Hormones and Hubris

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, January 30, 1998

Suzanne was absolutely flabbergasted by an item in the news recently. We had tuned in to an AM station to hear the weather forecast, but first, there was an important announcement from the scientific world. Doctors had just proved that premenstrual syndrome, commonly known as PMS, has a biological, rather than a psychological, cause. It's not all in her mind. Researchers found that hormones produced during a woman's menstrual cycle trigger physical and mental changes.

Many women (and many men who've been paying attention) have understood for a long time that there's a connection between the phases of the female cycle and various changes in body and spirit. Scientists, however, are just "getting it" - and just barely, at that!

Hormones are chemical substances produced in minute amounts by living things. In humans, they act as control signals for vital functions like blood-sugar and insulin levels, the menstrual cycle and growth. There is increasing evidence that connections exist between hormone levels and a variety of diseases, including diabetes and cancer.

The endocrine system which produces hormones, is exceedingly complex and can be affected not only by the body's cycles, but also by the mind and by the environment. Diet, exercise, stress, happiness, anger and a host of environmental pollutants can all produce holistic health effects by acting through our hormones. Because they exist in such small quantities, act at a distance, and often work by switching another process on or off, scientific correlations between hormones and their effects are difficult to prove.

That radio news story was the final "straw" needed to solidify Suzanne's opinion of mainstream science's ignorance and misogyny. And, this is just one of the most recent and blatant examples. Scientific denial of the obvious is consistent with a history that extends back to a time when the male medical establishment spurned suggestions from midwives that doctors wash their hands before delivering babies. That was far too radical for the entrenched male-dominated tradition which now applies narrow, reductionist scientific methods to the study of PMS.

And where our hormones are concerned, western scientific tradition's blindness to the big picture is likely to cause widespread disease. Current research shows that we are swimming in a sea of serious hormone-disrupting technologies. We've known for decades that synthetic chemicals affect endocrine-system function. DDT, PCBs and dioxins are some of the most infamous endocrine-disrupters. More recent studies show that some of the chemicals commonly found in glued wood, carpets, plastics, clothes, pesticides, water bottles and food packaging behave like hormones in the body. Many scientists believe that these chemicals are connected to a wide range of reproductive abnormalities in animals, and to the widespread drop in human sperm count.

Then, just last week,Science News reported evidence from a number of researchers that electromagnetic fields (often called EMFs) affect our hormones, too. EMFs are created by appliances, power lines and house wiring whenever electric current flows. Hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, copy machines and faulty wiring generate rather large fields. The strength of EMFs falls off sharply with increasing distance from the source. For example, the relatively small field from a bedside electrical clock can be dangerous because of extended exposure and proximity.

Electromagnetic fields were found to affect levels of melatonin, estrogen and testosterone - human hormones whose changing levels are implicated in several increasingly prevalent kinds of cancers. EMFs depress or shut down melatonin production which apparently encourages breast cancer. In another study, overnight exposure to EMFs raised estrogen levels in women (which can also lead to breast cancer) and decreased testosterone levels in men, (which are linked to testicular and prostate cancers). In addition, EMFs reduce the effectiveness of some anti-cancer drugs.

What can we do? Reduce our intake of fats and oils, because many endocrine-disrupters are fat-soluble. Avoid plastics for cooking, storing, or microwaving food. Don't use pesticides. Eat organically-grown food. Spend more time outside surrounded by living things. These are more good reasons to plan for your organic garden this spring.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1998 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.