Is Autoimmune Disease Preventable?
She just got sick …
When my third child was born, she was the picture of health; a bouncy, happy baby, full of smiles. Sure, she had a bit of a traumatic birth with an emergency section but didn’t appear to have been negatively affected by the experience.
Then one day … she got seriously ill. Sick enough to be admitted into hospital and hooked to several machines. It was downhill from there?
What had happened? I replayed that day in my head time and time again and it just didn’t make sense.
As time went by, she collected diagnosis like other kids her age were collecting pebbles.
With one autoimmune diagnosis already under her belt we discovered she was a ticking bomb for several others (22 out of the 24 antibodies we tested were out of range).
What had happened? Why was my happy, bouncy, smiley baby suddenly replaced by a sickly, tired, albeit still smiley one?
The reality is nothing happened “that” day or even that week or that month.
You see, when you finally receive a diagnosis the likelihood is that a state of dis-ease had been developing in the body for some time before. How many months or years are required will depend on your initial state of health, your genetics, your lifestyle, etc. Which disease you will develop is likely connected to your genetics, the weak link in your chain as Dr Tom O’Bryan likes to call it.
In the case of autoimmune disease, like my daughter had, having one predisposes you to have others. Our immune system is supposed to protect us, but when it turns against us it is no fun at all!
How does autoimmune disease develop and is there really anything we can do to prevent it or reduce the chances of its development?
According to Dr Alessio Fasano, Paediatric Gastroenterologist and researcher, 5 conditions need to exist for the development of autoimmune disease.
1. A genetic predisposition or vulnerability
This is the weak link in your chain, the deck of cards you were dealt. You might assume that this stacks the odds against you, but research shows that genes can be turned on or off depending on your lifestyle habits. Therefore, having the genes for a certain disease doesn’t in itself mean you will become ill.
Studies have shown that our genes are only responsible for 10% of dis-ease states, 90% is dependent on your environment and lifestyle.
2. Increased intestinal permeability
Often referred to as leaky gut, which is a form of damage to the intestinal lining. In health your gut acts as a gate keeper preventing toxins, bacteria, viruses and undigested foods to enter the blood stream. Increased intestinal permeability may result in some of these particles escaping the gut, entering the blood stream and triggering the immune system. Initially this may result in frequent illness or food and chemical allergies or sensitivities. But over time it may develop into more serious conditions including autoimmune diseases.
3. The presence of an environmental trigger
This is usually related to our lifestyle habits. How much sleep we get, how much we move, what we eat, how we manage stress, what support network we have in place and so on.
A common trigger, according to Dr Fasano, is eating gluten as research shows it has the ability to disrupt the function of the intestinal lining potentially contributing to leaky gut (see number 2). Gluten is not the only trigger and not everyone has an immune reaction to gluten so don’t panic!
4. An unhealthy or unbalanced microbiome
Your microbiome is made up by millions of bacteria that naturally live in your gut. More research is being done on the microbiome and we are learning every day.
Your gut bacteria outnumber you 10 to 1; research shows they contribute to your health by helping process foods and toxins, make nutrients, support the immune system and much more. The microbiome exists as a delicate balance of different species and when this balance is disrupted it potentially leads compromising your digestive function (how you absorb nutrients and eliminate toxins).
and last but not least,
5. A hyper-vigilant immune system
You learnt above that having increased intestinal permeability may result in a continuous strain on the immune system. As it continues to be triggered (potentially every time we eat) the immune system may go into overdrive; it may become hyper-vigilant and potentially overreact. Think of it as constant multitasking, you are more likely to make a accidentally make a mistake when you are not focused on one thing. It’s a similar thing for your immune system.
So what happened to my little girl?
Nobody actually knows for sure but based on recent research this is a possible scenario.
Being born by C-section may have meant that her microbiome may not have developed as well as it could have, which may have contributed to some digestive dysfunction. Her environmental trigger was indeed gluten (though it took me a long time to figure it out) and over time her immune system was probably exhausted from the frequent insults (with an Italian mum she did often eat gluten so lots of insults). Why was her first diagnosis rheumatoid arthritis … that’s probably down to her genes (her weak link), although I haven’t extensively looked into her genetic makeup.
It is easy for me to see this potential progression now, after years of study and working on her health but it wasn’t so when she got ill.
What does this actually mean?
I believe your childhood health potentially plays a significant role in development of dis-ease later in life. I find it really important to look after your children’s health from a young age.
Some children, like mine, are very sensitive from a young age and end up with diagnosis of diseases or things like ADD, ADHD etc. I think these children may be quite lucky because it forces you as a parent to pay attention to their needs and look for solutions to help them live the healthiest life they can.
Others are less likely to react and can appear to thrive on a diet of junk food and hours spent gaming indoors. Does this mean these children just won’t get sick?
We don’t have a crystal ball to know the answer for sure and I sure wouldn’t wish illness upon any child. All we have is what research tells us today and that is that dis-ease progresses in the body for years before we actually have a diagnosis; couple this with what we know about lifestyle habits being responsible for 90% of our dis-ease states and you can see that it may be possible to be developing dis-ease for years and year before having enough symptoms for a diagnosis.
The body is strong, it will work hard to keep you healthy, so you may continue to feel good and be symptom free. But what you can’t always see is that the body may be struggling to keep you healthy. These processes happen deep inside the body and show up as "symptoms" only when it goes beyond your body's capacity to keep things under control. Initially what seems to be minor irritants (which we usually ignore), usually start as an imbalance in a particular area of our body before becoming symptoms which may become more and more chronic over time until, finally, a diagnosis is made.
Remember the tests I ran on my daughter to check for autoimmunity? She had no signs and symptoms of potential additional dis-eases but they were slowly progressing in her body unnoticed.
What has this experience taught me as a parent?
The importance of:
· Giving your child a good, clean, wholefoods, varied food choices that he or she needs to grow and thrive.
· Prioritising lifestyle habits like movement, sleep, relaxation, outdoor play, supportive friends
· Checking your child’s gut health. I love using GI Map but there are many other similar tests available that you can use. Gut infections and imbalances are not always symptomatic, they may go unnoticed for years potentially putting a strain on the immune system.
· Get to the root cause of your child's symptoms. Symptoms are signals your body sends to tell you all is not well; they should not be ignored. They can be as simple as a headache to tell you “you didn’t drink enough today”, to a tummy ache or a rash to tell you “you shouldn’t have eaten that food”, or ADD to tell you “you are really sensitive to processed foods”. Listen to your body and teach your children to do the same.
We need to keep in mind that we are all unique; as such the root cause may be different for each of us even if we have the same set of symptoms
Did your child get sick? Do you need help to figure out what you can do to support his/her healing journey?
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Travelling On A Healing Diet
When you or your child are on a healing diet there is one very simple and clear golden rule:
There is nothing worse than being faced with a sea of fast-food in airports or foreign country with a hungry child.
When my children were on healing diets there wasn’t anything like the amount of choice there is nowadays when it comes to Gluten Free, Dairy Free, Everything Free foods. But even now, where more choices are available, children are often requiring an odd combination of ingredients to be restricted, which still makes it hard to find a quick fix.
Not to mention the fact that packaged food is still processed food regardless of how many things it is free from and should therefore only be used occasionally or for emergencies.
So how can you plan your holiday and be prepared?
Before you leave
When choosing a place to stay at your destination, remember that accommodation that allows some self-catering will take the pressure off some meals and will mean you have access to a reasonably working fridge. This will allow you to store some simple snacks to take on the go for the duration of your stay as well as have options if restaurant meals turn out to be a disaster.
If you prefer to stay in hotels, fear not!
Always call the hotel ahead of time. Make sure you speak to the chef of their main restaurant (or wherever your package allows you to eat); ultimately, they are the ones who will be able to tell you what they will be able to provide. IF they don’t sound like they know what they are talking about … they probably don’t. There are still people who don’t know the difference between gluten and dairy free, never mind more complicated scenarios.
It is sometimes easier to ask specific questions such “is there an egg station at breakfast” for example. If your child is OK with eggs that’s one less meal you need to worry about. Be specific, ask if they can make a few staples that you know your child will eat and that are naturally free of allergens, this way the chances of miscommunication are smaller.
The hardest meal on a healing diet are usually breakfast, mainly because we live in a world programmed to eat gluten and dairy first thing in the morning!
The second hardest is desserts and the third is snacks.
I used to bake an everything free cake and freeze it. I would put it in the case, it would arrive at destination defrosted and it was an easy fall back for the first few days until I found my feet. A bunch of healthy cookies also help, but make sure your child doesn’t know where you are hiding them!
Airlines are offering more and more choices these days in their onboard meals but remember you have to book them ahead of time. Check what options the airline you are flying with has available.
On the plane
Even if you have done your homework and booked a special meal for the flight, there is no guarantee your child will like it and there is always a possibility that orders get mixed up and you don't get it.
Snacks for the plane or in case there are delays and layovers are a must. When choosing the snacks to take on board, pick a combination that could turn into a meal. I have been on flights where the meal never turned up or the flight was delayed or grounded for several hours.
What I mean is don’t limit your snacks to rice cakes, apples, cucumbers, hummus and nut butter … think of easy but more filling choices.
Staples for us have been:
-GF DF breaded chicken strips
-Steamed broccoli or other veg
-GF pasta salad or Rice salad
-Can of tuna (you can add to pasta, rice or potato salad in a pinch)
Think of simple combinations your child likes that will fill them up and are easy to carry individually as snacks but also mix together to make a meal.
Airport security usually doesn’t mind if it is obvious that what you are carrying is for the immediate consumption of your child. However, if you are worried a letter from your healthcare provider to explain that your child suffers from several allergies and can only eat home prepared food can help. I have always carried one, but never had to use it.
When travelling abroad, a foreign language can potentially be an obstacle to communication.
Make sure you prepare a sheet containing all the foods your child cannot eat written out in the language of the country you are visiting. Ideally, get a friend who speaks that language to help you, because as you know some things are lost on google translate…
Even though you will have spoken to the hotel and restaurant ahead of travelling you need to double check arrangements when you arrive. Check what is available in and around your hotel, there will be restaurants where it is easier to get by. For example, an Italian restaurant is probably not ideal for a Gluten Sensitive child unless you have checked ahead of time that they provide Gluten Free options. Steakhouses where often our go to during those years (but check what they marinade the steaks with).
Remember to be just as prepared for the flight home. If you give them advanced notice, the hotel’s restaurant can help you put together a small lunch box for your child if you don’t have self-catering facilities.
Remember to have fun.
Whilst you are your child’s carer you are also a parent and your child needs you in both those capacities in equal amounts. We sometimes get so overwhelmed by the carer role that we forget to be a mum or dad!
Don’t make too big a deal about the food.
We can become so stressed about all these dietary requirements that we forget what effect it has on our children. Obsessing over the food will make your child (and sometimes your spouse) very self-conscious and depending on their age could spark feelings of inadequacy and being a burden, which is the last thing you want.
I often went to speak to the hotel or restaurant staff alone before we even went in as a family. That way I didn’t always need to have those conversations in front of my child (although it is also important for them to also learn how to have those conversations if you are dealing with something more permanent like celiac disease for example).
Be A United Front
Being on a healing diet is hard work, as parents we feel we are doing so much work to get it right, but it is also hard on your child. Support each other by making sacrifices together and focusing more on the holiday and fun than on the food.
When I think of my holiday memories, very few from that “healing diets period” are food related.
Make sure you recap the day each evening to help your child focus on all aspects of the holiday.
Holidays are for making memories, for making connections and for growing.
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Is Your Child Toxic?
If you took the time to stop and think about all the things your body does every second of every day it would be hard not to feel some awe for what is, effectively, an amazing machine.
Our body functions day and night to protect us and to keep us healthy. It has only one setting “survival” and it will do that at any cost. Removing toxins from your body keeps you alive and will therefore always take priority over other activities that are “less important” for survival, such as being able to focus in class or having good skin.
If the body is so good at protecting us, why are we seeing a rise in disease in general and especially in children with neurological or cognitive imbalances?
Anxiety, ADHD, ADD and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), to name a few, are all on the rise.
According to the CDC 9.4 % of children aged 2-17 have received an ADHD diagnosis and 7.1% have received an anxiety diagnosis. One in 56 children is being diagnosed with ASD. Dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia are all also increasingly common.
What is happening to our children’s brains?
Whilst your body will help you survive at any cost, quality of life is not high on the body’s list of priorities. In its quest to fight an “invader”, the body may deplete you of all the stored nutrients you may need for other functions.
Removing toxins uses up a lot of resources; over time your nutrient stocks may get depleted and you start having symptoms. This is happening to younger and younger people every day.
Nutrients need to be replenished with clean whole foods and good lifestyle habits. But with several children being picky eaters or eating processed diets, it may become harder to replenish their nutrient stores. At the same time the increasing amount of toxins their bodies are having to deal with means that the “fight continues” sometimes to the detriment of other functions in the body.
This may result in a double whammy where not only their bodies are not getting adequate nutrients if their diet is poor, but their body is also using up its store of nutrients to ensure detoxification takes place properly.
Sadly, the question is no longer “is my child toxic”, but rather “how toxic is my child?”
Our bodies evolved fighting “natural” toxins in our environment and learning to balance toxins in and toxins out. But an explosion of man-made chemicals over the last 50 years has meant that our children’s bodies are having to deal with a lot more than ever before.
We rely on three main things to survive:
• Water and
Today all three of these essential life sources are heavily contaminated with toxins. Add to these other sources of toxins found in personal care products, cleaning products etc. and you have a toxic soup!
Symptoms of toxicity are not limited to the brain and are often preceded with much more common symptoms that we often dismiss. Things like allergies, respiratory issues, skin issues, sleep problems, weight problems, digestive issues (constipation, diarrhoea, pain, colic), developmental delays, sensory issues are all potential signs of toxicity.
Disease processes develop over years and, as much as it can, the body will protect the brain (which it sees as essential to survival), therefore brain-related symptoms are often the last to appear.
You are designed to take in less toxins that you are able to expel. You can take in toxins through your mouth, nose and skin, but you are able to expel them through your lungs, digestive tract, skin, kidneys and lymphatic system supported by the liver.
These organs work synergistically together, this means they help each other. When one struggles the others take over. That’s why it wouldn’t be unusual for your child or teen to have a skin outbreak if his/her digestion is poor, for example.
As our children are faced with a world of poor food, poor air quality and less than ideal water quality, it is easy for their system to become “clogged up”.
All the toxins that enter the body are filtered through the liver (it basically sorts out the trash and prepares it to be taken out). As long as the liver can maintain a balance between toxins in and toxins out your body can cope, as has been the case throughout evolution. But one major problem with the advent of man-made chemicals is that our bodies are not equipped to deal with these toxins (especially not in these amounts), it does not recognise them and becomes overwhelmed.
As the number of toxins our children are faced with increases the liver may become overburdened. This may lead to toxins circulating in their body instead of being excreted. In the body, they may create inflammation and damage to delicate tissues, such as the gut lining, or they may encourage the growth of unfriendly bacteria in the gut. In an attempt to protect us the body will store some toxins in fat, but eventually some of the toxins reach the brain.
Many of these man-made toxins are known as neurotoxins; they poison our brain, lower our IQ and contribute to the unprecedented increase in ADHD and autism spectrum disorders in our children.
According to Harvard Professor, Dr. Philippe Grandjean, if you or your child experience brain fog, brain fatigue, trouble staying focused, forgetfulness, or mood swings, then you may have a “toxic brain”.
One important thing to remember is that toxins can also be endogenous, i.e. generated from inside the body.
You may be familiar with the term dysbiosis, which refers to an imbalance of gut bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. Some bacteria, when present in large numbers can themselves create toxins as part of their normal metabolism.
This imbalance may also affect digestion, elimination and the absorption of nutrients which in turn may have an effect on neurotransmitter function. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals your brain uses to communicate and are often found to be out of balance in some children with special educational needs.
Research shows that 75% of children on the autism spectrum suffer from gastrointestinal issues leading to pain and discomfort. These are often related to imbalances in the gut that allow the proliferation of pathogenic micro-organisms such as parasites, fungus or bacteria.
As gut health is deeply connected to brain health, millions of children today are diagnosed with cognitive and attention deficits as well as chronic illness and digestive problems. The majority of children with special educational needs have gut imbalances with or without gut related symptoms (such as pain, constipation, diarrhoea, etc).
Common Symptoms of GI and Colon Imbalances that extend beyond the gut are:
- High histamine levels
- Skin rashes/outbreaks
- Self-stimulatory behaviour
- Lack of speech
- Excessive giggling
- Immature interactions with peers
- Aggressive behaviour
What are the toxins our children are exposed to?
-Chemicals such as those in pesticides and plastics and those in some of our foods
-Heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead
-Endotoxins such as those produced by overgrowth of bacteria, fungi and parasites in our gut.
-Electro Magnetic Fields such as those from phones and tablets
-Lifestyle habits such as lack of exercise and poor sleep
-Toxic thoughts such as those that can arise from peer pressure, social situations and social media exposure.
There are many steps that you can take to reduce toxin exposure and improve your child’s health or protect him/her from such exposures.
As a first step, you should always look at reducing the amount of toxins your child is exposed to. You will never be able to remove them all, but like I explained the body can cope with some. Your goal is to keep the exposure to the level where the body can cope and that will be different for each of your children.
How do you this? Here are a few tips:
-Ensure your children move, sweat and play daily.
-Limit EMF and social media exposure.
-Limit processed foods and eat organic where possible. Encourage clean eating as much as possible, eating a variety of colourful foods (especially vegetables). These not only replenish your child’s reserves, but they are themselves also able to fight some of the toxins.
-Read labels, if you don’t know what something is your child’s body won’t know either.
-Make sure they have a good sleep routine.
Once you have addressed the basics, work with a health professional can help you address the potential underlying gut issues.
There is a tendency towards “learned helplessness” these days.
What do I mean by that? I mean people are given a diagnosis, often told there is nothing they can do and sent on their merry way possibly with a pill to manage symptoms. We do not think of questioning this and resign ourselves to living a suboptimal quality of life and our children learn the same from us.
Through my health journey with my family I’ve learnt that there is always something we can do. A diagnosis is not the be all and end all – to me a diagnosis is a starting point.
When it comes to neurological dysfunction, this is particularly important because doing nothing, over time, very often leads to further decreased function.
If you don’t know where to start, you’re not alone. Book a free call here to discuss your worries and see how I can help.
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What Is Leaky Gut
Click here to read an article I wrote for edoctors about Leaky Gut, how it can manifest and simple steps to look after the health of our digestive tract.