This article is part five of a five-part series.
Autism, developmental delays, and chronic illnesses including allergies and asthma are at an all-time high, affecting 1 in 6 children across the US. Autism alone has increased in prevalence from 1 in 1000 in 1995 to 1 in 59 US children in 2018. The rise in chronic illness and developmental disabilities has scientists, doctors, educators, and legislators in an ongoing debate over causation. Research has failed to turn up but a few definitive causes, rather, studies propose associated risks. These risks are rarely shared with the general public and most often, physicians themselves are not familiar with the science that has determined these associations.
The precautionary principle proposes, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” Unfortunately, we can’t wait for the research to find a cause. It is not enough to simply listen to our doctors. It is imperative that we do the work to understand how the choices we make may play a part in influencing the health outcomes of our children. Research may never uncover definitive causes, but an abundance of information about associated risks does exist. Many of these risks are controllable or modifiable and therefore require awareness by the general public in order to minimize.
With advances in everything from artificial intelligence to agricultural technology, it is difficult to imagine how to avoid the toxic byproducts that come with them. Add to it the toxins that exist naturally in the environment and we end up with a total toxic load that can be substantial enough to cause an array of chronic health issues involving the brain, heart, lungs, nervous system, and microbiome. While we may not be able to control our genetic make-up, we may be able to control the environmental influences which cause epigenetic changes that increase our risks. So what can be done to minimize these risks? Basically, it boils down to the choices we make. Using the precautionary principle, when there is evidence that a substance, technology or activity may be harmful, we can act to prevent harm.
“When the health of humans and the environment is at stake, it may not be necessary to wait for scientific certainty to take protective action.”
We often hear the expression “The science is settled,” however, science is a process. The idea that “science” cannot consider new information contradicts the definition of science. At FFH, we are sharing what we’ve learned in the research to empower our readers to make informed decisions and give their children the best chance to lead healthy, meaningful, and productive lives.
Certain assurances are expected when food has been certified USDA Organic. Certified organic foods are the cleanest foods we can eat and must be produced with allowed substances. Eating organic food can reduce the risks associated with pesticides like Glyphosate.
Glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide in the world, despite the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifying glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Glyphosate has been associated with birth defects, liver disease, and cancer, and more than 5000 lawsuits against the manufacturer, Monsanto, have been filed by people alleging that exposure to glyphosate in their product, “Round Up,” caused non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In a landmark trial against Monsanto, California courts recently ruled in favor of a man who alleged that the weed killer he sprayed on the grounds of the school where he was employed, caused his terminal cancer.
“Environmental lawyer, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. son of the late U.S. Senator, Robert F. (“Bobby”) Kennedy and nephew of the late President, John F. Kennedy, and his team, have won an historic $290 million landmark case against agricultural giant Monsanto and its glyphosate-based product “Round-up” claiming the product likely caused the cancer of their client, plaintiff Dewayne Johnson a former school groundskeeper.” – Source
The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances identifies both the synthetic and non-synthetic substances that may or may not be used in organic crop and livestock production. Glyphosate is on the Prohibited Substances list for organic foods, yet USDA data from 2016 shows detectable pesticide levels in 85% of 10,000+ non-organic foods sampled.
Several studies show the significant, positive benefits of eating an organic diet as compared to a non-organic diet. Organic fruits and vegetables contain higher vitamins, minerals and trace elements. A four-year study, called the Quality Low Input Food (QLIF) project identified other benefits of organic foods. The study found that organic fruit and vegetables contain up to 40% more antioxidants (important for heart health and reducing cancer risk) and had higher levels of important minerals such as iron and zinc. Organic milk contained 90% more antioxidants. Interestingly, however, substances including aspirin and wax are allowed in organic food, and livestock are still inoculated with vaccines.
Genetically Modified Foods
To be compliant with organic standards, the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is prohibited and the food products must avoid any contact with GMOs.
While there seems to be some controversy surrounding the potential dangers of genetically modified (GM) foods, The American Academy of Environmental Medicine’s position paper on genetically modified foods states “several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.” In fact, 22 different diseases have been linked to GMOs. Because there is ample evidence of probable harm, the AAEM also recommends physicians should educate their patients, the medical community, and the public to avoid GM foods whenever possible.
The USDA regulates the organic food industry and offers a label certifying that foods are organic, however, genetically modified foods do not require a label. There is a secret you should know! GM foods can be identified by reading the PLU code. A five digit number beginning with the #8 indicates the food has been genetically altered.
While foods may be produced according to organic processing regulations set forth by the USDA, contamination can and does happen. This means foods labeled organic can test positive for GMOs. An example of this contamination can be seen in non-GM papaya seeds which have been contaminated by GM papaya seeds. Reports show up to 50% of Hawaiian papaya crops may be contaminated. So while we make an effort to keep a clean diet, it is important to know the quality of the organic foods, and the farms we patronize, whenever possible.
When choosing to minimize our risks, choosing an organic/GMO free diet can be one way to reduce our total toxic load.
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) are pervasive in our environment as well as in the personal care products we use daily. These EDC’s can interfere with the body’s hormone production, potentially causing adverse health effects including behavior issues and neurodevelopmental disorders, early puberty, obesity, reproductive issues, allergies, cancer, and autoimmune diseases. Now, a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics shows prenatal exposure to phthalates have been linked to language delays in young children.
Pregnant consumers of products that contain these classes of chemicals should be aware that studies show the more toiletries they use, the more these EDCs show up in their urine. These chemicals could be potentially harmful to their developing fetus. Although some controversy surrounds the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals, they are not regulated by the FDA, which implies they pose no health risks. Experts disagree.
Three EDCs worth limiting your exposure to are:
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Bisphenol A is found in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. BPA is a stabilizer used in many consumer products including food storage and beverage containers like plastic water bottles and food containers. Research suggests exposure to BPA can affect the brain, behavior and prostate gland of fetuses, infants, and children.
Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break and can also be used as solvents. They are found in numerous products including personal care products, shampoo, soaps, vinyl flooring, and even toys.
Phthalates have been linked to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development and male fertility issues.
Although studies reported by the CDC show elevated levels of phthalates have been excreted by women of child-bearing age, the FDA determined that there wasn’t a sound, scientific basis to support taking regulatory action against cosmetics containing phthalates.
Parabens are preservatives found in cosmetics and pharmaceutical products. They are considered to be xenoestrogens, meaning they mimic estrogen and have been linked to breast cancer, reproductive issues, including early onset of puberty, and reduced sperm count. They have been found in our waterways and oceans and have been linked to fertility issues in marine animals.
By refusing to use products which contain these harmful EDCs, you can minimize the potential associated health risks. Choose to use glass containers for food and beverage storage and for reheating food to avoid plastic leaching into your food and drinks. Avoiding products with fragrances containing phthalates can be as easy as purchasing clean products made by artisan personal care product manufacturers, or by making your own DIY personal care products.
Exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) can affect individuals very differently. While some people have heightened sensitivity, others may feel none. EMF exposure in pregnancy has been linked to autism, ADHD, and asthma. Studies show that the increase in electromagnetic fields present in our environment over the last decade is coterminous with the increase in the rates of autism.
EMFs come from electrical devices, including our personal mobile devices, smart phones, gaming devices, electronics, cell phone towers, and Wifi. These EMFs are hard to avoid, especially when our homes are filled with modern conveniences like microwaves and computers, and because public places like coffee houses offer patrons the convenience of Wifi for personal mobile devices. In addition, many children are exposed to EMFs in their high tech classrooms which enable them to use electronics and the internet to Skype with students across the world. As exciting as it may be for students to have this access and for people to stay connected 24/7, The World Health Organization classified EMFs as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Symptoms brought on by EMF exposure can include chronic headaches, fatigue, trouble sleeping, ringing in the ears, rashes/hives, or, feeling stressed or “wired.”
So how can we protect ourselves from EMFs that are out of our control? Unfortunately, given that our environments are saturated with EMFs, we can’t avoid them completely. The need for Wifi to connect phones, tablets, and computers is a harsh reality. We can only take responsibility for the choices we make, and the one place we can make a huge difference in our own homes.
Here are some ideas for protection from EMFs:
- Use EMF protective shields and hard wired internet for home computers.
- Keeping mobile devices and wireless routers outside of the bedroom can help reduce EMFs for several hours while sleeping.
- Turn off Wifi at night.
- EMF meters can be useful in measuring radiation levels in the home, allowing us to make changes to eliminate or reduce exposures where possible.
- Do not keep cell phones on your person, in pants pockets, or shirts.
Aluminum can be found in food, water, cookware, personal care products, medicines, and biologics-like vaccines. Although aluminum is a known neurotoxin, controversy around the negative health effects associated with aluminum still exists. Mounting evidence shows unusually high levels of aluminum can be found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. A recent study shows the highest values for aluminum in human brain tissue was found in the brains of individuals with autism. Given that the science shows aluminum exposure may be linked to autism and other disorders, it makes sense to avoid the exposures whenever and however possible.
Simple changes in our daily routines can help us avoid this neurotoxin. Starting in the kitchen, choose stainless steel, copper, glass, or cast iron as opposed to aluminum cookware. Aluminum in cookware and utensils can leach into food creating an opportunity for exposure, especially with high acidic foods which have greater potential for causing the aluminum to leach into the food.
Aluminum is found in consumer goods including antacids, buffered aspirin, nasal sprays, some vaccines, and personal products like deodorant, toothpaste, and cosmetics.
When we have the choice to avoid aluminum in any product we consume, use, or inject, choosing to avoid aluminum will reduce our risks, as well as our total toxic load.
Mercury is a known neurotoxin. Like aluminum, mercury is an element that occurs naturally in our air, water and soil, as well as in man-made products we use daily. It can also be found in personal products including skin creams, deodorant, soaps, and medications. Methylmercury, thought to be the most harmful form of mercury, is ingested when we eat fish that has been contaminated. Contamination of fish occurs when mercury from the air, commonly from coal fired power stations, settles onto land and into water and is absorbed by fish. Older fish live in contaminated water longer, eating other contaminated smaller fish, therefore, larger steak fishes tend to have higher levels of methylmercury as it bio accumulates. There is much debate regarding the safety of ethylmercury, a form of mercury used as a preservative in some vaccines which are injected directly into the body. Many studies show ethylmercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that can be harmful to fetuses, children and adults.
Symptoms of mercury toxicity can include; impaired speech, walking, hearing, vision, muscle weakness, lack of coordination, cognitive dysfunctions and changes in nerve responses, among others.
To limit exposure to mercury, make wise choices.
- Limit fish intake and choose fish that are known to contain less mercury, such as salmon and shrimp.
- Thimerosal, a mercury containing preservative in some vaccines, can often be avoided by requesting thimerosal free vaccines.
- Getting the flu shot? Ask for the single dose shot which comes in a single syringe as opposed to a multi-dose vial which contains mercury as a preservative.
- Mercury containing light bulbs, like compact fluorescent light bulbs, can cause an exposure when broken and should be cleaned according to EPA guidelines .
- Read labels on medications and personal products. Use products which are mercury free.
- Don’t assume that a small amount of mercury is safe.
Think about total toxic load. Toxins like heavy metals bio accumulate in the body, so if you fear your mercury level may be high, ask your doctor to have your heavy metals tested through lab work. If it is high, sometimes supplements can help to bring it down, unless it is at dangerously high levels where chelation may be necessary. See a physician who is well versed in toxicology and the dangers of heavy metals.
Maternal Immune Activation
Activation of the immune system of a pregnant mother can have deleterious effects on the developing fetus, whether it is stimulated naturally by bacterial or viral pathogens, or by vaccines. Studies show if the immune system is activated, the infant is at risk.
One recent study, “Prenatal Fever and Autism Risk,” supports the hypothesis that maternal fever in pregnancy, regardless of trimester and cause of the fever, is associated with increased risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There are significant correlations with neural tube defects and other neurological and immunological abnormalities as well.
Another recent study “Association of spontaneous abortion with receipt of inactivated influenza vaccine containing H1N1pdm09 in 2010-11 and 2011-12,” shows spontaneous abortions (SAB) were associated with maternal influenza vaccination when administered 1- 28 days preceding the SAB, among women vaccinated in the previous influenza season with pH1N1-containing vaccine. While the researchers comment this cannot establish a causal relationship between repeated influenza vaccination and SAB, they state that further research is warranted.
Considering the flu shot has never and will never be tested on pregnant women, the safety of the flu shot in pregnant women is truly unknown and is even stated as such in package inserts. The flu affects only 5-20% of the population and only a fraction of whom are pregnant women. However, the flu shot causes an immune response in 100% of those who receive it, if it works as it should. Furthermore, influenza is only preventable with an influenza vaccine that is perfectly matched and which provokes an adequate antibody titer. Complicating matters further, even with a perfect match, as in the 2017-2018 flu season, outbreaks can and do still occur in the vaccinated population.
Maternal immune activation (MIA) has been shown to have adverse effects on fetal development, although pregnancy and child birth websites still encourage pregnant women to get the flu shot based on ACIP and CDC recommendations. This decision should be made on an individual basis considering one’s own risk factors, integrity of their immune system, the quality of their diet, other exposures, and the timing of vaccination. A recent study shows women receiving the seasonal flu shot in the first trimester of pregnancy had 25% greater odds of having a child with ASD. Is it worth the risk?
To reduce the risk of acquiring the flu or any influenza like infection (ILI) and to avoid provoking an immune response while pregnant, use common sense.
- Always wash hands thoroughly with soap, use alcohol based hand sanitizers, and avoid others who are ill.
- Keep the whole family healthy by making sure young children’s hands are washed thoroughly.
- Avoid sharing cups, utensils, or toothbrushes.
- Boost your immune system with plenty of sleep, eating superfoods, and drinking plenty of water.
- Keep home and office space sanitized by cleaning doorknobs, faucets, counters, desks, phones, and keyboards with antimicrobial wipes.
- Consider wearing surgical masks in high traffic public places like trains, planes, busses, and subways.
- If you choose to get the flu shot, demand a single dose shot which is thimerosal free.
Do not get a vaccine taken from a multi-dose vial.
- Read more about CDC recommended non-pharmaceutical interventions here.
Autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus, and celiac disease could lead to impaired fertility and adverse pregnancy outcomes from autoimmune related mechanisms or nutrient deficiencies, especially if left untreated. Treating inflammatory processes associated with these conditions can help to minimize the risks. Typically, many autoimmune diseases are treated with prednisone, a steroid which can suppress the immune system. Although prednisone is thought to be safe for the developing fetus, a pregnant mom already has a suppressed immune system so that her body does not develop antibodies that could reject the fetus. This could create increased vulnerability to illnesses like the flu or other influenza like illnesses (ILI’s), so extra care to avoid exposure should be taken.
Lupus can lead to complications in pregnancy by increasing risk of miscarriage, still birth, premature delivery, preeclampsia, and heart problems in the baby, especially later in pregnancy, due to antibodies that increase the risk of blood clotting. About 33% of women with lupus have these antibodies, so women should ask their doctor for blood tests that can identify their presence which can endanger the baby’s food and oxygen supply. Doctors may prescribe a blood thinner to help prevent blood clots that can slow the baby’s growth. Nearly 50% of women with lupus deliver prematurely because of complications, leaving infants at risk of developmental and health issues related to prematurity. Overall, there is less risk to the baby if the pregnancy occurs while lupus is in a period of remission.
Mothers with celiac disease, a genetic, autoimmune disease in the small intestine, have a particularly high risk of miscarriage, infertility, intrauterine growth retardation, low birth weight babies, and stillbirth due to malnourishment. Fathers with celiac disease also have a higher risk of infertility due to poor quality sperm.
Be proactive to help get autoimmune conditions under control:
- Celiac disease is typically managed by a strict gluten-free diet to heal the intestines and relieve the symptoms.
- Professionals, like registered dieticians, nutritionists, and physicians who treat celiac disease can recommend a nutrient dense diet and supplements to help minimize risks related to malnutrition.
- Supplements should be gluten-free and a vitamin regimen should be managed by a healthcare professional.
- Some important vitamins typically recommended to replace vitamins lost on a gluten-free diet include Iron, Vitamin C, Folic acid, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, copper, and Omega-3 Fatty acids.
- Sometimes, doctors recommend a low dose steroid to manage the inflammation.
Doctors can help new moms to develop a lupus or celiac management plan that is safe for pregnancy and the baby. While medications are available that are said to be safe for the baby, prescription medication use during pregnancy comes with its own risks, and moms should be aware of the risks vs benefits of any medication use.
Genetic mutations like the methlyenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) mutation can enhance a disease process as the body inefficiently detoxifies due to poor methylation and abnormal levels of homocysteine and methionine. The MTHFR gene mutation has been associated with many disorders including autism, ADHD, autoimmune diseases, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, heart and neural tube defects, addiction, cognitive issues, abnormal blood clotting, and even miscarriages.
MTHFR mutations can be identified through DNA methylation pathway profiles, however, it is not routinely tested for unless there is a family history of a polymorphism, cardiovascular disease, thrombosis, or, if homocysteine levels are elevated. Genetic testing kits such as 23andMe are also being used by individuals to learn of their genetic vulnerabilities.
The key to overcoming poor methylation is improving methylation pathways. This can be as simple as proper supplementation and diet:
- A simple blood test can check for elevated homocysteine levels which would indicate problems with methylation and the possibility of an MTHFR mutation.
- Because the conversion of synthetic folic acid to folate is affected by MTHFR mutations, steps should be taken to improve uptake of folate and to avoid the possibility of toxicity from synthetic folic acid.
- Generally, proper supplementation with bioactive forms of folate such as methylfolate (vitamin B9) and supplementation with methylcobalamin (vitamin B12), can improve methylation because they are bioavailable, as opposed to synthetic folic acid.
- For women who are unsure of their MTHFR status, supplementation with folate over folic acid may be a safer choice.
- Diets high in folate from dark leafy green vegetables provide natural folate necessary for proper methylation.
The US government mandates fortification of wheat products with folic acid as it has been thought to benefit the general population. However, individuals with an MTHFR mutation run the risk of toxicity as they cannot readily convert this synthetic form of folate to the usable form, L-methylfolate. This is especially important to pregnant women who are prescribed folic acid for the prevention of neural tube defects. If they are unaware they are carriers of an MTHFR mutation, they may not prevent birth defects like spina bifida because they cannot metabolize the synthetic folate. Furthermore, they can become toxic, potentially harming the fetus.
Similarly, babies with an MTHFR mutation are more vulnerable to the effects of environmental toxins and neurotoxins such as aluminum and mercury, as their ability to detoxify is impaired. Given that this mutation is associated with numerous illnesses secondary to poor detoxification, a simple DNA methylation pathway profile test can allow individuals to make better healthcare decisions for themselves and their children and should be recommended for all pregnant women.
Medication use in Pregnancy and Early Infancy
Studies show that prescription drugs can be harmful to a fetus. In fact, the CDC reports that certain medications have been linked to birth defects, pregnancy loss, prematurity, infant death, and developmental disabilities.
In the US, 9/10 women take a medication during their pregnancy. Whether or not medication is necessary to treat a health condition during pregnancy is a decision that should be made between a women and her physician. That decision, however, may not all be based on science. Research shows the evidence base regarding medication use during pregnancy is too small to determine the safety and the risks. While some health conditions require regular medication to maintain health which may worsen if discontinued, choosing to halt medication when possible can minimize risks that may harm the fetus.
An astounding 5.4 million pregnancies are exposed to medications each year, yet healthcare providers don’t have enough information to answer questions regarding the safety of prescription drug use in pregnancy.
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) used to treat depression and anxiety are one class of drugs that may be necessary to continue during pregnancy to manage depressive symptoms and/or anxiety which may increase the risk of various outcomes including preterm birth and low birthweight. Studies show that mothers who suffer from depression are at risk of poor prenatal care, increased self-harm, and use of illicit drugs and alcohol. While other studies show use of SSRI’s during pregnancy are associated with congenital malformations, there is much debate in the medical community over their teratogenicity. With the exception of the use of Valproic acid, a mood stabilizer which has been shown to increase the chance of neural tube defects, keeping mothers safe from depressive episodes may outweigh the risks of psychiatric medication use during pregnancy.
Mounting evidence shows that antibiotics change the ecology of the microbiome which can negatively impact functions such as nutrient processing, vitamin production, and protection from pathogens. A dysbiotic microbiome has been associated with developmental disorders, metabolic disorders and infectious diseases. This is concerning considering 11 types of broad-spectrum antibiotics cross the placenta and reach the fetus.
So what can women do to protect their developing babies?
- Expectant moms should talk to their physicians about any prescription medication, over the counter medication, or supplements they are considering taking during pregnancy.
- Take necessary precautions to maintain good health during pregnancy to reduce the need for medications.
- If prescription medication is currently used to treat a health condition, determine if there may be alternative ways to maintain health without medication during pregnancy.
- Practice good hygiene to prevent contracting bacterial infections.
- The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has created a website with information on safer medication use in pregnancy. Treating for Two is a program designed to help new moms identify the safest treatment options for common conditions before, during, and after pregnancy.
- If medication is necessary for nursing moms, check out the LactMed database which contains information on drugs and other chemicals to which nursing mothers may be exposed. All data are derived from the scientific literature and fully referenced.
- Moms who suffer with depression should discuss the benefits vs the risks of taking psychiatric medications while pregnant.
Childhood Ear infections
A bacterial or viral infection in the middle ear can occur with a throat infection or even with seasonal allergies, but regular ear infections can be a sign of a dysregulated immune system as well. The Eustachian tubes connect the middle ear to the throat where they drain fluid, but when they become blocked, this trapped fluid can breed bacteria or viruses causing infection and pain. Chronic ear infections can affect auditory processing leading to learning issues and cognitive deficits.
Kids with ASD often have dysregulated immune systems and frequent ear infections. The ear infection, however, is not the only problem. Antibiotics change the microbiome (gut flora) and chronic use can have negative effects on the gut flora, which can result in long term health consequences. In addition to the effects on the gut ecosystem, antibiotic resistance can develop from overuse of these medications.
Consideration should also be given to the timing of antibiotic use with vaccinations that may contain mercury. Studies have shown that exposures to antibiotics can cause the retention of mercury, potentially increasing the risks of mercury toxicity. Although antibiotics are commonly prescribed to treat ear infections, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that antibiotic use only be encouraged with a definitive diagnosis.
What steps can parents take to protect their babies?
- Preventing ear infections may start with making sure the immune system is functioning optimally to avoid illnesses such as colds or the flu.
- A nutrient dense, balanced diet, can boost the immune system and help to keep the body healthy.
- For babies, breastfeeding has been shown to reduce the risk of ear infections. Breastfed babies also have fewer and less severe colds.
- If bottle feeding is necessary, it is better to keep the baby’s head elevated so the formula cannot leak into the Eustachian tubes, introducing germs.
- Washing your child’s hands regularly and keeping toys clean can help stop the spread of germs.
- Pacifiers can also introduce germs to the mouth, so limiting use could help to reduce the risk.
- Research has shown that smoking around your baby increases risk of ear infections, so keep your baby safe from cigarette smoke.
Cesarean deliveries (CDs) can be-life saving when necessary. Women and their doctors may elect to schedule a Cesarean for convenience, or to guarantee their doctor is available for the birth. While this may take some anxiety away from the childbirth process, studies have shown that Cesarean deliveries are associated with negative health outcomes for the infant and not without risk for the mother.
Cesarean sections have been linked to increased risk of autism, cognitive deficits, allergies, asthma, developmental delays, and other chronic illnesses. Researchers believe Cesarean deliveries can deprive an infant’s microbiome of the beneficial bacteria he or she receives while passing through the birth canal in a vaginal delivery. The first germs to colonize a baby born via CD come from the environment, typically exposures from the hospital room on a mother’s skin, as opposed to the good bacteria in the vaginal flora. Combine this with early exposure to antibiotics required in a CD and a delayed start to breast feeding which stimulates the microbiota, and this compromised microbiome may lead to impaired immunity and metabolic dysregulation, increasing the risk of chronic disease.
While experts agree that Cesarean deliveries can be life-saving when they are medically necessary (ie: when a baby is too large to pass the through the vaginal canal, if there are issues with the placenta, mother is positive for HIV, or the baby is experiencing fetal distress), many question the practice of scheduling CDs for non-medical reasons.
Aside from maintaining her own health and wellness during pregnancy, expecting moms should be aware of the risks to herself and her baby from unnecessary Cesarean sections and avoid planning a CD out of convenience.
How can expecting moms protect their babies?
- The development of a baby’s microbiome is dependent on the health of the mother’s, therefore, expecting moms should maintain optimal gut health during pregnancy by eating raw food grown in healthy, organic soil and ‘reseeding’ the gut with fermented foods and probiotics.
- If a vaginal birth is not contraindicated, give vaginal birth a chance prior to electing a Cesarean delivery to allow the infant to be inoculated with mom’s vaginal flora.
- If a CD is necessary, talk to you doctor about clamping the umbilical cord prior to receiving the first dose of antibiotics during the CD to prevent the baby from early exposure to antibiotics.
- Be prepared to pump breast milk after delivery if the new baby has trouble latching, or is taken to the NICU or PICU following delivery. This ensures that the mother’s colostrum and beneficial probiotics are captured for the baby.
- If a CD becomes necessary, ask your doctor about “vaginal seeding” to give the baby the benefits of the mother’s vaginal flora containing the good bacteria which colonizes a baby’s gut during a vaginal delivery.
Benefits of breast feeding compared to formula feeding have been well documented. Studies have shown babies exclusively breast fed for the first 6 months of life were less likely to develop illnesses, allergies, and have better digestive health. Furthermore, studies show that breastfeeding helps to develop the infant’s immune system and may also help to prevent the onset of autism.
Breastfeeding, however, does not come without risks, as toxins in a mother’s breast milk can increase the chance of a child developing health complications from exposure to toxins the mother may have acquired through her diet or environment. Babies are particularly susceptible to toxin exposure because they are at a stage of rapid physical development and their immune systems are not fully developed. Unfortunately, baby formulas have toxins too, sometimes in higher amounts.
The CDC states: “Breastfeeding is still recommended despite the presence of chemical toxins. The toxicity of chemicals may be most dangerous during the prenatal period and the initiation of breastfeeding. However, for the vast majority of women the benefits of breastfeeding appear to far outweigh the risks. “
How can moms protect their breast fed babies from toxins?
- Breastfeeding is still recommended by the CDC despite the presence of chemical toxins because the benefits far outweigh the risks as breast feeding offers protections against numerous health issues that formula feeding cannot.
- Breast milk contains Bifidobacterium which can metabolize certain chemicals in breast milk decreasing their risks of negative effects.
- Take steps to reduce your own toxic exposures by eating organic, nutrient rich whole foods. Check out the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
- Animal products (dairy, meat, and fish) contain the highest amounts of dioxins/PCBs, because of their accumulation in fat. These persistent organic pollutants (POPs) tend to bioaccumulate in humans and are responsible for postnatal exposure through breast feeding. A vegetarian diet has lower levels of these chemicals.
- Choose chemical-free personal care and cleaning products whenever possible.
- Remember that medications and the ingredients they are made with may cross the placenta during pregnancy and may also contaminate breast milk creating exposures for the infant.
- Check out the list of Food and Environmental Agents: Effects on Breastfeeding in the American Academy of Pediatrics report titled “The Transfer of Drugs and Other Chemicals into Human Milk.”
Low Birth Weight
Babies born less than 5 pounds 8 ounces are considered low birth weight putting them at risk for many health complications including poor growth, higher susceptibility to infection, higher risk of developing neurological problems, and are generally more prone to type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and coronary heart disease as adults.
The two main causes of low birth weight include preterm birth (infants born prior to 37 weeks gestation) and intrauterine growth restriction. Maternal infections like cytomegalovirus, chicken pox, rubella, or medical problems in expectant mothers, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, uterine, and cervical abnormalities can also cause low birth weight. Lower socioeconomic status and exposures to toxins are also known risk factors for low birth weight deliveries.
Take precautions to reduce the chance of delivering a low birth weight baby:
- Prevention of low birth weight babies begins with good maternal health and early prenatal care which monitors the baby’s growth and heart rate.
- Take good care of yourself and baby by modifying habits such as smoking and drinking.
- Get proper sleep, decrease stress and have good nutrition.
- Supplementation with folate can significantly benefit the developing fetus.
- For carriers of an MTHFR mutation, woman should ask their doctor about taking L-methylfolate in place of folic acid in order to properly metabolize the folate to protect the developing fetus.
Premature births account for 70% of low birth weight babies, and therefore expecting moms who take necessary precautions can help maintain a healthy pregnancy and prevent low birth weight babies.
Chronic Stress During Pregnancy
Research suggests that offspring of mothers who experience high levels of stress during pregnancy are at risk of prematurity and more likely to have problems in neurobehavioral development, including autism and ADHD, and have an increased risk for childhood behavior and emotional problems, language delay, cognitive problems, mixed handedness, and later onset disorders such as schizophrenia. Additionally, maternal stress as a social determinant of health creates vulnerability in children as it is associated with low birth weight, diminishes innate immunity, and increases the likelihood of neurological dysfunction.
Stress hormones, like cortisol, are increased when an individual’s stress level increases, but also plays a role in fetal development and in preparing a mother for child birth. However, problems arise when cortisol levels are elevated, causing immune dysregulation and inflammation, from sustained stress and anxiety. How can expectant moms manage cortisol levels? While the simple answer may be to limit stress, that isn’t always easy to do. The truth is, while pregnancy may be a joyous time for a family, it can also be a very emotional time as additional stressors come into play.
So what can expectant moms do about it?
- First, know the signs of stress. For many, high stress can affect sleep, hunger, raise blood pressure, and cause headaches.
- Recognize what might be causing increased stress like financial insecurity, parenting anxiety, discomforts of pregnancy (nausea, constipation, backaches etc.) anticipation of changes in family dynamics, managing working while pregnant, and even fluctuating hormone levels can cause stress and increase cortisol levels.
- Eliminate excess activities and manage the stressors you can control.
- Surround yourself with people who don’t cause excess stress and unnecessary, emotionally charged situations.
- Lean on your support system or talk to a mental health professional.
- Reduce stress using relaxation techniques like meditation or prenatal yoga.
- Eat clean, healthy food, and exercise if your doctor permits.
- Expectant moms who have concerns about their cortisol levels can ask their physicians to check it, usually through saliva or blood tests.
Worrying too much about stress is also stressful, so try not to worry! Most importantly, know that stress is a normal occurrence and under most circumstances, normal, daily stress should not threaten the health of your developing baby.
High testosterone levels during pregnancy have been shown to play an important role in the growth and development of a baby and have been linked to disorders including autism, birth defects, and low birth weight in males.
The most common cause of high testosterone levels in women is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Women with PCOS generally have higher levels of male hormones or “androgens,” which can cause irregular ovulation, excess hair growth on the body and face, insulin resistance and fat accumulation around the waist. The National Institutes of Health reports this disorder is one of the most common causes of infertility. Women with PCOS have a greater chance of developing pregnancy complications such as gestational diabetes and pregnancy induced hypertension putting them at risk for preeclampsia which can lead to preterm delivery, maternal seizure, or death of the fetus or mother. Other causes of high testosterone in women are diabetes, adrenal disease, and thyroid disorders.
In a report titled “Mercury toxicity: Genetic susceptibility and synergistic effects,” the author, Boyd E. Haley, PhD. suggests sex hormones play a major role in susceptibility to neurotoxicty of ethylmercury, with the male hormones increasing susceptibility, while the female hormones offer a good degree of protection.
Testosterone works synergistically with mercury to enhance its toxicity. This may contribute to poor pregnancy outcomes in mothers who receive certain vaccinations during pregnancy or in those who are exposed to mercury from other sources.
Women who suspect they have high testosterone should plan to see either an endocrinologist or gynecologist who can also test for and closely monitor testosterone levels throughout the pregnancy.
Lastly, boys are nearly 5 times more likely than girls to have autism and with no known cause. For this reason alone, precautions should be taken especially with boys.
Advanced Parental Age
Studies have shown advancing paternal and maternal age were both associated with poor pregnancy outcomes. Studies draw contradictory conclusions as to which age brackets pose the highest risk for poor health outcomes of children. Ultimately, researchers believe there are underlying reasons as to why older parents are more likely to have children with autism, however, the exact mechanisms are unknown.
Some hypothesize that older parents have had more exposure to environmental toxins, prescription and/or recreational drug use influencing epigenetic changes to DNA, thereby increasing the rate of autism and other chronic illnesses in the offspring.
Minimizing risks related to parental age begins with the same theme extended throughout this article, indicating the surmountable benefits to eating a clean, organic and whole food diet while avoiding other environmental toxins such as air pollution. Managing stress levels, limiting prescription and recreational drug use and choosing vaccines that are mercury and aluminum free whenever possible can also help reduce our total body burden to promote the best chances for a healthy baby.
This article is part five of a five-part series.
DISCLAIMER —This is not medical advice and should not be misconstrued as a substitute for seeking opinions from trained healthcare professionals. Focus for Health advises all parents to understand their right to informed consent, to know their parental rights, and to know the risks, in order to make the best healthcare choices for themselves and their children.