Polyphenols and Phenols – Prenatal Exposure – What you need to know & 5 Practical Tips

Polyphenols and Phenols - Prenatal Exposure - What you should know

If you’re reading this, you probably already have some sense of what phenols are, and what they do. But if you have no idea what phenols are, here is a quick overview of Polyphenols and Phenols and Prenatal Exposure

What Are Phenols and Polyphenols?

Phenols are a large class of chemical compounds. They play a role in regulating cell growth and adipogenesis (The process of cells specializing to become fat cells), by interacting with nuclear receptor sites (the location where hormones collaborate with cells).

The hydroxyl group on phenols is what makes them have unique properties. They can bond tightly with oxygen and have a reactive oxygen-hydrogen bond at the same time. These chemical characteristics give rise to some potentially beneficial effects (from NATURALLY occurring phenols) within the body such as:

  • Antioxidant
  • Anti-ageing
  • Cancer prevention
  • Improved cardiovascular health

Types Of Phenols 

There are two types of phenols you can find: natural and synthetic. The benefits come from naturally occurring phenols, which are absorbed into the body through the food you eat. Healthy, naturally occurring phenols come from fruits and vegetables, primarily in the form of flavonoids (a polyphenol).  It is important to understand the difference between Polyphenols and Phenols and Prenatal Exposure.  Polyphenols are the most beneficial phenols to consume. 

Naturally occurring phenols and polyphenols are powerful compounds that are beneficial to the body but are not fully understood by science. You will never get too many polyphenols from over eating fruits and vegetables, so don’t worry about these phenols; worry about synthetic phenols!

Synthetic Phenols: What You Need To Know

What Do They Do?

Synthetic phenols may pose some health risks during pregnancy and to overall health. They have the ability to act as endocrine (hormonal) disruptors by interacting with the following hormone receptors [2]:

Glucocorticoid receptors

  • Play a role in: development, metabolism and immune response

Thyroid receptors

  • Play a role in: development, heart rate and metabolism

Estrogen receptors

  • Play a role in: development, gestation, gene regulation, metabolism and behavior  

Where Are They Found?

  • Solar filters
  • Cosmetics
  • Antibacterial soaps
  • Polycarbonate plastics
  • Epoxy resins

Polyphenols and Phenols – Prenatal Exposure To Synthetic Phenols

Synthetic phenols may pose a risk to pregnancy. The risk of synthetic phenols to development and pregnancy arises from their ability to mimic important hormones within the human body. They interact with cell receptors, causing changes to basic processes within the body.  

In 2012 and 2014, researchers looked at what effects prenatal exposure to synthetic phenols had on the growth of boys, during and after pregnancy [4,5]. They looked at: Benzophenone-3, Parabens, Triclosan, Bisphenol A and dichlorophenol levels at 12, 22.5 and 32.6 gestational weeks through urine sampling concentrations. The researchers analyzed how phenol concentrations were affecting biparietal diameter (BPD) during pregnancy. BPD is the standard measurement to assess fetal size. BPD measures: head circumference, abdominal circumference and femur length. They sampled 520 mother-son pairs from April 2003 to March 2006 at Poitiers and Nancy University hospitals in France. The results of their studies are summarized below:

Benzophenone-3

  • Common ingredient in sunscreens and lotions
  • No association with BPD during pregnancy but a few days after birth there is a positive association with head circumference

Parabens

  • Common additive in many products (see link for more information)
  • Higher paraben concentrations lead to increased weight at birth
  • Methylparaben is positively associated with weight and abdominal circumference at 36 months

Triclosan

  • Found in soaps, shampoos, deodorants, toothpastes, cleaning supplies and pesticides
  • Reduces all measurements of BPD in late pregnancy
  • Reduces head circumference at birth
    • Head circumference is used to predict brain volume [1]
  • In animal studies triclosan disturbs thyroid receptors which alters fetal growth and brain development [3]

Bisphenol A (BPA)

  • Found in plastics and epoxy resins
  • Found no clear association between Bisphenol A and BPD growth parameters at birth or 6-months
  • Positively associated with weight at 12, 24 and 36 months
  • Positive association with waist circumference, BMI and risk of being overweight at the age of 4 but not earlier [6]

Dichlorophenol

  • Found as an intermediate chemical in advanced chemical manufacturing processes for the production of herbicides
  • Negatively associated with abdominal circumference at 32.6 gestation weeks and positively associated at 36 months
  • Positive association with weight between 24 and 36 months but not after 36 months

***Negative association means that as the concentration of the phenol increases, the growth parameter decreases***

***Positive association means that as the concentration of the phenol increases, the growth parameter increases***  

5 Practical Steps To Reducing Exposure To Synthetic Phenols

  • Write a list of synthetic phenols and check the ingredients of products around your house. When it comes time to replace the product, try and one that does not contain a synthetic phenol on your list.
  • Use water bottles and Tupperware that are BPA free
  • Buy fruit and vegetables that have no or low exposure to herbicides
  • Use natural, synthetic phenols free cosmetic products when possible
  • Shampoo
  • Deodorant
  • Make-up
  • Lotions
  • Buy Triclosan free cleaning products

Take Aways

The relationship between phenols and pregnancy is in its infancy. Some studies contradict each other, but general trends are emerging about how different phenols can have an effect on biparietal diameter (BPD). Properly measuring phenols are difficult because phenol measurements are made based on urine samples, and certain phenols will degrade before they can be accurately measured (short half-life), plus phenol release from the body is periodic. Due to the volatility and unpredictability of phenols in urine samples, studies looking at how phenol exposure relates to pregnancy are likely subject to exposure misclassification, meaning that researchers may be drawing the wrong conclusions from their data. We need bigger studies with larger samples sizes and better techniques for measuring phenol concentrations.

Even if we are still waiting on more research to happen before drawing final conclusions surrounding phenols and pregnancy, is it worth the risk to take no action towards reducing phenol exposure if you are looking to become pregnant or are currently pregnant? The answer is no! Phenols play a complex role in the body by mimicking important hormones. At high enough concentrations phenols pose, not only a risk to your pregnancy, but to your general health!

If you are looking for a more in-depth explanation and management of MTHFR before pregnancy, be sure to check out our Flagship course “MTHFR and Preconception”.

This course includes information on compounds to avoid, a comprehensive look at the prenatal process and will guide you through the ins and outs of preparation. Modules include what tests to expect, how to analyze the results and steps to take to prepare mentally, physically and emotionally for your pregnancy. For more information, check it out here.