We’d have to be living in a bubble to have not noticed just how many children today have allergies, eczema, asthma, ADHD, and autism. Without a doubt the number of children facing these health challenges today is nothing short of staggering.
Perhaps we live somewhere fairly remote however and that is our bubble. Allow me to elaborate; we now have family living in a small town in Italy and they often comment on how different life seems to be in this part of the world. Foods are incredibly simple but unbelievably good, parents seem happy and content rather then pushed and exhausted and with being health practitioners they find it astounding that many of the health issues they readily saw working in Australia are extremely uncommon in this pocket of the world.
Which brings me to my point…
Having spent many hours studying how the body co-ordinates and heals itself I would often say to patients that, “Just as the body knows how to heal a cut on your hand – it knows how to fight bugs and germs.”
Unfortunately, I can’t say that anymore.
Not just because infant health issues are rife but also because there is a considerable amount of research that discusses how many children today are INDEED unable to mount proper immune responses. 1
Before I outline eight contributing factors for the decline of infant health, here are just a few findings from the many studies available on this topic…
One study outlines how in general ALL babies in MODERNISED countries in their first week of life have much lower amounts of friendly bacteria in the bowel.2
While another group of researchers3 followed children from birth until they were five years of age, with researchers collecting blood samples intermittently and comparing the innate bacterial responses in allergic and non-allergic children. The researchers stimulated the immune cells in ‘test tubes’ with many different bacterial products and then measured how the cells responded, comparing the two groups of children.
The differences between the allergic and non-allergic children were striking. Non-allergic children showed a slow and steady increase in their bacterial responses with age, but the allergic children showed almost the opposite pattern. Allergenic children showed excessive inflammatory responses at birth, much higher than the non-allergic group and their bacterial responses actually fell with age, so that by five years of age their responses were much lower than those of non-allergic children.
If your thinking “well what about family sensitivity?” then please know that genetic inheritance is not the whole story. While it is widely recognised that children born to allergic parents have a high risk of developing allergy, leading researchers are now emphasizing the IMPORTANCE of ENVIRONMENT in the development of allergy.4
The number of children with allergies where neither parent has any history of allergies – has been dramatically increasing over recent decades.5 In fact there appear to be three main periods of time where immune responses are dramatically impacted for all children.6
- the first is during pregnancy,
- the second during the post birth period
- and finally early childhood
Each of these time frames has proven to be a critical time for immune development; and another critical time for allergy prevention.
Let me get very specific. We now know that gut bacteria play a fundamental role in human health. It is estimated that there are more than ten times the number bacteria in our body then there are human cells, so we are actually more bacteria than we are human 🙂 Typically we live in harmony with these bacteria; but there is now great concern that our modern environment might be disrupting this important bond between the bacterial balance.
When the friendly and unfriendly bacteria in our gut work in harmony then there is intestinal balance which stimulates the development of the immune system and provides protection against increasing numbers of bad bacteria and disease.7
The Canadian Medical Association Journal Feb. 20138 states that “the disruption of the gut balance has been linked to an increasing number of diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, allergies and asthma.“
Hopefully you are now asking, “So what disrupts this important balance of bacteria and the development of the immune system?”
While further research is needed there is substantial compelling evidence that suggests that each of the following eight factors contribute to children being more sensitive to allergens and having a detrimental imbalance of friendly and unfriendly bacteria in the bowel.
1. Obsessing about Germs
Many of us have been lead to believe that germs are the root of all evil and that we should go to great lengths to avoid them. Anti-bacteria hand creams, sprays and wipes, fill our handbags and counters and yet compelling researching tells us that we have gone too far and that some exposure to pets, dirt and other children for example are vital for stimulating the immune system to work effectively. In experiments where animals are raised in completely sterile (germ-free) environments, their immune systems do not develop normally and they develop serious immune diseases including allergy and autoimmunity.9
Some of you may be reading this and freaking out thinking, “I have been paranoid about germs for years!! What do I do now?” Please know it’s okay, there are lots of immune boosting strategies that we’ll cover in future posts.
2. Physical, Chemical and Emotional stress experienced by pregnant mothers
The womb itself is not just an incubator but a dynamic living environment greatly influenced by the physical, chemical and emotional signals the baby’s parent’s experience. Epigenetics is now looking at how exposure to emotional, dietary and environmental toxins and stresses at vulnerable periods of foetal developmental are linked to pathology that develops later in life. Chronic stress in pregnancy can sculpt the foetal brain for better survival in dangerous environments, creating children that are impulsive, quick to react, have heightened immune reactions and have a dampened capacity to remain calm and content.10
I discuss this concept further in Ticklish – New Ways To Help Your Child Learn, Love & Play
3. Exposure to chemical toxins during pregnancy, birth and childhood
Antibiotics for example, are well known to disrupt the balance of friendly and unfriendly bacteria in the gut.11 Caesarean births typically require the use of antibiotics.
4. Surgical Births
Most of you know that I believe women should select an approach to birth that best honours their needs and that I do not assume to know what style of birth is best for another woman. Most of you would also know that I am passionate about women knowing the health impact, both short and long-term of birthing methods. All births involve an element of risk and we do well to investigate all birthing options thoroughly.
Reportedly vaginal births offer important bacterial exposure and immune stimulation with a baby’s passage through the birth canal. In Well Adjusted Babies, Chapter 12 we also discuss how vaginal births stimulate the lungs and the respiratory centres of the brain supporting good respiratory function. Interestingly the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology states that “Subjects who were delivered via caesarean were three times more likely to have developed asthma by age 31, comparedwith subjects delivered naturally.”12
5. Decrease in Breast Feeding
Breast milk also contains many immune factors including antibodies and immune cells, cytokines and other nutrients, which are important for both protection from infection and for promoting immune tolerance. Breast milk also contains substances that promote favourable colonisation of friendly bacteria in the gut.13
6. Modern Damaged Foods
Many of our foods are incredibly altered and modified from their original natural state that the bowel wall finds them irritating and toxic which may potentially lead to leaky gut. Here undigested foods enter the immune system and initiate immune responses.14
7. Sedentary ‘indoor’ lifestyle
This type of unhealthy lifestyle reduces both our physical activity and exposure to vitamin D. It is even proposed
that there may be links between the gut micro flora and vitamin D15, here we see how deep concerns about avoiding sunburn may have also completely eradicated important exposure to sunlight for some people.
8. Family sensitivity
We discussed this earlier in this post.
For more information on these topics please see Well Adjusted Babies and Ticklish – New Ways To Help Your Child Learn, Love and Play.
Over the last few decades we have come a long way in learning how poor food choices and sedentary lifestyle impact our health, however the landscape of children’s health has changed well beyond these two contributory factors. As we have seen our child’s health is impacted by choices we make during pregnancy, with our birth selections, how we nourish our children and countless environment factors. As parents we cannot simply assume that our children will have a healthy childhood anymore, our modern world is leaving a heavy imprint on the health of our children.
From conception onwards, these stressors create a compounding effect and may result in a child who is immune-challenged or who struggles to learn, to express themselves, to interrelate and to thrive. I believe it is never too late to influence the health of the little people in our lives; it just takes commitment and energy.
Stay tuned for ideas on how to combat these Eight Reasons and suggestions on how to boost your child’s constitution to help make them vibrant and robust.
Dr Jennifer Barham-Floreani
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M. Tulic, et al., ‘Differences in the developmental trajectory of innate microbial responses’.Journal of Allergy and CLinical Immunology, 2011, no.127, no.2, pp.:470-8
E. Sepp, et al., ‘Intestinal microflora of Estonian and Swedish infants’. Acta Paediatrica, 1997, no86,pp 956-61
B. Björkstén, et al., ‘Allergy development and the intestinal microflora during the first year of life’ Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 2001, no 108, pp 516-20
N. I. Kjellman, ‘Prediction and prevention of atopic allergy’; R. S. Zeiger, et al., ‘Genetic and environmental factors affecting the developing of atopy through age 4 in children with atopic parents: a prospective randomised study of food allergen avoidance’.
S. Prescott, et al., ‘Transplacental priming of the human immune system to environmental allergens: universal skewing of initial T-cell responses towards Th-2 cytokine profile’ Journal of Immunology, 1998, no 160, pp.4730-7
S. Prescott, ‘Development of allergen-specific T-cell memory in atopic and normal children’.Lancet, 1999, vol.353,no.9148,pp.196-200
Azad MB, Konya T, Maughan H, Guttman DS, Field CJ, Chari RS, Sears MR, Becker AB, Scott JA, Kozyrskyj AL, on behalf of the CHILD Study Investigators. Gut microbiota of healthy Canadian infants: profiles by mode of delivery and infant diet at 4 months CMAJ 2013. DOI:10.1503/cmaj.121189
N. Sudo, et al., ‘The requirement of intestinal bacterial flora for the development of a IgE production system fully susceptible to oral tolerance induction’.Journal Immunology, 1997, no.159,pp.1730-45
S. J. Simpson and G. A. Sword, ‘Phase polyphenism in locusts: Mechanisms, population consequences, adaptive significance and evolution’.
Mechanisms and Consequences, Ed. D. Whitman, and T. Ananthakrishan, Plymouth, Science Publishers, Inc., 2009,pp.147-90
Xub. Pekkanen J. Hartikainen AL. et al. Caesareans and
Asthma. J Allergy Clin Immun. 2001;107(4):732-3.
S Prescott. The Allergy Epidemic. UWA Publishing. 2011. pp 37-57, pp 142-167
B. A. Raby, et al., ‘Association of vitamin D receptor gene polymorphisms with childhood and adult asthma’. AMerican Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine,2004, no.170, pp 1057-65
S. T. Weiss, ‘Bacterial components plus vitamin D: The ultimate solution to the asthma (autoimmune disease) epidemic?’. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 2001,no.4,p 234.