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How Women May Be Contributing to Men's Rising Cancer Rates

Birth Control Pills

Story at-a-glance -

  • An analysis of data from 100 countries found oral contraceptive use is associated with prostate cancer; this may be due to exposure to synthetic estrogens excreted by women and that end up in the drinking water supply
  • Estrogen has already been implicated in other cancers; for instance, breast cancer is closely tied to estrogen exposure
  • Estrogen pollution is increasingly present all around you, from plastics to canned food and drinks, food additives, household cleaning products, heavy metals, and pesticides, as well as in our waterways as a result of the runoff from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs)
  • Many women opt for hormonal contraceptives because they're unaware of the serious health risks, as well as the other effective, drug-free birth control methods out there, which include both natural family planning and barrier methods

By Dr. Mercola

Many conventional health experts believe the hormone testosterone causes prostate cancer -- but research actually suggests that estrogen may be the more likely culprit.

Like women, men also make estrogens such as estradiol, although (usually) in much lower amounts than women.

Even the characteristically "male" hormone testosterone can be converted into estradiol via the hormone aromatase – which is found in higher concentrations in fat tissue. 

While this process of testosterone-to-estrogen conversion is necessary for proper bone density and quality in men, for instance, it may also contribute to prostate growth and malignancy.

Fortunately, testosterone is also antagonist to estrogens like estradiol, which may explain why men with low testosterone are at greater risk of prostate cancer.

It may be, also, that men are being exposed to hidden sources of estrogen from the environment.

Estrogen-mimicking chemicals such as bisphenol-A, PFOA and phthalates are disturbingly widespread; as are soy foods that contain high levels of phytoestrogens, which are capable of mimicking estrogens and/or disrupting their cellular receptor sites. 

Not only that, but a wide range of heavy metals have been identified to have powerfully estrogenic properties.

These "metalloestrogens," as they are called, include aluminium, antimony, arsenite, barium, cadmium, chromium (Cr(II)), cobalt, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, selenite, and tin.  Recently, an interesting new theory has been proposed that suggests another route of estrogen exposure in men: water contaminated by women's birth control pills. Could this be the culprit in the rising number of prostate cancer cases?

Drug Residues Common in Drinking Water

Many waterways in the United States contain residues of birth control pills, antidepressants, painkillers, and many other chemical compounds. This has been known for many years now.

Most of them enter water supplies from human and animal waste that enter rivers from sewage treatment plants, leach into groundwater from septic systems, or run off into groundwater. Even drugs thrown into the trash can wind up in your drinking water, as when it enters a landfill its contents can and do mingle with other trash and its surrounding environment, including water supplies.

The drug industry, while admitting that pharmaceuticals are clearly contaminating water supplies, maintains that the levels are too low to cause any harm. Yet, it's known that drugs in waterways can harm fish and other aquatic species, and laboratory studies show human cells do not grow normally when exposed to even trace amounts of certain drugs.

Many drugs in the water supply are known to have dangerous side effects when taken in normal prescription doses, not to mention that some people are now exposed to traces of multiple drugs at one time, in addition to other harmful metals and chemicals in their water. Further, people are now being exposed to combinations of drugs that should never be combined, leading to unknown consequences.

Birth Control Pills in Water Supply Linked to Men's Prostate Cancer

Using data from the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the United Nations World Contraceptive Use report, which spanned 100 countries, researchers analyzed rates of prostate cancer and prostate cancer deaths, as well as oral contraceptive use among women.

The report concluded that the areas with a high rate of oral contraceptive use also had a high rate of prostate cancer. In addition, the researchers speculated that higher environmental levels of estrogen -- and by implication, higher cumulative estrogen exposures in men -- may be to blame.

In the United States alone, over 82 percent of women aged 15-44 have used oral contraceptives, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Typically, hormonal birth control methods like The Pill work by releasing estrogen and progestin into a woman's body, preventing her ovaries from releasing eggs.

While it's argued that only a small amount of additional estrogen is excreted by a woman using this form of contraception, this "small amount" is compounded by millions of women, many of whom use the pill for long periods of time. Also, synthetic estrogen and progesterone (progestin) – being unnatural – does not biodegrade as rapidly and is far harder to remove through conventional water purification systems – resulting in greater accumulation in the environment.

While this latest study did not prove cause and effect -- that is, it did not prove that environmental estrogen from women's oral contraceptive use causes prostate cancer in men -- it did find a significant association between the two that deserves further investigation, especially in light of estrogen's well established role in a wide range of cancers.

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Estrogen Already Proven to Cause Breast Cancer

The guidelines for preventing and treating prostate cancer are almost identical to those for treating breast cancer (more on those shortly), which is why it's worth noting that causative factors -- like estrogen -- may also be similar. It is, in fact, already known that breast cancer is closely tied to estrogen exposure.

According to a study published online in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, breast cancer rates for women dropped in tandem with decreased use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which exposed women to synthetic estrogen. In Canada, between 2002 and 2004 HRT use dropped by 7.8 percent. In fact, it was no coincidence that, during that same time, breast cancer rates also fell by 9.6 percent.

However, after remaining stable at around 5 percent between 2004 and 2006, breast cancer rates then began to rise again, even though HRT use remained lower. The researchers claim this is an indication that HRT simply speeds up tumor growth, as opposed to directly causing it.

It's also important to consider that you are exposed to a large number of estrogen-like compounds daily, called xenoestrogens. Estrogen pollution is increasingly present all around you, from plastics to canned food and drinks, food additives, household cleaning products, and pesticides. And estrogen levels are rising in our waterways, not only as pollution from birth control use but as a result of the runoff from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

So whether it's a promoter or a causative factor (likely it's both), there's a wealth of evidence supporting excess estrogen exposure as a risk factor for cancer.

What's All the Buzz About Saw Palmetto and Prostate Cancer?

As we age, testosterone levels decline. One reason why this occurs is because of the overexpression and/or overactivity of an enzyme known as 5-alpha reductase. This enzyme converts testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (DHT), a process which simultaneously lowers the amount of testosterone in the body and contributes to both the benign (BPH) and malignant (cancer) growth of the prostate gland.  

While the pharmaceutical companies have already capitalized on this biological fact by producing a class of drugs which inhibit 5-alpha reductase activity, thereby blocking the conversion of testosterone to DHT, these drugs come with a significant set of risks, including --  no joke! -- increasing your risk of developing prostate cancer.

Unlike the laughably inept pharmaceutical approach, which typically creates greater malignancy than improvement in the organ it is "treating," i.e. suppressing symptoms in, natural substances like saw palmetto provide a viable alternative. It is, in fact, through this same mechanism of DHT inhibition that saw palmetto works and can make a big difference in your cancer risk.

According to Dr. Rudi Moerck, drug industry insider and an expert in chemistry, the medical literature contains as many as 100 clinical studies on saw palmetto. (One of the first prostate drugs on the US market was actually saw palmetto, released by Eli Lilly Company back in the early 1870s.)

He says:

"The mechanism of action of saw palmetto is not fully clear. We are certainly not making any drug claims, but the anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a reduction in the conversion of testosterone into the dihydrotestosterone, and therefore, men that take saw palmetto will have slightly higher levels of testosterone in their body…That's a good thing...

It turns out that if you don't have enough testosterone in your body it can cause all kinds of problems like gaining weight, breast enlargement in men, and problem with urinating. So saw palmetto alone, or with pumpkin seed or lycopene is an interesting proposition … It's something that you should definitely try."

Additionally, research sourced from The National Library of Medicine shows that saw palmetto may have therapeutic benefits over pharmaceutical 5-alpha-reductase inhibitors, alleviating symptoms far beyond that of simply an enlarged prostate:

Beyond taking saw palmetto, another thing you may want to do is to have your testosterone levels checked to ensure they're in a healthy range. For an interesting article that contains more elaborate information on this topic, read Dr. Morgentaler's report Destroying the Myth About Testosterone Replacement and Prostate Cancer. It explains how unfortunate assumptions have led to a dogmatic belief that testosterone replacement increases your risk of prostate cancer -- a belief that may be preventing many men from optimizing their health. If you are indeed low in testosterone you may want to consider trans rectal DHEA cream. I personally use about 50 mg twice a day, and it has done wonders to optimize my testosterone levels, as DHEA is converted to testosterone in your body.

Smart Solutions for Prostate Cancer Prevention

Like virtually all cancers, your risk of prostate cancer can be influenced by lifestyle changes, with diet having a huge impact on prostate health.

Given the potential risk of drug-contaminated drinking water, filtering your water is a smart choice. The best solution would be to install a whole house water filtration system. This not only protects your body (inside and out, from drinking water and exposure during showers), but also your appliances as well. There's just one water line coming into your house. Putting a filter on this is the easiest and simplest strategy you can implement to take control of your health by ensuring the water in your house is as clean as possible.

I recommend systems that use at least 60 pounds of filter media and can produce eight or more gallons a minute. When you are running two different showers, the dishwasher and the kitchen sink at the same time, you'll find out why these minimum levels are so important. This recommendation covers a home or apartment up to 3200 sq./ft. If your home is larger than that, you may need two whole house water filtration systems.

I also recommend looking for a whole house water filter that has three separate stages of contamination removal:

  • Stage one removes sediment
  • Stage two removes chlorine and heavy metals
  • Stage three should be a heavy-duty carbon filter for removing hormones, drug residues, chemicals, pesticides, and herbicides

You want to look for granular carbon in the carbon filter, not a solid block of carbon. The granular carbon allows for better water flow, which translates to more water pressure and better filtering properties as well.

Next, you'll want to eat as much organic (preferably raw) food as possible. Foods that support prostate health include vegetables and fruits rich in vitamins, carotenoids, and lycopene (animal studies have shown that of all the carotenoids, lycopene accumulates in the prostate of male animals, and this likely holds true for humans as well).

One 2009 study identified the following foods as being particularly beneficial against prostate cancer:

  • Tomatoes (including unsweetened organic tomato sauce)
  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli
  • Green tea

Other nutrients that have been found to offer significant protection against prostate cancer are animal-based omega-3 fats and vitamin K2. For more information about K2, please refer to this previous article. Although I don't typically recommend many supplements, animal-based omega-3 fats and vitamin K2 are two of the supplements you may want to seriously consider because many people don't get nearly enough of them on a daily basis through the foods they eat.

Limiting carbohydrates like sugar, fructose, and grains as much as possible is also important to maintain optimal insulin levels, which will help reduce your cancer risk in general. Highly processed or charcoaled meats, pasteurized dairy products, and trans fats correlate with an increased risk for prostate cancer as well, and should also be avoided.

For more research on the dietary aspects of prostate cancer prevention contains a list of over 150 natural substances with potential value, backed by solid clinical research. Other important factors include:

1. Optimizing your vitamin D levels

Evidence suggests that vitamin D may be one of the most potent variables associated with a lower risk of prostate cancer.

Thankfully, vitamin D's impact on your cancer risk is becoming increasingly well-documented, and there are now well over 800 scientific studies confirming the link between vitamin D deficiency and multiple types of cancers, including prostate cancer.

For example, according to a 2005 study, men with higher levels of vitamin D in their blood were half as likely to develop aggressive forms of prostate cancer as those with lower amounts. Another study published two years ago found that men with higher levels of vitamin D in their blood were seven times LESS likely to die from prostate cancer than those with lower amounts.

Testing your vitamin D levels is done by a simple blood test. Anything below 20 ng/ml is considered a serious deficiency state, which will increase your risk of breast and prostate cancers, as well as autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. In most cases, the OPTIMAL value that you're looking for is between 50-70 ng/ml; however, maintaining a slightly higher level of 70 ng/ml may be ideal for cancer prevention.

The best way to get vitamin D is by exposing your bare skin to natural sunlight on a regular basis. If you can't get regular sun exposure, you may want to consider using a safe tanning bed or, as a last resort, an oral vitamin D3 supplement. However, be aware that when using a supplement, recent research suggests most adults need 8,000 IU a day to maintain therapeutic levels.

2. Exercising

Exercise is another important factor for prostate health. You need to exercise, especially as you get older, and this includes not only high-intensity exercises like Peak Fitness but also using physical intimacy to exercise your prostate directly.

Dr. Moerck advises:

"… have sex on a regular basis, which involves exercising your prostate. It's a difficult thing to talk about… [and]  in older people [it can] become an issue because of lack of a partner and those things. But it's something that every man should think about… I recommend sex on a regular basis… No matter what your age. My recommendation is a minimum of once a week. Probably two times a week for older people."

One of the reasons for why regular sex promotes male health is that not only does it exercise the prostate, but when a man does not have regular sexual activity, the sperm and other fluids must be reabsorbed into his body. Eventually, that can cause certain immunological issues.

Prostate cancer is one of the most common cancers in U.S. men, but it is a disease that can be managed and oftentimes prevented … if you make the appropriate lifestyle modifications. Ideally, you'll want to pay close attention to your prostate health early on -- avoid waiting until you're in your 60's, because even though you may be able to reverse damage that's been done, ideally you'll want to prevent these problems from occurring in the first place.

Women, Looking for Alternative, Drug-Free Contraceptive Options?

While women's use of birth control pills may indeed be contributing to growing prostate cancer rates in men, there are other reasons why artificially controlling your menstrual cycle with synthetic hormones may not be a wise option.

In exchange for the convenience of preventing pregnancy (which you can do naturally just as well, and I'll explain how below), you are putting yourself at risk of:

Cancer: Women who take birth control pills increase their risk of cervical and breast cancers, and possibly liver cancer as well.

Thinner bones: Women who take birth control pills have lower bone mineral density (BMD) than women who have never used oral contraceptives.

Heart disease: Long-term use of birth control pills may increase plaque artery buildups in your body that may raise your risk of heart disease.

Fatal blood clots: All birth control pills increase your risk of blood clots and subsequent stroke. And if your prescription contains the synthetic hormone desogestrel, your risk of fatal blood clots nearly doubles!

Impaired muscle gains: A recent study found that oral contraceptive use impairs muscle gains from resistance exercise training in women.

Long-term sexual dysfunction: The Pill may interfere with a protein that keeps testosterone unavailable, leading to long-term sexual dysfunction including decreased desire and arousal.


Weight gain and mood changes

Yeast overgrowth and infection

In fact, the biomedical literature bears testimony to over 25 adverse effects associated with the use of oral contraceptives.

Many women opt for hormonal contraceptives not simply because they're unaware of the health risks, but because they are unaware of the other effective birth control methods out there. The following options, which include both natural family planning and barrier methods, are effective ways to prevent pregnancy without damaging your health.

Male condoms: Condoms have a 98 percent effectiveness rate when used correctly. A water-based lubricant will increase the effectiveness; do not use an oil-based lubricant, however, as they break the latex and often contain harmful petrochemicals.

Female condoms: These thin, soft polyurethane pouches fitted inside the vagina before sex are 95 percent effective. Female condoms are less likely to tear than male condoms.

Diaphragm: Diaphragms, which must be fitted by a doctor, act as a barrier to sperm. When used correctly with spermicidal jellies, they are 92 to 98 percent effective.

Cervical cap: This heavy rubber cap fits tightly against the cervix and can be left in place for 48 hours. Like the diaphragm, a doctor must fit the cap. Proper fitting enhances the effectiveness above 91 percent.

Cervical sponges: The sponge, made of polyurethane foam, is moistened with water and inserted into the vagina prior to sex. It works as a barrier between sperm and the cervix, both trapping and absorbing sperm and releasing a spermicide to kill them. It can be left in for up to 24 hours at a time. When used correctly, the sponge is about 89-91 percent effective.

Aside from these barrier methods, there are also natural family planning (NFP) tools that a woman can use to track her ovulation. Many women feel empowered by NFP because it allows them to get in touch with their fertility cycle.

Some of the most popular NFP methods include:

Calendar Method: Abstention from sex during the week the woman is ovulating. This technique works best when a woman's menstrual cycle is very regular. However, it may not work very well for couples who use it as the sole means of contraception, as its success rate is only around 75 percent. You can boost its effectiveness by combining it with the temperature and mucus methods described below.

The Temperature Method: This is a way to pinpoint the day of ovulation so that sex can be avoided for a few days before and after. It involves taking your basal body temperature (your temperature upon first waking) each morning with an accurate "basal" thermometer, and noting the rise in temperature that occurs after ovulation.

Beware that illness or lack of sleep can change your body temperature and make this method unreliable by itself, but when it is combined with the mucus method, it can be an accurate way of assessing fertility. The two methods combined can have a success rate as high as 98 percent.

The Mucus Method: This involves tracking changes in the amount and texture of vaginal discharge, which reflect rising levels of estrogen in your body. For the first few days after your period, there is often no discharge, but there will be a cloudy, tacky mucus as estrogen starts to rise. When the discharge starts to increase in volume and becomes clear and stringy, ovulation is near. A return to the tacky, cloudy mucus or no discharge means that ovulation has passed.

As you can see, there are many alternatives to The Pill and other hormonal contraceptives out there, and my advice to women is to seriously evaluate the risks versus benefits -- not only for yourself but potentially for the environment as well -- before taking any type of birth control pill.