When you and your partner are trying to conceive, there are a lot of things that you naturally become more conscious about – what you eat, how much you exercise, and when you have sex. You’d do just about anything to improve your fertility and become a parent. Though these factors do contribute to the overall health of your sperm and the likelihood of conception, there is another aspect that is commonly overlooked: endocrine disruptors. These sneaky chemicals are often found in everyday household products like cleaning supplies, food, and plastic bottles.
You may not even realize that you’re being exposed to them but your sperm definitely notices. The motility, quality, and amount of your sperm can all be affected by chemical exposure, even in trace quantities. Read on to find out more about what an endocrine disruptor is, how they work, and nine of the most common to watch out for.
What is an Endocrine Disruptor?
Before diving into the different endocrine disruptors and the potential threats they pose to male fertility, let’s get clear on what an endocrine disruptor really is. Basically, they do exactly as their name says – disrupt the endocrine system, the collection of glands that produce hormones. These hormones are responsible for regulating your metabolism, your growth and development, your tissue function, sexual function, your sleep, your mood, and of course, your reproductive system. When an endocrine disruptor is absorbed into the body, some or all of these functions can be adversely affected. You can also learn more about how male hormones like testosterone affect fertility.
How do Endocrine Disruptors Work?
Another key component to understanding how endocrine disruptors can affect male fertility is becoming aware of how they work. There are 3 specific ways that these disruptors can affect the body:
- They can mimic naturally occurring hormones like estrogens, androgens, and thyroid hormones causing overstimulation and hormonal imbalance.
- They can interfere with the way natural hormones are made or controlled.
- They can bind to a receptor within a cell and block the internal hormone from binding.
Since your endocrine system is an integral part of a properly functioning body, any kind of disruptor can be harmful. Knowing which endocrine disruptors to watch out for, where you can find them, and the potential effects they have on your reproductive health can help you make wise choices when it comes to your fertility.
9 Endocrine Disruptors That Affect Male Fertility
- Bisphenol A (BPA) – BPA is an endocrine disruptor that mimics the effects of estrogen. This can cause a hormonal imbalance between estrogen and testosterone, which is needed to produce sperm. In a study done by PLOS Genetics, researchers found that BPA also affects a vital process called meiosis, where the germ cells found in the testes create sperm.
Commonly found in: plastic water bottles and food containers, tin cans, receipts
- Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) – This hormone disruptor is an insecticide that is used in agriculture. Though the United States banned its use in 1972, it’s still used in many countries and it’s presence can linger for a long time in the environment and in animal proteins. Though not much conclusive evidence of how DDT affects male fertility has been found, it has been linked to infertility in the spouses of men who have been exposed.
Commonly found in: meat, fish, and dairy products
- Dioxin – One of the most prevalent chemicals, dioxins and are serious and persistent environmental pollutants that are most commonly found in herbicide production and paper bleaching. One study found that the concentration of dioxins present in infertile men was 2.2 to 2.3 times higher than infertile men. This is evidence to the fact that dioxins are known to disrupt male reproductive health.
Commonly found in: bleached coffee filters, animal protein, household cleaners, personal care products (specifically those containing triclosan, disposable napkins, and paper towels. Literally everywhere.
- Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – These chemicals were mainly produced by Monsanto and used in hydraulic fluids, lubricants, plasticizers, and electrical equipment like capacitors. The United States Environmental Protection Agency banned PCBs in 1977 but the chemicals are still present in products created before then. They have commonly been released into the environment through spills and electrical leaks. To male fertility, the effects are very great – high-levels of PCBs have been linked to sperm with an abnormal number of sex chromosomes which can make it difficult to fertilize an egg. They are also linked to birth defects.
Commonly found in: contaminated meat, dairy products, and fish (especially Catfish, buffalo fish, and carp)
- Phthalates – Phthalates are a group of chemicals used in many consumer products – from medical devices to lotions. The risk of exposure is great considering that air, food, and water can all potentially contain phthalates, too. With too much exposure, testosterone production can become inhibited, as well as the function of Leydig cells, which plays a role in the creation of sperm and the quality of the sperm.
Commonly found in: non-organic food, personal care products like lotion, cologne, and shaving cream, paint, and household cleaners
- Phytoestrogens – These are a type of estrogen that naturally occur in legumes. There has been some debate over their effect on infertility but the conclusion is that too much exposure to estrogen-mimicking chemicals is bad for fertility. Exposure to phytoestrogens is known to reduce sperm count, something you want to avoid if you’re trying to have a baby.
Commonly found in: soybeans, flax seeds, sesame seeds, oats, pesticides, industrial chemicals
- Atrazine – This known endocrine disruptor is often used as an herbicide. Studies have found that atrazine can turn male frogs into female frogs that produce eggs. The effects on humans aren’t definitive, though, like other hormone disruptors, it’s thought that exposure can reduce sperm count. Let’s not take any chances.
Commonly found in: corn, sugarcane, pineapples, and sorghum
- Mercury – This heavy, silvery-white metal that most people have been warned about for years has been found to have a definitive impact on fertility in both men and women. Blood mercury concentrations have been linked to seafood consumption and were found to be much higher in infertile men and women than their more fertile counterparts. The side effects? Abnormal sperm.
Commonly found in: seafood, specifically mackerel, swordfish, and shark
- Bisphenol S (BPS) – Considered a replacement for BPA, this organic compound is thought to be just as hazardous. With the same effect as BPA on the male reproductive system, it’s another chemical that you really want to avoid.
Commonly found in: plastic water bottles and food containers
How Can I Protect Myself From Endocrine Disruptors?
Ultimately, you want to do everything you can to protect and improve your fertility. It’s a good idea to be conscious of what you put on an in your body but try not to stress about it too much. Stress isn’t great for fertility, either. While it’s virtually impossible to eliminate your exposure to harmful endocrine disruptors, there are several things you can do to minimize it:
- Choose organic meat and produce
- Switch to all natural personal care products
- Wear protective clothing and masks when using household or industrial cleaners
- Make sure any area you are cleaning is well ventilated
- Buy organic, non-bleached paper products
- Use glass water bottles and food containers
- Use nontoxic pesticides and herbicides