Plastics are everywhere. In the past half century or so, they have taken many forms and are increasingly more abundant in our daily lives; to the point of us using them so much that we don’t even notice. This rise in plastic use is correlating with aspects of health that are becoming more and more common – PCOS and precocious puberty. The effects of plastic on our daily lives have come head to head with our HPA axis, caused our hormones to spiral out of control, and forced our bodies to bear the brunt of our drive for convenience. BPA exposure in accordance with women’s health should not be taken lightly.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical produced in large quantities for use primarily in the production of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. First created in the late 1800s, BPA was discovered by scientists in the 1930s to be a synthetic substitute for the hormone estrogen. But it wasn’t until a few decades later when chemists combined BPA with other compounds that it was found to create a clear, polycarbonate plastic that was shatter resistant.
These polycarbonate plastics are used everywhere, including in food packaging, drink packaging, water bottles, infant bottles, CDs, and medical devices. Epoxy resins are used as lacquers to coat metal products such as food cans, bottle tops, and water supply pipes. Some dental sealants and composites may also contribute to BPA exposure. In 2010, the FDA stated BPA to be safe at the current low levels of human exposure. But based on other evidence, largely from animal studies, the FDA expressed “some concern” about the potential effects of BPA on the many aspects of the body and brain – specifically, its effect on women’s health and particularly the rise of early pubescence, infertility, and PCOS. (2,4,13)
One of the big problems with BPA is it doesn’t stay in the plastic. It can break free when the plastic object is heated from a microwave, a dishwasher, an autoclave, or even high atmospheric temperatures. According to the FDA, a low dose daily exposure of 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight is safe. However, BPA doesn’t play by the rules of other toxins – its exposure is immeasurable due to the difficulty of gauging the level of leaching every time the temperature rises.
BPA is considered an Endocrine disruptor. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that may interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse effects. BPA is considered a xenoestrogen and (while not completely proven), studies have shown that BPA influences and increases the presence of 17-β estradiol (E2). There is a concentration-effect relationship, meaning BPA influences E2 to be more abundant. There was a dual mechanism of action on LH secretion by E2 and BPA, most likely corresponding to a genomic versus nongenomic action of estrogens.
LH is secreted from the anterior pituitary gland and LH supports theca cells in the ovaries that provide androgens and hormonal precursors for estradiol production. At the onset of menses, FSH initiates follicle growth and estrogen rises. LH receptors are also expressed on the maturing follicle, which causes it to produce more estradiol. Eventually, when the follicle has fully matured, a spike in 17-hydroxyprogesterone production by the follicle inhibits the production of estrogen, leading to a decrease in estrogen-mediated negative feedback of GnRH in the hypothalamus, which then stimulates the release of LH from the anterior pituitary.
This increase in LH production only lasts for 24 to 48 hours. But this “LH surge” triggers ovulation, thereby not only releasing the egg from the follicle, but also initiating the conversion of the residual follicle into the corpus luteum that, in turn, produces progesterone. LH is necessary to maintain luteal function for the first two weeks of the menstrual cycle. However, the presence of toxic levels of BPA in combination with estradiol causes consistent high plasma levels of LH. Persistently high LH levels are indicative of situations where the normal restricting feedback from the gonad is absent, leading to a pituitary production of both LH and FSH. While this is typical in the menopause, it is abnormal in the reproductive years.
High levels of LH cause ovarian hypofunction, secretion of immature follicles, multiple follicles, skipping ovulation and a high presence of estrogen hormone all around. This over-secretion of estrogen and disruption of the hormonal axis can be linked to rising infertility, levels of obesity usually with extra weight around the waist, ovarian cysts, hirutism, and acne. Additionally, past studies show that BPA is elevated in women who have had recurrent miscarriages. BPA has been detected to be in 95% of Americans. Levels of circulating BPA in newborns and small children under two years of age are predicted to be as much as 11 times higher than adults (10).
The level of exposure children have to BPA has been linked to the causation of precocious puberty. In the 19th century, the onset of menstruation in girls occurred around the age of 15. Now the average age of the first period is around 12. Some girls develop breasts as early as age seven. (11) Three years ago, laboratory tests commissioned by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) detected BPA in the umbilical cord blood of 90 percent of newborn infants tested, along with more than 230 other chemicals. (11)
In this study, rats were used to investigate whether neonatal exposure to BPA can lead to advanced puberty and possible infertility. One group of neonatal rats was exposed briefly to the 50 micrograms /kilogram (kg) per day dose of BPA (considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration), and another group was given a higher dose of 50 milligrams/kg/day. Even the rats treated with the low doses of BPA showed signs of early puberty similar to rats exposed to excessive estrogen. Moreover, the BPA exposed rats had irregular cycles that ended with premature infertility. (10)
A high estrogen state with an imbalanced ratio with progesterone, is one of the recent key elements in the developing issues affecting women’s health. Estrogen dominance has also been linked to allergies, autoimmune disorders, breast cancer, uterine cancer, infertility, ovarian cysts, and increased blood clotting, and is also associated with acceleration of the aging process. (8) When women of childbearing age are not ovulating and there is an imbalance of female sex hormones, this can lead to Polycystic Ovarian syndrome.. A recent study accepted for publication in The Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism (JCEM), found higher Bisphenol A (BPA) levels in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) compared to controls.
Furthermore, researchers found a statistically significant positive association between male sex hormones and BPA in these women, suggesting a potential role of BPA in ovarian dysfunction. “Our research shows that BPA may be more harmful to women with hormonal and fertility imbalances like those found in PCOS,” said Evanthia Diamanti-Kandarakis, MD, PhD, study co-author and professor at the University of Athens Medical School in Greece. “These women should be alert to the potential risks and take care of themselves by avoiding excessive every-day consumption of food or drink from plastic containers.”
In this study, researchers divided 71 women with PCOS and 100 healthy female control subjects into subgroups matched by age and body composition. Blood levels of BPA were nearly 60 percent higher in lean women with PCOS and more than 30 percent higher in obese women with the syndrome when compared to controls. Additionally, as BPA levels increased, so did concentrations of the male sex hormone testosterone and androstenedione – a steroid hormone that converts to testosterone. “Excessive secretion of androgens, as seen in PCOS, interfere with BPA detoxification by the liver, leading to accumulation of blood levels of BPA,” said Diamanti-Kandarakis. “BPA also affects androgen metabolism, creating a vicious circle between androgens and BPA.” (9)
To a lesser extent, BPA also mimics thyroid hormone (10) which could also be linked to the rising incidents of thyroid dysfunction in women, and is a contributor to PCOS, metabolic syndrome, heart disease and Type II Diabetes due to its imbalancing effect on the endocrine system
What should we do to prevent the effects of BPA?
What can we do to protect ourselves? Trying to avoid plastics and hidden BPA can prove to be quite difficult in the modern world. One way to avoid further BPA exposure is to switch to stainless steel or glass food storage containers, and only use glass beverage containers for microwaving. You should also limit your canned food consumption. Also, home coffee makers may have polycarbonate-based water tanks and phthalate-based tubing, so consider a French press for coffee.
To breach the subject of combating estrogen dominance in the system for women there are some treatments as well. Seed cycling is a way to help the body naturally balance its hormone levels by incorporating different seeds into the diet during the different phases of the menstrual cycle. By simply adding pumpkin, flax, sunflower, or sesame seeds to the diet at the right time in your cycle, you can assist the body in either producing more of a needed hormone, or processing and eliminating excess hormones.
Day one of your cycle is the day that menstruation begins. The two weeks that follow make up the follicular phase, during which pumpkin seeds and flax seeds provide the body with omega-3 fatty acids which promote healthy cell membranes, allowing hormones to reach their destinations within the body. Additionally, pumpkin seeds are high in zinc which supports progesterone release, and flax seeds contain lignans which block excess estrogen. The combination of pumpkin and flax seeds during phase 1 of your cycle helps to balance estrogen production and absorption in the body. Around day 15, ovulation marks Phase 2 of your cycle and marks a shift from estrogen production to progesterone production. During this phase sesame seeds and sunflower seeds support the natural balance and production of hormones in the body. Sesame seeds, which also contain lignans, help to block excess estrogen while sunflower seeds provide the body with selenium, a trace mineral that assists the liver in detoxification. (12)
Following a hormone-balancing diet: Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, adequate protein, and moderate amounts of healthy fat. Adequate fiber consumption is extremely beneficial. Estrogen is excreted by the bowel, so if stool remains in the bowel, estrogen is reabsorbed and thus recirculated.
Many of the symptoms of estrogen dominance can be relieved with a bioidentical progesterone, available over the counter in a 2% cream (one-quarter teaspoon contains ~20 mg progesterone). Use one-quarter to one-half teaspoon 2% progesterone cream on your skin (e.g., face, breasts, abdomen, hands) daily for two to three weeks prior to the onset of your period. If periods are irregular, use 2% progesterone daily, or from the full moon to the dark of the moon. Losing excess body fat and get regular exercise – especially strength training is also helpful.
Detoxify your liver. The liver acts as a filter, helping us screen out the harmful effects of toxins from our environment and the products we put in our bodies. When the liver has to work hard to eliminate toxins such as alcohol, drugs, caffeine, or environmental agents, the liver’s capacity to cleanse the blood of estrogen is compromised.
As concerns over the potential health effects of BPA exposure have become publicized, manufacturers, consumers, and governments have taken steps to reduce BPA use and exposure. In April 2008 Canadian regulators announced a ban on the use of BPA plastics in baby bottles. As a result, the European Food Safety Authority is now considering whether to take a similar step, and U.S. lawmakers have introduced a bill to ban its use in children’s products. In the meantime, manufacturers and consumers have already begun taking steps to reduce BPA use. Many people are now exchanging BPA-containing plastics—including hard-plastic water bottles and baby bottles—for other plastics, glass, or stainless steel containers. Additionally, retailers such as Wal-Mart and Toys “R” Us have announced that they’ll remove BPA-containing baby bottles from their stores. Still, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a statement in April 2008 that it isn’t recommending that anyone discontinue using products with BPA while it continues to assess the risk.
- Natural Standard: The Authority on Integrative Medicine. www.naturalstandard.com
- Shreeve N, Cagampang F, Sadek K, et al. Poor sleep in PCOS; is melatonin the culprit? Hum Reprod. 2013 May;28(5):1348-53. doi: 10.1093/humrep/det013. Epub 2013 Feb 24.
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