalances in the body's hormonal regulation.
  • Alter hormone production: EDCs can also influence the synthesis or breakdown of natural hormones within the body. As mentioned above, they can either lead to an overproduction or underproduction of hormones, disrupting the delicate balance required for normal body functions.

Common Endocrine Disruptors to Avoid

There are more than 4,000 EDCs in existence, including types found in industrial settings (dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs and alkylphenols), agriculture (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides), phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), drugs (mitotane, ketoconazole, cardiac glycosides, nitrofurans, carbamazepine, and astazene), and heavy metals.

Which endocrine disruptors are most problematic and important to steer clear of? According to recent studies, some of the worst offenders include:

Endocrine-Disrupting ChemicalWhere It Is FoundHow to Avoid It
Bisphenol A (BPA)Commonly found in plastics and resins, BPA is known to mimic estrogen. It's often found in plastic bottles, the linings of canned foods, and various other consumer products.1. Store food in glass or stainless steal.

2. Limit drinking out of plastic.

3. “BPA-free” doesn't mean it is free off all bisphenols, so it is best to avoid these plastics too.

4. Limit contact with store receipts.
PhthalatesUsed to make plastics more flexible, these chemicals are found in numerous products, including toys, vinyl flooring, and personal care products like nail polish and hairspray. Phthalates can disrupt the endocrine system by mimicking or blocking hormones.1. Store food in glass.

2. Avoid fragrances in personal care products, candles, and air fresheners.
ParabensCommonly used as preservatives in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Parabens can mimic estrogen and potentially lead to reproductive issues.Look for these paraben ingredients in all skin care products, including sunscreen, shampoo, and even toothpaste:

– Methylparaben
– Propylparaben
– Butylparaben
– Ethylparaben 

Whenever possible, choose “paraben-free” products instead.
Pesticides and herbicidesCertain agricultural chemicals have been identified as endocrine disruptors. For example, atrazine, a commonly used herbicide, has been shown to affect the reproductive system of amphibians and is suspected of having similar effects on humans.1. Avoid spraying in your yard and opt for natural alternatives instead.

2. Aim to eat organic as often as possible (note this also supports the health of farm workers).

3. Wash all produce thoroughly before eating. 

4. Use the “Clean 15, Dirty Dozen” list to support you in making economical choices for yourself.
SulfatesSulfates are widely used as preservatives in foods and beverages, but they can cause adverse reactions in some people, especially those with asthma or genetic sensitivities.Look for “sulfate-free” in personal and household products.

More Tips to Minimize Exposure to Endocrine Disruptors to Support Fertility

Now that you know what endocrine disruptors are, why they're harmful, and where they're found, let's look at ways to lower your exposure:

Take off your outdoor shoes before coming inside

Removing your shoes at the door and trading them for a pair of “indoor only” shoes can help reduce environmental toxins that you would otherwise track inside the house. This includes herbicides from the park, motor oil and antifreeze from the parking lot, and potential pathogenic bacteria and viruses.

Open up your windows daily

If the air quality is in a good range outside, open up your windows and air out your house. Oftentimes, the indoor air quality can be more problematic than the outdoor. Simply airing out your house for a short time daily can help improve indoor air quality.

Use natural cleaning products while vacuuming & dusting often

Many conventional cleaning products, such as detergents and kitchen cleaners, contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Using natural cleaning products, such as those made with vinegar and essential oils, reduces your exposure to these harmful substances.

Regular vacuuming and dusting can also minimize household dust that can wind up collecting disruptors. Flame retardants, found in many couches, mattresses, and other furniture can accumulate in household dust.

Eat organic fruits & vegetables

Choosing organic fruits and vegetables, especially those on the “dirty dozen” list (see the next section below), can significantly reduce your exposure to pesticides and herbicides, many of which are known to be endocrine disruptors. Organic produce is grown without these harmful chemicals, making it a safer choice for your overall and hormonal health.

When it comes to food, growing your own is the best way to really know what goes on it. But that is not practical for everyone. An alternative is visiting a local farmer's market and getting to know the people who produce your food.

Prioritize products that are “endocrine disruptor-free”

Look for personal care and household products labeled as free from common endocrine disruptors like BPA, phthalates, and parabens. This includes items like shampoos, lotions, makeup, soaps, and cleaning products. Opting for disruptor-free products can greatly reduce your daily exposure.

Drink filtered water & avoid single-use water bottles

Drinking filtered water can help remove contaminants that may disrupt hormonal balance. Additionally, avoiding single-use plastic water bottles not only reduces plastic waste but also decreases your exposure to BPA and phthalates that can leach from the plastic, especially when the bottle is warmed (such as in the sun or in a hot car) and reused many times.

Use non-plastic cookware & avoid microwaving plastics

Switch to food storage containers, pots, and pans that are made from glass, stainless steel, or ceramic cookware. Try to avoid using plastic containers, and be sure to avoid microwaving food in plastic as heat can cause harmful chemicals to leach into your food.

  • Avoid non-stick products:

Switch out non-stick cookware that often contains PFOA or similar substances for steel, ceramic, or cast iron cookware instead.

Switch Out Harmful Cookware & Cosmetics

You can avoid exposure to many chemicals by being careful about the types of products you put directly on your skin.

  • Check cosmetic labels:

When it comes to beauty products and cosmetics that are commonly made with phthalates and parabens, choose natural, organic cosmetic products from brands that you trust that specifically mention that they're free of these substances.

Limit plastic children's toys and opt for silicone baby bottle nipples

Children are particularly susceptible to endocrine disruptors, so we want to be careful to keep chemicals away from their mouths and bodies. Choose toys made from natural materials such as wood or certified as free of harmful chemicals. For infants, silicone baby bottle nipples are a safer alternative to plastic, as they are less likely to release harmful substances.

How to Support Your Natural Detox System

Equally important to avoiding endocrine disrupting chemicals is supporting your body in eliminating those you do come into contact with. By reducing exposure and providing your body with what it needs to effectively detox these chemicals, you can cut the overall burden your body experiences.

Your body has a detox system that includes the liver, gut, kidneys, lungs, and skin. The liver is the primary organ that neutralizes and prepares environmental toxins and metabolic waste for elimination. Your gut (through bowel movements) and kidneys (through urination) largely contribute to their removal.

Here's how you can support your body best:

Optimize Nutrition

Your liver requires specific nutrients to enable it to do its job effectively. By eating a diet that supports both liver and gut health, you are supporting your body in eliminating EDCs.

A nutrient-rich diet also supports hormone production and can help keep inflammation and oxidative stress under control.

  • Get adequate protein and fiber:

Protein provides essential amino acids that are required for liver detoxification, while fiber aids in gut health and can help regulate cholesterol and blood sugar levels, as well as support the microbes that help with estrogen metabolism. Foods high in quality protein and fiber include wild-caught fish, free-range eggs, grass-fed meats, legumes, nuts, vegetables, berries, and seeds.

  • Eat colorful, antioxidant-rich foods:

Including a variety of colorful, antioxidant-rich foods in your diet is key to combating oxidative stress, which can disrupt hormonal balance. Foods rich in antioxidants include berries, leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, citrus fruits, herbs, spices, legumes, tea, and dark chocolate. These support ovarian health, protect against free-radical damage, and provide necessary vitamins and miners to support liver detoxification.

  • Consume healthy fats:

Make sure to consume enough essential fatty acids, especially omega-3s, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats (in moderation). Healthy sources of fats include salmon, sardines, olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds.

Exercise & Sweat Regularly 

Sweating helps eliminate toxins through your skin, which is a detox organ, plus it generally supports your overall health.

  • Get regular, moderate exercise:

Aim for regular, moderate exercise, meaning not too little or too much. Choose exercises that you enjoy and that help you destress and feel uplifted. Try jogging, walking outdoors, circuit training, swimming, or dancing for example.

Ensure Your Water Supply Is Clean and Clear of Endocrine Disruptors

The water you drink can be a potential source of harmful chemicals, therefore you’ll want to consume the best quality water that you can.

  • Filter your drinking water:

Using a high-quality water filter can help remove contamination with industrial chemicals, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals.

  • Replace filters as needed:

It's essential to regularly check and maintain your water filtration system to ensure it effectively filters out these harmful substances.

Supplements for Hormone Support

While the steps above go a long way in reducing your exposure to endocrine disruptors, certain supplements are also beneficial in supporting the body.

Certain supplements can enhance the body's natural detoxification processes, particularly in the liver and gut, where many chemicals, including the EDCs called xenoestrogens, are processed and eliminated. For example, compounds such as N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), calcium-D-glucarate, and certain herbs support liver health and aid in the detoxification process.

N-Acetyl-Cysteine (NAC) is an amino acid that supports detoxification pathways through glutathione production. N-Acetyl-Cysteine can be taken in supplement form for liver and detox support. In addition, NAC has been shown to be beneficial in supporting egg and sperm health

NAC may also help prevent side effects associated with environmental toxin exposure.

Balance – Women's Hormone Support formula is infused with antioxidants, herbs, and B vitamins that support hormone health and aid the body in removing excess estrogens and environmental toxins.

Here's how the ingredients in Balance- Women's Hormone Support can help support hormonal balance and help block the effects of endocrine disruptors on fertility:

  • Chaste tree berry and polygonum: Encourage healthy estrogen aromatase activity and progesterone levels.
  • Calcium-D-glucarate: Aids in the effective elimination of excess estrogens.
  • Resveratrol: This antioxidant provides defenses against oxidative stress to help support cellular health.
  • Vitamins B6, B12, and Folate: Support healthy cell differentiation and liver detoxification.
  • Magnesium and Calcium: Support liver detoxification and methylation of estrogen.
  • Sulforaphane: Supports phase 2 liver detoxification and protects liver health

Key Takeaways on Endocrine Disruptors and Their Impact on Fertility

Understanding the endocrine system and the impact of endocrine disruptors is crucial for maintaining reproductive health and fertility. By being mindful of these disruptors and taking steps to minimize your exposure—such as opting for products that are free of known disruptors, choosing glass over plastic, and becoming a savvy shopper who checks labels—you'll support your body's ability to conceive and have a healthy pregnancy.

Remember, if you're working on addressing infertility, it's always wise to work with healthcare professionals before making significant changes to your diet or lifestyle, especially when dealing with conditions like endometriosis, PCOS, or other reproductive issues.

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About The Author

Dr. Jolene Brighten

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Dr. Jolene Brighten, NMD, is a women’s hormone expert and prominent leader in women’s medicine. As a licensed naturopathic physician who is board certified in naturopathic endocrinology, she takes an integrative approach in her clinical practice. A fierce patient advocate and completely dedicated to uncovering the root cause of hormonal imbalances, Dr. Brighten empowers women worldwide to take control of their health and their hormones. She is the best selling author of Beyond the Pill and Healing Your Body Naturally After Childbirth. Dr. Brighten is an international speaker, clinical educator, medical advisor within the tech community, and considered a leading authority on women’s health. She is a member of the MindBodyGreen Collective and a faculty member for the American Academy of Anti Aging Medicine. Her work has been featured in the New York Post, Forbes, Cosmopolitan, Huffington Post, Bustle, The Guardian, Sports Illustrated, Elle, and ABC News. Read more about me here.