How Do Chemicals Impact the Endocrine System
It Depends on Dose & Duration of Exposure
Many substances and activities can impact the endocrine system – stress, food, and exercise, for example, are among the most common. What scientists typically focus upon with regard to so-called endocrine-active substances is whether exposure can lead to an adverse health effect.
We know that at high doses and durations of exposure, some substances can negatively impact the endocrine system and cause adverse health effects. At lower doses or limited exposures, however, those substances may not impact our health at all.
How a chemical interacts with the endocrine system depends on a variety of factors, including:
- Type and duration of the exposure to the chemical,
- Frequency of exposure,
- Potency of the substance and,
- How the body absorbs and eliminates a substance.
Scientists have extensive knowledge, from decades of research on both natural and synthetic chemicals, about how various exposure levels can cause different effects. It is well established in scientific communities that while a particular substance can benefit people at the right dose, the same substance could cause a different response, including harm, at higher doses. A simple example is aspirin. Taking two aspirin will likely eliminate your headache; taking two bottles of aspirin could eliminate your life.
This principle of dose and response applies to all chemicals, natural and synthetic, used in a variety of applications – from cosmetics and personal care products, to pharmaceuticals, to crop protection and industrial manufacturing chemicals, among others.
Positive, neutral, negative response
How chemicals interact with the endocrine system depends on a variety of factors, such as how the chemicals are used, whether someone is actually exposed to the chemical, at what level and for how long. It’s the interplay of all of these factors that can determine whether the endocrine system’s response is positive, neutral or negative.
What do we mean by this? The following examples may provide some clarity:
- Positive effect: When our bodies are exposed to sunlight, it stimulates production of Vitamin D in the skin, which helps with calcium absorption. The Vitamin D is ultimately converted into a hormone in the kidneys and liver that stimulates the intestines, bones and kidneys to activate calcium and phosphorus, thus resulting in normal bone development.
- Neutral effect: Plant-based, naturally-occurring soy phytoestrogens, found in milk and drinks such as soy lattes, can interact with the estrogen receptor to cause an endocrine response. But scientific studies of large populations of healthy women have shown no association between soy and breast cancer.
- Negative effect: Steroidal estrogens, such as those contained in birth control pills, have the potential to affect wildlife populations. Research in the United Kingdom has shown that when sewage treatment systems aren’t able to remove these estrogen contaminants from water discharged into rivers and streams, exposure to them can alter the sexual organs of wild populations of male fish.
For more information, visit EndocrineScience.