By Dr. Nasha Winters, ND, FABNO
One of the most heartbreaking things about my work as a consultant for clients with cancer—is seeing children who have cancer and need to go through chemotherapy. Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) is the most common cancer in children, and its prevalence is increasing at a rate of 1% each year.
Many researchers have tried to explain why ALL and other childhood cancers are on the rise. In May of 2018, a professor at the Institute of Cancer Research in London proposed a new and “unified” theory for the cause of childhood ALL. He says that part of the cause of childhood ALL lies in being overly clean.
Cancer and Being Overly Clean
Professor Greaves proposed that ALL occurs when there are 2 hits to the immune system: a genetic mutation + an infection. The first hit (the genetic mutation) occurs in the womb. One in 20 children are born with this pre-leukemia genetic mutation.
But only 1% of children with the genetic mutation develop ALL. That is because the second hit (exposure to one or more common infections) is what triggers the disease. Here’s the kicker: Professor Greaves says infections trigger ALL in children who have been kept overly sanitary and clean in their early years.
The children who develop ALL after exposure to common infections are the children whose immune systems have not been exposed to diverse bacteria, viruses, or other microbes during the first year of life—microbes that are ubiquitous in daycare centers, breast milk, animal dander, and plain old dirt.
Why would it be that protecting our babies from germs would increase their risk for childhood cancer? It all comes down to how the immune system works.
The Immune System
The immune system is in charge of recognizing and responding to bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other unwanted visitors in the body. The immune system is also responsible for recognizing and eliminating abnormal cells, like pre-cancerous and cancerous cells. It is our body’s great surveillance system.
To fulfill these surveillance duties, immune cells must be able to distinguish between healthy cells and damaged or infected cells. And the immune system needs to be trained how to do this.
In our book, The Metabolic Approach to Cancer, we describe an un-trained immune system like a soccer team of 4-year old children. You can imagine that there is not much strategy, not much organization, some children are kicking the ball into their own goal, and chaos quickly ensues.
Only with good coaching will that group of small children grow into a well-trained and competent team. When we translate this analogy to the immune system, it is exposure to germs—to other children, pets, and dirt—that coaches and trains the immune system of infants and small children.
The germs (or microbes) that act as coaches for the immune system are part of what we call the human microbiome.
The microbiome refers to the trillions of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that live within and on the surfaces of the human body. These microorganisms account for approximately 90% of all cells in the body and weigh a total of nearly 3 pounds.
As much as the microorganisms on our skin, mucous membranes, and throughout our digestive tracts rely on us to survive, we also rely on them. These microorganisms influence digestive and metabolic health and also play the vital role of coach for the immune system.
Humans have evolved for millions of years in a symbiotic relationship with the microorganisms that make up our microbiome. Most of that time, we have worn no shoes, used no antibacterial soaps, and taken no antibiotics. Only in recent decades have we shifted to living in sterile environments, avoiding childhood infections with immunizations, suppressing fevers with medications, and pasteurizing our food.
We are killing the microbial ecosystems that our babies’ immune systems NEED in order to develop into the balanced and healthy immune systems that will carry them through childhood and into adulthood.
This idea is not new. You may have heard it called “the hygiene hypothesis.”
The Hygiene Hypothesis
The hygiene hypothesis is the idea that many illnesses of modern times result from living in more sterile conditions. When the immune system is not primed by exposure to germs during the early years of life, it never learns how to balance its various responses.
Allergies, autoimmune diseases, and cancer are examples of modern illnesses that are accompanied by immune system disruption. Allergies occur when there is an over-response of the immune system to what should be harmless substances. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system fails to differentiate between foreign invaders and cells that are self. Cancer occurs when a weakened immune system is unable to keep abnormal cells in check.
Our immune systems are exhausted, confused, and depleted because of a lack of microbial exposure, routine vaccination, fever suppression, antibiotic use, nutrient depletion, and other stressors of modern times.
We have the power to change this, by priming a child’s immune system during the first years of life.
7 Ways to Train the Immune System
Babies and young children need to be exposed to a diversity of microbes early in life. Still, childhood infections are no fun and can even be life-threatening in some cases. There is a fine line between protecting our babies from infectious disease and giving them exposure to the germs that will train their immune systems for lifelong health.
I would never propose that we stop washing our hands with soap and warm water or that we stop sneezing into our elbows. These foundational sanitary practices are good ways to decrease the spread of germs that cause things like the common cold and flu.
The goal is to allow a baby’s immune system to be exposed to natural sources of microbes so that it will learn how to appropriately respond. To that end, I suggest the following 7 actionable steps you can take.
1. Get outside
A recent survey, sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that Americans spend 87% of their time inside enclosed buildings and another 6% of their time inside enclosed vehicles. That leaves a mere 7% of their time to be outdoors. It is outside where we encounter the broadest range of microbes. When babies and children play outside, they get dirt on their fingers, dirt on their faces, and even a bit of dirt in their mouths. These mini inoculations act like the coaches the immune system needs to mature. Let your baby eat dirt.
Breast milk is not sterile. It is a rich source of Lactobacillus bacteria that act as beneficial probiotics for the baby’s developing immune system. Babies also encounter the natural bacteria on their mother’s skin through the process of snuggling and nursing. Studies show that breastfeeding may be protective against childhood leukemia.
3. Get a pet
Living on a farm is one way to be regularly exposed to the naturally occurring microbes in the soil. But even if you do not live on a farm, you can get greater exposure to microbes by having a pet. Although animal dander can trigger allergies in some people, exposure to pets during infancy can actually decrease the risk of developing allergies. Studies show that children who live with a dog or a farm animal have a lower risk of developing allergies and asthma in early childhood.
4. Let fevers run their course
Fevers are a sign of a robust immune system that is mounting a reaction to infection. It is only since the 1970s and 1980s that we have routinely suppressed fevers in children. Part of coaching and training the developing immune system is allowing the body to have a natural fever. If the fever is below 102.5, keep the baby comfortable with cool washcloths and allow it to run its course.
5. Use antibiotics sparingly
Broad-spectrum antibiotics wipe out not only the bacteria that cause disease but also the beneficial bacteria in the gut microbiome. Overuse of antibiotics is one of the most direct assaults to a baby’s microbiome and developing immune system. Exposure to antibiotics can occur not only from a prescribed medication but also from eating meat, eggs, and dairy products from conventionally raised animals. More than 80% of all antibiotics sold in the United States go to industrial farming to promote the growth of farm animals. Choosing organic animal products is the best way to avoid antibiotics in the food you eat and give to your baby.
6. Avoid hand sanitizers
Antibacterial sprays, wipes, and sanitizers have become the norm. Triclosan is an antibacterial agent that is commonly used in these products. A study of US children found that those with the highest level of exposure to triclosan also had the highest risk for airborne and food allergies. The best way to wash your hands (and those of your child) is with good, old-fashioned soap and water.
7. Replenish the beneficial microbes
Human diets have traditionally been microbial rich. We now eat foods that have been triple-washed and sealed in cellophane wrappers. One way to consume more beneficial microbes is to eat fermented foods, like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut. Infants can be given probiotic powders even before they are old enough to eat solid foods. Probiotic powders include a variety of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria species that support a healthy microbiome and immune system.
Where to Learn More
ALL accounts for 4 out of 5 cases of childhood leukemias. Although the vast majority of cases can be cured by chemotherapy, nobody wants to see their child go through this stressful experience. This article has given you 7 ways to prime a child’s immune system for lifelong health. If you would like more information about how to reduce your risk of cancer or support your body through the cancering process, check out our book: The Metabolic Approach to Cancer.