A friend recently commented on the prevalence of obesity in our society. He said that growing up he randomly saw fat people. Now it’s the norm. He’s right. In the past 30 years, adult obesity rates have doubled. While we might expect adults to put on extra weight as they age, it is childhood obesity that is hard to ignore. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on their website that childhood obesity rates have more than tripled in the last 30 years. At this rate, by 2030 most Americans will be fat.
But to do something about this growing problem, we need to know the cause. Here we can point our collective finger at a host of issues: excess sugar or corn syrup in our diet, sedentary lifestyles, high caloric diets, and empty calories. A perhaps less obvious factor is a poor functioning endocrine system—namely, our hormones. Since hormones control all physiologic processes of the body, perhaps more attention should be given to endocrine function.
While there are plenty of folks whose waistlines—and therefore well-being—would benefit from an active lifestyle and healthy diet, diet and exercise alone will not be the prophylactic we seek. If it were, then individuals who exercise regularly and eat healthy would always be thin. Conversely, individuals who don’t exercise and eat whatever they want will always be fat. But it’s not that simple.
Last week New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s article “Warnings from a Flabby Mouse” highlighted growing research suggesting that endocrine disrupting chemicals play an important role in the obesity epidemic. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that mimic our own hormones. Since hormones are the chemical messengers that communicate from cell to cell throughout the human body, chemicals that disrupt this communication can cause many problems. One early concern has been the link between endocrine disruptors and cancer. More recent research raises new concerns about the impact endocrine disruptors have on fat storage. Kristof reported that “[t]hese chemicals are largely unregulated…and…can lead to the formation of more and larger fat cells.”
Not only does the research suggest that endocrine disruptors are linked to increased fat storage, but it appears that children are more adversely impacted. The Times also reported that “women with a pesticide residue in their blood bore babies who were more likely to be overweight at the age of 14 months.” In laboratory mice, a one-time exposure to a minute amount of an endocrine disrupting chemical resulted in fat mice.
Kristof’s article raises an important red flag on the impacts of endocrine disrupting chemicals and the efforts of the industry that makes them to impede potentially condemning research. However, the research and reporting on endocrine disrupting chemicals points to an overarching culprit in human health that is largely ignored: endocrine imbalance. Endocrine disrupting chemicals are in or on everything from the pesticide treated food we eat, to the foam cushions we call furniture, to the BPA containing plastic we store our food and water in. While exposure to these chemicals can cause endocrine imbalance that can lead to obesity, there are also other causes of endocrine imbalance.
The most common endocrine imbalance is a deficiency in thyroid hormone and cortisol. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are one contributor to endocrine imbalance that we seldom hear about. In his book Overcoming Thyroid Disorders Dr. David Brownstein writes that “there are many minerals and vitamins that, when deficient, will cause alterations in the thyroid gland.” Iodine, zinc, and selenium are just a few minerals that are crucial to thyroid function. Other correlations between endocrine imbalance and nutrient deficiency include Vitamins A, E, B12 and D. It makes sense that adequate levels of vitamins and minerals are important for endocrine function and therefore optimal health. What doesn’t make sense is that our medical industry puts so little emphasis on nutritional and hormonal balancing. Instead many doctors are quick to prescribe drugs.
Sadly, many of the drugs commonly prescribed today are also endocrine disruptors. It should come as no surprise that birth control pills are endocrine disruptors since birth control pills contain estrogens that disrupt hormone levels to prevent pregnancy. But that’s not the only hormone disruption that occurs from birth control usage. It also results in a decreasing amount of thyroid hormone for the body to use. Hormone Replacement Therapies (HRT) such as Premarin© or Estrace© are also endocrine disruptors. Other drugs and treatments that disrupt endocrine function include Beta-Blockers, chemotherapy agents like Tamoxifen as well as radiation.
With endocrine disruptors lurking everywhere, individuals are hard pressed to sort the safe from the unsafe. It seems reasonable to expect our government to regulate chemicals that are proving to be detrimental to our health. But since that doesn’t always happen, it’s up to us to question why there are so many endocrine disruptors in our food, medicine and consumer products. And with increasing research to indict these chemicals as a major cause of obesity, it’s time to end our ongoing drama: Fat America.