Phthalates are a group of chemicals used both to soften plastics and to hold scents and solvents in a variety of products. Many have been shown to disrupt our hormones. They alter testosterone production in men, cause early onset menopause in women, and have a variety of other negative effects on fertility. They are linked to insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity. Phthalates are believed to contribute to the obesity epidemic by changing, perhaps permanently, how the body processes calories into fat. These chemicals cross the placenta and cause a variety of deformities in male animals, such as cryptorchidism and hypospadias.
We are all exposed to phthalates on a daily basis. We inhale them as our shower curtains, poorly chosen air fresheners, and various vinyl products off-gas. We absorb them through our skin as we apply a variety of body care and make up products. However, the primary sources of phthalates are our diet, our medicines, and our supplements.
Phthalates are added to many time released drugs and supplements, as well as enteric-coated pills to improve drug delivery. In most cases these uses are patented and considered a trade secret. As a result the government cannot require phthalates to be listed on the label. Nonetheless, we do know that most medications prescribed for acid reflux (such as omeprazole) provide significant amounts of phthalates. People using theophylline (for asthma or other respiratory conditions) had significant amounts of phthalates in their urine. Phthalates were present in hypertensive drugs such as diltiazam and dozens of other medications. They are present in some ibuprofen formulations. They are also often present in significant amounts in some enteric-coated fish oil, garlic, enzyme, and probiotic capsules. Phthalates are found in capsules that are not to be crushed or chewed as well as in many soft gel capsules. And these medications and supplements appear to provide troublesome amounts of phthalates, much larger than most looking at a capsule might imagine.
Our foods are an equally rich source of phthalates because they absorb phthalates from plastic tubing, food wrappings, linings, gaskets in metal caps, and inks on labels during processing and packaging. Animal feeds also contain phthalates, and phthalates are as a result also present in dairy and other meat products. In fact, chicken appears be our “best” food source of phthalates. In one study, a urinary phthalate used to measure phthalate exposure increased 6% for each and every additional ounce of chicken eaten in a day. So our phthalate intake can add up quickly. They are lowest in our fruits and most vegetables are low as well but phthalates are present in all.
So what are we to do? Obviously, we need to reduce our exposure to phthalates and it appears that we can do that simply by changing our diet. A Korean study looked at the prevalence of phthalates in adults eating a variety of different animal foods. To gauge how diet might affect levels of these toxins they then had the participants participate in a five-day program at a Buddhist temple where the participants ate a vegan diet and followed the daily routines of the monks.
All participants at the onset of the study had measurable amounts of phthalates in their urine. These levels were considered acceptable, that is, not above the level deemed troublesome by the powers that be. After 5 days on a plant-based diet, the amounts of phthalates dropped markedly. As a side benefit, the amounts of antibiotics in their urine also dropped as well. (Many of our animal foods come with traces of antibiotics that are contributing to the rise of antibiotic resistance.) This means that we can quickly affect the amount of phthalates we absorb by eating lower on the food chain: More plant foods, less beef, pork, chicken, and dairy. As well, we can stop hanging toxic air fresheners in our cars. We can buy body care products made from “real,” non-chemical ingredients that are packaged in glass jars. We can become more leery of vinyl, plastic wraps and films, and of plastics generally.
As well, we should try to reduce our need for phthalate-containing medications. I see with great frequency how a healthy diet can obviate or reduce the need for treatments for acid reflux, hypertension, headaches, and every day aches and pains. A good diet certainly can replace digestive enzymes, enteric-coated fish and garlic oil, and time released probiotic supplements. Pthalates are simply one more reason why it makes perfect sense to eat a well-designed diet rich in fruits and vegetables!
Photograph: Prilosec by John aka cygnus921
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