When considering your fertility journey, it’s important to know what you can control and what you can’t. While making sure your mind and body are the healthiest they can be, you should also consider the health of your environment. Reducing the toxins and harmful chemicals in your everyday life is one way to support overall reproductive health.
Dr. Lora Shahine, a double board certified OBGYN and Reproductive Endocrinologist, is a fertility specialist at Pacific Northwest Fertility Center, a clinic in Progyny’s network. She has studied and written extensively on the topic of removing toxins to optimize fertility, so we sat down with her to learn more. Read on to understand the impact of environmental toxins, tips to limit exposure, and where to find additional resources.
Can you tell us a bit about what endocrine disruptors are and their consequences?
When I studied the many things that impact reproduction, I learned a lot about endocrine disruptors and how they might affect fertility, including egg and sperm health, the risk of miscarriage, and lowered fertility treatment success rates. Endocrine disruptors are essentially chemicals that can disrupt, mimic, and block the body’s hormones, which make up the endocrine system.
I think it’s essential to be armed with knowledge about their impact, regardless of whether you’re trying to start a family. In fact, this is a topic I think everyone should be learning about, because endocrine disruptors can affect a range of health issues and are also common – showing up in everyday products in the form of parabens or other chemicals.
What are parabens?
Parabens are chemical preservatives that prevent mold and bacteria from growing in your products. They were first manufactured in the 1920s and are now used in products you come in contact with daily. You can find them in personal care and household products like makeup, shampoo, conditioner, laundry detergent, skincare, toothpaste, sunscreen, deodorant, and many others. Parabens can also be found in supplements, vitamins, and prescription medications, which is why it’s important to be mindful when choosing a prenatal.
Why are parabens considered harmful?
Many see parabens as an adequate safeguard since they protect against mold and bacteria. However, studies have also identified them as endocrine disruptors that can have effects on your fertility health, reproductive development, and birth outcomes. Scientists are also currently studying whether there is a link between parabens and breast cancer.
Fortunately, there are less-toxic options for preservatives on the market, and you can choose safer products that pose minimal risk to your fertility and overall health. I recommend educating yourself and considering swapping products containing parabens for alternatives. This may not be possible for all products, but decreasing your exposure to endocrine disruptors, even a little, can benefit your health.
How can parabens affect our reproductive health?
Research shows the different ways that parabens can impact our endocrine system and our reproductive health. Typically, the larger the paraben, the more impact it has on your endocrine receptors and hormonal system. Multiple studies show that when the endocrine receptors are exposed to these chemicals, the function and action of estrogen and testosterone can be altered. There’s also been a link between high levels of parabens and shorter menstrual cycles. Research on female infertility shows that high levels of parabens have been associated with diminished ovarian reserve. Here are a few studies detailing how parabens affect fertility:
- One study out of Michigan looked at about 500 couples trying to conceive. During the study’s observational period, they measured levels of parabens and how long it took for couples to conceive. It was found that women with the highest level of parabens in their system took the longest to get pregnant.
- Another study from a fertility center tested 200 women for their ovarian reserve and the levels of four different parabens in their system. The study found that a high level of certain parabens was associated with higher follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) levels and a lower antral follicle count. This is notable because a high FSH and a low antral follicle count can be associated with infertility and a lower success rate with fertility treatment.
- In 2014, one study observed 300 men attending a fertility clinic. This trial measured levels of parabens and looked at semen analysis results. It was found that high levels of parabens were significantly associated with an increase in the percentage of sperm with abnormal morphology, high DNA fragmentation, and a decrease in the number of motile sperm and testosterone levels.
How can people reduce their paraben exposure?
There are some ways to reduce your exposure to parabens and safeguard your home from these toxic chemicals:
- Review the labels of all personal care products. Ingredients that include prefixes: ethyl, butyl, methyl, and propyl—even if they don’t specifically use paraben by name—may alert you to its presence
- Use natural and organic personal care products and look for the words “paraben free” or “made without parabens” on the label
- Swap perfume for essential oils
- Consider using natural oils such as coconut oil instead of lotion
Are there any other endocrine disruptors that folks trying to conceive should look out for?
Yes, another common set of endocrine disruptors are BPA and Phthalates, chemicals involved in the production of plastic. Phthalates can modify our inherent chemical receptors and impact our hormone response, such as menstruation, ovulation, and fertility. Phthalates have been associated with male and female infertility—including lower egg counts in cis-gender women and transmasculine individuals undergoing IVF, as well as preterm birth risks for folks with higher exposures rates to phthalates. Bisphenol A (BPA) is another endocrine disruptor found in plastics and in the lining of certain canned food or beverages as well as receipt paper.
How can people reduce BPA and Phthalate exposure?
Like parabens, there are fortunately a few ways to reduce exposure to these chemicals:
- Switch from plastic to glass or metal food storage containers and avoid heating food in plastic as phthalates can leach into the microwaved food
- Use fragrance-free personal care products
- Avoid using #3 plastic (PVC) and #7 (BPA risk)
- Minimize your consumption of highly processed food;think of it this way: the fewer steps from the earth/animal to your plate is usually the healthiest, and one way to do this is to reduce the amount of food you eat that’s been processed
- Incorporate more folate (dark veggies, citrus fruits) into your diet and/or supplement it with methyl folate
- Clean and dust your home regularly, as phthalates can accumulate in household dust
While the data around the effects of endocrine disruptors may seem overwhelming, studies show that by changing just some of your everyday products, you can decrease your exposure to endocrine disruptors and dramatically lower the levels of these chemicals in your system. To learn more about everyday products you use, check out https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/, which can help you assess their safety and chemical constituents.
Progyny prioritizes whole-person wellbeing wherever you are on your family building journey, and members have access to ongoing support from Patient Care Advocates (PCAs) who can help provide more education and guidance. Please reach out to your dedicated PCA for additional information, and as always, speak with a provider for treatment consultation. Please note this content is for informational purposes and is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. Please consult with your healthcare provider about your specific journey.
Contribution and medical review by: Dr. Lora Shahine MD, FACOG, Pacific Northwest Fertility
Dr. Lora Shahine is double board-certified in reproductive endocrinology and infertility as well as obstetrics and gynecology helping patients build families at PNWF since 2009. She completed her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California in San Francisco where she received awards for teaching and the faculty award for outstanding research in women’s health.
Whether it’s through research, writing, or an active social media presence, Dr. Shahine is dedicated to teaching, advocating for patient care, and shattering stigma around fertility and miscarriage. As a clinical assistant professor at the University of Washington, Dr. Shahine continues to teach the next generation of women’s health providers and contribute to the field with research. She has published over 50 peer-reviewed research projects, numerous articles, and several books including Not Broken: An Approachable Guide to Miscarriage and Recurrent Pregnancy Loss and Planting the Seeds of Pregnancy: An Integrative Approach to Fertility Care.