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7 Chemicals & Foods that Cause Hormonal Imbalance

7 Chemicals & Foods that Cause Hormonal Imbalance

What would you say if we told you that your food is at the top of the list in driving hormonal imbalances? How would you even know if you were experiencing hormonal imbalances? What are the foods that cause hormonal imbalance and what can we do about it? 

Many people experience years of discomfort, poor performance, undesirable body weight, intense sugar cravings, poor skin quality, mental stress, anxiety, the list of symptoms goes on.

Here’s the crazy part…the impact of diet on hormones is widely undermined in today’s society. The causes of hormonal imbalances are often chalked up to “aging”, “genetics”, or “stress” and while these factors may certainly be at play, the potential environmental and dietary root causes driving these imbalances are often neglected. As long as you’ve got your birth control or Viagra you’re good to go. Right?! 

Not so much! The Standard American Diet (SAD), which is comprised of extremely processed, highly refined, energy-dense foods that cause hormonal imbalance. In some cases, it’s more than just food, but also shockingly the fact that there are often endocrine disruptors in water.

What certainly doesn’t help this situation are the high-stress lifestyles, poor diet habits, and daily interactions with the environment. Dealing with moodiness, fatigue, irritability, restlessness, poor body composition, constant acne breakouts despite trying a million and one face regimens? 

If you said yes to even one of these, keep on reading, because this post’s conversation is one you do not want to miss. Here we will be discussing the top foods that cause hormonal imbalance, endocrine disruptors in water, the negative effects of hormone disruptors in the body, and our top tips for how to avoid endocrine disruptors in your diet.

The Endocrine System

Before discussing how to reduce your toxic burden, let’s take a trip down memory lane back to biology 101 to remind ourselves of the vital system running this show. The endocrine system is the hormonal network in the body comprised of glands responsible for maintaining proper communication, development, and regulation of cells in the body.

Unfortunately, we live in a world full of toxins that selflessly hijack this beautiful system. Various toxins are more recently being referred to as “endocrine disruptors” because they interfere with the body’s hormonal communication in many ways. 

Loads of chemicals are sprayed on crops and pumped into livestock leading to a massive amount of endocrine disrupting chemicals in food (read more about this in our post Organic vs Non-Organic: Is Organic Food Healthier?). This is are now being linked to adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in the body. Based on scientific knowledge about how hormones work in the body, experts recently released a consensus statement (hot off the press as of January 2020!) listing the 10 key characteristics of endocrine-disrupting chemicals.[1]

While there are dozens of chemicals and foods now identified as endocrine disruptors, today we will touch on some of the top dogs and how they work to wreak havoc on the body, even in small doses.

How Chemicals and Food Additives Disrupt Hormones

So…how exactly do certain chemicals and/or foods disrupt hormones? Food particles or chemicals from food enter into the body and choose from a few potential scenarios:

Overstimulation or inhibition – You know when you get into work and some big shot has hijacked your parking spot?! Endocrine disruptors have a similar fate by binding to the receptors of hormones they don’t belong to with zero invitation, consequently impairing the natural hormone’s binding capacity. This may overstimulate, under-stimulate, or prevent the response of the natural hormone altogether.  

Mimic or block the body’s response to endogenous hormones – Endocrine disruptors can mimic real hormones in the body, preventing the actual hormones from being activated all together.

Alter biosynthesis or degradation of endogenous hormones – Many endocrine disruptors have been shown to interfere with the natural elimination of breakdown, potentially increasing or decreasing normal levels of hormones. Natural detoxification may be altered, inflammation is exacerbated, and appetite often takes a plunge.

Some chemicals, food sources like refined sugar and other processed foods serve as obesogens, meaning they, disrupt bacterial diversity in the gut, alter metabolism, increase fat storage, and promote weight gain.[2] For example, estrogen dominance may be driven by the overgrowth of bacteria in the gut or even excess adiposity.

Excess body fat à more fat cells à surge of estrogen in the body!

Either by impaired degradation of hormones or obesogens, hormones often skyrocket above normal, causing the “dominance” of a particular chemical in the body. Dairy and soy may also drive estrogen imbalance and should be evaluated on an individual basis! Ladies, if your menstrual cycles are worse than ever and mood swings are off the charts…estrogen dominance may be something to consider!

Hormone Disrupting Foods

Before we dive into hormone disrupting foods, it is important to acknowledge that more often than not, the root cause of hormonal imbalance is due to lifestyle factors beyond mere diet.

  • You could be living or working in a moldy environment, causing mycotoxins to mimic estrogen or testosterone
  • Your mental and physical stress might be at an all-time high, driving chronic elevations in cortisol.
  • Maybe you’re driving your body into the ground by overtraining, also throwing hormones out of whack.

On top of all of this, you’re pounding the espresso and throwing down granola bars all day in order to stay afloat…worsening an already jacked up hormone system! 

Case in point, we must get to the root and then use a whole foods diet and lifestyle to fix the underlying imbalances. Now that we understand the basis of endocrine disruptors, let’s shed light on the top hormone disrupting foods.

Girl eating a sugar-laden cupcake which is a food additive endocrine disruptor

1. The Biggest Offender: Sugar and Sugar Substitutes 

Arguably the top culprit of hormone imbalance, particularly in females involves SUGAR! As a society, we have a general understanding of the role of refined sugar and weight gain, but have we ever thought maybe this phenomenon goes beyond mere calories in calories out? What about the sugar is making you bust out of your pants or unable to drop the pesky pounds? You guessed it…sugar is jacking up our hormones! 

The Impact of Sugar on Insulin 

The hormone personally victimized by sugar is insulin, which shuttles sugar from the bloodstream into the cell. As the bloodstream is flooded with sugar, our poor little pancreas is left to fend for itself pumping insulin out left and right. Eventually, the pancreas is unable to meet the demand, resulting in desensitization of insulin…A.K.A insulin resistance.

As if you thought insulin had done its due diligence, oh wait there’s more! Not only is insulin our fat-storing hormone, but it also releases inflammatory cytokines interleukin-6 (IL-6), which has been shown to increase antibodies characteristic of food sensitivities and intolerances.[3] 

Top Sources of Added Sugars

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that Grandma’s apple pie and our good friends Ben and Jerry are laden with this addictive agent, yet too frequently our “health foods” are sabotaged by sneaky companies whose life goal is to feed this addiction that our brains and bodies are unfit to fight. 

Top food sources with added sugar/artificial sweeteners include but are not limited to:

  1. Beverages – sports drinks, specialty coffee drinks, alcoholic beverages, energy drinks, milk, soda, fruit juice, and “fruit” smoothies
  2. Grains – breakfast cereals, muffins, granola bars, and protein bars
  3. Sauces – barbeque, honey mustard, ketchup, jelly, soy sauce, mayonnaise, and relish 
  4. Salad dressings such as ranch, French, Italian, balsamic, and raspberry vinaigrette
  5. Trail mix is often corrupted by candied nuts and chocolate pieces 
  6. Yogurt 

While some sugar can be part of a well-balanced diet, it is often hidden in the most deceiving ways, resulting in sincere dependence on this addictive drug and consequently the most uninvited sugar cravings as a result of hormone imbalances! 

Interested in finding a few replacements for sweets? Check out our post on Sweet Swaps: Healthy Swaps for Junk Food.

2. Caffeine- The Impact of Sugar and Caffeine on Cortisol 

Not only can refined sugar drive a surge of insulin, the “Mother of All Stress Hormones” cortisol, is also thrown out of whack. The body secretes cortisol to deal with stress, but this miracle worker can go into overdrive when attempting to cope with the sugar-induced inflammation caused by our diet. 

While there is a new claim every other day on the benefits of caffeine, this hormone-disrupting drug also spikes cortisol in the body, thus driving a stressful environment in the body![4]

Are you waking frequently during the night yet wired all evening? Investigating your sugar ridden diet and/or re-considering that third cup of Joe at 2 pm might be in your future! These hormone disruption foods may be creating the perfect storm.

Oh and one more thing on sugar… If you’re thinking, “OK well, I will just use some sugar substitutes or other artificial sweeteners instead!” You may think again because many artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes can cause issues from disrupting the good bacteria in your microbiome to leading to regularly craving sweeter foods.

This is such a common question and causes issues for so many people that we wrote a post on this as well and you can check it out here: 9 Artificial Sweetener Side Effects: Facts You Need to Know.

3. Soy

The conversation about soy has been a confusing one for sure! The isoflavones genistein and daidzein, which are plant constituents derived from soy have phytoestrogen activity, meaning they mimic estrogen in the body. Since they can directly impact estrogen levels, it is no wonder experts have scrutinized this poor bean for years, particularly in the context of breast cancer risk and thyroid imbalance. 

The beneficial or harmful effect of eating soy highly depends on the individual, but one thing for certain is that most soy consumed by Americans is processed, pesticide-ridden (Check out our post on 4 Amazing GF Pasta Alternatives to learn more about how pesticides are often used in crop farming), and highly inflammatory

Sources of soy (often in the form of soybean oil)

  • Tofu/tempeh
  • Processed meats
  • Dressings/sauces
  • Nutritional supplements
  • Bread
  • Dairy products 
  • Nearly all packaged and processed foods

Sooooo…should I eat soy or not?! More on this to come. Keep reading!  

4. Factory Farmed Foods (A.K.A your GMO processed corn, soybean, and canola)

Many hormone disrupting foods have been birthed from newer conventional farming developed over the last 2-3 decades. I challenge you to look in your refrigerator or pantry and find five packaged foods that are free of corn, soybean, or canola oil…best of luck, it won’t be easy! 

As the global demand for food began to rise in the late 20th century, industrial farming began their quest to meet the public’s needs. Agriculturalists and chemical companies learned to strategically alter crops by cross-breeding the DNA of natural foods and using pseudo chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides to make more food more quickly and with higher yields. We refer to these today as genetically modified organisms or GMOs. While GMOs successfully made food cheaper and more pleasing to the taste buds of consumers, our health and hormones have taken a massive hit. 

Wait, isn’t there a lot of disagreement on the harm of GMO’s and a lack of research? YES. But, just like how companies such as Monsanto claimed for years that glyphosate was a “safe pesticide” and that “there is no research to support glyphosate is harmful to humans”, it is simply a matter of time before research reveals that GMO’s are likely not the best thing for us. FYI, if you haven’t read about all the lawsuits (over 18,000 now) against Bayer/Monsanto and how many farmers are full of cancer from using it on their crops, simply do a quick google search and be prepared to be overwhelmed! They’re repeatedly found guilty in court for having, “deliberately manipulated science, regulatory agencies and the media to hide knowledge that glyphosate is carcinogenic“.

Ok, I digress…aside from the mere thought of ingesting a chemically processed synthetic chemical into our body, the problem with these food-like substances is the endocrine disrupting constituents used to cultivate the mass quantities of these crops. 

Here are a few top toxins that turn your beautiful blueberries into a hormone disrupting food.

Benefits of gluten free

5. Pesticides

The uncovering of the side effects of pesticides on humans is an area that is growing in recent research. Pesticides have been identified as some of the top endocrine disruptors used not only in our gardens, but our supplements and pharmaceutical drugs. 

Glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide, and while (surprisingly) the jury’s still out on its safety, adverse health outcomes have been linked to this pesticide over the last 30 years.

Glyphosate tainted foods include:

Side Effects of Pesticides on Humans

We are constantly exposed to pesticides in the air, water, and soil in which our crops reside, research over the past 10 years has revealed substantial evidence confirming various adverse health effects that pesticides have had on human health, particularly relating to risk for various cancers.[6] and more recently impairments in thyroid function.[7]

As mentioned, glyphosate, a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide inhibiting the growth of weeds is the most widely used chemical to support mass food production. While we could talk for hours about the impact of factory farming on modern-day wheat and its link to food sensitivities, we discuss why being gluten-free may be healthier as a result of our conventional farming practices in an entire post. 

Animal studies have demonstrated that the endocrine disruptor glyphosate may cause negative developmental changes in fetuses.[8] In humans, not only has glyphosate use been linked to cancer, it has recently been found to negatively impact estrogen metabolites and risk for breast cancer cells, even at low doses. This antagonistic agent binds to estrogen and androgen receptors in the body thereby interfering with proper metabolism, creation, and excretion of natural hormones.[9]

While all health effects of pesticides are widely unknown, there is growing evidence that the use of synthetic chemicals disrupt the hormone system, driving reproductive alterations, cancer risk, obesity…the list goes on my friends.

6. Mercury 

Where are my tuna salad and sushi lovers at?! Although large fish like tuna, swordfish, marlin, and mackerel are packed with protein and nutrients, these animals are some of the highest mercury-containing creatures on God’s green earth.

While some level of mercury in the body is unavoidable, many humans, athletes, in particular, are pounding sushi on a weekly or even daily basis. Not to mention the aluminum seeping from the can into your precious California roll…YUM. 

But isn’t my body built to filter this stuff out? You bet it is. Glutathione, A.K.A the Mother of All Antioxidants, runs the show when it comes to liver detoxification. However, excessive levels of toxins like mercury deplete this vital nutrient. High enough levels of mercury without enough glutathione means less effective and efficient detoxification, potentially causing mercury toxicity. 

Interested in learning more about the harmful effects of mercury and heavy metals? Check out our post Heavy Metal Toxicity: What is it and Why is it so Prevalent.

7. Preservatives

Ever wonder how the heck your potato chips or ramen withstand weeks to a month while buried in the pantry? No, it’s not magic! Food products are jam-packed with preservatives to make them tastier and to make them last far longer than Mother Nature ever intended. 

Some of the top preservatives housed inside our packaged foods include: Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), Bisphenol A (BPA), dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), and nitrites/nitrates. BHT, in particular, has actually been shown to lower testosterone (hello dudes…not cool!) and impair thyroid function in animals.[5] 

Preservative polluted foods include:

  • Processed meats
  • Non-organic butter
  • Chewing gum,
  • Baked good
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Cosmetics (yes ladies, we inadvertently eat our lip gloss)
  • Animal feed (we eat what the animals eat!) 
Woman handing a child a glass of water

Endocrine Disruptors in Water

One of the most undermined toxins resides in our very own drinking water. Could this liquid gold possibly sit in the same category as my glyphosate ridden wheat bread or GMO-process soy? Potentially, if not filtered or appropriately treated with the right tools.  

According to the environmental working group, there are over 300 chemicals and pollutants in tap water, whose health implications have been widely studied. Oh, you didn’t order ice water with a side of arsenic? Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there, as the top endocrine disruptors in water include a variety of heavy metals.

Water-containing contaminants include:

Lead – Lead throws hormones out of whack by blunting communication of the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, potentially impairing menstrual cycles in women, reducing fertility, and damaging testicular function in men.[10]

Cadmium – This guy attacks thyroid function and impairs signaling to the ovaries by mimicking estrogen. As mentioned earlier, many heavy metals, such as cadmium block the binding of estrogen to the necessary receptor impeding proper signaling! No wonder the body is going absolutely rogue, symptomized by mood swings, irritability, dysregulation of hunger hormones, and weight gain just to name a few.

Perchlorate – This synthetic chemical is poorly degraded, thus migrating its way into soil, water, and manufacturing facilities. According to the Environmental Working Group, it is estimated that approximately 80% of Americans are exposed to perchlorate, as it is detectable in nearly all water, produce, dairy products, and packaged foods. The biggest beef we have with perchlorate in terms of hormones is its effect on thyroid function. This toxin blunts thyroid hormone synthesis by inhibiting the uptake of iodide, a crucial nutrient for neurological, metabolic, and immune functions. 

Chromium – Environmentalists are most recently offended by chromium-6, a metal detected that 200 million Americans across all 50 states have been supplied in their water. This tasteless, odorless metallic element has been linked to cancer in animals and humans, what’s to say our hormones go untouched in the presence of this toxic element?

How to Avoid Endocrine Disruptors

While every human on this earth is equipped to detoxify naturally low doses of invaders exposed to the body, our toxic burden is heavier than ever. The body cannot fend for itself if not supported by natural detoxifiers comprised of a whole foods diet.

Are You Saying I Need a 30-day Juice Detox?

Absolutely not. Contrary to popular belief, the body is ALWAYS detoxifying. The liver is continuously cycling through two phases of detoxification in order to rid the body of endocrine-disrupting invaders. Detoxification is extremely complex and depends on many factors, so be sure to check out our blog on Essential Tips for Detoxifying Naturally. For the sake of today’s conversation, the number one piece of advice is to prioritize the quality of your food.

Organic vs. Non-organic Produce

While consuming fruits and vegetables is a great start, the best way to avoid endocrine disruptors in your produce is purchasing organic and non-GMO food sources. Some fruit and vegetables such as berries, tomatoes, and spinach are consistently reported to have higher levels of pesticides compared to avocados and cantaloupe which have less. The Environmental Working Group is continuously updating the Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen, which may help you choose which produce to spend your pretty pennies on when buying organic! 

If you would like to learn more about this check out our post Organic vs Non Organic- Is Organic Food Healthier?

Stabilizing blood sugar

Consider re-evaluating your packaged products for cleaned alternatives. Get the sugar out of foods where sugar does not belong. While cutting all sugar from your life is next to impossible, hormones can still be balanced if done right! Focus on pairing carbohydrate sources with healthy fats and high-quality protein to better regulate blood sugar and prevent frequent insulin spikes.   

And We Are Back to Soy

Just as we know our do-do processed farm-raised salmon is incomparable to a fresh, wild-caught filet, GMO processed, non-organic soy does not deserve to be lumped in with its higher-quality competitors. 

A 2016 study analyzed 239 women undergoing assisted reproduction and reported an increase in birth rates with the intake of soy foods, thus concluding that soy intake may protect against the adverse reproductive effects of BPA.[11]

If choosing to eat soy, we recommend non-GMO verified soy isoflavones sources, which reportedly bind to estrogen receptors in a way that increases protective estrogen metabolites and eliminates riskier estrogen metabolites. Additionally, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that soy foods may address health conditions and contribute to beneficial health outcomes in postmenopausal women.[12]

One Last Thought on Endocrine Disrupting Foods

While a perfect, dogmatic prescription for a “hormone balancing diet” does not exist, you best believe a primarily organic, whole foods diet will never go out of style when it comes to naturally balancing hormones. Take control of your hormonal health and avoid foods that cause hormonal imbalance by eating to support blood sugar control, reduce your overall toxic burden, and most importantly, listening to your body to determine what a hormone balancing diet looks and feels like for YOU!

References

  1. La Merrill MA, Vandenberg LN, Smith MT, et al. Consensus on the key characteristics of endocrine-disrupting chemicals as a basis for hazard identification. Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2020;16(1):45-57. doi:10.1038/s41574-019-0273-8
  2. Blumberg B. Obesogens, stem cells and the maternal programming of obesity. J Dev Orig Health Dis. 2011;2(1):3-8. doi:10.1017/S2040174410000589
  3. Ellenbogen Y, Jiménez-Saiz R, Spill P, Chu D, Waserman S, Jordana M. The Initiation of Th2 Immunity Towards Food Allergens. IJMS. 2018;19(5):1447. doi:10.3390/ijms19051447
  4. Lovallo WR, Whitsett TL, al’Absi M, Sung BH, Vincent AS, Wilson MF. Caffeine Stimulation of Cortisol Secretion Across the Waking Hours in Relation to Caffeine Intake Levels: Psychosomatic Medicine. 2005;67(5):734-739. doi:10.1097/01.psy.0000181270.20036.06
  5. Jeong S-H, Kim B-Y, Kang H-G, Ku H-O, Cho J-H. Effects of butylated hydroxyanisole on the development and functions of reproductive system in rats. Toxicology. 2005;208(1):49-62. doi:10.1016/j.tox.2004.11.014
  6. Alavanja MCR, Bonner MR. Occupational Pesticide Exposures and Cancer Risk: A Review. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B. 2012;15(4):238-263. doi:10.1080/10937404.2012.632358
  7. Leemans M, Couderq S, Demeneix B, Fini J-B. Pesticides With Potential Thyroid Hormone-Disrupting Effects: A Review of Recent Data. Front Endocrinol. 2019;10:743. doi:10.3389/fendo.2019.00743
  8. Ren X, Li R, Liu J, et al. Effects of glyphosate on the ovarian function of pregnant mice, the secretion of hormones and the sex ratio of their fetuses. Environmental Pollution. 2018;243:833-841. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2018.09.049
  9. Stur E, Aristizabal-Pachon AF, Peronni KC, et al. Glyphosate-based herbicides at low doses affect canonical pathways in estrogen positive and negative breast cancer cell lines. Ahmad A, ed. PLoS ONE. 2019;14(7):e0219610. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0219610
  10. Doumouchtsis KK, Doumouchtsis SK, Doumouchtsis EK, Perrea DN. The effect of lead intoxication on endocrine functions. J Endocrinol Invest. 2009;32(2):175-183. doi:10.1007/BF03345710
  11. Chavarro JE, Mínguez-Alarcón L, Chiu Y-H, et al. Soy Intake Modifies the Relation Between Urinary Bisphenol A Concentrations and Pregnancy Outcomes Among Women Undergoing Assisted Reproduction. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 2016;101(3):1082-1090. doi:10.1210/jc.2015-3473
  12. Messina M. Soy foods, isoflavones, and the health of postmenopausal women. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2014;100(suppl_1):423S-430S.

About The Author

Abby Vichill

Abby is a functionally trained Registered Dietitian. She received her Bachelor of Science from the University of Dayton and completed her Master of Science in Nutrition from Case Western Reserve University, where she is an adjunct instructor. Abby has been an athlete her entire life, but never truly discovered her potential until she dialed in her nutrition from a whole-foods approach. As a high school athlete and into her college career often experienced fatigue, discomfort, and nagging injuries that held her back from excelling despite trying to eat properly. Throughout her functional nutrition education and competitive involvement in the sport of Crossfit, Abby began a more holistic lifestyle, which has significantly improved her performance and overall well-being. Abby enjoys sharing her knowledge of functional sports nutrition to help improve the lives of active individuals.

1 Comment

  1. amaal sara

    Hey Abby Vichill, your article is so good. As the hormonal disorder is a kind of disease that can be triggered through unhealthy lifestyle, getting a better knowledge on the right food habits is so important. Many of my friends here in Dubai are getting diabetic at their early age. I am sure they are unaware of their faulty diet is the disease causing factor.

    I suggest having a test on hormone levels of the body would help in understanding the health condition very well. This can be helpful in taking early medication and practicing a healthy diet.
    I would like share some details on one of the most trusted hormone testing in Dubai. https://www.fml-dubai.com/endocrinology/
    I hope this could find useful for someone who is seeking for medical testing support for hormonal disorder.

    Reply

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