Gastrointestinal Health, Toxicity, and Immune System Dysregulation
In her book, A Compromised Generation, Beth Lambert reports that, “[A]lmost all of the chronic illnesses in children today are in some way related to immune dysregulation” (Lambert, A Compromised Generation, p. 51). To review, immune dysregulation is either an immune hyper response in the body that exhibits as autoimmunity or other chronic conditions that stem from inflammation or a hypo response that exhibits as cancer and other conditions where the immune system is not able to do its job effectively.
Compromised Gut Health
The way we break down and utilize the energy we need from the foods we eat and the fluids we drink is by way of our digestive tract. Digestive wellness expert, Elizabeth Lipski, PhD, describes the digestive tract as:
an irrigation system in which a large water conduit gets narrower and narrower, finally trickling water into each tiny portion of a field. If that water supply becomes blocked upstream, the plants downstream from the blockage wither and die. Similarly, food passing through the digestive tract is broken down into basic components for absorption through the mucosa (the folded lining of the tract) and carried by the bloodstream to all the cells of the body. As with water in a field of plants, an unblocked flow of nutrients into the body is critical for optimal health and function of each organ and cell…If digestive wellness is compromised (for example, by drug use, enzyme deficiency, “dead” foods, stress, or other factors), the body tries to find ways to make things work, but eventually our cells lose their capacity to function fully and we become unhealthy. (Elizabeth Lipski, Phd., Digestive Wellness for Children, p. 28)
The stages of digestion are chewing and swallowing, digestion (where the food is broken down), assimilation (where the food is absorbed into the body and transported into cells and organs), and elimination (where the excess food, fibers, and toxins are excreted from the body). If any of these stages are compromised or disrupted, then proper digestion cannot take place.
This all seems very simple; however, the implications of poor digestion not only lead to nutritional deficiencies and toxicity, but also more complicated imbalances of gut health including dysbiosis and leaky gut.
There is a whole ecology of organisms in the human gut. Many people would be surprised to find out that “your body is composed of an estimated 30 trillion human cells, but it is host to more than 100 trillion bacterial and fungal cells, the friendly microbes that coevolved with our species,” and that, “seventy to ninety percent of all cells in your body are nonhuman” (Martin, J Blaser, MD, Missing Microbes, p. 25).
We host trillions of bacteria within and on us, and this is usually a good thing. We live in a symbiotic relationship with this bacteria and rely upon them for almost every process in our bodies to function properly. Beneficial bacteria in our microbiome help us to digest, assimilate, and eliminate, provide immunity, and produce essential nutrients such as B-vitamins.
However, there are strains of bacteria that produce toxic waste products and make us ill. When in balance, the beneficial bacteria and pathogenic bacteria live in concert in a healthy body; however, if pathogenic bacteria are in greater numbers than the beneficial bacteria and the balance in the microbiome is disrupted, this can pose a significant problem to our health.
“A gut that is overpopulated with pathogenic microbes often degenerates into a diseased state…altered gut flora can contribute to the development of immune dysregulation, as the gut flora play a critical role in the immune system” (Lambert, A Compromised Generation, p.89).
Intestinal hyperpermeability, or otherwise called, leaky gut, is another contributing factor in the development of chronic illness relating to gastrointestinal (GI) health. Due to gut dysbiosis, poor diet, medications, toxins, chronic stress, gut inflammation, and nutritional deficiencies, the intestinal lining that is designed to keep harmful substances and undigested proteins out of the bloodstream is compromised, leading to a leaky gut that lets in undigested proteins and other undesirable substances such as bacteria, toxins, and waste. When the gut lining is hyperpermeable, the immune system is stimulated into action, and inflammation is the result.
“Intestinal hyperpermeability has been implicated as one of the critical physiological dysfunctions that precedes (or runs parallel with) both immune dysregulation and the development of chronic illness,” (Lambert, A Compromised Generation, p. 50).
Issues regarding assimilation, which is the ability of the body to break down and utilize nutrients, as well as elimination, which is the ability of the body to get rid of excess waste through stooling, are essential processes that need to take place for the body to receive vital nutrients and get rid of toxins and waste. Constipation will cause dysbiosis when food stays in the colon for too long feeding bacteria and promoting toxification when the body re-absorbs hormones and toxins from the stagnant waste. It is also important for the body to be able to absorb nutrients, as well, as problems with absorption and problems with loose stools will create nutritional deficiency. Diarrhea moves the nutrients through the body too fast to be properly broken down and absorbed. Therefore, it is of no wonder that poor gastrointestinal health is one of the major causal factors of ADHD, Autism, asthma, eczema, mental health problems, and obesity, the top ailments plaguing millions of our children.
Toxicity and Total Load
One major way to effectively dysregulate the immune system and damage gut health is to be exposed to toxic chemicals.
Our homes, offices, schools, and cities are places that should be conducive to our well-being; these are places where we live day in and day out, carry out our tasks, and engage with our friends and families. However, those places can be sources of toxins that contribute to chronic illness and disease.
Toxins are any kind of substance that is harmful to the body. The presence of toxins can cause any imaginable form of illness including cancers and the top five childhood chronic illnesses, and to avoid the damage they can cause, the body is burdened with the task of cleaning them up and removing them. Ingredients such as aluminum have been linked to Alzheimer’s Disease, and phthalates (plasticizers) found in body sprays and thousands of household products act as endocrine disruptors. They can and do disrupt the body’s hormone levels. People can be exposed to toxins in many ways through the things they ingest or are exposed to every day.
These environmental factors contribute to unwanted health problems such as infection and chronic illness in both our adult and child populations.
Chemicals are everywhere. They are in our food, our water, and in our air. We ingest and inhale chemicals not only while out in our cities, but also while at work, school, and home. In this day and age where factories, commercial farms, and motorized vehicles abound, it is impossible to have a body that is untouched by toxins.
It has been proven that babies born now can have over 200 chemicals in their umbilical cords! Over 200! Some report up to 280. Chemicals that are not supposed to be there, chemicals that our children have to handle and eliminate.
The Environmental Working group reports that:
Of the 287 chemicals we detected in umbilical cord blood, we know that 180 cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests. The dangers of pre- or post-natal exposure to this complex mixture of carcinogens, developmental toxins and neurotoxins have never been studied. (http://www.ewg.org/research/body-burden-pollution-newborns)
We are only now starting to see the effect that those chemicals are having on the health of our children.
The assault chemicals perform on our bodies and the bodies of our children is cumulative: the exposures add up until the body does not have the capacity to clear them. This toxic build-up starts to make us and our children sick and fatigued, first stressing the body, then creating a myriad of symptoms and diagnosable health conditions. Toxins also enter receptors that are meant to receive minerals, vitamins, and neurotransmitters, blocking them from receiving the vital nutrients our bodies and the bodies of our growing children require to function properly. Toxins contribute to cancer. Toxins contribute to autism. Toxins contribute to ADHD, asthma, autoimmunity, heart problems, digestive dysfunction, mental illness and mood disorders, learning disabilities, skin conditions, organ damage, hormone disruption, fatigue, weight gain or loss, the list goes on and on and on.
An article written for The Weston A. Price Foundation states that: “environmental toxicity and its effects on chronic illness is, in my and many prominent scientists’ minds, one of the most important health crises facing us today. While adults are certainly adversely affected, it is our children who are hurt the most. According to Dr. Leo Trasande, “We are in an epidemic of environmentally mediated disease among American children today. Rates of asthma, childhood cancers, birth defects and developmental disorders have exponentially increased, and it can’t be explained by changes in the human genome. So what has changed? All the chemicals we’re being exposed to” (http://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/toxicity-and-chronic-illness/).
It must be impressed upon every parent listening that it is a scientific fact that toxicity is a major player in childhood illness. Thousands of doctors and practitioners are recovering children by eliminating toxic sources and employing detoxification protocols.
We want as few toxins in our bodies as possible, and when we do encounter them, we want our bodies in the best shape possible to do their job of elimination and repair.
The body has several modes of detoxification to rid itself of unwanted, harmful toxins: the liver, skin, lungs, colon, and kidneys. When there is an excess of exposures to toxins, those organs of detoxification simply cannot keep up. Many people think that they are not touched by toxins because they don’t work in a chemical plant or live downwind from a commercial farm that practices regular aerial spraying, but there are many many sources of toxins and chemicals that we are exposed to on a daily basis that may not be perceived as being toxic. In fact, it is in our own homes that we have the most exposure to toxins due to the products we use and the amount of time we spend there.
“According to the total load theory, at some point, which varies widely between individuals, the body can no longer handle the “load” of stressors such as nutritional deficiencies and aggressive use of medications, and begins to show signs of that burden. The signs of overload are the characteristic symptoms of attention deficiencies and developmental delays,” (Kelly Dorfman on Epidemic Answers website: http://www.epidemicanswers.org/total-load-theory-why-so-many-children-have-developmental-problems/).
Toxins affect the health of everyone that encounters them, but due to their stage of development and vulnerability to their environments, toxins prove to be more harmful to our young population.
Children are much more sensitive reactors to external forces than their parents. Because their nervous systems are still maturing and their bodies are growing in size, they cannot as easily handle the extra strain. Between the ages 18 months and two years of age is a particularly vulnerable time because of the extra demands of cognitive milestones such as the evolution of speech and the need to relate to others in more complex ways. (Beth Lambert on epidemic answers website: http://www.epidemicanswers.org/total-load-theory-why-so-many-children-have-developmental-problems/)
In addition, toxins gravely affect the health of the gut, and as we now know, an unhealthy gut leads to systemic inflammation and all variations of physical malfunction including chronic illness.
Toxins + leaky gut + stressors = inflammation and chronic illness
Foundations of Health/Lowering Inflammation and Modulating the Immune System:
It can be daunting to think about all of the many ways our families can be exposed to toxins and other stressors that make us sick. However, there are many ways we can lower our exposure and strengthen our bodies to handle what toxins we are bound to encounter by simply being out in the world.
As you may remember from previous lessons, an unhealthy gut is a major contributor to chronic illness and to reclaim the health of the gut is essential when healing chronic illness. If your gut is leaky or your absorption is poor, you will be letting in all sorts of toxins into your bloodstream that do not belong there and will not be extracting the nutrients from the food you are eating. No matter the quality of the food or the nutritional value, your body will not benefit from that food if it is not being absorbed. This is why all health begins in the gut.
We can keep our guts healthy by:
Eating a clean, whole foods diet with proper nutrition and clean water
Removing allergens and food sensitivities
Taking care of GI health by using probiotics, healing the gut, and reducing unnecessary usage of medications and antibiotics that have side effects and that harm gut flora
Identifying and eliminating infection
Reducing exposure to environmental toxins (heavy metals and chemicals) by cleaning up our homes, work, and schools
Supporting the body’s natural ability to detoxify
Taking into account genetics and epigenetics
It is fundamental that when addressing chronic illness, or any illness, for that matter, to do what we can to modulate the immune system.
In order to encourage a healthy immune system, it is important to make sure to take care of GI health and to eliminate toxins in the environment.
Children are much more susceptible to toxins than adults.
We are now learning that toxicity is at the root of cancer and many chronic illness including ADHD, autism, autoimmunity, obesity, atopic conditions, and mood disorders; all of the major illnesses that children are faced with today have causes that involve toxic exposure.
In order to overcome these illnesses, toxicity needs to be reduced.
Blasser, Martin, J. Missing Microbes. USA. 2014.
Lambert, Beth. A Compromised Generation. USA. 2010.
Lipski, Elisabeth. Digestive Wellness for Children. USA. 2012.
Photo Credit: Lana K Shutterstock