The Impact of Environmental Estrogens on Stress Hormones

Posted by Liz Cook on


By now we’ve all heard of xenoestrogens - synthetic estrogen-mimicking chemicals that bind to and activate estrogen receptors and cause a disruption to our endocrine system and health.

Xenoestrogens are part of a larger group known as EDCs (endocrine disrupting chemicals) - synthetic compounds that mimic or interfere with hormone receptors in the body. Some are antiandrogenic, some estrogenic, and other antiestrogenic.

EDCs interfere with our health by displacing, mimicking, blocking or stimulating various hormones. They can also cause inflammation, and direct dysfunction of organs and body systems.

These hormone-disrupting chemicals are widely prevalent in our everyday lives - an estimated 4000+ EDCs  are now in use in various industries.

EDCs can be found commonly in perfumes, cosmetics, plastics, pesticides, vinyl floorboards and paint (to name a few), and are highly toxic to humans, animals and our environment.

EDCs pose a serious health concern since they cause a wide range of health problems, starting from pre-birth till adulthood, and most of us face lifelong exposure to many different EDCs.

The concerns around EDCs are no longer speculative, but a serious health and environmental issue backed by a tonne of scientific data and warnings from the world’s governing bodies on health, including the World Health Organisation, who published a report 2012 on the serious impact and concerns around EDCs.

The scientific consensus on xenoestrogens characterizes them as serious environmental hazards that have hormone-disruptive effects on both wildlife and humans.

But do we really understand how xenoestrogens and other EDCs impact us day-to-day, and  whether our own health and wellbeing is being impacted in a serious way?

Certainly there is not enough being done to reduce their use on a social, governmentall or industrial scale, so it is critical we make an informed choice in order to minimise our personal exposure to these toxic chemicals.


When we think of the impact of xenoestrogens on our hormones, we often think about sex hormones and our reproductive system, but in fact xenoestrogens have a serious impact on our whole body and many of its functions, including reproduction, sleep, blood sugar balance, stress, blood pressure, mental health, mood, metabolism, body temperature, appetite, water balance and immunity.


The endocrine system is a complex network of glands and organs. It utilises various hormones to control and coordinate our body's metabolism, energy level, reproduction, growth and development, and response to injury, stress, and mood.

The key parts of the endocrine system include:

  • Brain - hypothalamus, pineal gland, pituitary gland 
  • Thyroid and parathyroid
  • Thymus
  • Adrenal gland
  • Pancreas
  • Ovaries and testes


Cortisol is one of the main hormones our body produces in response to stress, along with adrenaline and noradrenaline. Cortisol is produced by our two adrenal glands (located on top of each kidney) and is regulated by the pituitary gland in the brain. It plays an important role in the stress response by increasing glucose availability in the bloodstream, enhancing the brain's use of glucose, and increasing the availability of substances in the body that repair tissues. It helps us wake up, gives us energy during the day and lowers at night to help us sleep and rest. Cortisol also slows functions that would be nonessential or harmful in a fight-or-flight situation.

Unlike adrenaline and noradrenaline, cortisol is a steroid hormone, which means it acts as a messenger of stress, communicating to and regulating the stress response in almost every organ and tissue in the body. Elevated cortisol levels create physiological changes in the body, which is necessary in the short-term, but problems arise when chronic stress keeps cortisol levels high for the long haul.

Many people in the modern world suffer from a chronic overproduction of cortisol. Even in a body which is otherwise fit and healthy, the impacts of elevated cortisol due to chronic stress  are significant, and include immune system dysfunction, inflammation, metabolism dysregulation and cognitive and mood disorders. 

Some of the more specific symptoms of chronically elevated cortisol (it’s a long list!) include weight gain, acne, thinning skin, easy bruising, flushed face, slowed healing and increased risk of disease, muscle weakness, severe fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, difficulty recovering from exercise, anxiety or depression, low libido, menstrual dysregulation, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems, blood sugar dysregulation, poor sleep, muscle pain and headache.

Making lifestyle modifications to reduce stress is critical in helping lower cortisol and getting our health and wellbeing back on track. But the evidence is mounting that EDCs are also contributing to elevated cortisol and ongoing cortisol-related health issues.

Reducing our exposure to EDCs, including xenoestrogens, is a critical part of the stress management picture.



There are many studies which have linked exposure to xenoestrogens and other EDCs to stress-related outcomes, particularly when it comes to phthalates. (Phthalate metabolites have been directly associated with an elevated level of free cortisol in the body.)

Let’s explore some of the specific ways in which environmental chemicals impact our cortisol and endocrine system.


Our bodies are designed to constantly be working to keep everything in balance - homeostasis.

When we are exposed to EDCs, the body perceives these synthetic chemicals as a stressor, and responds with a similar stress response as to psychological stress. Even more pronounced is this reaction when we are exposed to multiple stressors at once - for example, ongoing psychological stress, plus exposure to EDCs; two stressors interact in a manner that is dissimilar to the effects of each alone due to multiple and complex mechanisms known as ‘synchronicity’. So chronic ongoing stress plus exposure to EDCs is causing our body an exponential increase in stress hormones and the cascading effects of elevated cortisol.


In recent rodent studies, it has been found that long-term exposure to EDCs disrupts neurotransmitter levels in the forebrain through direct alteration in metabolic pathways and disorders of thyroid hormones and cortisol levels.

The changes in neurotransmitter concentration induced by long-term exposure to EDCs can be influenced not only by the direct estrogenic action of these compounds, but also through their effects on neurotransmitter enzyme activity and thyroid hormone levels.


These aren’t just concerns for a stressed-out adult population. There are several studies indicating that prenatal phthalate exposure may negatively influence children's behavior, executive function, and incidence of neuropsychiatric disorder both in childhood and into adulthood. Phthalates have also been found to induce neurological disorders (including emotional and mood disorders) in adults. They interfere with nuclear receptors in various neural structures involved in controlling brain functions, and have been implicated in the onset of neurological disorders.

While phthalates have a short half life, broken down in the body within about two days, their impact as endocrine disruptors is still significant during short exposure, but moreover the fact that we are exposed to high levels of phthalates on a daily basis, the health effects of chronic exposure are more concerning.

Phthalates can be detected in the blood samples of more than 78% of Americans, and over 99% are exposed to phthalates. In fact, phthalate exposure is now being linked to the premature deaths of around 100,000 Americans each year according to a recent study by NYU Grossman School of Medicine.


EDCs can influence behaviors through their direct effects on the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis, which coordinates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which then mediates the stress response.

The hypothalamus plays an important role in the regulation of stress and is responsible for starting the process that leads to the secretion of cortisol by the adrenal gland. The increase in serum cortisol levels following long-term exposure to EDCs might represent an adverse effect of these compounds on stress-like behavior during adult life, resulting in disturbances of neurotransmitter levels. This cortisol increase could also be attributed to the estrogen-mimicking action of  xenoestrogens on the adrenals, increasing cortisol synthesis.


EDCs have been shown to exert neurotoxic effects that are complex and lead to subtle impairments that are independent of, or indirectly related to, their effects on hormones. For example, EDCs can disrupt the synthesis, transport, and release of many neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, noadrenaline, and glutamate, which play key roles in modulating behavior, cognition, learning, and memory, as well as on our stress response.


Acute inflammation is a normal response to a foreign substance in the body. However, chronic, systemic inflammation is associated with many disease states.

Chronically elevated cortisol levels creates an inflammatory response in the body, disrupting the normal function of our hypothalamic-pituitary pathway in our brain that controls many of the hormones in our body, including thyroid hormones.

Recent experimental work has shown that phthalates may increase inflammation. Mounting scientific evidence suggests potentially harmful relationships between phthalate exposure and inflammation.  Animal and cell-based studies report increases in the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines in response to phthalate exposures, and can stimulate the production of c-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of systemic inflammation.

Additionally, phthalates may trigger inflammatory responses through their interactions with the estrogen receptor as well as their induction of oxidative stress.



The fragrance industry is a big user of EDCs, especially phthalates. As a natural perfume company, we see it as our responsibility to disrupt the industry and create beautiful products to rival the big guys without the use of xenoestrogens and other synthetic chemicals that contribute to disease - both human and environmental.

As a consumer, the best thing you can do is make informed choices about the products you are exposed to as far as possible - especially those you use on a daily basis. By choosing natural over synthetic perfume, glass or wood over plastic, and natural materials wherever possible, you will go a long way to reducing your overall exposure to harmful chemicals like xenoestrogens.



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