Plastic Awakening: Does It Make Us Fat, Depressed, and Infertile?
I quit plastics because the ocean is my playground, my temple, and an extension of my self-identity. By Kate Nelson aka @PlasticFreeMermaid
Years ago, I learned that plastic doesn’t break down, but instead it flows out into the waterways where it breaks up into millions of microscopic pieces that can be ingested by sea creatures as well as consumed by humans. Learning that this material I use almost constantly takes around 1,000 years to fully biodegrade was a huge turning point for me. This was my first plastics awakening.
I was devastated that my personal use of plastics was contributing to such long-lasting ocean pollution. So I quit plastics. Straws, bags, bottles, cups. I taught myself to bring reusable alternatives or to go without.
„The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.“ Rachel Carson
I then realised that all plastic packaging is in fact single-use. Food packaging, bath products, cosmetics, even cleaning products might last three to six months, but that packaging just gets tossed out. This second plastics awakening inspired me to go deeper into this natural way of life. I taught myself to make everything packaged in plastics, from sunscreen to crackers to all-purpose cleaning spray to beeswax wraps.
Soon a mysterious package arrived at my doorstep containing a book, “Estrogeneration,” by Dr. Anthony Jay. I dove deep into Dr. Jay’s research showing how toxic plastic is to our personal health. This was the third plastics awakening.
When plastics leach
Dr. Anthony Jay wrote “Estrogeneration” to help people identify the top 10 estrogen-mimicking chemicals most western humans come into contact with on a daily basis. Plastics make this list of ten chemicals—twice! Most plastics are containers of some sort, packaging something we put into or on our bodies, such as food, drinks, or beauty products. These nasty chemicals are transferred from the container into the substance they contain in three circumstances: when plastic packaging gets hot, when the products inside are fatty, or when something is packaged in plastic for a long period of time. Then when we consume the product, we consume the estrogenics, too.
Why weight gain?
Estrogenics mimic estrogen. When they get into your blood, your body cannot tell the difference between an estrogenic and the estrogen our bodies naturally produce. The increased presence of perceived estrogen expectedly messes with our hormone levels, which alter all of the physiological systems that are controlled by hormones—which is just about every system in the human body.
It gets freakier. Estrogenics bind to estrogen receptors on our cells, altering their chemical make-up. Dr. Jay’s book has 40 pages of referenced studies showing that estrogenics can cause the body to store fat, lead to depression, cause ADHD in children, contribute to cancer growth, and as mentioned in the title, estrogenics can lead to infertility. This daily hormonal flood overwhelms and alters the reproductive system. Sometimes to sterility. This is why Dr. Jay considers estrogenics “reproductive toxins.”
*This is not meant to scare you. I hope to empower us all to make better decisions to support our health. It is a beautiful benefit that it also supports the health of our planet.
These hormonal cellular changes alter our genetics. This means the negative effects can be passed down to our children, even if our children haven’t been exposed to plastic. Which, if they live on planet Earth, they have a 99.9% chance of drinking plastics through their mother’s breast milk and if they aren’t breastfed, they are drinking fatty milk stored in a plastic container and administered through a plastic bottle. Recall that estrogenics are lipophilic or attracted to fat. Yikes!
„BPA-Free“ is greenwashing
Speaking of baby bottles, you may remember the BPA scare? In over 10,000 studies, Bisphenol A was discovered to have negative effects on humans–children and infants particularly sensitive to the chemicals. Thus, 11 states banned BPA, manufacturers stopped using BPA, and then the FDA banned BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups.
You don’t have to be a plastic-free mermaid to know to avoid BPA, especially now that labels advertise when a product does not contain BPA. Unfortunately, buying a product that touts that it is “BPA-Free” isn’t an airtight solution. After BPA got a bad rap, manufacturers replaced Bisphenol A with Bisphenol B, Bisphenol AF, Bisphenol F, Bisphenol S, and so on. So something labelled “BPA-Free” very well may contain any of the alternative bisphenols—all of which have been shown to cause the same or greater estrogenic effects as BPA on human health. In addition to the usual estrogenic impacts, BPA has also been linked to accelerating ageing. Ironic considering so many “anti-ageing” beauty products are packaged in plastic!
The fancier the plastic, the greater the risk
It should be useful to know that there are many different kinds of plastic. Just as we separate our plastics in our recycling bin based on the number printed on the bottom of the packaging, different plastics have different effects on the body. Bisphenols were on the top ten list, and the other plastic that made the list are the additives known as ‘pthalates.’
Phthalates are the chemical additives that make plastics clear, durable, or flexible. Think of what an incredible product cling-wrap is. Hard to tear, totally transparent, completely malleable. This product is full of pthalates to be so fancy!
As with all estrogenics, phthalates can cause weight gain and obesity, and are linked to long-term issues including attention deficit disorder in children. This could be because they induce neurotoxicity (1) or because they derail “aspects of brain development.” One study conducted in 2015 showed an association between phthalates and depression in adults (2). Phthalates have also been known to alter thyroid function (3). The thyroid is the “puppet master” for all the hormone activity in your body, regulating metabolism, energy levels, mood, fertility, temperature regulation, and plenty more. Altering thyroid function means altering any or all of those systems in the body.
Scientists have conducted studies and struggled to find people without phthalates in their blood. Even in a study examining infants, their findings far exceeded the EPA’s maximum threshold for phthalates in the blood (4). Infants!
Little shifts to plastic-free
I know this is hard to stomach all at once. We can start by making small changes that minimize our exposure to these nasties. When I ditched plastic-packaged products and started making my own at home, I chose to create positive associations around the experiences and products, so that I wanted to take the time to make granola bars and smoothie bowls and body scrubs. Another motivation was when I realized by avoiding eating packaged processed edible food-like products that had artificial preservatives and other additives I couldn’t pronounce, I was also helping my body. Plastics exist for our convenience; we must make a choice between convenience and health. Every decision we make is a vote for what we want in this big bizarre world of ours–a YES to one thing means NO to another thing. There is no pressure to go totally plastic-free overnight or even this year! Just make small changes. Collect more YESES for the planet, for your health, for future generations. Little shopping switches to items packaged in recyclable metal, glass, or cardboard. Carry a set of reusable food items—made of glass, metal, wood, or ceramics—including a water bottle, cutlery, and a coffee cup. By bringing our own cups to the coffee shop, we can remind others to do the same and create a new norm. Slowly we build the resistance to the ubiquitous plastics. Be patient and compassionate with yourself and others.
The vibrant way forward
To live a life free of plastic, I invite you to trade time spent scrolling through social media or watching depressing news for time creating self-care rituals and pampering yourself. Take care of YOU, so that you have the bandwidth to make healthy changes to your lifestyle and live your most vibrant, sparkly life! The plastics industry plans to increase production by 40% in the next 10 years. Now is the time to stop spending our money in a way that doesn’t align with our values. We can stop the flow of plastics by refusing to buy them. If the bathroom sink was overflowing we wouldn’t grab the mop, we would turn off the tap. We need to stop plastic production in order to prevent more pollution. Voting with our dollar by supporting businesses working hard to do the right thing.
Be the change
We can curate the world we dream of, one with natural packaging and wooden boxes and reusable glass coffee cups. We have the power through our choices. It’s time to take back our sovereignty as consumers and remember the value of our dollar. It’s time to back politicians and activists who promote legislation that keeps these reproductive toxic far from our bodies. It’s time to share this information to help build awareness and share the solutions to empower people to take action. Talk about what you’ve learned. Normalize avoiding plastics and BYO culture. Lift up those who are doing it right. Call out those who are blatantly destroying the planet. This is how each of us individually can simultaneously care for our own health and for our one and only planet.
(1) Wojtowicz, A.K., Szychowski, K.A., Wnuk, A., and Kajta, M. (2016) Dibutyl Pthalate (DBP)- Induced Apoptosis and Neurotoxicity are Mediated via the Aryl Hydrocarbon Receptor (AhR) but not by Estrogen Receptor Alpha (ERalpha), Estrogen Receptor Beta (ERbeta), or Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated Receptor Gamma (PPARgamma) in Mouse Cortical Neurons. Neurotox Res
(2) chapter 5, 38
(3) Huang, H.B., Pan, W.H., Chang, J.W., Chiang, H.C., Guo, Y.L., Jaakola, J. J., and Huang, P.C. (2016) Does exposure to pthalates influence thyroid function and growth hormone homeostasis? The Taiwan Environmental Survey for Toxicants (TEST) 2013. Environ Res 153, 63-72
(4) chapter 2, 77
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