As an eco-conscious and health-conscious individual, you are likely well-versed in matters of the environment and your physical health. But how much time do you really spend thinking about the connection between the two? Regardless of your answer to that question, the effects of the environment on our well-being is an important issue that we should all be giving some attention.
Have you ever thought about your fate and whether it lies in the hands of the environment or your genes?
Our genetic material gets a lot of the fame when it comes to our health, but in recent years the environment we grow up in (and continue to expose ourselves to) is proving to be equally important—especially when it comes to chronic disease.
The Documenting Hope project is a nonprofit organization making a major effort to study the effects of environmental factors on chronic childhood diseases like ADHD, allergies, and autoimmune conditions. Their goal is to inspire physicians, policymakers, and patients to completely rethink their approach to focus on illness prevention and reversal. Here is what they want you to know about the environment, chronic disease, and our current medical system's approach to your health:
1. The prevalence of chronic disease is on the rise, in a major way.
It's estimated that one in eight children in America have asthma, one in 30 are diagnosed with pediatric depression, and at least 10 percent of American children have ADHD. A 2016 study showed that over 52 percent of American adults have at least one type of health condition, with a rising number of people reporting more than one ailment.
2. We can't solve the problem retroactively or even with billions of dollars.
Our current approach to many of these conditions is all about minimizing symptoms—like pain and inflammation—and does not necessarily dive into the condition itself or look for the root cause of disease. In many treatments, remission or reversal of the disease is not even on the list of possibilities. This is costing our health care system billions of dollars and our families a lot of pain, and the problem is not improving. So it's time to get creative and look for a new approach!
3. How you live (even before you're born) affects your health destiny.
So we can all agree that this is a problem, but what is causing it? Are some people just bound to develop certain diseases, and do we just have to treat them as they occur? It seems like every single day there is new information telling us that our surroundings and lifestyle are of the utmost importance, but if you are not quite convinced that your environment is influencing your health in a major way, here are four things that might convince you:
Your genes can predispose you to obesity, but your environment has the final say.
Obesity is one of the most pressing public health matters in the world for both children and adults. And while your genes get a lot of attention when it comes to being overweight, research is now showing that your lifelong environment—and even the environment you developed in as a fetus—can have a major influence on your weight. Increasing your nutrient quality, reducing chemical and microbial exposure, and avoiding obesogens and psychological stress can make all the difference in keeping your predisposition to obesity from becoming a reality.
High exposure to toxins causes major health problems, but low exposure can also be dangerous.
Many acute illnesses can be easily linked to toxic exposure including organophosphate poisoning, acute lead encephalopathy, and asthma. But what about many lower-level, more subtle exposures over time, do they have an effect on our health and play a part in the diseases we develop? It is suspected that yes, even very low exposures to toxins can lead to nonspecific symptoms that are often misdiagnosed as common illnesses.
Your early environment greatly influences your cognitive and social development.
Studies have shown that children who are exposed to adverse environments as a child are more likely to have behavioral problems and delays in developmental milestones like the use of language. Other researchers are looking specifically into the effects of prenatal pesticide exposure on human development and are finding that it can have an impact on neurological development.
Environmental factors may be the key to understanding specific diseases.
As we dig deeper into how we, as humans, interact with our environment, we start to see connections between the condition in which we live and our propensity for certain illnesses. In one example, a study was able to draw connections between environmental factors (like bedroom sharing, sugar intake, and stressful events) and the development of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). They also found that certain factors like daily vegetable consumption had a protective effect and lowered the risk of IBD—another great reason to get your daily dose of dark leafy greens!
4. Chronic disease recoveries and reversals do happen.
Most of us have heard at least one story about a child miraculously overcoming asthma, ADHD, or behavioral problems. This often happens when determined parents take things into their own hands and invest tirelessly in making lifestyle modifications, addressing environmental triggers and adopting a truly integrative approach.
While these are isolated cases, the reversal of conditions as complex as autism and autoimmune disease does happen; we are just not giving them much attention. And so unfortunately, most people (adults and children included) with a new diagnosis are immediately put on medication and told they must live with their new condition for a lifetime.
But why not study the success stories and try to uncover exactly how and why some individuals are able to heal? Once we identify the changes that worked and those that didn't, couldn't we use that information to develop best practices and inform future treatment protocols? Yes we could. And that is exactly what Documenting Hope is aiming to do.
5. Let's all invest our efforts in a new and improved approach.
Admittedly, this is not a subject that is fun to think about. And unfortunately, the more you know about the state of the environment and how it might be affecting your health, the more anxiety-provoking it can be—especially when it comes to our children and future generations.
But we can't ignore science as the information presents itself to us, and it's definitely in our best interest to study these issues and try to find new, better solutions—not to mention a noble effort to do so. As Dr. Martha Herbert, one of Documenting Hope's medical advisers puts it, "The time is now for the scientific community to take recovery, environment, and nutrition seriously. Our future depends on it."