Picking my 3-year old granddaughter up from pre-school recently, I asked her what she had for lunch. “Pasta, Biba (that’s what she calls me),” she said. “I really wanted peanut butter and jelly, but I can’t have it in school because it can make my friends sick.”
Parents and major global health organizations agree: Our kids are in an epidemic of historic proportions. It’s not the measles, whooping cough, or any of the other infectious diseases that gripped our great-grandparents in terror over their kids’ safety, or that hit the headlines daily as debates over vaccination rights reach epic proportions. It’s something else – and just as threatening.
We're in a chronic allergy epidemic – and all of our kids are at risk.
Sky Rocketing Rates of Immune Problems in Kids
The rates of children’s allergies have been increasing at an alarming rate over the past 3 decades, and are now at a record high. Allergic rhinitis, the most common type (chronic runny nose, foggy head, poor concentration, dark circles under the eyes, throat clearing) affects as many as 40% of children in the US.
True food allergies (the kind that can be life-threatening and are typically related to foods like peanuts and shellfish) are now more common than ever, affecting 1 in 12 children under 4 years old and 4% of all American children under 18 years old. That’s about 3 million kids with a true food allergy. The CDC reported an 18% increase in kids’ food allergies since 1990s. Moreover, kids are less likely to outgrow food allergies today than in the past. New studies suggest that egg and milk allergies, which were previously considered almost always transient with resolution in the preschool years, are now commonly persisting into late childhood and the teen years.
Allergies are a specific type of immune system reaction involving an immune response called IgE. But our kids are also experiencing other forms of what is called “immune system dysregulation” that often occur along with allergies, but may occur independent of them as well. About 1 in 3 children has one or more food sensitivities, and 1 in 80 children have celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
Eczema, an inflammatory skin condition, affects 1 in 5 children; or about 15% of all children, and has tripled in only 3 decades. Asthma, which is immune reactivity and inflammation in the airways, is now the most prevalent chronic disease, affecting at least 1 in 8 American children, and in some communities, up to 40% of kids, leading to 15 million missed days of school per year. The rate tripled between just 1980 and 2008.
Kids are also getting sick more often with common infections. By age 2, most kids will have had two ear infections, compared to only one episode by age 6 just 15 years ago.
A shocking number of kids are also faced with autoimmune conditions.
What’s Happening to Our Kids’ Immunity?
Kids’ immune systems have becoming hyper-reactive to the environment, and in the case of autoimmunity, to their own joints, tissues, and organs. Not only does this cause a tremendous amount of emotional and social burden on families as children and their parents navigate a world filled with potentially dangerous triggers, from common foods to what for other children should be normal amounts of health exercise, it is a harbinger of potentially long-term inflammation to come in the form of adult chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
The number of kids I see with chronic allergies, eczema, reactive airway disease or asthma, food intolerances, digestive complaints, gluten sensitivity, and hives is staggering. If you want to know whether your child has potential “Allergy Epidemic” symptoms, click here to take The Allergy Epidemic Symptom Quiz.
Is This “The New Normal?”
Pediatrician and environmental scientist Philip Landrigan says what’s going on with our kids is definitely not normal, even if it’s common. He calls what our kids are facing “the new pediatric pathology.” Sadly, however, many doctors think, “this is just the way it is – kids get allergies and kids get sick.” Many parents have been led to think it’s all just a normal part of childhood, along with the medications and surgeries often recommended to treat symptoms.
Some parents, like you, are rightly questioning the situation. Your intuition is telling you that something else is up – it’s not “just the way it is.” You have a hunch that maybe it’s food related, toxins in the environment, vaccinations, or something more than just “genetics.” Sadly, many parents have told me that their questions and concerns were dismissed when they asked their child’s doctor whether there is something more going on.
The reality is that most doctors have no clue as to what is going on – we’re not trained in nutrition, environmental medicine, or how to naturally support detoxification. Most of us aren’t trained to do anything but give reassurance, medications, and recommend surgeries. But these aren’t solutions to the underlying problem; at best they help to alleviate the symptoms.
Getting to the Root Causes: What’s Making Our Kids Sick?
There are 3 main root causes of immune dysregulation in our kids:
- Harmful hits to the microbiome, especially early in life
- An inflammatory modern diet along with insufficient micronutrient and antioxidant intake
- Environmental pollutant exposure with compromised natural detoxification
The good news is that “the wound reveals the cure.” In other words, we know the causes, so we also know the solutions!
The solutions to the allergy epidemic are ultimately systemic – our society needs to change its approach to birth and antibiotic overuse, and make reducing our children’s exposures to environmental toxins a priority. We need healthier food to be available and affordable – at home and in schools. It’s a big picture issue and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), agribusiness (“Big Food) and the pharmaceutical industry (“Big Pharma”) must become accountable to our children’s health and futures!
But there are immediate steps that are within our power that we can take close to home to help our kids stay well – and get well if they’re already suffering from immune system dysregulation. From increasing their intake of antioxidant fruits and vegetables, to the effective use of probiotics, there’s a lot we can do to shift the immune system from one of over-reaction to a calm response to normal environmental triggers.
The Microbiome and Gut Health
Immune health begins before birth, when we are in our first environment – our mom! Though genes can’t change in the whole population in just a few generations, environmental exposures can change how genes are expressed. This is called epigenetics. Strong evidence shows that environmental exposures during critical stages of fetal development can alter gene expression and increase the risk of problems with immune response.
At the time of birth, baby is supposed to be exposed to mom’s microbiome on the way through the birth canal in order to trigger the next important stage in immune system development: tolerance. Unfortunately, as many as 40% of all babies born in the US receive an antibiotic through mom as a result of high cesarean section rate and Group B Strep treatment. Antibiotic exposure at the time of birth dramatically disrupts proper immune development and also reduces gut microbial diversity.
Babies born by C-section are five times more likely to develop allergies when exposed to high levels of common allergens in the home such as those from dogs, cats, and dust mites than babies born vaginally. Reduced gut flora diversity is associated with an increased risk of eczema while damage to the intestinal lining is associated with a condition called leaky gut, which allows foreign proteins to trigger heightened systemic immune reactions, including allergies, eczema, asthma, food intolerances, and autoimmunity.
What you can do:
- If you’re pregnant, try for a vaginal birth. Having your baby with a midwife reduces your likelihood of a cesarean. If a cesarean is necessary, or if you’ve had one in the past 6 months, give your baby an infant probiotic, ideally starting at birth, and for the first 6 months after.
- Introduce typical food allergens between 6 and 12 months of age, while your child is still breastfeeding, and continue to breastfeed for an additional 6 months after food introduction.
- Include fermented foods in your child’s diet from an early age to keep the microbiome healthy. Options include yogurt and kefir in kids who tolerate dairy, or non-dairy options such as coconut yogurt, sauerkraut, and other lacto-fermented vegetables.
- Avoid antibiotics, PPIs (i.e., Prilosec), and NSAIDs (i.e., ibuprofen, Advil) that can impact the gut lining and microbiome, leading to leaky gut syndrome, which can lead to allergy epidemic conditions.
- Work with a functional or integrative medicine doctor, or licensed naturopath to restore health to your child’s gut, or start with The 4R Gut Healing Program at home.
We are living in a chemical sea of literally over 80,000 in our environment, almost all of which have never been tested for safety or health effects in kids. Over 300 environmental toxins have been found in the blood of newborns at the time of birth. Some of these chemicals have the ability to change the structure and thus damage the functioning of important immune cells, making them behave abnormally. Small children are particularly vulnerable because of their small size, and still immature detoxification systems.
What you can do:
- Minimize environmental toxin exposure as much as possible by using natural household cleaning supplies, toys made from natural materials, cosmetics and body products, and when possible, paints and home furnishings.
- Use a HEPA air filter in the home.
- Go organic: My favorite website for getting started and living a low-toxin lifestyle is The Environmental Working Group. Start with going organic, following the EWG’s Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen Guidelines
- See the PDF below this article for a FREE downloadable non-toxic living home audit to help you clean up your child’s exposures at home.
Food and Nutrition
Diet has a tremendous impact on immunity and inflammation. Breastfeeding for at least 9 months is known to be protective against allergies and eczema. The timing of food introduction may determine whether children develop allergies, eczema, and in particular, food allergies, with the latest research being fairly conclusive that delaying exposure to typical food allergens (eggs, dairy, gluten, soy, for example) actually increases the likelihood of developing intolerance and allergies to them. Kids exposed to peanuts and gluten between 6 and 12 months old, especially if they are still breastfeeding, are less likely to become sensitized!
Sugar which is pretty much everywhere and in everything is a known immune system depressant and most kids are living in what’s called a phytonutrient gap – meaning that they aren’t getting enough fruits and vegetables to get the antioxidants and micronutrients needed for healthy immune response and adequate detoxification.
What you can do:
- Breastfeed for at least the first 9 months, if possible; if not use a hydrolyzed protein formula as this is the least allergenic.
- Introduce solids between 6-12 months, including those that have typically been avoided, and continue breastfeeding for another 6 months, if possible.
- Ensure that your kids “eat a rainbow” every day. This means 2-3 portions of brightly colored, organic or low pesticide/herbicide (see The Clean 15) fruits and veggies AT EACH MEAL, DAILY to ensure that she is getting the nutrients so important for healthy immunity and detoxification.
- Pay special attention to foods that provide nutritional support for the respiratory and digestive system including zinc and vitamin A.
- Keep sugar and artificial ingredients out of the diet, or at least, to a minimum.
- Work with a functional or integrative MD or licensed naturopath if you believe your child needs additional nutritional or detoxification support.
With care and love,
*To be clear, while this course talks about the prevention of true food allergies, this course does not suggest natural treatments for true food allergies.