What About Endocrine Disruptors?


Hormones control metabolism, growth, development, the function of tissues, and a person’s mood. We have specialized organs for the production of hormones, and, just to keep things interesting, other organs can also secrete hormones as their second job. Often they gang up and work together, in which case you get something as elaborate as, for instance, a “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.”

The task of a hormone is to go out and affect some organ. As Wikipedia says, “they travel to target tissue and generate a response.” The same writer compares the endocrine system to an information-signal network, kind of like the nervous system, only slower.

Endocrine glands ooze hormones straight into the bloodstream. We mainline hormones. This is serious stuff. So let’s backtrack. First, before a hormone can set out to do anything, the gland has to be convinced to make this hormone. What tells it to do that? We’re talking about a very large number of hormones, so there are potentially an awful lot of opportunities for something to go wrong.

And what if something interferes with the endocrine system’s ability to know what it’s supposed to do? What happens then? And if something is guilty of meddling with the endocrine system, so it gets its signals all crossed, what is that thing? Can it be prevented from doing harm or made to change its sabotaging ways? A lot of researchers have been asking such questions, because they think they’re on the track of another villain in the obesity epidemic: endocrine disruptors.

There may have been some golden age when a reasonable diet and plenty of exercise were all a person needed to maintain optimal health. Then the world changed, and now we have stuff like hyperpalatable, addictive foodstuffs at every turn, and a hysterically tense society full of people so badly stressed out, they are more vulnerable to addiction than ever before. And, thanks to the industrial revolution and a certain amount of indifference to the fate of the planet, tons of weird chemicals permeate the air, water, and soil.

In the obesity realm, doubt continues to spread, over whether “diet + exercise” is the full equation. Increasingly, it appears that more than two factors are at work. Dr. Pretlow titled one of his posts “Ending Childhood Obesity Through Healthy Eating & Exercise?” He urges us to view childhood obesity through the “psychological food dependence-addiction lens.” He cites the evidence for the reality of food addiction:

… the brains of adolescent compulsive eaters ‘light up’ when shown the foods they crave, like milkshakes and donuts, the same way the brains of drug addicts ‘light up’ when shown the drugs they are addicted to. Many kids — when stressed, depressed, or bored — appear to use highly pleasurable food as a ‘drug of comfort,’ which is more acceptable than tobacco, alcohol, or drugs of abuse, but nearly as addicting.

Of course, a large part of the problem is that unlike tobacco, alcohol, and drugs of abuse, which require at least some amount of effort and ingenuity for a young person to get hold of, hyperpalatable food is everywhere. Another large part of the problem is that people, especially parents, just don’t want to face up to it. Addiction is such a repellent idea. They would rather spend a fortune on “respectable” answers that don’t work, like building a new playground, than create an addiction treatment program.

Dr. Pretlow says,

Compelling new evidence now points to actual addiction to highly-pleasurable comfort foods, like junk food and fast food, as the a predominant cause of childhood obesity. Based on this knowledge, if we are to turn the tide of this horrific epidemic, a major paradigm shift is needed. We must attack childhood obesity in the same manner as we do other addictions.

In a previous post, we mentioned the evidence gathered at the University of Alabama by statistical geneticist David Allison and a team of colleagues who study obesity. The researchers are all but forced to conclude that factors other than poor diet and lack of exercise are responsible in part for the epidemic.

Carrie Arnold wrote,

Environmental toxins and viruses are at the top of Allison’s list of potential suspects. Several studies have linked endocrine disruptors such as bisphenol A (BPA) and some tin-containing compounds to increased body mass.

The reporter also quoted Allison:

We’ve got to really open our minds to thinking about some other things…We clearly now have evidence that things outside this realm can shift the body weight distributions of an entire population.

While concentrating on the Big Two, excess energy consumption and physical inactivity, we might have disregarded not one, not two, but several influential factors. As the Shakespeare character said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

To be continued…

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Ending Childhood Obesity Through Healthy Eating & Exercise?,” Childhood Obesity News, 04/27/11
Source: “Food Addiction and Childhood Obesity: Now What Do We Do?,” Childhood Obesity News, 04/28/11
Source: “Animals Are Getting Fatter, Too,” The Scientist, 11/24/10
Image by elisasizzle, used under its Creative Commons license.

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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