The hormone health niche has recently gotten quite popular. We are flooded with information on blood sugar balance, seed cycling, sleep hygiene and more – but something that continues to fly under the radar is the impact that food sourcing has on our hormones.
We’re currently living in a time of hormone disruption. We see this primarily with the rising rates of reproductive challenges, currently impacting up to 20% of the US population, but also with the increased incidence of hormone-related conditions, from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) to early onset puberty.
And while there are many potential causes for fertility challenges and hormone imbalance, from over exercising to chronic stress, there is also a driving factor that many of us interact with daily while ignorant to its impact– the presence of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) in our food system.
For those that are new to the term, EDCs work by mimicking and disrupting our body’s natural hormones, creating a cascade of issues such as immune system dysfunction, increased cancer risk, and exacerbated hormonal conditions, including endometriosis, irregular periods, and dysmenorrhea.
And while you may have heard about EDCs presence in cosmetics or plastics, they are also riddled throughout our food supply. But not to worry – there are ways to limit exposure, and it all starts at the farm…
The Current State of Farming
Once upon a time, we would grow our food in our backyards or in a community farm that was based on a symbiotic relationship between animals, plants, and land. Farms were once interdependent elements, where the soil quality was enhanced through cover and rotating crops, composting ruled over throw away culture, and the integration of cows, chickens, and pigs both enhanced crop quality and productivity all while enabling the animals not just to survive, but thrive. Fast forward to 2022, and our farming system is a slightly different story.
The little red farm up on a hill has been replaced by factory farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). These facilities, raising huge numbers of animals year round, often in confinement, have become so popular that a 2019 study by the Sentience Institute found that up to 99% of farmed animals in the US are raised on large scale factory farms, accounting for 1.6 billion animals. Our farming system is based on getting bigger faster, with little regard for the impacts it has on the land, animal, or (drum roll) human health.
In fact, up to 80% of antibiotics currently sold are for animal agriculture, rather than for human use. That’s right, steroid hormones, from estrogen to testosterone, continue to be given to US beef cattle and sheep.
When we look at crop production, it’s not much better. Monoculture and thus persistent use of pesticides lead the way, despite them being relatively new and limited research around its safety. Our farms have gone from fields of nourishment to rows of chemicals. And since most of us are not visiting our local farms anymore, our understanding of and connection with our produce is limited, leaving many of us ignorant to the catastrophe that is modern farming and the impact that our fork has on our hormones.
Bottom line, when we go to the grocery store and fill our bags with *seemingly* healthy items, from milk to kale, we end up taking home much more than mere food.
EDCs and the Farm Connection
So how do EDCs actually come in? Let’s start with the animals.
Animal products tend to carry a heavier EDC risk than plant products. This is often due to the fact that many EDCs accumulate in fat and tissue.
This is the case with dioxins, an environmental toxin produced as a byproduct of manufacturing. Despite the EPA putting stricter controls on dioxins in the 70s, more than 90% of human exposure to dioxin today is still through the food chain. Since dioxins are stored in fat, the primary source of these endocrine disruptors are fatty animal products, such as beef, milk, chicken and so on. Dioxins have been linked to everything from development issues, reproductive challenges, hormone interference and more, making them particularly relevant to hormone health.
The other area of concern is around hormone administration. Growth hormones are standard practice in our beef industry, given to over 90% of cattle on feedlots. But despite being used in the US since the 1950s, this practice has been banned by the European Union since the 1980s in an effort to protect consumer health and safety in light of lacking long term epidemiological studies. However, some research has pointed to a connection between meat intake and hormonal disruption and fertility challenges. While the mechanism is still up for grabs, it calls on common sense to take a pause around whether a synthetic hormone and endocrine disruptor could somehow be at fault.
While many of these foods should be considered healthy, as they offer high quality protein and an array of vitamins and minerals, their high fat content in the context of industrial agriculture can act as a vehicle for hormone residues, antibiotics and pesticides, leaving you vulnerable to EDC exposure.
Even when we remove these more synthetic forms of hormones, we still should consider the impact of “natural” hormones on our food supply. Research has shown that the naturally occurring estrogen found in milk and dairy products may be linked to anovulation (i.e. skipped ovulation) and lower antral follicle count, with some studies even showing that dairy products may increase the risk of fibroids. However, the biggest culprit is low fat dairy as time and time it has consistently been linked to fertility challenges.
While plant products are less of a concern, they still require some mindfulness. Most plants today are grown with herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. Many of these chemicals are still being studied, with preliminary research indicating a link between with potential developmental issues, such as earlier age of a woman’s first period, smaller testicular volume and effected sexual maturation.
For example, atrazine, a popular herbicide in the US, has been shown to stimulate aromatase activity, which converts androgens into estrogens. Some studies have found that increased exposure to this herbicide may be linked to decreased testicular testosterone and, and increased serum estrogen.
So whether you are shopping for the eggs or the spinach in that veggie omelette you’re craving, knowing how to select the food items that will support your hormones and nourish your body, instead of interfering with its natural process, is key.
Mindful Food Sourcing 101
Being a mindful shopper requires a bit more time, effort, and, potentially, financial investment. However, the tradeoff is a choice that supports your body, your hormones, and the planet! Here are a couple of suggestions to try in an effort to limit your EDC exposure and assist your hormone health.
- Consider going plant-based or vegan for a few meals or days throughout the week. This will not only help reduce your EDC burden, but will provide you with extra fiber, lignans, and antioxidants, all of which can further support hormone health. Just make sure to prioritize plant proteins, like legume and beans, in the process!
- If and when you do purchase animal products, look for labels such as “USDA Organic,” alongside labels such as “Animal Welfare Approved,” “Global Animal Partnership,” or “Food Alliance Certified-Grassfed.” These help to assure that no hormones or antibiotics were used, and often guarantee a higher quality of life and feed for the animal. Don’t be fooled by unregulated terms such as “cage-free” or “free range.”
- Consider shopping at a farmers market. Farmers markets tend to work with smaller farms in the area, rather than the large scale factory farms we discussed above. This means you have a better chance of purchasing ethically and safely raised products, and you have the opportunity to speak to the farmer and ask questions
- Investigate the farms you purchase from. Whether you are buying your products from a grocery store or a farm stand, take note of the name and learn more. Invest in farms that practice biodynamic or regenerative farming, or are certified organic or simply practice organic measures (many small farms do not have the financial means to go through certification). Be a detective and do your due diligence.
- Eat whole foods. While food processing is a topic for another day, once a food product leaves a farm, there are multiple potential points of EDC contamination – from plastics, to can linings, to various fast food packaging. So whenever possible, choose a whole food, fresh option.
Written By: Amanda Wahlstedt, RDN