Chemical
Toxic Chemicals and Your Child’s Brain

Toxic Chemicals and Your Child’s Brain

August 6, 2022

Healthy Child Healthy World interviews Dr. Jane Tavyev Asher, director of the Division of Child Neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. Follow her blog on Facebook.

With so many chemicals hiding in our food, homes, and everyday surroundings, which is a top offender in your book and why?

I would say lead. Lead has been studied the most, and so we know without a doubt that it causes serious consequences to the developing brain. Yet it is unfortunately still found too often in very surprising places in our home and environment.

What steps do you take in your own home to reduce your family’s exposure to harmful chemicals?

We use filtered water for drinking and cooking. We buy organic foods whenever possible, and we also try not to eat out much, so that we have that level of control over what we eat and how it’s cooked, which also helps to avoid certain toxic chemicals.

I also make sure to wash my children’s hands often. I know I can’t keep my children from touching every single potentially toxic thing, so I try not to worry about that part too much, but if I can keep them from transferring that toxicity to their mouth and ingesting it, then I feel that’s a huge step.

What are some ways that exposure to toxic chemicals affects children and their brains?

Toxic chemicals can affect children either (1) directly, by damaging brain cells, or (2) indirectly, either (a) through epigenetic changes (many of which occur during pregnancy) or (b) by mimicking naturally occurring hormones, and thus tipping a delicate balance.

Children are particularly vulnerable to toxic exposure for two reasons: (1) their brains are growing and changing rapidly, particularly the younger they are, and so there are many more “processes” going on daily that can be potentially altered and (2) because their bodies are small, thus the same amount of toxic chemicals equates to higher percentage of body weight, the smaller the child.

The younger the child, the greater the risk of toxic exposure, with pregnancy being a particularly critical time.

What’s one thing about children that you wish you’d known before becoming a mom? 

The one thing I thought I knew before, but only truly understood after I had my own kids, was just how much time and energy parents put into thinking about our children, worrying about them and thinking about ways to give them the best possible life.

I believe parenthood also brings with it a deeper sense of compassion for other people’s children, and I feel that I am more deeply able to understand my patients’ own worries about their kids, including the actual emotions that they are going through.

What’s the most common piece of advice you give to your patients? 

I talk a lot about dietary changes. I recommend diet changes for a number of conditions that I see and treat – from headaches to autism. I do feel that including the right foods and leaving out the wrong foods in a child’s diet can make difference in an existing health condition. I also feel that our food supply has changed a lot in recent decades and we have to be very informed in our choices.

My other biggest piece of advice is limiting screen time, particularly in younger children.

After years studying child neurology, what still puzzles, surprises or amazes you about a child’s brain?  

I am always amazed at how much kids can change. Often times, parents see me with developmental concerns. I remain amazed at the amount of progress that I see kids frequently make. I receive great joy from seeing kids make that progress, and also from seeing the joy that it brings to their parents.

What tips do you have for parents of young children who want to help their brains develop?  

I believe in a “trifecta” of brain development” 1) toxic chemical avoidance 2) healthy foods which help feed the brain 3) developmentally stimulating activities. I’ve already mentioned the first two points in some of the other questions above. The last one involves avoiding “screens” (such as iPads) and instead, playing with toys that allow for creative outcomes. This is especially important in younger children who are working on building cognitive and fine motor skills.

What piece of information about children’s health do you find that people most commonly get wrong? 

I think people sometimes make an incorrect distinction between “germs” and “toxins” when they are thinking about things that are “dirty”. I have no problem with kids being exposed to dirt from a farm (which helps grow a healthy gut microbiome) and even germs from other kids (after they have passed the most delicate first few months of life) – these all help build a healthy immune system. It’s “city toxins” that I am worried about, and that’s the real reason to wash your children’s hands before they eat.

What is gut microbiome and why is it important?  

The gut microbiome is such a hot topic in all of medicine right now! We are seeing from studies that gut bacteria can impact mood, behavior, weight and even psychiatric conditions.

In a sense, our gut bacteria have a great deal of control over us. The actual types of bacteria that grow in our gut are influenced by various factors, but the one over which we have the most control is our diet.

Processed foods cause a shift toward the “wrong” gut bacteria, which then cause us to have more cravings for the wrong kinds of foods and the cycle perpetuates.

For this reason, and it sounds funny to say this, but it is important to give our kids the gift of helping them grow the best gut bacteria possible.

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