By Dr. Mercola
Many common household chemicals are known to act as endocrine disruptors, a number of which are found in plastic products. These chemicals are similar in structure to natural sex hormones, thereby interfering with their normal functions.
The glands of your endocrine system and the hormones they release influence almost every cell, organ, and function of your body. It is instrumental in regulating mood, growth and development, tissue function, metabolism, as well as sexual function and reproductive processes.
Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report that suggested banning endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) may actually be needed to protect the health of future generations.1 According to the report:
"The diverse systems affected by endocrine-disrupting chemicals likely include all hormonal systems and range from those controlling development and function of reproductive organs to the tissues and organs regulating metabolism and satiety.
Effects on these systems can lead to obesity, infertility or reduced fertility, learning and memory difficulties, adult-onset diabetes or cardiovascular disease, as well as a variety of other diseases."
Phthalates, or “plasticizers,” are one group of endocrine-disrupting chemicals used to make plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) more flexible and resilient. They’re one of the most pervasive of the endocrine disrupters, and a new study has linked them to a very concerning health effect: lower testosterone levels.
Phthalates Exposure Linked to Lower Testosterone
Phthalates and other endocrine disrupters are nicknamed “gender-benders” because they appear to be causing the males in many species to become feminized.
For instance, the more a pregnant woman is exposed to high levels of phthalates, the greater the risk her son will have smaller genitals and incomplete testicular descent, leading to impaired reproductive development.
The chemical also appears to make the overall genital tracts of boys slightly more feminine. It is believed that phthalates have these adverse effects because they reduce testosterone synthesis by interfering with an enzyme needed to produce the male hormone.
New research supports this notion, as it showed reduced levels of circulating testosterone were associated with increased phthalate exposure in several key populations. Specifically, the study found higher levels of phthalates were associated with:
- 24-34 percent decline in testosterone levels in boys aged 6 to 12
- 11-24 percent decline in testosterone levels among women aged 40 to 60
- Significant decline in testosterone levels among men aged 40-60
For the last five decades, declines in testosterone levels among men have been noted, along with a rise in related health problems, such as reduced semen quality and genital deformities in newborn boys.2 According to the researchers:3
"[The study] may have important public health implications, since low testosterone levels in young boys can negatively impact reproductive development, and in middle age can impair sexual function, libido, energy, cognitive function and bone health in men and women.
…[the findings] support the hypothesis that environmental exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as phthalates could be contributing to the trend of declining testosterone and related disorders."
What Are the Health Risks of Low Testosterone?
Testosterone is the male sex hormone produced by a man’s testicles, and to a lesser degree, in smaller amounts, by the ovaries in women. While testosterone is stereotypically associated with virility, it also plays a role in maintaining muscle mass, bone density, red blood cells, and a general sense of well-being.
Low testosterone during infancy and childhood is especially dangerous. During fetal development, low testosterone can lead to incomplete formation of the sex organs (or a genetically male child that is born with female or ambiguous genitals) and during puberty it may permanently affect growth and development. In boys, this may lead to:4
- Decreased development of muscle mass
- Impaired growth of the penis, testicles, and body hair
- Lack of deepening of the voice
- Excessive growth of arms and legs in relation to the trunk of the body
- Development of breast tissue
Beginning around age 30, a man’s testosterone levels begin to decline, and continue to do so as time goes on—unless you proactively address your lifestyle. But, as mentioned, chemical exposures (including prescription drugs like statins as well as phthalates) may accelerate this process. Symptoms of declining testosterone levels in adults include:
- Decreased sex drive
- Erectile dysfunction and/or problems urinating
- Depression and possibly increased risk of heart disease
- Difficulties with concentration and memory
- Weight gain and/or breast enlargement
Phthalates Exposure Is Widespread in Children, Pregnant Women, and Others
If your home contains soft, flexible plastic flooring, such as vinyl or those padded play-mat floors for kids (often used in day cares and kindergartens, too), there’s a good chance it is made from phthalate-containing polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Along with common uses in PVC flooring, phthalates are also commonly found in toys, food packaging, shower curtains, plastic medical equipment, household cleaners, cosmetics, and personal care products.
According to a report by Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI), studies have shown women of childbearing age have significantly higher phthalate exposures than other adults (could this be because they also use the most cosmetics, which also contain phthalates?), and the chemical has been detected in 100 percent of pregnant women tested.5
It's known that fetal exposure to phthalates is closely related to maternal exposure, so many, if not all, babies are starting out with exposure in the womb. In childhood, children are further exposed to phthalates in consumer products ranging from toys, pacifiers, and food packaging to personal care products and crawling on vinyl flooring.
The chemicals are known to be a major source of indoor air pollution as well, as they are emitted from numerous household goods, including not only flooring but also furniture, upholstery, mattresses and wall coverings. Phthalates have even been detected in infant formula and baby food, likely because they migrated from the packaging materials, and premature babies get a particularly rough start due to the high concentrations of phthalates they’re exposed to in the plastic medical equipment used during neonatal intensive care. With each plastic tube that a newborn is hooked up to, the rate of phthalate exposure increases.
And for those premature infants who spend weeks and months in the neonatal intensive care unit, the exposure levels can be extraordinary. EHHI found that male infants exposed to phthalates through medical procedures are most at risk of suffering health effects,6 which include excessive inflammation. Inflammation is known to trigger a number of diseases in premature babies, including a chronic lung disorder known as bronchopulmonary dysplasia and necrotizing enterocolitis, a serious intestinal condition. In addition, phthalate exposure has also been linked to:
Disturbed lactation Decreased dysgenesis syndrome: A syndrome involving cryptorchidism (undescended testicles), hypospadias (birth defect in which opening of urethra is on the underside of the penis instead of at the end), and oligospermia (low sperm count), and testicular cancer Interference with sexual differentiation in utero Enlarged prostate glands Impaired ovulatory cycles and polycystic ovary disease (PCOS) Numerous hormonal disruptions Early or delayed puberty Breast cancer and uterine fibroids
12 Ways to Minimize Your Family’s Exposure to Phthalates
Anything you can do to lower your, and your children’s, exposure to plasticizing chemicals like phthalates will help to protect your health. Top tips to consider include:
- Choose toys made from natural materials (or at least only buy those made from phthalate-free plastic).
- When redoing your home, look for "green," toxin-free alternatives in lieu of regular paint and vinyl floor coverings.
- Replace your vinyl shower curtain with one made of fabric or better yet install glass shower doors.
- Switch over to natural brands of toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, and cosmetics.
- Check your home's tap water for contaminants and filter the water if necessary. You may also want to use an alternative to PVC pipes for your water supply.
- Avoid using artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners, scented candles, or other synthetic fragrances and perfumes.
- Store your food and beverages in glass rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap.
- Avoid processed foods (many are packaged in phthalate-containing packaging) and instead focus your diet on fresh, organic, and locally grown whole foods.
- Breastfeed your baby exclusively if possible, for at least the first year (as you will avoid phthalates exposure from infant formula packaging and plastic bottles/nipples). The WHO determined this would save 1 million infants EVERY year.
- If you use baby bottles, use glass, not plastic.
- Use only natural cleaning products in your home.
- Teach your children not to drink water from the garden hose, as many are made with phthalate-containing plastics.
You Can Raise Your Testosterone Levels Naturally
If you’re concerned that your testosterone levels are low, due to chemical exposures or otherwise, please think carefully before considering testosterone therapy. There are studies showing that testosterone therapy can be quite helpful and beneficial, but that's in men who actually have very low testosterone. Lacking energy and sex drive does not automatically mean you have severe testosterone deficiency warranting taking this hormone. Much of the widespread "low T" advertising is merely a PR strategy to sell an expensive treatment. In 2012, prescription testosterone gels generated over $2 billion in US sales.
Abbott Laboratories alone spent $80 million on seductive direct-to-consumer advertising for its testosterone product AndroGel that same year. Your dropping energy levels may be an indication of low testosterone… or they could be an indication that you're eating too much processed food. Perhaps you're not exercising enough, or failing to address chronic stress or lack of sleep. All of these are critical factors not only in your overall health, but also in your hormonal health, the latter of which your body has an ability to optimize naturally, even as you age. For instance, testosterone (and human growth hormone, or HGH) are boosted in response to short, high-intensity exercises. I personally do not take any hormone or prohormone supplements.
Instead, I've been doing Peak Exercises for more than four years, and now, in my late 50s, my testosterone and HGH levels are still in the normal ranges for a young adult male without the aid of ANY prescriptions, hormones, and hormone precursor supplements. Weight training will also have a beneficial impact on your testosterone levels. When you use strength training for this purpose, you'll want to increase the weight and lower your number of reps. Focus on doing exercises that work a wider number of muscles, such as squats or dead lifts. You can take your workout to the next level by learning the principles of Super-Slow Weight Training.
Whole body vibration training using a Power Plate is yet another effective ancillary method. While high intensity exercise is perhaps the most effective strategy to raise your testosterone levels, your diet also plays a critical role. First of all, if you're overweight, research shows that simply shedding the excess pounds may increase your testosterone levels.7 Testosterone levels also decrease after you eat sugar. This is likely because sugar and fructose raise your insulin level, which is another factor leading to low testosterone. Ideally, keep your total fructose consumption below 25 grams per day.
If you have insulin resistance and are overweight, have high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol, you'd be well advised to keep it under 15 grams per day. I've detailed a step-by-step guide to eating right to optimize your health and hormone levels in my nutrition plan. Another effective strategy for enhancing testosterone (and HGH) is intermittent fasting. It helps boost testosterone by improving the expression of satiety hormones, like insulin, leptin, adiponectin, glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), cholecystokinin (CKK), and melanocortins, which are linked to healthy testosterone function, increased libido, and the prevention of age-induced testosterone decline.
Nutritional Supplements to Support Healthy Testosterone Levels
There are also nutritional supplements that can address some of the symptoms commonly associated with low testosterone. Some may even help boost your testosterone levels as well. These include:
- Saw palmetto. Besides addressing symptoms of low testosterone, this herb may also help to actually increase testosterone levels by inhibiting up-conversion to dihydrotestosterone.8 When choosing a saw palmetto supplement, you should be wary of the brand, as there are those that use an inactive form of the plant. According to industry expert Dr. Rudi Moerck, what you want is an organic supercritical CO2 extract of saw palmetto oil, which is dark green in color.
- Astaxanthin in combination with saw palmetto. There is also solid research indicating that if you take astaxanthin in combination with saw palmetto, you may experience significant synergistic benefits. A 2009 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that an optimal dose of saw palmetto and astaxanthin increased testosterone.9
- Ashwagandha. This ancient Indian herb is known as an adaptogen, which can help boost stamina, endurance, and sexual energy. Research published in 2010 found that men taking the herb Ashwagandha experienced a significant increase in testosterone levels.10 I recommend using only 100% organic Ashwagandha root, free of fillers, additives, and excipients to ensure quality.
The bottom line is this: maintaining an optimal balance of natural hormones in your body is crucial at all life stages. For children and women of childbearing age, particular focus on minimizing your exposures to endocrine-disrupting chemicals like phthalates is important to protect healthy hormonal balance during critical stages of growth and development. As an adult, minimizing exposure to such chemicals is still important, but so is optimizing your body’s natural ability to maintain a proper hormonal balance, and that is done, primarily, via your healthy lifestyle.