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The PCOS Solution

Plastic and your hormones in PCOS

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Take a look around you now, right where you are, and notice how many items around you contain plastic. The keyboard I’m typing this on is made of plastic, as is the standing desk converter. The printer, the plant pots, even the fan whirring in the corner. Although plastic is a helpfully versatile medium to create almost anything with, it’s not so helpful when it comes to our hormones.

Our modern environment is considerably polluted; every day our bodies come into contact with man-made chemicals that we’re just not designed to process and get rid of effectively; our genes haven’t evolved fast enough to handle them. Since we developed a love of plastic and its versatility over the last century and a half  our exposure has multiplied exponentially.Plastic and the pollution it creates is so prevalent that all you can do is minimise your exposure.

Manufacturers are now focused on creating safer plastics, but more research keeps emerging about how this man made substance causes us harm.

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a component of plastics. It’s useful for plastics manufacturers because it makes plastics more resilient and flexible, clearer, more resistant to heat. Since the first plastic items were invented during the 19th century our society has fallen in love with this versatile, light material. It’s now used extensively in food and drink packaging, medical devices, compact discs, epoxy-phenolic resins, in drinking water storage tanks, and in water pipes. It’s everywhere, and modern life seems impossible without plastic.

Although plastic is waterproof, the BPA within the plastic leaches easily into the contents of a food or drink container. Even more easily if the contents are acidic, have a high fat content, or are heated. BPA is then readily absorbed in your mouth, transferring across mucous membranes into the rich web of blood vessels that sit under your tongue. From there the molecules can travel through your body, escaping detection because at first glance your body thinks its a hormone molecule.

Eating and drinking is actually the major way we ingest BPA, but it isn’t the only way. You can absorb it through your skin, breathe it in too. When you consider that BPA is part of dental materials, contact lenses, thermal paper, and in many other objects, you get a sense of how pervasive it has become in our world. Once in your body BPA mimics estradiol, one of the estrogen hormones. So now your body thinks it has more estrogen in circulation than it planned for. 

Here’s what BPA does in various parts of your body. This list isn’t exhaustive; consider that many cells in your body possess oestrogen receptors. 

- When BPA molecules land on your ovaries, they stimulate the theca cells within them to produce more androgens.  The Androgens down-regulate the liver enzyme involved in clearing BPA from your body. So now you have more androgens in your system and less ability to break them down.

- Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG) is affected by BPA too. Remember that SHBG ‘mops up’ excess hormones in your system (like excess androgens). The BPA molecule attaches itself to SHBG; so again, excess hormones remain in circulation.

- There’s a compound your body produces, testosterone hydroxylase, that breaks down testosterone to keep levels in check. BPA inhibits the work of this enzyme, contributing to increased testosterone levels.

- Animal studies have shown BPA interferes with thyroid hormone production too. Perhaps this is why PCOS and hypothyroidism can occur together.

- Animal studies have also revealed that BPA alters the endometrial lining where a fertilised egg would normally attached.

- Because it mimics estrogen, BPA is suspected to contribute to early onset of puberty.

- BPA also interferes with your pancreas function, impairing blood glucose regulation. Considering that insulin resistance is a major underlying cause of PCOS, this is profound.

BPA has a half life of just over five hours, which means it’s constantly being broken down and excreted through urine. However the more you keep taking it in and the less functional your liver, the higher your BPA accumulation. So although BPA is not a cause of PCOS, it can certainly intensify it.

How does BPA get into your system? You can ingest it in contaminated food or water, absorb it through your skin or inhale it; but the main source of exposure is food or water contaminated through contact with BPA-containing plastic. You’ve probably noticed more and more plastic products promoted as ‘BPA-free’, and that’s certainly one way to reduce your exposure to this suspect toxin. 

That doesn’t mean that BPA is the only environmental toxin that could be affecting your hormones; just that BPA is the plastic toxin we know more about. In the meantime, it's a good idea to minimise your exposure to plastic wherever practical.

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Olwen Anderson @olwenanderson


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