The sudden and steep increase in childhood disorders in recent decades has the attention and concern of everyone: from parents of struggling children to their teachers to doctors to grandparents. Dyslexia, ADHD, autism spectrum and other learning disabilities is heartbreaking for both you as a parent and your child. You likely find yourself asking what you failed to do, how you could have seen the signs sooner and what caused it?
The fear that your child won’t fit in, won’t be successful and won’t have a ‘normal’ life certainly ranks somewhere in the top 5 of a parent’s worst nightmare. The good news is that despite the epidemic of childhood disorders, there is much that can be done to manage and even overcome them. The first step lies in understanding why childhood disorders have increased so greatly in the last twenty five years.
Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride, author of the ground-breaking book, The Gut and Psychology Syndrome, explains that in her early years of practice she began noticing that the children she saw more frequently had numerous, seemingly unrelated health conditions: ADHD combined with eczema, allergies, hay fever or asthma or ADHD and dyslexia and half of all dyslexic children were also had dyspraxia. She learned through research and investigation and from years of working with children, including her own autistic son, that these conditions were merely boxes that modern medicine had created with the best of intentions—to better understand, diagnose and treat.
The underlying cause of these overlapping conditions is the gut-brain axis. She reports that she rarely sees a child with cognitive disorders not have some kind of health issue related to digestion and immune function (more about the brain-gut connection in an upcoming post). Gut dysbiosis, pale, pasty skin and anemia are commonplace among autistic children as well as children with other cognitive disorders.
The Kids Aren’t Alright
Thirty years ago 1/10,000 children had autism. When Dr. Campbell-McBride researched and wrote her book almost thirty years ago the autism statistics was 1/150. Today, 1/70 children are diagnosed with autism. In some areas, the rates are as high as 1 in 50. The rates of ADHD, dyslexia and learning disabilities are also on the rise. In fact, Ritalin prescriptions have increased by 800% since 1990. Similarly, a 2013 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 38 percent of 4th graders are dyslexic. These frightening statistics cannot be attributed to genetics alone because genetics don’t create epidemics.
Recently, a mother of a child with several cognitive disorders spoke out and commented that if these statistics were cancer, polio or rubella then it would be a national emergency. That is a staggering number for many of us, but ask a senior teacher and they will tell you they aren’t surprised. They will tell you that in their last ten to fifteen years of teaching they have never seen so many kids who are struggling with cognitive disorders. They will tell you the kids have changed. Of course, there has always been children with cognitive problems, and awareness has certainly increased the rates of diagnosis, but it does not explain the sudden epidemic of childhood brain disorders. So what is happening to our children?
So Many Theories, So Few Answers
There are plenty of theories as to why childhood disorders are epidemic–everything from not enough exercise to lack of sleep to food additives to genetics. Among all these theories, it is hard to know if there is a grain of truth in any of it. Are ‘experts’ just pulling at loose strings to gain some semblance of understanding and offer reassurance that they will get to the bottom of this?
The fact is that there are mountains of research pointing to all of the above factors and more. Doctors and scientists admit they can’t pinpoint exactly what the cause is, though they have determined several contributing factors. Just as there is not one single cause to illnesses such as cancer and MS–there is also not one single cause of why your child’s brain is sick. Likely, there are many.
What’s Wrong With our Modern Lifestyles?
Talking about why childhood disorders are epidemic is opening the proverbial can of worms. I’m not squeamish, but I have to admit I do want to cringe when people ask me ‘what the heck is going on with the kids?’ I want to say ‘Do you have an hour–or preferably the next 12 to talk about it?’ It’s not an easy subject to talk about for two reasons–it’s complicated and it’s political. Did I mention emotionally charged? Oops, that makes three reasons.
In a nutshell, much of our modern lifestyle is artificial and totally contrary to the way we evolved, developed and lived for four million years. Believe me, I love progress as much as the next person–could you even imagine life without a washing machine, let alone Netflix? I can assure you that I am not suggesting we find a cave and campout there permanently. However, we have strayed a little too far from our roots–even from those of our grandparents and parents and it’s the culmination of these factors that have led us into this mess of epidemic auto-immune conditions and brain disorders.
The Role of Genetics
While genetics can certainly influence our predisposition to certain illnesses and disorders, there is a mountain of evidence that ‘genetics influence, but that environment determines’. In fact, it is a whole new science–called epigenetics–the science of how our genes turn on and off according to our environment. The conditions of our environment such as the food we eat, the toxins in our home and even our levels of stress literally causes certain genes to turn on or off. Furthermore, genes cannot account for the fact that before twenty five years ago most family doctors had never seen a single case of autism. Genetic expression alone cannot account for why autism spectrum has leaped from 1 in 10,000 children to 1 in 70 in a few decades.
There is no arguing that dyslexia has a genetic component–after all twin studies determined that if one twin is dyslexic there is a 50% chance the other twin will be dyslexic as well. 50% is high, but what of the other 50% that do not become dyslexic despite having the same genes? Dr. Sally Shaywitz explains in her book ‘Overcoming Dyslexia’ that research has found that personality as well as environmental factors account for the other 50% of twins that do not develop dyslexia like their sibling.
The Paradox of Advancement – One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
While awareness and recognition of these disorders certainly plays a role–there are more factors at play than genetics. Our modern lifestyles, from our inventions to our habits, have been lifesavers–literally! They have allowed us more free-time, provided us with more choice and greater experiences. However, our advances get in our own way sometimes and divorce us from the rhythms and habits from which we evolved.
Habits that we practiced up until fifty years ago and have only recently, but suddenly, in greater and greater degrees–completely eliminated. It seems the changes started with processed food–which in the early 20th century became increasingly popular until today where many adults admit to having only the most basic of cooking and food preparation skills, thus being completely dependent upon the food industry to ‘prepare’ the majority of their meals. Even the processed food has changed in the last twenty to thirty years. It’s laced with additives, chemicals, dyes and food that has been so chemically altered it is no longer a food product.
Where Have all the Children Gone?
The next hint is to crack open a window if you live in a neighborhood. It’s quiet. Neighborhoods shouldn’t be quiet. Neighborhoods used to be filled with the sounds of kids playing, screaming and even running through your carefully manicured flower bed. But that isn’t happening. Instead children are inside, sitting down in front of a gaming unit or some other electronic device for hours–sometimes into the wee hours of the morning and then heading to school.
If they do go to bed at a more reasonable time, their sleep is neither restful nor restorative. This is because your melatonin levels (sleep hormone) is not activated as a result of the blue light from screens—never mind the neural over-stimulation of playing a video game, being on social media or watching a TV show that changes scenes every few seconds.
Progress is a Double Edged Sword – Saving a Life with Side Effects
Am I asking you and your family to go retro–like 1800’s retro? Heck no! I don’t know what I would resent more–the lack of indoor plumbing, the loss of my refrigerator or saying bye-bye to my curling wand. Besides, let’s face it, as much as you hear about the over-prescribing and misuse of antibiotics–you couldn’t live without them. Like really. I had a kidney infection and grapefruit seed extract wasn’t an option I even considered. Antibiotics saves lives. Many medical interventions saves lives and even offer choices—like waiting until you are financially ready to have a baby.
Whether it’s C-sections that save many a mother and child’s life or that women (and men) have choice through hormonal contraception–advancements are without a doubt amazing. However, sometimes our medical advancements come with side-effects and complications that we can only foresee years in advance.
My own daughter had an overgrowth of candida albicans (yeast) in her gut that was so high it was off the charts. Since she has never been on antibiotics and very rarely drinks chlorinated water, we were stumped as to how this developed until we learned that the birth control pill is notorious for causing yeast overgrowth in the gut which is passed from mother to child.
The Question is … Why Are We Surprised?
The bottom line is that our children play outside less, (less vitamin D, exercise and fresh air!), sit more, eat less real food, eat more junk food, sleep less, are over-stimulated, over-scheduled, over-stressed, are bombarded with chemical assaults on a daily basis from bathroom products to pesticides to household cleaning products, are exposed to heavy metals topped with an often compromised gut health due to these numerous factors and we wonder why the kids aren’t alright? With that in mind, we have to ask ourselves how we can even begin to be surprised that our children are not thriving like children in previous decades–decades as recent as the 1970’s?
We know that genetics can influence the development of childhood disorders, but it is the influence of the various environmental factors that can be more specifically linked to the sudden and alarming increase of our kids not being alright. These environmental factors affect their biology and gene expression.
From the food to the antibiotics (that saves lives) to the iPads to the over-sanitation to C-sections to birth control–the list goes on. I know. I’ve lost you. It’s simpler to address than it seems. I promise. It requires change, stepping out of your comfort zone as parents, commitment and perhaps a learning curve. It’s a journey. The changes don’t take place over night and sometimes it gets worse before it gets better.
… But the good news is that it can get better!
In fact, this is why I am so passionate about restorative and functional health. Our health is not fixed–brain or body. Many of the modern disorders are the result of us straying too far from our roots–too far from our humanity and the result is that our health is off balance. There is now irrefutable research that the brain is plastic (your child’s brain can change–grow new neurons, make new connections) and that gut health is brain health.
If your child isn’t thriving because he or she has gut dysbiosis (over-population of bad bacteria), leaky gut (tiny holes in the intestinal lining), undiagnosed food allergies, an overly responsive nervous system to chemicals, dyes and preservatives then it will be awfully hard for your child’s brain health to be optimal because your brain is your body. It’s attached. Remember? If you don’t believe me–look in the mirror.
But seriously, your body’s health is your brain’s health–you can’t separate the head from the body.
In upcoming posts, I will describe the various environmental factors and the way that they influence the health of your child’s brain-body functioning and vitality. For now start with simple, wholesome changes. Only keep real food in the house. Enjoy treats when you are out–and you will all appreciate and savor them more. Create regular bedtimes, ditch over-scheduling, reduce screen time, create opportunities for more unstructured play and encourage outdoor exercise every day.
1.Linda Wilmshurst – Child and Adolescent Psychopathology: A Casebook
2.Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride – The Gut and Psychology Syndrome