review by Gregory Luckman
Jay has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Boston University School of Medicine and currently researches stem cells and epigenetics at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Although these credentials provide him with a scientific background and the perspective of an insider in the current medical research “establishment,” he remains independent and critical. In fact, he devotes most of Chapter Three to describing how funding bias, “alliance bias,” and publication bias have distorted the big picture that the peer-reviewed scientific literature provides to issues of nutrition and health. He picks up on this theme again and describes his own orientation in the Chapter Six subsection entitled “Estrogenics and Cancer” with the statement that “. . . the system promotes playing-it-safe and doing the same, tired, experiments everybody else is doing. Hedging bets and then sensationalizing the mundane findings is, unfortunately, the secure career path in science today. And that, my friend, is one of the reasons why I am personally not out on that academic ‘ball field,’ playing hard and wearing my team’s hat, cleats, and tight pants.”
The book is heavy on references, mostly to peer-reviewed scientific studies. The references are up-to-date, including numerous references published in 2016. Yet it is also highly readable, even chatty, for people lacking advanced scientific training. Jay frames the topic of estrogenics within a bit of autobiography of his undergraduate years at Ave Maria University in Florida, his courtship to his future wife, and his love of fishing. In fact, fish provide a segue into several of the topics of the book, since fish often serve as sentinel species, or as “canaries in the coal mine” (pardon the mixed metaphor) of problems that mammals, including humans, face due to estrogenics.
The book consists of three parts, ten chapters in all. Chapter One provides a definition of estrogenics: “a class of molecules that are structurally similar to estrogen,” or alternatively, “something that sticks to estrogen receptors in your body.” The chapter then discusses estrogen receptors and their prevalence in multiple organs and glands in both the male as well as the female body. It emphasizes the long-lasting impact of hormones including estrogen, in contrast to the much faster, but relatively transient nature of nerve impulses. Finally, Jay presents his Estrogenic Top 10 List, the most prevalent estrogenics and where they are found: plant estrogenics, a fungus estrogenic, an herbicide estrogenic (atrazine), soap estrogenics, sunscreen estrogenics, artificial food color estrogenics, fragrance estrogenics, plastic additive estrogenics, plastic ingredient estrogenics (including BPA and the BPS found in many “BPA-free” plastics), and finally, a birth-control estrogenic.
Among the plant estrogenics, soy and flax vastly exceed other plant sources, so these are the ones to focus on. But Jay also mentions marijuana and lavender, the latter showing up more in personal care products than in food. There is only one fungus estrogenic, zearalenone, but it shows up in a variety of stored food products, especially grains and in the animals that eat those grains. Including plastic packaging material, six of the ten categories are arguably related to food. The others are personal care products.
Chapter Two opens with the question of whether total elimination is too extreme. If we attempt total avoidance, will it simply distract us from prioritizing other public health pursuits? This question, to which I will return later, leads to the chapter’s focus, which is the evidence in published scientific studies that each of the Top 10 Estrogenics is, in fact, estrogenic. The chapter describes the legal status of each estrogenic and notes that the United States often lags behind the EU and the rest of the world in regulating these compounds or even in requiring that their presence be included on product labels. The chapter also presents unique considerations for each category of estrogenic.
Chapter Three, as noted earlier, digresses from the biochemistry to discuss the politics of financing and publishing in science. Jay illustrates these issues with a discussion of the marketing of soy, especially over the past twenty years.
Part 1 ends with Chapter Four, which presents information on where estrogenics are found in the environment: in water, including municipally treated drinking water; in the air, especially indoor air; and in food, especially processed food. The chapter leaves no doubt that estrogenics are widespread in the environment.
Part 2 consists of three chapters that describe the health effects of estrogenics on humans and on other animals, especially fish. In the course of the discussion, Jay introduces what he calls “The 7 Deadly Things.” In the chapters of Part 2 he covers #1. Fat Gains (Obesity), #2. Depression, #3. Hormonal Disruption, #4. Immune Dysfunction, #5, Blood Clotting, and #6. Cancer. As with the proof that the estrogenics are, in fact, estrogenic, Jay extensively references the peer-reviewed scientific literature.
In Chapter Eight, which begins Part 3, Jay mentions the seventh of The 7 Deadly Things: #7. Infertility. The chapter actually focuses on the concept of epigenetics, a critical component of transgenerational infertility problems. Jay defines epigenetics as the “study of marks that are made to your DNA.” I do think that Jay could have been clearer at this point in the chapter in stating that the “marks” he mentions function as activators or deactivators of particular genes. He does point out that epigenetic marks can be passed on to future generations. Examples of epigenetic inheritance, backed up by references to peer-reviewed scientific studies, are mainly to obesity and cancer.
Chapter Nine focuses on infertility, with estrogenics playing a significant role through both direct estrogen receptor mechanisms and through epigenetic mechanisms. Scientific studies cited are animal studies, since human studies would be unethical and would literally take human generations. Yet the animal studies present an ominous picture.
Chapter Ten, “What You Can Do,” ends Part 3 but could also have stood alone as Part 4. Given the prevalence of estrogenics in the environment, the reader will not be surprised to learn that Jay’s suggestions are wide-ranging. They are of two sorts. First, Jay provides suggestions for ways to reduce or eliminate estrogenics that are already in one’s body, and for ways to mitigate the effects of the remaining level of estrogenics that cannot be removed from the body or otherwise avoided in the modern world. Second, he provides three levels of action plan, Bronze, Silver, and Gold, for the avoidance of estrogenics that are in the water, air, and food.
The actions to reduce or eliminate estrogenics include improving one’s dietary omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio, using heat (as in sauna), fasting, especially in combination with a sauna, and using Natural Family Planning (NFP) for postponing pregnancy. (Jay states a 99% effectiveness for NFP; however, some Internet sources cite a lower effectiveness.)
The three levels of action plan for avoiding estrogenics correspond to increasing levels of comprehensiveness. The highest priority and least expensive actions are in the Bronze Plan. The most expensive or lifestyle-modifying actions are in the Gold Plan. The Silver Plan is intermediate.
The general question of priorities, not just within the topic of estrogenics, but among all personal and public health issues, was always on my mind as I read Estrogeneration. Are concerns over atrazine, an estrogenic herbicide, more important than concerns over the herbicide glyphosate, a strong chelator of minerals but not an estrogenic? Are concerns over estrogenics more important than concerns over petroleum-based fertilizers? Are concerns over estrogenics more important than concerns over heavy metals in food and in the soil? Are concerns over estrogenics more important than concerns over hydroponics? Are concerns over estrogenics more important than concerns over antibiotics disrupting the human endobiome? The questions could go on.
No doubt, concerns over glyphosate, artificial fertilizers, heavy metals, hydroponics, probiotics, and other chemicals and farming practices Are. All. Important. Fortunately, Jay’s suggestions for avoiding estrogenics rarely conflict with practices already recommended by organic and sustainable agriculture. Many line items in his action plans are what organic and sustainable farmers and their customers are already doing for their health’s sake. Estrogeneration nevertheless raised my consciousness of many issues concerning estrogenics beyond what I knew before and provided practical guidance for dealing with those issues. I expect that it will do the same for many readers of The Natural Farmer.