Are environmental toxins hampering your chances of becoming pregnant?

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there are 80,000 industrial chemicals currently in use, with another 700 added each year. Oftentimes it takes years or even decades to discover if or how these products influence our health. Worse still, many of these chemicals are classified as "hormone-disrupting agents," meaning that they can trigger a hormone imbalance if you're exposed to them. The hormonal chaos that results can cause infertility, miscarriages, and birth defects and may even contribute to certain types of cancer. You can take an active role in reducing your exposure to these potentially toxic agents by taking steps toward achieving hormone balance. Get informed and create a diet and lifestyle that can reduce your exposure to specific chemicals that have been linked to problems. A great place to start: Consider what you can do reduce your contact with polychlorinated biphenyls; commonly known as PCBs.

PCBs were banned from use in the United States in 1979 due to their toxicity. Even though three decades have passed since they were widely used in construction and insulation, these hormone-disrupting chemicals persist in our environment. Today our primary exposure to PCBs is through contaminated water, polluted air, and the consumption of high-fat foods made from fish or animal products.

Since PCBs are stored in fat cells, switching to a low-fat diet can dramatically reduce your risk. For example, endometriosis is a problem commonly associated with infertility. Several studies have demonstrated that women with high levels of PCBs are three to four times more likely to develop endometriosis. One interventional study indicated that women with endometriosis can reduce their risk of recurrence by 40 percent or more simply by reducing their consumption of beef and ham and replacing these calories with fresh fruit and vegetables.

Making these healthy choices can also improve male fertility: A 2009 study found that men exposed to water pollutants (including PCBs) were at higher risk of infertility. These toxins can disrupt male hormones as well as interfere with sperm production. Rather than worry about the impact that water may be having on you, check out the database created by the Environmental Working Group. Not only do they report on pollutants that may be present in your tap water, they also provide links to simple water filtration systems that you can use to improve your health and that of your family.

If you needed even further proof that PCBs may be affecting your chances of becoming pregnant, a study published in 2010 found significant levels of this toxin in the fluid surrounding eggs that is collected during IVF cycles. More recently, U.S. research found that not only did a woman’s PCB level impact her chance of becoming pregnant, but it also may increase her risk of having a miscarriage. So clearly it is in your best interest to minimize your exposure to PCBs. Here are some simple steps that you should consider:

  • Eat low fat—in particular reduce your consumption of beef and ham while boosting your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Avoid farm-raised salmon and catfish since these have been shown to be prime sources of PCB exposure.
  • Drink filtered tap water instead of bottled water, which can often contain a variety of hormone-disrupting chemicals.
  • If you live in an older home with hard-wood finished floors, consider having them professionally treated with safer products.

Are you concerned about environmental toxins? What have you done to reduce your exposure?

Robert Greene, M.D., FACOG, is a physician at the CNY Fertility Center in central New York and the author of Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility, Perfect Hormone Balance for Pregnancy, and Happy Baby, Healthy Mom Pregnancy Journal. You can read Dr. Greene's blog, The Greene Guide, and follow him on Twitter.