Biology determines when women hit menopause, but exposure to some common household products and pollutants may drive that timing earlier than what is set up in the biological clock.
Menopause, like puberty, is a reproductive rite of passage, and marks for women the end of their fertility and child-bearing years. But studies show that it’s not just age that can determine when menopause starts — exposure to certain chemicals and pollutants can also play a role.
In one of the most comprehensive looks at possible menopause-disruptors to date, researchers led by Dr. Amber Cooper, from the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis, report that such exposure can push menopause up by as much as four years.
Cooper and her team studied 31,575 women enrolled in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by the government. Every two years, the women were surveyed about various health and nutrition issues, including whether they had begun menopause. At some point between 1999 and 2008, each of the participants also provided at least one blood and urine sample which the scientists analyzed for the presence of various chemicals, including dioxins contained in pesticides, phthalates found in fragrance, plastics, cosmetics and hair spray, plant-derived estrogens, and polychlorinated biphenyls, among others. The researchers found that women with the highest levels of 111 of these chemicals on average had menopause anywhere from 1.9 years to 3.8 years earlier than those with lower levels.
When we first mentioned this study results in one of our previous posts (http://menopause-aid.blogspot.com/2014/09/early-menopause-makeup-as-trigger.html), the data was available for much smaller examination base of 5,700 women, and the outcomes produce lower expected threshold for the early menopause risks of 2.3 years. As you see, the expanded research not only confirmed the preliminary conclusions, but also validated the effect with overall higher impact.
So, how could Cooper be so certain that the exposure was linked to the early menopause? She and her team conducted other analyses, including one of women closer to menopause, between the ages of 45 and 55 years, and found a similar association. They also found that it wasn’t just exposure, but increasing exposure over time that was also connected to problems with ovarian function, another potential consequence of the chemicals on reproductive health. And when they looked at all of the women in the survey from age 30 years on, those with the highest blood and urine measurements were six times more likely to be menopausal than women with lower readings.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” says Cooper, who stresses that the results don’t prove that exposure to these chemicals causes early menopause, only that the two might be connected somehow. ”We need more longitudinal studies to better understand each of these chemicals.”
Previous studies have linked certain chemicals to disruptions in the reproductive hormones, including estrogen, which can then have unhealthy effects on the heart and bone.
What’s concerning is the fact that with the majority of the chemicals, there isn’t much women can do to reduce their exposure. That’s because each of the compounds have different half-lives, or time in which they can linger before completely breaking down. While PCBs have been banned in the U.S. since the 1970s, for example, their long half-lives mean people may still be exposed to them in the soil, air and water, and in through animals or other things that have contact with them.
So, the good news is that most of the compounds linked to early menopause have now been already banned around the World. But the study found one class of chemicals (phthalates known as DEHPs) that is still in use. And yes, they are ingredients in cosmetics, fragrances, and hair sprays.
Women can try to reduce their exposure to some of these chemicals by using products that do not contain synthetic fragrance — which is listed as “fragrance” or “parfum” and which contains phthalates. Women can also opt for organic beauty products, which would not contain pesticide residues and a number of other chemicals.
Cooper advises her patients to be more aware of their potential sources of exposure, including plastics in food packaging, and perhaps try microwaving only in glass and paper containers. “My goal is not to scare women, but raise awareness and promote future research,” she says.
Europe is banning all DEHPs, but the USA is yet to take the similar preventive actions.
This is not the first time that phthalates have been linked to health problems. Several recent studies have linked the chemicals with increased risk for cancer, diabetes, and obesity. One recent study said that phthalate exposure was linked to reduced testosterone in mice.
However, the researchers claim that there is no reason to worry too much yet. Research is in its preliminary stages, and the suspected substances are impossible to avoid altogether completely.
It’s not such a great leap to imagine that chemicals in our cosmetics and in our environment could have an effect on menopause. A number of other studies have already suggested this possibility.
One of the biggest concerns are plasticizers—chemicals like BPA and phthalates. They have been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, asthma, and other health issues, and have been found to affect hormones in humans.
The bad news is that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is “widespread” exposure to these chemicals in the American population. In addition, adult women have higher levels of phthalates than men—phthalates that are used in soaps, body washes, shampoos, cosmetics, and similar personal care products.
A 2012 study found that BPA and phthalates may be linked to lower thyroid levels. At high levels of exposure, the chemicals could reduce thyroid hormones by 10 percent.
A 2013 study found that BPA may have a direct effect on fertility in women, and may affect the maturation of the egg. Researchers also noted that BPA could affect chromosomes, potentially increasing the risk for birth defects.
In 2011, researchers reported that chemicals in common household products like non-stick pans, clothing, furniture, carpets, and paints were associated with early menopause. The specific chemicals were perfluorocarbons (PFCs), chemicals linked to cancer and thyroid disease in animal studies.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences states that endocrine disruptors may interfere with the body’s hormonal systems, potentially increasing risk of fertility problems, some cancers, and causing developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in people and wildlife. These chemicals, they note, include dioxins, pesticides, plasticizers (like BPA and phthalates), and polychlorinated biphenyls. All can be found in plastic bottles, metal food cans, detergents, flame-retardants, food, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides.
Though some of these chemicals are beyond our control—they’re present in the soil, water, and air—many are in the skin and makeup products we use every day. That means that by being selective with what we put on our skin, we can reduce our exposure and hopefully the risks associated with it.
The world produces a billion pounds of phthalates every year, according to the US FDA. This mysterious and hard-to-pronounce chemical compound is used in cosmetics as a lubricant and even plastics to give it flexibility.
The use of phthalates is so widespread that it’s nearly impossible to avoid it entirely. You’ll find phthalates in perfume, hair spray, deodorant, almost anything fragrant, nail polish, insect repellent, vinyl flooring, plastic ‘sex’ toys, and your car’s steering wheel, dashboard, and gearshift. When you smell “new car,” you’re smelling phthalates.
So how can you minimize the use of this ugly chemical from your life?
1. Remove plastics from your beauty regime
Your kitchen might be already plastic free but what about your bathroom? Just note that in order to make plastic bottles “squeezable,” manufacturers add phthalates. Therefore, it is recommended to switch to organic cosmetics and creams, which come in glass bottles. For starter, try to replace your night cream with essential oils. Use a homemade exfoliation - the scrubs with the micro beads are again plastic! If you can, minimize your cosmetics use altogether. Show the World your natural beauty.
2. Avoid the following components if possible
Here is a list of the so called “Dirty Dozen” cosmetic ingredients to avoid (compiled by David Suzuki Foundation)
* BHA and BHT. Used mainly in moisturizers and makeup as preservatives.
* Coal tar dyes. p-phenylenediamine and colors listed as “CI” followed by a five digit number. Look for them in hair dyes, etc. May also be listed as FD&C Blue No, 1 or Blue 1
*DEA-related ingredients, MEA and TEA (not the tea you drink). Used in creamy and foaming products, such as moisturizers and shampoos.
* Dibutyl phthalate. Used in some nail care products.
* Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Used in a variety of cosmetics and slowly release small quantities of formaldehyde – the stuff used to embalm people. Look for DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine and quarternium-15.
* Parabens. Preservative used in cosmetics.
* Parfum (a.k.a. fragrance). Any mixture of fragrance ingredients — even in some products marketed as “unscented.” What you want to see are claims like: “no synthetic fragrance” or “scented with only essential oils” or “phthalate-free.”
* PEG compounds. Used in many cosmetic cream bases. Look for ingredients with the letters “eth” (e.g., polyethylene glycol).
* Petrolatum. Used in some hair products for shine and as a moisture barrier in some lip balms, lip sticks and moisturizers.
* Siloxanes. Look for ingredients ending in “-siloxane” or “-methicone.”
* Sodium laureth sulfate. Used in foaming cosmetics, such as shampoos, cleansers and bubble bath.
* Triclosan. Used in antibacterial cosmetics, such as toothpastes, cleansers and antiperspirants.
3. Crack the code
Plastic products with recycling codes 3 and 7 may contain phthalates or BPA. Look for plastic with recycling codes 1, 2, or 5.
4. Avoid plastic whenever possible, and microwave only in glass
Foods that are higher in fat, meats and cheeses, for instance, are particularly prone to chemical leaching. Even BPA or phthalate-free plastic may contain other harmful chemicals.
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