Much to the surprise of many I used to be a childcare worker back in the day. It was a pretty cruisy job for a uni student like myself, being able to show up after classes, take care of kids for a few hours and then head off home to finish off my studies (or World of Warcraft, as it mostly was). I consider it a valuable experience for numerous reasons not least of which is an insight into some of the public health issues that arise from having a bunch of children all packed into tight spaces. The school which I worked at had its very first peanut allergy ever when I was first there and I watched as the number of children who suffered from it increased rapidly.
Whilst the cause of this increase in allergic reactions is still somewhat unclear it’s well understood that the incident rate of food allergies has dramatically increased in developed countries in the last 20 years or so. There are quite a few theories swirling around as to what the cause will be but suffice to say that hard evidence to support any of them hasn’t been readily forthcoming. The problem for this is the nature of the beast as studies to investigate one cause or the other are plagued with variables that researchers are simply unable to control. However for researchers at the King’s College in London they’ve been able to conduct a controlled study with children who were at-risk of developing peanut allergies and have found some really surprising results.
The study involved 640 children who were all considered to be at a high risk of developing a peanut allergy due to other conditions they currently suffered from (eczema and egg allergies) aged between 4 and 11 months. They were then randomly split into 2 groups, one whose parents were advised to feed them peanut products at least 3 times per week and the other told to avoid. The results are quite staggering showing that when compared to the control group the children who were exposed to peanut products at an early age had an 80% reduced risk in developing the condition. This almost completely rules out early exposure as a risk factor for developing a peanut allergy, a notion that seems to be prevalent among many modern parents.
Indeed this gives credence to the Hygiene Hypothesis which theorizes that the lack of early exposure to pathogens and infections is a likely cause for the increase in allergic responses that children develop. Whilst this doesn’t mean you should let your kids frolic in the sewers it does indicate that keeping them in a bubble likely isn’t protecting them as much as you might think. Indeed the old adage of letting kids be kids in this regard rings true as early exposure to these kinds of things will likely help more than harm. Of course the best course of action is to consult with your doctor and devise a good plan that mitigates overall risk, something which budding parents should be doing anyway.
It’s interesting to see how many of the conditions that plague us today are the results of our affluent status. The trade offs we’ve made have obviously been for the better overall, as our increased lifespans can attest to, however there seems to be aspects of it we need to temper if we want to overcome these once rare conditions. It’s great to see this kind of research bearing fruit as it means that further study into this area will likely become more focused and, hopefully, just as valuable as this study has proven to be.
I was never a particularly fit or active child. It wasn’t for lack of encouragement from my parents, they had me try all sorts of different activities in the hopes I’d find something that I enjoyed, more it was that I just never felt as capable as other kids when it came to physical endeavours. This, of course, fed into my love of all things gaming and other sedentary activities. It wasn’t until over a decade ago that I started to take my health seriously, transforming myself from a chronically underweight individual (BMI 17) to the more athletic person that I am today. Mostly I did this for myself however I always had a view that I needed to do this for my future children and today brings word of new research that shows I was on the right track.
It’s common knowledge that your parent’s genetics play a major role in your development and health throughout your life. Indeed it’s to the point now where we can identify many genes that are precursors for many conditions and diseases, allowing us to engage in preventative treatment long before the condition manifests itself. It’s also well known that the mother’s health, as well as the conditions she exposes herself to during pregnancy, have long lasting effects on the child after birth. However many believe that beyond those two factors the health of the parents doesn’t really factor into the child’s long term health, I.E. that your health prior to conceiving doesn’t have much influence over the child’s long term wellbeing. The latest research out of our own University of Adelaide turns that assumption on its head showing that the parents’ health before conception plays a significant role in the child’s well being throughout their life.
Essentially it boils down to the accumulation of environmental factors in the egg and sperm of the parents which are then passed on to any progeny. The good news is for parents that are looking to conceive is that this mechanism works both ways and that improvements in your health before conception will then also lead to better outcomes for your child. Whilst the study says that the impacts can be seen even months before conception effecting real change in such a short time frame is highly unlikely and such changes should be undertaken much earlier. Unfortunately since I don’t have journal access anymore I can’t comment on just how effective such intervention is but the researchers comments don’t seem to indicate that it’s small.
For me this just reinforces the view that your health is far more important than a lot of people give it credit for. Whilst I always lament when people derive motivation from a wake up call like this I can’t deny that it’s an effective mechanism for most. Indeed it seems for many that their child’s health is a primary motivator for a lot of decisions, even if some of them are rather ill-informed. So if improving your own health could vastly improve your childs then I’m sure many parents would take the initiative and live better lives as a result. Hopefully that would then lead onto keeping those improved habits long after the children were born as whilst your genetic influence may have ceased you will still have huge impact on their habits, many of which they will carry with them for life.