The Role of Environmental Estrogens in Hormone Imbalances

The Role of Environmental Estrogens in Hormone Imbalances

Environmental estrogens are plants, food or chemicals in the environment that mimic the effect of the hormone estrogen and change hormonal patterns in both men and women. This is called endocrine disruption.

Hormones are messengers, providing instructions telling different parts of the body how to function. This is usually done expertly, with just the right amount of hormones to regulate the body effectively, but the process is a delicate balance. If the hormone messengers are skewed even slightly, it can result in many diseases, from subtle to serious.

Sources of Environmental Estrogens

Hormone disruptors can be found in food – the highest amount of phytoestrogens (plant estrogens) are found in soy products – namely soy beans, soy milk alternatives, tofu and miso. High fat products like cooking oils, trans fats in ‘junk’ foods and red meats can also disrupt hormones by increasing the amount of estrogen in the body.
Meat and fish is a common source of environmental estrogens as much of it has been contaminated by pollution or intensive farming methods.

Pesticides such as DDT are a major cause of hormone dysfunction in both humans and wildlife, as well as dioxins, household chemicals like flame retardants, detergents and cosmetics. Plastics containing bisphenol A are also infamous for causing hormone mediated disease and have been banned in some countries.

Pharmaceutical Drugs and Hormone Disruption

Pharmaceutical drugs and hormonal contraceptives don’t just alter the hormones of the women that take them. After the women have excreted them, trace amounts of estrogen end up in the water supply and affect others who ingest the water. A study by the Environment Agency in the UK in the early 2000’s found that a third of male fish in Britain were in the process of changing sex due to the rivers becoming polluted by the female contraceptive pill.

Diseases Due to Environmental Estrogens

Some of the diseases that occur as a result of environmental estrogens include:

Female Infertility

Too much estrogen can cause weight gain, irregular ovulation and other menstrual disorders – making it more difficult for a woman to get pregnant.


Endometriosis is another cause of infertility in women. This increasingly common condition involves uterine tissue growing in areas outside the womb. Symptoms include pelvic pain, painful periods, pain during intercourse and infertility that results from the embryo being unable to implant due to scarring of the uterine wall or blockage of the Fallopian tubes that prevents fertilization.

Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome

Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that causes enlarged ovaries that have many under-developed follicles that are unable to release an egg. Due to a lack of ovulation, women are often unable to get pregnant and they may have irregular periods or a complete absence of periods.

In a study of Greek women, those with PCOS were found to have much higher levels of bisphenol A (a component of plastic) in their blood.

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer has been steadily increasing for decades and there has been a 1% annual increase in mortality from the disease since the 1940’s. As 40% of all cancers in women are hormone controlled and both estrogen and progesterones play a part in the development of breast cancer, estrogens in the environment are a risk factor for breast cancer.
Women who live near an industrial site have higher rates of breast cancer and biopsy samples taken from women with cancer have higher amounts of pesticide in them. In one study, breast fat of cancer patients had 40% more chlorinated pesticides like DDT contained within it than samples taken from people without cancer.

Auto-Immune Disease

Estrogens and estrogen mimicking chemicals are known to increase the likelihood of auto-immune diseases like lupus. Lupus is a disease where the immune system attacks the person’s own body, causing joint pains, rashes, inflammation, hair loss and even heart and kidney complications. Patients with lupus have higher levels of estrogen and lower levels of testosterone than the general population.

Obesity and Diabetes

Obesity was long thought to be almost entirely due to bad diet. However, it is now known that exposure to environmental estrogens during critical periods of development can result in obesity and – due to excessive weight – diabetes.

How to Reduce Your Environmental Estrogen Exposure

  • Buy only organic foods to reduce your pesticide exposure
  • Buy foods which are not packaged or wrapped in plastic
  • Avoid pre-packaged infant formula. Environmental estrogens have been found in breast milk, however they are also in cow’s milk and in formula packaging.
  • Filter your water to protect yourself from pharmaceutical drug residues, fluoride, chlorine and contraceptive hormones
  • Don’t use plastic food containers and switch to paper sandwich bags
  • Don’t use chemical pesticides on your lawn
  • Avoid chemical household cleaning items – use natural alternatives like white vinegar
  • Avoid ‘bad’ fats in your diet
  • If you eat soy, make sure it is organic and preferably fermented. Limit your intake
  • Take probiotics – those with good gut flora can excrete environmental estrogens more easily
  • Consider using a non-hormonal method of contraception like persona or cyclebeads
  • Choose naturally made, fair trade furniture as these may contain less harmful chemicals
  • Avoid plastic children’s toys and cutlery items


Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals: An Endocrine Society Scientific Statement, Endocr Rev. 2009 Jun; 30(4): 293–342.

Endocrine Disruptors and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): Elevated Serum Levels of Bisphenol A in Women with PCOS. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

Accmulation of Environmental Estrogens in Adipose Tissue of Breast Cancer Patients, J Environ Sci Health A Tox Hazard Subst Environ Eng. 2010;45(3):305-12. doi: 10.1080/10934520903468038.

Xenoestrogens as Preventable Causes of Breast Cancer,

The Role of Environmental Estrogens and Auto-Immunity, Auto-immunity Reviews,

Bisphenol A, Health Canada,

Living with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, PsychGuides.

Human Infertility: Are Endocrine Disruptors to Blame? Endocr Connect. 2013 Sep 1; 2(3): R15–R29.

This is an article by Helen Grant.

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