Foods that Affect Testosterone Levels

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A number of studies suggest that exposure to industrial pollutants may affect sexual function, for example, loss of libido, sexual dysfunction, and impotence. This may be due to effects on testosterone levels. In a study of men who ate a lot of contaminated fish, an elevation in PCB levels in the blood was associated with a lower concentration of testosterone levels. These pollutants are found predominantly in fish, but also meat and dairy. The lowest levels are found in plants (see Dietary Pollutants May Affect Testosterone Levels).

Testosterone doesn't just play a role in the determination of secondary sex characteristics like facial hair at puberty. It also regulates normal sexual functioning and the overall physical and psychological well-being of adult men. Abnormally low levels of testosterone can lead to decreased physical endurance and memory capacity, loss of libido, drop in sperm count, loss of bone density, obesity, and depression.

Endocrine-disrupting compounds that build up in fish may be able to mimic or block hormone receptors, or alter rates of synthesis or breakdown of sex steroid hormones. In children, these pollutants may actually impair sexual development. Boys who are exposed may grow up with smaller penises (although only by about two-thirds of an inch shorter at most). Researchers have tried exposing cells from aborted fetal human penises to these kinds of dietary pollutants, and gene expression related to genital development is indeed affected at real-life exposure levels. We're not sure if the effects on penis length are due to the pro-estrogenic effects of the toxins, though, or the anti-testosterone effects.

You've heard of save the whales? Well, male reproductive organs may be at risk from environmental hazards as well.

I previously addressed how we discovered the endocrine disruptor phenomenon in Alkylphenol Endocrine Disruptors and Allergies, as well as where they're found (Dietary Sources of Alkylphenol Endocrine Disruptors).

For more on sustaining male virility, see Male Fertility and Diet, The Role of Diet in Declining Sperm Counts, and Dairy Estrogen and Male Fertility.

I've talked about the role a plastics chemical may play in male sexual functioning (BPA Plastic and Male Sexual Dysfunction). But it's not just toxins, it's the total diet (Survival of the Firmest: Erectile Dysfunction and Death), and not only in men (Cholesterol and Female Sexual Dysfunction). My latest on the topic is Best Foods to Improve Sexual Function.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. Image has been modified.

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Foods that Affect Testosterone Levels

Foods that Affect Testosterone Levels.jpeg

A number of studies suggest that exposure to industrial pollutants may affect sexual function, for example, loss of libido, sexual dysfunction, and impotence. This may be due to effects on testosterone levels. In a study of men who ate a lot of contaminated fish, an elevation in PCB levels in the blood was associated with a lower concentration of testosterone levels. These pollutants are found predominantly in fish, but also meat and dairy. The lowest levels are found in plants (see Dietary Pollutants May Affect Testosterone Levels).

Testosterone doesn't just play a role in the determination of secondary sex characteristics like facial hair at puberty. It also regulates normal sexual functioning and the overall physical and psychological well-being of adult men. Abnormally low levels of testosterone can lead to decreased physical endurance and memory capacity, loss of libido, drop in sperm count, loss of bone density, obesity, and depression.

Endocrine-disrupting compounds that build up in fish may be able to mimic or block hormone receptors, or alter rates of synthesis or breakdown of sex steroid hormones. In children, these pollutants may actually impair sexual development. Boys who are exposed may grow up with smaller penises (although only by about two-thirds of an inch shorter at most). Researchers have tried exposing cells from aborted fetal human penises to these kinds of dietary pollutants, and gene expression related to genital development is indeed affected at real-life exposure levels. We're not sure if the effects on penis length are due to the pro-estrogenic effects of the toxins, though, or the anti-testosterone effects.

You've heard of save the whales? Well, male reproductive organs may be at risk from environmental hazards as well.

I previously addressed how we discovered the endocrine disruptor phenomenon in Alkylphenol Endocrine Disruptors and Allergies, as well as where they're found (Dietary Sources of Alkylphenol Endocrine Disruptors).

For more on sustaining male virility, see Male Fertility and Diet, The Role of Diet in Declining Sperm Counts, and Dairy Estrogen and Male Fertility.

I've talked about the role a plastics chemical may play in male sexual functioning (BPA Plastic and Male Sexual Dysfunction). But it's not just toxins, it's the total diet (Survival of the Firmest: Erectile Dysfunction and Death), and not only in men (Cholesterol and Female Sexual Dysfunction). My latest on the topic is Best Foods to Improve Sexual Function.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. Image has been modified.

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Dietary Estrogens and Male Fertility

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In my video, The Role of Diet in Declining Sperm Counts, I discussed the association between high saturated fat intake and reduced semen quality. But what's the connection? One of the most recent papers on the topic found that a significant percentage of the saturated fat intake in the study was derived from dairy products. Residues of industrial chemicals may bioaccumulate up the food chain into animal fat, and some of these lipophilic (fat-loving) chemicals may have hormone-disrupting abilities.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency performed a national survey of persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic pollutants in the U.S. milk supply (highlighted in my video, Dairy Estrogen and Male Fertility). The EPA team noted that since milk fat is likely to be among the highest dietary sources of exposure to these pollutants, it's important to understand the levels in the dairy supply. The team tested milk from all over the country and found a veritable witches brew of chemicals. They estimate that dairy products alone contribute about 30% to 50% of our dioxin exposure. And "like dioxin, other toxic pollutants tend to be widely dispersed in the environment, bioaccumulated through the food chain and ultimately result in low-level contamination in most animal fats."

This may explain higher pollutant concentrations in fish eaters. Xenoestrogens like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are associated with the fats of fish or animal flesh and cannot be fully removed by washing and cooking, and so can accumulate in our fat, too. Xenoestrogens are chemicals with demasculinizing or feminizing effects. But even in a non-polluted world, animal foods also have actual estrogen, which are unavoidable constituents of animal products. All foodstuff of animal origin contains estradiol, which is at least 10,000-fold more potent than most xenoestrogens. Dietary exposure--meat, dairy products and eggs--to these natural sex steroids is therefore highly relevant, as the hormones in these animals are identical to our own.

Estrogens are present in meat and eggs, but the major sources are milk and dairy products. By drinking a glass of milk, a child's intake of estradiol is 4,000 times the intake of xenoestrogens in terms of hormone activity. Modern genetically-improved dairy cows can lactate throughout their pregnancy. The problem is that during pregnancy, estrogen levels can jump as much as 30-fold.

Cheese intake has specifically been associated with lower sperm concentration, whereas dairy food intake in general has been associated with abnormal sperm shape and movement. Lower sperm concentrations by themselves may just represent a potential suppression of sperm production due to higher estrogen levels, but abnormal shape and movement suggests that dairy intake may be implicated in actual direct testicular damage.

While milk products supply most of our ingested female sex steroids, eggs are a considerable source as well, contributing about as much as meat and fish. This could be expected, as eggs are produced directly in the hens' ovaries.

Meat may also contain added hormones. In the U.S. anabolic sex steroids may be administered to animals for growth promotion, a practice banned in Europe twenty-five years ago. A study in New York found progressively lower sperm counts associated with processed meat consumption. However, similar studies in Europe after the ban found the same thing, so it may not be the implanted hormones, but rather a consequence of other meat components, such as the saturated fat raising cholesterol levels.

We've known for decades that men with high cholesterol levels show abnormalities in their "spermiograms": decreased sperm concentration, about a third of the normal sperm movement, and half the normal sperm shape. Twenty-five years later, we're finding the same thing. In the largest study to date, higher blood cholesterol levels were associated with a significantly lower percentage of normal sperm. Cholesterol was also associated with reductions in semen volume and live sperm count. These results highlight the role of fats in the blood in male fertility, and should be of concern given the rising prevalence of obesity and cholesterol problems. Although a healthier diet may be associated with healthier sperm counts, cholesterol-lowering statin drugs do not seem to help.

What about the phytoestrogens in soy? See The Effect of Soy on Precocious Puberty.

More on hormones in dairy in:

Neurotoxic chemicals in the dairy supply have been blamed for neurological conditions as well. See my video Preventing Parkinson's Disease with Diet.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Taber Andrew Bain / Flickr

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Children’s Supplements Found Contaminated With Pollutants

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A number of case-control studies have found that giving kids cod liver oil supplements may increase their risk of asthma later in life. Case-control studies are done by asking about past behavior in cases (those with asthma) versus controls (those without asthma) to see if certain past behaviors are more likely among the disease group. The problem is that asking people to remember what they were doing years ago, when most people can't remember what they had for breakfast last week, is unreliable. When interpreting the results from case-control studies, we also can't rule out something called reverse causation. Maybe cod liver oil doesn't lead to asthma, but asthma led to the use of cod liver oil.

It would therefore be nice to see a cohort study. In a cohort study, researchers would take people without asthma and follow them over time to see if those taking cod liver oil are more likely to develop it. Because people without the disease and their diets are followed over time, cohort studies bypass the problems of recall bias and reverse causation.

In 2013, we finally got one such study. 17,000 people free of asthma were followed over 11 years. Researchers knew who was taking cod liver oil and who wasn't, and then sat back and watched to see who got asthma over the subsequent 11 years. The researchers found that cod liver oil intake was indeed significantly associated with the development of asthma. They thought it might be the excessive vitamin A in the cod liver oil that was causing the problem, but there are also a number of substances in fish oil we may not want our children exposed to.

Researchers from Philadelphia University, highlighted in my video PCBs in Children's Fish Oil Supplements, recently looked at 13 over-the-counter children's dietary supplements containing fish oil to assess potential exposure to PCBs, toxic industrial pollutants that have contaminated our oceans. PCBs were detected in all products. Could we just stick to the supplements made from small, short-lived fish like anchovies instead of big predator fish like tuna to reduce the impact of biomagnification? Or use purified fish oils? No, the researchers found no significant difference in PCB levels whether the supplements were labeled as molecularly distilled or how high up the food chain the fish were.

The researchers concluded that while children's dietary supplements containing the long-chain omega-3's from fish oils may claim to benefit young consumers, "daily ingestion of these products may provide a vector for contaminant exposure that may off-set the positive health effects." What positive health benefits are they talking about?

Researchers publishing in the journal, Early Human Development, found that infants given DHA-fortified formula may have better development of their eyes and brains compared to infants getting non DHA-fortified formula. What was the source of the DHA? Not fish, but algae-derived DHA. In that way we can get the benefits of omega 3's without the contaminant risks. But of course, breast milk is the gold standard, significantly better than either of the formula fed infants. So the best source of omega-3's is mom.

It's bad enough when supplement manufacturers exploit adults when they're sick and vulnerable with pills that are often useless or worse, but taking advantage of our parental drive to do what's best for our children with contaminated products that may make them sick, makes me sick.

More on supplements in:

And speaking of which, Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?

Also check out these videos on fish oil and DHA: Omega-3's and the Eskimo Fish Tale and Should We Take EPA and DHA Omega-3 For Our Heart?

What about omega 3's for our child's growing brain? See my video Mercury vs. Omega-3s for Brain Development

We can also be exposed to PCBs in food. See Food Sources of PCB Chemical Pollutants.

More on the polluted aquatic food chain in:

What can we do to lower the risk of childhood asthma and other allergic-type diseases? See:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Lars Plougmann / Flickr

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Salmon May Be the Greatest Source of Dietary Pollutants

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In my video Diabetes and Dioxins, I explored a nationwide study that found a strong dose-response relationship between industrial toxins and diabetes. Since then, Harvard researchers have reported a link between persistent pollutants like hexachlorobenzene and diabetes in their Nurse's Health Study (See Food Sources of Perfluerochemicals). This is supported by an analysis they did of six other studies published since 2006 that showed the same thing. The Harvard researchers conclude that "past accumulation and continued exposure to these persistent pollutants may be a potent risk factor for developing diabetes."

Where is hexachlorobenzene found? In a U.S. supermarket survey, salmon and sardines were most heavily tainted with hexachlorobenzene, with salmon "the most contaminated food of all." Farmed salmon specifically is perhaps the greatest source of dietary pollutants, averaging nearly ten times the PCB load of wild-caught salmon.

Wait, isn't there a flaw in this argument? Since many of these chemicals were banned in the 70's, the levels inside people have been going down, whereas the rates of diabetes have been shooting straight up. Therefore, how could pollutant exposure be causing diabetes? This puzzle may be explained by our epidemic of obesity. The nationwide study found that the association between these toxins and diabetes was much stronger among obese subjects than among lean subjects. As people get fatter, the retention and toxicity of pollutants related to the risk of diabetes may increase.

So we're not just exposed by eating the fat of other animals; our own fat can be a continuous source of internal exposure because these persistent pollutants are slowly but continuously released from our fat stores into our circulation.

They don't call them "persistent pollutants" for nothing. These chemicals have such a long half-life that people consuming regular (even just monthly) meals of farmed salmon might end up retaining these chemicals in their bodies for 50 to 75 years.

Hexachlorobenzene in fish has been tied to diabetes; what about the mercury? A 1995 study highlighted in my video, Pollutants in Salmon and Our Own Fat, out of Japan found that diabetics do seem to have higher mercury levels in their body. Mercury alone does not seem to increase diabetes risk, though. It may be the simultaneous exposure to both dioxins and mercury that increases risk, so the safety limits for dioxins and mercury individually may underestimate the risk when they're consumed together in seafood.

So while the pharmaceutical industry works on coming up with drugs to help mediate the impact of these pollutants, a better strategy might be to not get so polluted in the first place.

Unfortunately, because we've so contaminated our world, we can't escape exposure completely. You have to eat something. Some foods are more contaminated than others, though. Exposure to these pollutants comes primarily from the consumption of animal fat, with the highest levels found in fatty fish like salmon. Farmed Atlantic salmon may be the single largest source of these pollutants, and that's the kind of salmon we most commonly find in supermarkets and restaurants.

We hear about advisories warning pregnant women to avoid the consumption of food containing elevated levels of pollutants and mercury, but as a public health journal article points out, since these toxins bio-accumulate in the body for many years "restricting the exposure to these pollutants only during pregnancy would not protect the fetus or future generations against the harmful effects of these hazardous chemicals."

For the existing links between seafood and diabetes risk, see Fish and Diabetes and I explored this concept of our own body fat as a reservoir for disease-causing pollutants in Diabetes and Dioxins.

More on hexachlorobenzene in my video Food Sources of Perfluorochemicals.

Our body has a tougher time getting rid of some toxins than others:

The best way to detox is to stop toxing in the first place.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: Sharon Mollerus / Flickr

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Dioxins Stored in Our Own Fat May Increase Diabetes Risk

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Finding higher diabetes rates among those heavily exposed to toxic pollutants--such as those exposed to Agent Orange, chemical plant explosions, toxic waste dumps, or heavy metals in fish from the Great Lakes--is one thing. Would the same link be found in a random sampling of the general population? Yes. A strong dose-dependent relationship was found between the levels of these pollutants circulating in people's blood and diabetes. Those with the highest levels of pollutants in their blood stream had 38 times the odds of diabetes.

Interestingly, there was "no association between obesity and diabetes among subjects with non-detectable levels of pollutants." In other words, "obesity was a risk factor for diabetes only if people had blood concentrations of these pollutants above a certain level." We know obesity predisposes us to diabetes, but according to this study, highlighted in my video, Diabetes and Dioxins, this is perhaps true only if our bodies are contaminated with industrial pollutants. This finding implies that virtually all the risk of diabetes conferred by obesity is attributable to these pollutants, and that obesity might only be a vehicle for such chemicals. Could we be carrying around our own little toxic waste dump on our hips?

Now it's entirely possible that the six pollutants they looked at were not themselves causally related to diabetes. Rather, they could just be surrogates of exposure to a mixture of chemicals. After all, 90% of these pollutants in our diet come from animal foods. Except for individuals living or working around industrial sites where these chemicals were used or dumped, the most common source of exposure to PCBs is from diet, from foods of animal origin, especially seafood. The strong relationship the researchers found between certain pollutants and diabetes may just be pointing to other contaminants in animal products.

If these pollutants are particularly found in seafood, are people who eat fish at higher risk for diabetes? See my videos Fish and Diabetes, and Pollutants in Salmon and Our Own Fat.

For more on dioxins, see:

For more on PCBs, see:

These pollutants may also play a role in our rising epidemic of allergic diseases. See Alkylphenol Endocrine Disruptors and Allergies and Dietary Sources of Alkylphenol Endocrine Disruptors.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: Agustin Ruiz / Flickr

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Why Would Eating Fish Increase Diabetes Risk?

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In the past two years, six separate meta-analyses have been published on the relationship between fish consumption and type 2 diabetes. The whole point of a meta-analysis is to compile the best studies done to date and see what the overall balance of evidence shows. The fact that there are six different ones published recently highlights how open the question remains. One thread of consistency, though, was that fish consumers in the United States tended to be at greater risk for diabetes.

If we include Europe, then fish eaters appeared to have a 38% increased risk of diabetes. On a per serving basis, that comes out to be about a 5% increase in risk for every serving of fish one has per week. To put that into perspective, a serving of red meat per day is associated with 19% increase in risk. Just one serving per day of fish would be equivalent to a 35% increase in risk. But why might fish be worse than red meat?

Fish intake may increase type 2 diabetes risk by increasing blood sugar levels, as a review of the evidence commissioned by the U.S. government found. The review found that blood sugars increase in diabetics given fish oil. Another possible cause is that omega 3's appear to cause oxidative stress. A recent study, highlighted in my video, Fish and Diabetes, found that the insulin producing cells in the pancreas don't appear to work as well in people who eat two or more servings of fish a week. Or it may not be related to omega 3's at all but rather the environmental contaminants that build up in fish.

It all started with Agent Orange. We sprayed 20 million gallons of the stuff on Vietnam, and some of it was contaminated with trace amounts of dioxins. Though the Red Cross estimates that a million Vietnamese were adversely affected, what about all the servicemen who were exposed spraying it across the countryside? Reports started showing up that veterans exposed to Agent Orange appeared to have higher diabetes rates than unexposed veterans, a link that's now officially recognized.

These so-called "persistent organic pollutants" are mainly man-made industrial chemicals and are among the most hazardous compounds ever synthesized. They include dioxins, PCBs, and certain chlorine-containing pesticides, all of which are highly resistant to breakdown in the environment.

Initially condemned for their deleterious effect on reproductive function and their ability to cause cancer, there is now a growing body of evidence showing that exposure to these pollutants leads to metabolic diseases such as diabetes. This is a breakthrough that "should require our greatest attention."

For more on the role industrial pollutants may play in our diabetes epidemic, see Diabetes and Dioxins and Pollutants in Salmon and Our Own Fat.

More on the changing views surrounding fish oil supplements in Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?

Other foods associated with diabetes risk include processed meat and eggs. See Bacon, Eggs, and Gestational Diabetes During Pregnancy and Eggs and Diabetes, while Indian gooseberries and flaxseeds may help (Amla Versus Diabetes and Flaxseed vs. Diabetes).

Other videos on how polluted our oceans now are include:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: Gideon / Flickr

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