In a 2004 study of the umbilical cords of newborn babies, the Environmental Working Group made a startling discovery – an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants were found in the newborns’ umbilical cord blood, including pesticides, consumer product ingredients, and wastes from burning coal, gasoline, and garbage.1 Of the 287 total types of chemicals detected, 180 are known carcinogens in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests.
The umbilical cord is the lifeline that delivers nutrients and oxygen to the fetus, but it can also deliver the chemicals that the mother has accumulated in her lifetime, increasing the risk of certain developmental issues, low birth weight and preterm birth, and can also increase the lifetime risk of developing chronic diseases.
These chemicals can also raise issues regarding fertility and conception in the first place. Many of the chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis are what we call endocrine disruptors – meaning they interfere with our endocrine system. These glands produce our hormones, and the way our hormones work within our bodies. Many chemicals also cause inflammation and cellular damage. All of this can affect both egg and sperm quality, which dictates the viability of an embryo, or a fertilized egg, to survive and become a baby.
Obviously, we cannot fully eliminate our exposure to all endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and it’s important to breathe some acceptance into this fact, knowing that we do have the power to minimize our exposure and profoundly reduce our toxic burden. By making some simple lifestyle changes around what we put into our bodies and bring into our homes, we can dramatically reduce our exposure to several of the most significant endocrine-disrupting hormones, improving fertility and pregnancy outcomes and reducing the toxic exposure that will be inherited by the new life being brought into the world.
Getting started on reducing your exposure to toxins is actually pretty simple. It’s not unusual when approaching pregnancy, a time that can feel vulnerable, to feel stressed about doing everything right. I want to encourage you to let some of that stress go, to remind yourself that you are doing your best and that even a few small changes can have a profound impact. Rather than trying to make large dramatic changes all at once, I’ve narrowed down some of the ways to detoxify your lifestyle into the most impactful practices that can be implemented in a stepwise manner to make these changes feel manageable.
- Ditch the plastic. Plastics are made with a group of synthetic materials in the bisphenol family. BPA, in particular, has been shown to disrupt sex hormones causing issues with fertility and menstruation, and is also a known carcinogen. As this information has become more widespread, many manufacturers have swapped out BPA for BPS, in order to label their products as “BPA-free,” creating a false sense of security. However, BPS is a close cousin of BPA, is potentially just as problematic, and should therefore be avoided as well.
Start by swapping out old plastic food and beverage containers and ziplock bags for glass, stainless steel, and silicon stasher bags. You don’t need to eliminate 100% of plastics, but prioritize plastic containers and appliances that have been exposed to hot foods or liquids, or will in the future. For example, have you been using your plastic blender to make hot soups? A plastic blender that has been exposed to hot liquids is more likely to leach plastics than a blender that is used for things like smoothies. Enjoy your smoothies, but consider using an immersion blender for hot liquids instead.
Avoid touching receipts, and wash your hands soon after when you do. Finally, minimize canned and highly processed foods, as their packaging tends to contain plastics. Dry goods such as rice and dry beans that come in plastic packaging are not so problematic, as these types of foods don’t absorb the plastics as readily as foods that have been heated in their packaging or else are acidic, such as tomatoes.
- Eliminate fragrances. The fragrance industry is highly unregulated, and over 80% of chemicals in health and beauty products aren’t tested for human safety. When you see the word “fragrance” listed as an ingredient in any product ranging from perfume, personal care products, household cleaners, and more, you can assume that there is a plethora of harmful chemicals in that product. In fact, a single scent may contain anywhere from 50 – 300 distinct chemicals that are not required to be listed individually on the label. Among these chemicals, one of the most common toxins found in any fragrance is phthalates, which are known endocrine disruptors, affecting thyroid health, menstruation, and fertility. In fact, most IVF labs have now instituted a ban on the use of perfumes and other fragrances to protect the safety of embryos.
Start by checking out the labels on the scented items you use most – shampoo and conditioner, personal care items, cleaning supplies and even candles. Prioritize swapping out the items that you use most often, as you will have the biggest impact here. Opt for fragrance-free as much as possible, or find products that are naturally scented with plant extracts and essential oils.
- Eat organic. These days our foods are laden with pesticides, antibiotics, and incredibly harmful hormones. Eating organic can be more expensive, so it’s important to prioritize certain foods to make the largest impact while sticking within your budget. I recommend that any animal products be 100% organic. For plant-based foods, check out this guide from the Environmental Working Group on foods with the highest and lowest amounts of pesticide residues.
- Use a water filter. The majority of tap water in the US contains an unacceptable amount of harmful chemicals. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database to find out what’s in your drinking water, and find a water filter that eliminates the majority of toxins present. The most important thing to look for is NSF Certification when looking for a water filter. For more information on water filters, refer to the Environmental Working Group’s Water Filter Guide.
If you are able to implement the changes above, you will be well on your way to reducing your body’s toxic burden. As you work to reduce your exposures, you can also support your organs with detoxification, which include your liver, kidneys, gut and skin, through a few simple and nourishing practices:
- Hydration: As obvious as it may sound, dehydration is more common than you may think! In fact, studies have shown that 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated. Proper hydration is essential for supporting detoxification (among many other important actions), by helping to flush toxins out of the body. A good rule of thumb is to drink at least half your body weight in fluid ounces of water daily. For example, if you weigh 150lb you want to drink at least 75oz of water every day, and more if you’re exercising or drinking caffeine. Adding a pinch of sea salt or trace mineral drops to your water is also helpful, to help your cells absorb the fluids more effectively.
- Sweat: When we accumulate toxins in the body, they are typically stored in our fat and lymph cells. Regular exercise can help to mobilize these toxins, to be eliminated through sweat. Just be sure to up your hydration levels in order to more thoroughly flush it all out! Sweating it out in a sauna is also an excellent way to support detoxification.
- Soluble fiber: Soluble fiber, found in beans and lentils, apples, sweet potatoes, broccoli, psyllium and oats, not only helps to support regular healthy bowel movements, but it also helps to bind the fat-soluble chemicals in circulation, which are then eliminated via the bowel movement. I’ll make another plug for hydration here, as soluble fiber bulks the stool, and without proper hydration this can lead to constipation. Drink your water!