I was fortunate to have three healthy, neurologically intact, happy, capable kids.
What I once took for granted—that I would get pregnant when I wanted to and have an easy healthy pregnancy with healthy and strong babies—is not what many women experience today.
What I can tell you from two decades of patient care is that I am seeing more complex cases and more patients who are sicker with less resilience walking through my door—and that includes many women of child-bearing age. It is due, in part, to toxic exposures that ride piggyback on already overwhelmed bodies. More important, our ability to rebound is lower than it ever has been.
Adults and children are fatigued. They have brain fog, constant stressors that affect their immune function, and poor digestion, and they don’t spend enough time outside. The result is the perfect storm—toxic exposure that ordinarily someone would have easily tolerated in the past suddenly pushes them past the point of recovery.
Toxic storm interferes with human body
Daily bombardment has led to people being more sensitive: they react to detergents, foods, plants, and even the natural environment; they suffer from cognitive decline, insomnia, anxiety, brain fog, or depression. Highly sensitive people have autoimmune disorders, allergies, digestive disorders, endocrine disorders, dermatologic issues, or, worse yet, a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s, or neuropathies.
Infertility, defined as the inability to conceive after one year of unprotected intercourse, is increasing. Fertility rates in the United States have been declining since the 1970s, reaching the lowest rate in 2015.
Thirty years ago most of these conditions were rare, yet medicine has not caught up to the changing face of the typical patient. Genetic changes cannot explain the trends, especially considering this short time frame. Global toxicity in our environment has caused these rapid changes to our health and our children’s.
Consider that we now have wireless everything from TVs and phones to air filters and home security systems. There is no counterpart to “wireless” in a natural setting. We don’t even know what the fallout is from having an entirely wireless home. It might be a disruption of sleep cycles, infertility, behavioral problems, immune challenges, or memory issues. How about the ubiquity of plastics? Everything in our refrigerators and grocery stores is wrapped in or held by plastic. By now, you probably know that plastic contains BPA (bisphenol A) a chemical that messes with hormones.
Chemical onslaught particularly acute for women
Meanwhile, women probably absorb the biggest exposures. We use more products designed to facilitate convenience: cosmetics, hair products, and aggressive cleaners for every area of our house. We are exposed to a cocktail of chemicals that we did not have several decades ago.
And we, of course, are the ones who bring forth precious life into the world. It is vital that prior to pregnancy, we work to rid our bodies of as many toxins as possible.
Preconception is your window of intervention. That’s where you have the ability to reduce neurological and health issues now and decades later for a new population of children.
Having a baby is like a marathon. The first 18 to 20 miles should be preparation, taking care of your health, clearing out toxins, putting in healthier things, and paving the way for the healthiest arrival of the baby—at mile 26. This way of thinking about having a baby is preventative and proactive, and it involves dietary and lifestyle changes as well as testing and detox-specific therapies.
As a young fertile woman, you need to begin prenatal care when you’re contemplating conception and do a self-assessment of your past and present.
Toxins saturate our world
Have you ever paid attention to the rapid changes happening all around us: convenience foods, ubiquitous plastics, pesticide exposures, synthetic fragrances in everything, low-nutrient foods, highly processed foods, increased use of antibiotics and prescription drugs, immune challenges, and high rates of life-threatening allergies?
Over one billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the United States (with 327 million people in the U.S., that equals about three pounds per person per year). The EPA has actually approved over 350 pesticide ingredients to be used on the food we eat. The average home contains three to 10 gallons of hazardous materials. The average human body contains traces of over 400 xenobiotics (chemicals foreign to life).
Imagine if we had to approve these exposures by filling out a consent form before these pesticides were dumped in nearby schools, parks, farms, and agricultural spaces? “Mrs. Smith, we plan to use a chemical that has the potential to cause harm to developing fetuses and to the brains of children and adults. If you agree to letting us use this chemical in your neighborhood on September 7, please sign this form and return to us.”
I’m guessing that most of us would opt out if we had this information in advance.
While studies confirm the danger of certain chemicals, what makes this problem even greater is that no one has yet studied the combination of these exposures.
For one thing, there are there large political divides between companies who manufacture chemicals, such as BPA, and researchers trying to connect the dots between exposures and health outcomes. In addition, the way researchers study these chemicals is problematic. They tend to isolate one hormone or chemical to study. But we are regularly exposed to a soup of chemicals, varying in dose and duration, every day.
Toxic exposures affect women as well as in utero babies
It’s easy to think that a fetus is free from the exposures of the outside world and that toxicity is a natural consequence for those of us who have been on the planet for a few decades. Doctors previously thought that the placenta somehow magically protected babies. Unfortunately, it is not true. An Environmental Working Group study found that of the more than 200 chemicals in umbilical cord blood: 180 of them were carcinogens, 217 were neurotoxic, and 208 caused birth defects or abnormal development in animal studies. While this study sample is small, these findings reveal that most fetuses have exposures to toxins before they are born.
Exposure to a chemical has maternal effects, but the size of the fetus compared to the size of the mother makes the damage greater. A fetus or newborn has a smaller liver and smaller kidneys so their detoxification and metabolic pathways are not fully developed, especially in the first months of life. The ability of a newborn to metabolize, detoxify, and eliminate many toxins is minimal compared to adults. Although exposures occur during fetal or neonatal period, often we don’t see the effects until a few years later.
Every day we are exposed to and bombarded by a chemical assault, and we are still trying to quantify the full extent of the damage.
Trio of human systems especially undermined and damaged
Environmental toxicity has the biggest impact on three biological systems: the immune system, the neurological system, and the endocrine (hormones) system.
1. Immune system effects. The incidence of immune system dysfunction, such as an overactive immune system and autoimmunity, has clearly increased in today’s children. Exposures that happen before and after birth are contributing to immune challenges. Autoimmunity occurs when the immune system sees “self” molecules as “non-self” or “foreign,” so it attacks them. An autoimmune attack could be organ-specific—attacking the pancreas (diabetes type I) or the brain (multiple sclerosis), or it could be a systemic attack such as on the joints (rheumatoid arthritis) or other tissues (lupus).
Children are exhibiting immune system and autoimmune diseases such as allergies, asthma, eczema, cancer (e.g., leukemias and myeloid leukemia), and type I diabetes, which have all been linked to relevant environmental exposures prenatally and after birth (relevant means that which a normal person encounters in their lives).
Typically, allergies to food, pets, the seasons, or the environment are the first reactions that warn that the immune response is confused and disordered. Chronic exposure to disrupting chemicals without any intervention to support the immune system can lead to more serious autoimmune diseases.
2. Endocrine/hormonal effects. Environmental chemical exposures also affect the production, transport, and metabolism of all hormones. The offending chemicals are called endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs); they mimic hormones, which can result in a confused endocrine system. A clear relationship exists between exposure to pesticides (which are EDCs) and myriad problems, including the onset of earlier menses for young girls, menstrual irregularities, and reproductive difficulty.
3. Neurological effects. The impacts of toxic exposures during neurological development are particularly interesting to me because this is where the major insult begins for a fetus. Developmental effects have consequences over an individual’s entire life so the delicate neurological tissue of a fetus must be a priority. For example, in one study, children with ADHD had higher levels of pesticide exposure than their non-ADHD counterparts.
Autism is on one end of the neurological spectrum and normal brain development is on the opposite. Numerous places in between are where babies and children can exhibit symptoms of neurological inflammation and damage. These include a wide range of issues, including behavioral difficulties, development issues, and sensitivities to sound, light, touch, and texture.
During my years in practice, I have watched serious problems, from autism to leukemias to infertility, flood all three areas—immune system, endocrine/hormonal, and neurological.
Genetics and other factors unrelated to the environment do influence whether or not people get diabetes or autoimmune diseases—they are not new, after all. But the chemical and other unnatural storms that now wash over the world are responsible for the fresh and rising prevalence of the flourishing conditions.
The reality is that toxicity is not going away. Let’s find ways to reduce the effects and strengthen your body and the environment in which a future baby will grow. Even before you conceive, you can begin to feel stronger, clearer, lighter, and brighter.