Friday, October 11, 2013

Hormone Disruptors: Zombie Molecules?

As an herbalist and teacher concerned with health and healing I spend a lot of time talking about and addressing issues of toxicity, both within our bodies and within the environment that we are part of and on which we depend for our existence. Although the causes of chronic illness are very complex, toxicity is a major causal factor in the development of most if not all chronic conditions.

Toxins can affect our health in many ways. They can promote oxidation of important metabolic and structural molecules in our body. They can also react with these substances in other ways that alter their chemical properties. In addition, many toxins have the ability to bind to chemical receptors in our body, such as neurotransmitter and hormone receptors, and alter our body metabolism in undesirable ways. This latter group, those that can interact with hormone receptor sites, are often referred to as "hormone disruptors" and they are a particularly important and common group of environmental toxins that have been getting a lot of attention recently. They include numerous petrochemical products, components of plastics, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and many other chemicals that are used in industry, agriculture and medicine.

How is our Earth Mother supposed to support and heal us if we keep poisoning her?

Hormone disruptors are known to negatively affect the health of endocrine and other organs, and many of them are carcinogenic. They also have some other properties that are of particular concern. For instance, there is some recent research that indicates that at least some of them may have stronger actions in extremely dilute doses that are well below the accepted "safety limits" than in larger concentrations (see: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=low-doses-hormone-like-chemicals-may-have-big-effects).

Hormone disrupting chemicals are also known to produce epigenetic effects. This means that they can affect gene expression, turning on or off the action of genes in ways that alter the way they are supposed to be behaving. Animal research has demonstrated epigenetic effects from as little as a single exposure to a chemical and that the results can be passed on through multiple generations (see: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-chemical-exposure-that-keeps-go). If they can have such a profound effect after a single exposure, imagine what they might do when they are floating around in our body tissues and fluids for most of our life - not just one but hundreds or possibly thousands of them!

As if these insidious microscopic nasties weren't bad enough, some new research indicates that they have yet another property that takes their nastiness to a whole new (and scarier) level: they can rise from the dead! Apparently it's true (hopefully this won't spawn a whole new genre of nano-zombie movies!). Of course, the zombie analogy is a stretch. What's really going on is that in the environment a certain percentage of these molecules are broken down when exposed to light during the day. However, after the sun goes down some of them have the ability to regenerate themselves (see: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=hormone-disruptors-rise-from-the-dead-like-zombies). This has profound implications concerning the persistence of these chemicals in the environment and also our ability to accurately assess their levels, since researchers tend to take samples to test for chemical pollutants during the day when their concentrations will tend to be lower.


This is me doing my zombie hormone disruptor imitation!

Lucky for us both the human body and the environment are extremely resilient. That isn't to say that they can take abuse indefinitely, but when I look at the level of abuse that we have inflicted on the Earth and that some people inflict on their bodies I am in awe of how much abuse living things, whether they are organisms or ecosystems, can take. It speaks to the incredible capacity of life to heal and regenerate!

So what can we do about it? Basically, do our best to minimize the amount of toxic crap that we put in and on our bodies and into our environment - and do it with a smile! There's no point getting stressed out about it (more toxic crap!). We can only do the best we can and try to keep a positive attitude. Gratefulness is a good place to start. We are less likely to pollute what we feel grateful for. Of course, it is best if we eat and drink certified organic food as much as possible; minimize consumption of canned foods; avoid food and drink that is packaged in plastics #3, #6 and #7; use only natural cosmetic products; and minimize contact with thermal papers like those used in cash register receipts and cheaper fax machines. In addition, a bit of detoxing periodically is always a good idea. There are many herb friends that would be happy to help us along with that!


This burdock (Arctium nothum) is the hybrid between common burdock (A. minus) and great burdock (A. lappa).
The roots of all three are excellent for helping to eliminate hormone disruptors and other toxins from our body.

One day I hope to do a post on herbal detoxification. In the mean time you can find more information in my previous posts More Bad News Concerning PhthalatesMore Bad News About BPA (and Friends!), and More Bad News About BPA, Postscript. One of them has a link to an article on detoxing that I wrote a number of years ago.


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