Originally posted in Relay Foods Blog.
The human endocrine system constitutes the communication network between the major organ systems of the body. The system is designed to manage our day-to-day response to our environment, regulating the use of fuel at the cell and systemic levels, our capacity for fertility, and the fine-tuning of our immune system. The brain functions as the sensory processing center that determines the status of our environment. As soon as the system senses stress from any source (i.e., fear, pain, lack of food), we shift into fat storage and trigger stress responses from our immune system. The brain communicates with the endocrine system via the pituitary gland (master gland), which in turn sends and receives thousands of signals from feedback hormones produced by the endocrine organs of the body: the bone, the thyroid, the adrenal glands, the ovaries/testicles, the pancreas, and the minor secretory glands of the digestive tract.
Our current lifestyles, and perhaps most important, the highly processed and contaminated food chain that we consume, are posing major threats to the integrity of our hormone systems. We are in the midst of epidemics of infertility (polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, progesterone deficiency), diabetes, obesity, and mood disorders. All of these conditions point to a loss of communication in the global endocrine system.
In this blog we take a look at the major mechanisms of stressors in our food environment that contribute to these disease processes.
Chronic stress, fat storage, and hormone imbalance.
Over the last eight years of my endocrinology medical practice, I consider this category of hormone imbalance as ground zero of the epidemic. This category can be considered a “functional” breakdown in the endocrine system because it is mediated by normal compensatory responses to chronic stress.
The successful coordination of the complex systems of the endocrine system relies on uninterrupted communication within the delicate balance of hormonal output and feedback loops in the brain and pituitary glands. As our environment gets more and more toxic, we see a breakdown of this system of communication and balance. Acute and chronic sources of stress can both result in disregulation of the immune system. The chronic sources of stress will disrupt the storage and use of fuel in which our brain, sensing a chronic “fight or flight” state, begins to send signals to the liver to store central fat in and around the liver to protect us for famine. Since we are not in a famine, we end up storing far more fat than is appropriate. As we amass central (visceral) fat we become insulin resistant (our hormone that gets the sugar from our food/liver metabolism/blood stream into each cell of the body no longer functions well and puts each cell further into a starvation state, reinforcing our continued stress response). As insulin and our other stress hormones (growth hormone, cortisol, adrenaline) continue to increase, our immune system begins to snowball into damage-control status, losing the critical fine-tuning that we need to avoid autoimmune diseases and the like.
As insulin and inflammation increase, female reproductive hormones become imbalanced, typically resulting in a profound reduction in progesterone (no longer adequate hormonal protection for a developing fetus in the uterus), a more modest reduction in estrogen, and an increase in testosterone. This hormonal shift can result in fertility problems ranging from non-ovulatory menstrual cycles, to ovarian cysts and endometriosis – a disruption of normal uterine-lining cells. Ironically, the same stress environment and rise in central fat in men has the opposite effect; testosterone levels drop as the “male” hormone is converted to estrogen in abdominal fat cells. This can lead to decreased sperm counts and erectile dysfunction.
One anti-inflammation supplement that has been used medicinally for thousands of years in Asia and has re-emmerged more recently in the West is tumeric. Tumeric is a root plant in the ginger family, which is used in Indian cuisine. Curcumin, a medicinal ingredient in tumeric, is demonstrated to have powerful, anticarcinogenic and anti-inflammatory properties and help to induce programmed cancer cell death. Broccoli sprouts are a great anti-inflammatory food, and have 50-100 times more of the anit-inflammatory chemcial, sulforaphane, than mature broccoli.
Ultimately the message is clear: whether male or female, if the environment contains too much stress, the system has mechanisms to shut down fertility. If we want to achieve a healthy nutritional environment that will foster excellent hormone balance, we must take care to reduce the chronic stress in our daily lives. In a nutshell: go to sleep early, wake up early, eat a large healthy breakfast, graze on healthy foods throughout the day, and avoid eating the majority of your calories from dinner to bedtime. Perhaps you have heard that advice before. Unfortunately it is the easy, free advice that we have the hardest time following through on!
Direct endocrine disrupters.
Once we are compliant with the foundational healthy lifestyle that we laid out above, we face the grim reality of our food chain. A wide range of substances, both natural and man-made, are increasingly recognized to cause endocrine disruption. These chemicals can cause a myriad of breakdowns in our delicate hormone balance by mimicking or blocking the function of individual hormone pathways, resulting in thyroid dysfunction, infertility, and slow metabolism.
The most common among these endocrine disrupters are pharmaceutical medications, followed by a host of chemicals that we find in our agricultural practices (found in the highest quantity in our processed foods), dioxin and dioxin-like compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls, DDT and other pesticides. As if the food was not toxic enough, we then package it in a broad range of plasticizers that can result in the introduction of additional chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA).
In addition to food and supplement sources, endocrine disruptors may be found in many everyday products – including plastic bottles, metal food cans, detergents, flame retardants which are legally required to be on all furniture, toys, cosmetics, and weed killers and pesticides in our yards, playgrounds, and parks.
Overwhelmed? Don’t be. Here are several ways you can begin to detoxifiy your body
- The combination of cilantro and chlorella is a potentent way of removing toxins, especially heavy metals, from your circulatory system. I like to juice the cilantro. 
- Spirulina is blue-green algae that is also known to remove toxins from the body. It can be taken alone or with cilantro as well.
- Activated charcoal is also good at removing toxins that would otherwise keep circulating throughout your body. If you know you’ve been exposed to toxins, activated charcoal can provide a “quick fix”.
- Zeolite is a mineral with a porous structure that can work well at scavenging and clearing toxins.
- If you want to be pre-emptive, Restore is a liquid supplement that reduces gut permeability; thus blocking the introduction of plastics and other hormone disrupters into the bloodstream. 
In this area of hormone imbalance, the name of the game for health is stay close to nature. Avoid processed foods, minimize plastic packaging (rigid clear plastics and multilayer plastic/foil combinations are often among the worst), grow your own organic garden, and support your local organic food growers.
It is noteworthy that most of these toxins in our diet are fat soluble, storing in the fat cells in our bodies, and in the fat cells of the animals we eat. As we consider the food we eat as a potential source for endocrine-disrupting chemicals, it is worth noting that the higher we eat on the food chain, the more endocrine-disrupting chemicals we are likely to be exposed to. “Eat low on the food chain” is a good rule of thumb on a toxic planet! Check out the Relay Foods vegan shopping/menu/and recipe guides for an easy pathway to success!
External sources of hormones.
As if all this were not enough, there is another source of hormone disruption that can come from our food chain and larger environment. Direct intake of hormones that are not made in our body is increasingly becoming a major threat to our longevity and day-to-day health and quality of life. Once again the most extreme source of this is the pharmaceutical environment. Steroid anti-inflammatory hormone therapies are used for everything from skin itching to cancer, with the highest usage in conditions such as chronic asthma and allergy, lung diseases, and arthritis conditions. The sex steroid hormones, estrogen, progesterone, and now testosterone, are on yet another revival of overuse in our medical system. As we saw in the first section, these pharmaceutical band-aids are being used to treat the “functional” imbalance that results from chronic stress and central fat storage.
In addition to the pharmaceutical field, we face another potential disruptive source of external hormones in the food we eat. This is through the practice of giving hormones (insulin, growth hormone, and other stress hormones) to the animals in our food chain. As mentioned in the hormone disrupter section, the higher we eat on the food chain, the more we are exposed to all kinds of chemicals and synthetic hormones.
A far less potent source of external hormones in our food chain is the plant hormones. Soy has received the most attention in this area. Soybean is naturally high in plant estrogens (phytoestrogens). The activity of these plant estrogens at the human estrogen receptors is far less than that of estrogens given pharmaceutically, and overall likely poses a much lower risk of clinically-significant hormone disruption. Nonetheless, it is important to note that processed or refined soy extracts can have a more detrimental effect. Soy lecithin is a common food additive found in many packaged foods and condiments. Today’s consumer is again wise to avoid processed and pre-packaged foods as much as possible.
In short, to realize hormonal balance throughout all stages of life, it is the focus on the details of a healthy lifestyle that is your pathway to success. We probably did learn everything we need to know about health in kindergarten. We just need to unlearn the lifestyle patterns that we have developed in the interim!
Live strong, live close to the earth, in nature often, with your feet in the healthy dirt of your backyard garden, and support your local farms and food suppliers that are brought to you through the amazing services of Relay Foods!
Best of health!
Zach Bush, MD
- Curcumin in various cancers , 2013
- Friendly Fire, Johns Hopkins Public Helath Magazine. 2012
- Cilantro and Chlorella can Remove 80% of Heavy Metals from the Body within 42 Days. July, 2014
- RESTORE’s Protection of Tight Junctions from Gluten, April 2014