By Dr. Mercola
Two years ago, Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, discussed how a shocking 46 percent of Americans fit a diagnosis for one form of mental illness or another.1
Now, a report2 released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that nearly 20 percent of American children (aged 3 to 17) suffer from some form of mental disorder, loosely defined as "serious changes in the ways children handle their emotions, learn, or behave."
Included in this category are use of alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. The cost to society is estimated to be close to $247 billion per year for medical expenses, juvenile justice and special education—up from $8.9 billion in 2006.
The most prevalent mental health problem among three- to 17-year-olds is ADHD, affecting nearly seven percent of children and teens. Interestingly, there appears to be some fairly significant sex differences:
- Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, Tourette syndrome, cigarette dependence, behavioral or conduct problems, and anxiety
- Girls have a higher prevalence of depression and alcohol misuse
Autism spectrum disorders are most prevalent among six- to 11-year olds, and the rise is nothing short of alarming. The latest statistics released by the CDC on March 20 show that one in 50 children in the US now fall within the autistic spectrum3, 4 with a 5:1 boy to girl ratio.
Just last year, the CDC reported a rate of one in 88, which represented a 23 percent increase since 2010, and 78 percent since 2007. Meanwhile, I remember when the incidence of autism in the US was only one in 100,000—just short of 30 years ago! So what's causing this rapid rise in autism and other mental health problems?
Clearly, there is not one single cause. Rather it's a conglomerate of factors, much like a "perfect storm" scenario, where too many harmful influences are now flooding children's bodies at a very early age—likely while still in the womb.
In a normal, healthy environment, statistics such as these simply would not occur. And the fact that it IS happening demands our immediate attention. Something is going very wrong, very fast...
What's Causing the Rise in Mental Health Disorders in Children and Teens?
The majority of autism cases do appear to result from the activation or "expression" of a number of different genes, along with multiple epigenetic and environmental factors that interact to produce the traits of autism.
But science is increasingly showing us just how malleable our genes are—they continuously alter their expression in response to their environment, meaning, your body and everything you put into and onto it.
Furthermore, there's no shortage of evidence that toxins of different sorts can wreak havoc with brain function, which can lead to everything from depression to anxiety, learning disorders and more serious mental illnesses.
Add to this the more recent findings that your gut is profoundly influential for brain health, and a picture of toxic overload combined with inadequate nutrition comes into clear view. Some of the contributing factors, I believe, include the following broad categories:
- Toxic exposures: (Including agricultural chemicals; air and water pollutants; chemicals in personal care and household products; excessive vaccinations; heavy metals; prescription drugs, and more)
For example, research from 2009 discovered that infants who lived in homes with vinyl floors were twice as likely to have autism five years later, compared to those with wood or linoleum flooring. Vinyl floors can emit chemicals called phthalates, which are widely used plastic softeners found in much more than just vinyl flooring.
Hairsprays, perfumes, cosmetics, toys, shower curtains, wood finishers, lubricants, certain medical devices and more all contain phthalates. Researchers have suggested the chemicals may contribute to autism by disrupting hormones not only in small children but also in the womb.
A 2011 review5 of the peer-reviewed, published studies on autism (going all the way back to 1943) revealed numerous documented cases of autism caused by encephalitis following vaccination. There are many potential vaccine-related culprits, including the use of toxic adjuvants; the presence of human DNA in vaccines; and the increasing number of vaccines given in a short period of time.
Heavy metal exposures are also common and can wreak havoc with your brain function. It is already an established fact that exposure to mercury can cause immune, sensory, neurological, motor, and behavioral dysfunctions -- all similar to traits defining, or associated with autism.
Mercury pollution is widespread from the burning of fossil fuels, but the use of thimerosal-containing vaccines and dental amalgams—both of which contain mercury—also cannot be overlooked as major sources of individual exposure to this neurotoxin.
Recent research6 has also shown that even low levels of lead are associated with lower reading-readiness scores in kindergarteners.7 In 2012, the CDC lowered the "safe" blood lead level from 10 mcg/dl to 5 mcg/dl. As a result, more children can now be diagnosed with lead toxicity, which has been linked to developmental problems and reduced IQ. Approximately half a million U.S. children between the ages of 1 and 5 have blood lead levels above 5 mcg/dl.
However, according to the latest findings, there does not appear to be ANY safe level of lead. Compared to children whose blood lead levels were below 0.5 mcg/dl, reading-readiness scores dropped four and a half points for children whose lead levels were between 5 and 9 mcg/dl, and 10 points for children whose levels were 10 mcg/dl.
Besides vaccines, certain drugs have also been implicated in autism. According to recent research,8 in utero exposure to antidepressants increases the risk of autism spectrum disorders in less than one percent of cases. This applied to both selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and non-selective monoamine reuptake inhibitors.
- Electromagnetic fields (EMF): These come not only from cell phones and cordless phones, but also from electrical outlets and Wi-Fi. According to some experts in the field, such as Dr. Klinghardt, EMF is "synergistically causal," partly because it potentiates the production of toxic microbes and endotoxins that have also been implicated in autism.
In fact, Dr. Klinghardt performed a small study showing that autism can actually be predicted based on the EMF levels of your sleeping quarters while pregnant. He found that if you sleep in strong electromagnetic fields during pregnancy, your child will likely begin to exhibit neurological abnormalities within the first two years of life.
- Vitamin D deficiency: The vitamin D receptor appears in a wide variety of brain tissue early in the fetal development, and activated vitamin D receptors increase nerve growth in your brain. It is my personal belief that lack of appropriate sun exposure before and during pregnancy may be one of the largest contributing factors to autism. So one of the most important changes that could radically reduce autism is to make certain ALL pregnant women have their vitamin D levels normalized to 50-60 ng/ml.
- Poor gut health: While modern psychiatry still falsely claims that psychological problems such as depression are caused by a chemical imbalance in your brain, researchers keep finding that depression and a variety of behavioral problems actually appear to be linked to an imbalance of bacteria in your gut.
Certain species of gut bacteria have been found to influence gene activity in your brain,9 for example. Mice lacking gut bacteria have also been found to engage in "high-risk behavior." Using gene profiling, the researchers showed that absence of gut bacteria altered genes and signaling pathways involved in learning, memory, and motor control. This suggests that gut bacteria is closely tied to early brain development and subsequent behavior.
Your lifestyle can and does influence your gut flora on a daily basis. For example, your gut bacteria are extremely sensitive to antibiotics, chlorinated water, antibacterial soap, agricultural chemicals such as glyphosate, pollution.
Cultured or fermented foods have always been highly prized for their health benefits, which we now understand is linked to their probiotics content. The advent of processed foods dramatically altered the human diet, and we're now reaping the results in the form of rapidly rising chronic health problems.
I believe the shunning of traditionally fermented foods has a lot to do with the rise in mental and physical health problems. The culturing process produces beneficial microbes that are extremely important for your health as they help balance your intestinal flora. If you do not regularly consume traditionally fermented foods, a high-quality probiotic supplement will provide similar benefits.
- Hidden infections and Lyme Disease: Chronic infections like Lyme disease are extremely common in autistic children, and may even cause gene mutations or dysfunction. Typically, the child gets the disease not from a tick bite but from their mother, who may be a silent carrier of the illness. Major symptoms of Lyme disease in a child include hyperactivity, learning disorders, depression, early puberty, and slight delays in motor development.
How to Address Common Behavioral Problems in Children
As mentioned earlier, "mental disorders" are loosely defined as "serious changes in the ways children handle their emotions, learn, or behave," and run the gamut from mood disorders and substance abuse to learning disorders and more serious mental illness. While there are no easy remedies for more problematic issues like autism, a wide variety of mood, learning and behavioral problems in children are related to improper diet, emotional upset or stress, and exposure to toxins.
I have successfully treated many hundreds of children with behavioral and mental disorders and have consistently seen them improve once the underlying toxicities and food changes were addressed, so parents let me assure you that there is hope! To address these underlying factors in your child, without resorting to drug treatment:
Dramatically reduce or eliminate grains and sugars from your child's diet -- yes, even healthy organic whole grains can cause problems. Try eliminating them first for 1-2 weeks and see if you don't notice a radical and amazing improvement in your child's behavior Replace soft drinks, fruit juices, and pasteurized milk in your child's diet with pure water Give your child plenty of high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fats like krill oil. Also limit their intake of vegetable oils, as they are loaded with damaged omega-6 fats Make sure your child gets plenty of exercise and outdoor playtime in the sunshine ideally walking on the earth barefoot Avoid giving your child ANY processed foods, especially those containing artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. Instead, focus their diet on whole, ideally organic foods to avoid both pesticides and genetically engineered ingredients Provide your child a way to address his or her emotional stressors. Even children can benefit from the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which you or an EFT practitioner10 can teach them how to use
What Can You Do to Reduce Unnecessary Chemical Exposure to Your Family?
With close to half of all Americans of all ages suffering from some form of mental health problem, I strongly recommend making a healthy lifestyle par the course for the entire family. While some people can handle a greater toxic burden, it's only a matter of time before you reach your limit and side effects begin to rear their ugly head. Depression, for example, is widespread, yet can frequently be successfully treated with diet and exercise alone. Rather than compile an endless list of what you should avoid, it's far easier to focus on what you should do to lead a healthy lifestyle with as minimal a chemical exposure as possible:
- As much as possible, buy and eat organic produce and free-range, organic foods to reduce your exposure to pesticides and fertilizers.
- Rather than eating conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality purified krill oil, or eat fish that is wild-caught and lab tested for purity.
- Eat mostly raw, fresh foods, steering clear of processed, prepackaged foods of all kinds. This way, you automatically avoid artificial food additives, including dangerous artificial sweeteners, food coloring and MSG. To help you get started on a healthy diet, please see my Optimized Nutrition Plan, which will guide you through the changes step by step.
- Store your food and beverages in glass rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap and canned foods (which are often lined with BPA-containing liners).
- Have your tap water tested and, if contaminants are found, install an appropriate water filter on all your faucets (even those in your shower or bath).
- Only use natural cleaning products in your home.
- Switch over to natural brands of toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants and cosmetics. The Environmental Working Group has a great database11 to help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals. I also offer one of the highest quality organic skin care lines, shampoo and conditioner, and body butter that are completely natural and safe.
- Avoid using artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners or other synthetic fragrances.
- Replace nonstick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware.
- When redoing your home, look for "green," toxin-free alternatives in lieu of regular paint and vinyl floor coverings.
- Replace your vinyl shower curtain with one made of fabric, or install a glass shower door. Most all flexible plastics, like shower curtains, contain dangerous plasticizers like phthalates.
- Limit your use of drugs (prescription and over-the-counter) as much as possible. Drugs are chemicals too, and they will leave residues and accumulate in your body over time.
- Avoid spraying pesticides around your home or insect repellants that contain DEET on your body. There are safe, effective and natural alternatives out there.
Limiting Chemical Exposure Is Important for Optimal Health
Clearly, the toxic overload now rampant in our children is in part due to the toxic burden of the mother (and perhaps the father as well). So, ideally, you really want to start considering and addressing the contributing factors listed above BEFORE you get pregnant.
Check your home and especially your sleeping quarters for EMFs, for example. Clean up your diet and complete a detox protocol if deemed necessary. Heavy metal testing can cost a couple of hundred dollars but may be well worth the investment if you're planning a pregnancy down the road. Make sure your vitamin D levels and gut flora are optimized. All of these things are part and parcel of a healthy lifestyle, and I firmly believe you can make a major difference in your child's life by addressing these factors beforehand.
Remember, a typical American comes in regular contact with some 6,000 chemicals and an untold number of potentially toxic substances on a less frequent basis. Many of them have never been fully tested for safety. To protect your physical and mental health, it's important to make these positive and gradual steps toward decreasing your chemical exposure.
Environmental pollution is a massive problem, but for most there aren't many immediate solutions to address it. Your time is better spent focusing on your immediate environment; your home, and all the products you use or come in contact with on a daily basis. Cleaning that up can go a long way to reduce your and your children's toxic load, and hence decrease your family's risk of chemical-induced health problems.