BY ANJU USMAN, MD AND BETH C. HYNES, JD, MBA
Every parent’s dream is to have a healthy baby. Over the past ten years of working with families devastated by the diagnosis of autism, we, along with our patients’ parents, have realized one key fact: if we knew then what we know now, the diagnosis of the disease called autism could very well have been prevented. Considering that the cause(s) of the current epidemic of autism spectrum disorders (ASD)are unknown (and scant research dollars are being dedicated to finding the most likely culprits), there is no surefire method to avoid having your infant regress into this devastating state. That sad fact, however, does not mean that there are no proactive steps parents can take to try to mitigate the chances of this disease overtaking their baby and stealing their hopes and dreams for that child’s life.
Having reviewed the medical and laboratory test results of thousands of children afflicted with ASD, clinicians using a biomedical approach to treating autism see repeating patterns in these children – impaired methylation and detoxification, mitochondrial dysfunction, gastrointestinal distress, and immune dysregulation compounded by chronic viral, fungal and bacterial infections and a burden of heavy metals and other toxins. From this perspective, we have come to view autism as a multifactorial medical disease that can be treated and overcome and, therefore, possibly avoided. Coming straight from the heart, this advice is for thinking, active parents and prospective parents who want to know what they can do to reduce the risk that their infant will regress into autism. In our practice, we have helped many parents go on to have healthy children even though they already have a child with autism. Considering that the information provided here is not harmful but, to the contrary, is helpful in promoting improved maternal and fetal health, there is little downside to pursuing these strategies while simultaneously minimizing the risk of having your child slip away into the autism epidemic. According to the latest statistics out of California, that epidemic continues to grow from the already shocking 1 out of 150 children. The aim here is to provide an analytical construct that will guide parents in making choices for both their own health and that of their baby before, during, and after pregnancy.
Think of the analogy of the straw that broke the camel’s back. Human beings start life as infants with some “straws” in their saddle – these are predispositions to be harmed by certain chemicals, to be susceptible to certain diseases, or to have a less robust detoxification capacity. The goal of gestating and parenting an infant in today’s toxic world is to not accumulate additional straws during your baby’s gestation and infancy, thereby avoiding adding the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Autism seems to occur when the infant’s body is so overwhelmed by toxins, viruses and/or pathogenic elements that typical development is arrested and/or derailed.
Children diagnosed with autism have a variety of medical problems, the underpinnings of which can be ameliorated and/or healed. The symptoms associated with autism occur through malfunctioning of the infant immune, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems (“Infant Body Systems”) – all of which, when functioning properly, contribute to the healthy development of the brain. Viruses, heavy metals, toxins, fungi, and bacteria together form a weapon that disrupts the development of, and harms the functioning of, these critical Infant Body Systems. As researchers have recently found, “a single toxicant may promote different immune-associated diseases that are dependent upon the specific window of early life exposure, the gender of the exposed offspring, and the genetic background of the offspring.” Our construct will consist of actions you can take to promote the healthy development of these Infant Body Systems as well as steps you can take to avoid upsetting the healthy development of those systems.
Due to the symbiotic relationship between a mother and her developing fetus, care must be taken by the mom before, during, and after pregnancy (if nursing) to both avoid exposure to harmful elements and to promote optimal maternal detoxification processes so that the host body remains as clean an environment as possible within which vigorous infant development can unfold.
Only recently have researchers begun closely linking environmental factors with developmental delays in our children. A host of studies show how environmental factors including diet, nutrition, air quality, clean water, heavy metals (e.g., mercury, lead, arsenic, and aluminum), xenobiotics (e.g., chemicals, pesticides, plasticizers, and perchlorates), pharmaceuticals, and vaccinations can change your child’s inborn risk.This area of study is called epigenetics – the molecular changes in our DNA caused by environmental factors. In 2003, researchers at Duke University found that rats carrying a gene for obesity, cancer, and diabetes, when fed a diet high in B-12, folic acid, choline, and methyl-rich foods, had babies that were born healthy and with a reduced risk of developing disease; this research revealed that these genetic changes persisted across four generations. Thus, when you eat a healthy diet, you are affecting not only the health of your own kids but also your grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. Researchers are finding hundreds of unwanted and potentially toxic chemicals in the placenta and cord blood of newborns as well as in mothers’ breast milk. That means that today’s children are born with a toxic burden their infant bodies must contend with from day one. Studies out of China, Texas, and San Franciscoshow that if pregnant mothers can decrease their exposure to pollutants during gestation, they can improve health outcomes for their children – especially brain development. Compounds such as mercury, cadmium, nickel, trichloroethylene, and vinyl chloride in the air around the birth residence caused a 50% increase in the risk of autism.
Numerous studies document the neurotoxic effects of heavy metals – especially dangerous to the developing brain is mercury. Yet, many of our children are actually injected with the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal in their infant vaccines. Although thimerosal has been removed from, or perhaps phased out of, many childhood vaccines, it still remains in the flu vaccine, which is recommended by health authorities to pregnant woman as well as to children under age 2. Mercury exposure is such a concern that pregnant women are advised by health authorities not to eat fish because of potential mercury contamination – yet injecting thimerosal is much more damaging than the exposure suffered through eating it in food such as fish. Vaccines also contain aluminum, formaldehyde, and other toxic elements as well as live viruses that, in a subset of infant bodies, can trigger harmful impacts.Heavy metals have also been identified as factors affecting human fertility. Diagnosing and reducing the heavy metal burden of women improved the spontaneous conception chances of infertile women. Women with many dental amalgams had a higher incidence of miscarriages and a higher excretion of mercury when given the chelating agent DMPS (2,3-Dimercapto-1-propanesulfonic acid). It has been found that DMPS was a useful and complementary method to increase fertility compared to hormone therapy in infertile women.
With all this evidence mounting against various environmental toxins affecting human development, an international assembly of scientists, doctors, toxicologists, and researchers sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Environmental Agency, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) gathered in the Faroe Islands in May 2006. Their consensus statement was clear: “it is time to take action, now.” As expected, the declaration highlighted the results of hundreds of studies that showed early fetal exposures to toxic substances, even at low concentrations, can cause health problems later in life. There are a growing number of chemicals that affect the developing embryo, fetus, and infant, including the pesticides DDT, atrazine, methoxychlor, and vinclozolin. Also suspect are plastics and the epoxy resin bisphenol A, plasticizing agents called phthalates, mercury, lead, arsenic, organotoxins, polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs), carbon monoxide, smog, tobacco smoke, and alcohol. The health problems caused by exposure to these substances comprise a dizzying array of maladies including cancer, diabetes, obesity, asthma, and allergies as well as reproductive, cardiovascular, neurological, cognitive, endocrine, psychological, immune, and respiratory troubles.
Other troubling chemicals include parabens (found in various creams and lotions) and triclosan, an antibacterial agent (found in toothpaste, soaps, and cleaning products). Although parabens and triclosan are not ingested, absorbing chemicals through the skin can be far more dangerous than swallowing because transdermal applications are transported directly to the bloodstream. Most women absorb 51 pounds of chemicals every year from their cosmetics alone! Additional exposures emanate from daily lifestyle, profession, and locale. For those elements for which we have the flexibility to make choices, we must choose wisely. After all, it is not just our health that is being affected by our choices but the health of our children and progeny as well.
Basic principles to guide you in decision making surrounding pregnancy are as follows:
1. You are what you eat (and drink); therefore, make healthy choices in what you consume.
2. Skin is the largest organ in the body, so be very careful of what you rub into yours and your baby’s.
3. Think beyond “green”: What is “green” for the environment is not always what is healthiest for the body, but what is healthiest for the body is always “green.”
Suggestions to promote these principles are below and are cumulative, so keep following each set of suggestions as this journey into and through parenthood progresses.
While planning a pregnancy, we recommend that you clean up any toxicity in your body and begin to follow a more organic, healthy lifestyle. Remember, the less toxic you are, the better for you and your future baby. Undertake a sequential detoxification program that targets the liver and colon; this type of program can take six months or more and should not be done while pregnant. In a careful manner, with an experienced dentist, remove amalgams from your teeth, which also can take six months or more. Take the time now to find organic, nontoxic makeup, hair, and body products that you like and start integrating them into your daily life. Ask your doctor to run some tests to determine any additional specific supplementation you may need to optimize levels within your body; a good place to start is your copper-zinc ratio (1:1 is the ideal ratio), thyroid function (TSH, free t3, free t4), Vitamin D 25 OH, vitamin A levels, and total cholesterol (low cholesterol is associated with preterm births).
Next, clean up your living and working environment. Remove all harmful chemical cleaning agents from your cleaning routine at home and at the office, and instead use cleaning products labeled level 1 by the EPA. Do not forget to include products for dishwashing and clothing detergent in your cleanup, and avoid toxic dry cleaning as much as possible. Finally, improve your nutrition with a targeted vitamin supplementation program to include omega-3 essential fatty acids, sublingual methyl B-12, folinic acid, vitamin D3, zinc, and antioxidants.
Eat organic, hormone-free food
Drink organic green tea, filtered water, and antioxidant rich organic juices
Use stevia, raw organic honey, and xylitol as sweeteners
Go for walks and get some sunshine daily
Use aluminum-free natural deodorant in them
Use natural hennas to color your hair
Use cast iron, glass, or stainless steel cookware
Use chemical-free cleaning products in your home
Consume fish or foods w/MSG or food dyes
Drink soda, carbonated beverages, or alcohol
Consume artificial sweeteners
Be exposed to lawn chemicals or second-hand smoke
Use moisturizers or makeup with chemicals or parabens
Use chemical dyes, perms, or other such hair treatments
Cook with pans that are non-stick, Teflon coated, or made from aluminum
We would suggest that you find a holistic health practice to guide you during pregnancy and delivery as there are many decisions to make during this time. In general, we suggest avoiding medications to the extent possible as well as acetaminophen because it hinders normal detoxification. Add zinc, calcium, essential fatty acids, and prenatal vitamins to your daily supplement intake. Discontinue use of nail polish and any makeup (including lipstick) products that contain parabens and other toxins. Use fluoride-free toothpaste as fluoride interferes with iodine metabolism, which is an issue implicated in mental retardation worldwide.
Yoga and engage in stress management techniques, such as massages and listening
Eat fermented foods, cook with organic coconut oil, use organic raw apple cider as salad dressing, and consume healthy fats,
Use natural remedies for pain, like homeopathic arnica
Drink kombucha and take probiotics
Run an air filter in your bedroom while you sleep
Start a rigorous exercise program, sit in a sauna, or get dental work(not even cleanings)
Wait until labor arrives to discuss NOT subjecting your baby to vaccines
Talk on a cell phone without a headset or work with a laptop computer on your lap
Undertake a major home renovation (concern is for lead and other toxins in the process)
Healthy babies grow and develop perfectly when nature’s biochemical processes are allowed to unfold uninterrupted. The sequence of events that leads an infant to begin to focus, develop gross and fine motor skills, begin to speak and to walk is based on a delicate but deliberate series of biochemical processes and chemical interactions. A primary goal of raising a healthy infant is to avoid disruption or interference with this sequence. Babies look fragile and, indeed, they are. An infant’s immune system, which guards the rest of the body from harm, is immature and requires time and peace to mature maximally. Thus, help your infant progress uninterrupted by avoiding the introduction of toxins, viruses, allergens, and heavy metals into their bodies. In light of this, parents should consider an alternate, gradual vaccine schedule of carefully thought through vaccines for infants being raised in the domestic United States.
If you have amalgams and plan to nurse, you should send a sample of your breast milk to a specialty lab for heavy metal testing. If you plan to use formula, use those containing DHA (docosahexanenoic acid), an essential fatty acid critical to the healthy development of the central nervous system. In terms of food introduction, organic baby food is recommended. Start feeding with organic rice cereal. Avoid the introduction of soy, gluten, or dairy until after the baby turns two years of age. After one year, supplement your baby with a quarter teaspoon of mercury-free cod liver oil – again this is to increase the supply of omega-3 essential fatty acids.
In terms of coping with baby colds and other minor illnesses, unless symptoms are severe, less is more when it comes to treatment. For fevers over 101˚F, treat with a tepid bath or dye-free ibuprofen. Fevers, while nerve-wracking for new parents, are the response of a healthy immune system reacting to kill off an invading virus through heat. Antibiotics should be used sparingly and only for confirmed bacterial infections (they do not alleviate viral infections). Remember, antibiotic use disrupts the normal gut flora and promotes the overgrowth of yeast and resistant organisms that, in turn, harms the optimal functioning of the immune system. Bear in mind that most ear infections are viral and are thus not treatable with antibiotics. Use homeopathic ear drops to help ease the symptoms associated with ear infections and colds.
Invest in an organic baby matress, bedding and pillows and hypo allergenic
Bathe your baby daily in warm filtered
Feed with all organic and hormone-free products
Feed baby using glass bottles
Wearing a hat, walk outside with baby to get 10 to 15 minutes of sunshine daily
Run an air filter in baby’s bedroom
Clothe the baby in pajamas soaked in flame retardant chemicals
Use soaps, moisturizers, or other “baby products” on the skin as such items are unnecessary and contain harmful chemicals
Introduce dairy, gluten, or soy until after age two
Feed baby from plastic bottles or cups or microwave formula or breast milk
Take your infant into polluted and heavily populated locations