In my last blog I spoke about the importance of breastfeeding a child in regards to reducing childhood obesity in this country. That was the first part in a series of blogs I am writing to help get the word out about the new Let’s Move campaign. I usually don’t see eye to eye with these kinds of campaigns but after reading the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report to the President I was pleasantly surprised with many of the ideas put forth. They are very much in line with my philosophy on health care. In this second part in my series we will be talking about chemical exposures and how it relates to obesity.
Chemicals and Obesity
Chemicals are all around us. They make our lives easier in some ways (think gasoline) but they also take a toll on human physiology. Chemicals may mimic human hormones and cause problems in that way. Chemicals that do this are known as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).
These EDCs can cause problems in several ways. They may promote obesity by increasing the number of fat cells, changing the amount of calories burned at rest, altering energy balance, and altering the body’s mechanisms for appetite and satiety. Some also mimic human sex hormones such as estrogen which also alters metabolism.
Fetal and newborn exposure to these chemicals can cause more weight gain per unit of food gained and less weight expenditure per unit of exercise. Over time this results in significant weight gain and all of the conditions associated with being overweight significantly increase. The results these EDCs have on the fetus or young child appear to be permanent and persist well into adulthood. According to scientists these chemicals change genetic expression and permanently alter metabolism.
Where are we getting these exposures?
Unfortunately, there are many sources of these chemicals. Below I have listed some very common ones.
DDT – DDT is a chemical that was originally used as a pesticide to control mosquito populations. It was synthesized during World War II as an alternative to an effective natural pesticide that was exported to the US from Japan. It was studied very little but approved for civilian use after the war. As early as 1946, the harmful effects of DDT on bird, beneficial insects, fish, and marine invertebrates were seen in the environment. DDT has been found in the tissues of animals world wide and has even been found in the polar ice caps and the Himalayas. This illustrates that it has spread to areas of the world where it was never directly applied. DDT interferes with reproductive abilities suggesting that it alters human sex hormones and may play into obesity in that capacity.
Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) – PCBs are a class of chlorinated compounds used as industrial coolants and lubricants. The health effects of PCB exposure have been known since the 1930’s and were seen in the workers who made the product. Unlike DDT this chemical was not supposed to be applied directly to the environment. Companies, however, were not responsible in the disposal of it. Between 1952 and 1977, the New York GE plant had dumped more than 500,000 pounds of PCB waste into the Hudson River. Again, toxic effects were seen very early on in workers producing the chemical but Monsanto (the largest producer of PCBs) downplayed health issues stemming from it in order to continue making money from its production. Recent studies show the endocrine interference of PCBs is related to the liver and thyroid and increases childhood obesity in children exposed prenatally. Additionally, it may increase the risk of developing diabetes.
Bisphenol A (BPA) – I have previously written a blog about BPA. If you’re interested please read that as well. BPA is a chemical that is used in plastic water bottles, the lining of cans, baby bottles, plastic food containers and dental materials. It has been shown through many studies that even in low levels of exposure it increases the risk of diabetes, breast and prostate cancers, causes decreased sperm count, reproductive problems, early puberty, obesity, and neurological problems. Fortunately, most responsible companies have stopped using it in their products but the total load of BPA in our environment is likely to remain very high because the breakdown of the products that contain it will continue for hundreds of years.
Phthalates – These are found in some soft toys, flooring, medical equipment, cosmetics and air fresheners. The main area of concern for phthalates is the disruption of the male reproductive system. Again, it likely alters sex hormones with can adversely affect metabolism. Europe and California have banned its use in toys.
So What Can You Do To Protect Yourself And Your Child?
- My advice to patients is always to live as naturally as possible. Eat foods that are fresh so you can avoid the packaging that contains many of these chemicals.
- Don’t use artificial air fresheners. They do make phthalate free air fresheners these days.
- Buy your baby’s toys from companies that are ecofriendly. Those companies won’t use any of these chemicals.
- If you reheat your food or food for your children don’t do it in a plastic container. Buy glass containers to store your food and use them to reheat your food. Heating plastics increase the speed some of these chemicals break down.
- Use a glass baby bottle.
- Avoid generic fish oil. They have been shown to have high levels of PCBs in them. Always get your fish oil from a health professional. (Check out our blog on PCB contamination of fish oil)
It isn’t possible to avoid all exposure. After all DDT, while not used anymore, can be found even in the farthest reaches of the world. The goal is to keep exposure to a minimum and keep your body as healthy as possible so it is adequately equipped to fight back. That means eating healthy, exercising and avoiding unnecessary chemicals like cigarette smoke. You should also take supplements known to have powerful antioxidant effects. If you do this, you are providing as much protection as possible.