I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

February 28, 2010

Your brain (and body) and overstimulation

Went skating with my kids yesterday.  This time went much better than the last time I had been skating since I was wearing skates that weren’t too large.  (Actually made it around the rink several times without falling.)

The skating rink we went to has a pinball machine and a couple of old arcade games, which my kids naturally wanted to play.  Being more aware of the possible effects of too much stimulation on the mind (and having at times been sucked into playing such games in my youth), I tend to be somewhat cautious about letting my kids spend too much time playing such things.  Of course, pinball for example shows you that such games have been around a lot longer than the Web.

Games do vary a lot in terms of how intense they are, and there are positive aspects to them (puzzle-solving, developing quick reflexes and better hand-eye coordination), but many games are designed the way they are to be stimulating (and for some people overstimulating).  I don’t know whether this has anything to do with an adrenaline rush, endorphins, or dopamine, but it’s clear that something is going on inside some people’s heads.

As I noted in a previous post, all of us are being exposed to chemicals in the environment.  The Highly Sensitive Person‘s discussion of cortisol got me thinking about the effects of stress on the body and whether or not the stress created by exposure to chemicals could trigger that.  So I decided to look into it and related hormones.

There has been quite a bit in the news over the last several years about “endocrine disruptors.”  Our Stolen Future, a book by Dr. Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers, was one of the first to bring attention to endocrine disruption and the fact that common contaminants can interfere with the natural signals controlling development of the fetus.  It highlights the fact that modern medical advances are enabling scientists to determine what effect some common contaminants can have on your body’s endocrine system.  A good, basic explanation of the endocrine system can be found on KidsHealth.org and The Hormone Foundation’s website.

The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), founded by Dr. Colborn, offers some good background information on endocrine disruptors.  It also contains information on the effects that prenatal exposure to endocrine disruptors can have.

TEDX’s Critical Windows of Development describes how prenatal exposure to certain chemicals could in part cause cancer and other disorders like infertility and diabetes later in life.  The site includes a timeline of how the human body develops in the womb, with animal research showing when low-dose exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals during development results in altered health outcomes.

If you’re a doubter about all of this, you can also check out the a website maintained by the American Association of Clinical Chemistry.  A table there lists the various endocrine glands, the hormones they produce, and the conditions and diseases associated with their improper function.

The Hormone Foundation lists environmental endocrine disruptors among external factors that can affect the endocrine system, and notes that such chemicals they can affect people and animals in several ways:

  • disrupted sexual development
  • decreased fertility
  • birth defects
  • decreased hatching in animals
  • reduced immune response
  • neurological and behavioral changes, including reduced stress tolerance

Cortisol is a marker for stress, but appears to have many positive effects and is in fact necessary.  It apparently helps the body respond appropriately to stress.  What’s not clear is whether constant production from chronic stress might in turn cause some additional effects.  And what happens when you combine the stress of daily life with the stress of exposure to chemicals?

Some would say there’s no proof that these chemicals cause particular effects, though The Endocrine Society recently came out with a scientific statement on endocrine disruptors.  (They want you to pay $20 for the statement itself, but you can get the basic details from the press release.)

As the president of The Endocrine Society noted:

[W]e present evidence that shows endocrine disruptors have effects on male and female reproduction, breast development and cancer, prostate cancer, neuroendocrinology, thyroid disease, metabolism and obesity, and cardiovascular endocrinology.”

And if you look through the scientific literature you’ll discover that many (if not most) scientists will admit there’s a lot going on with the brain and the endocrine system (and glands like the hypothalamus and pituitary gland that interact with both) that we don’t know much about.  And given how complex the human body is, it’s not surprising that exposure to so many chemicals could cause problems, some obvious, others much more subtle.

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