I Was Wrong about the Environment

Time and again the magic begins the same way. Sperm and egg come together to create an absolutely unique cell. Then this cell divides to create two identical cells., These cells divide, and divide again, and divide again. At first all the cells are the same, but something changes. Soon the cells become different from each other. Within 8 weeks the developing baby has hair follicles and knees and toes, each with a unique toe print.

How do identical cells lead to cells with such different destinies? It’s a subtle environmental influence. As the cells divide, some of the cells are on the inside and some are on the outside. This tiny change in local environment triggers big changes in how the cells develop

The impact of the environment on development continues all through pregnancy, birth (babies born via c-section miss out on their exposure to mom’s birth canal microbiome, but that’s a huge topic for another post), and beyond. In fact, the impact of the environment can be seen in every phase of life.

For over a decade I’ve talked about three ways environmental toxins get into our bodies – “Harmful chemicals in our environment get into our bodies in three ways: what we put into our mouths, what we put on our skin and what we inhale through the air”. I’ve called it the three routes of exposure. Recently I realized how wrong I’ve been. There aren’t just three. There are (at least) five. We have five primary organs for sensing the world around us for a reason and each can be a route of exposure:

1. Skin – Skin is the largest organ in the body and surprisingly permeable – especially baby’s skin. What products we use  make a big difference. So does our exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

2. Nose – When we can smell unsafe air conditions, such as air pollution from an industrial accident, we become aware of just how toxic what we breathe can be. We tend to think of our homes as a safe bubble that protects us from chemicals in the air, but the opposite is true. Believe it or not, the air in our homes can be 2-5 times more polluted than air outside. Our homes trap chemicals emitted from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other harsh chemicals, such as the ones in many common cleaning formulas. Studies have found an average of 900 chemicals in the air and on surfaces in our homes. While it’s difficult to have control over outside air, the good news is you can significantly reduce the amount of indoor airborne toxins and have a huge impact on the air your family breathes.

3. Mouth – Most of us are aware of the importance of the food we eat and the food we feed our babies. Shopping organic can have a significant impact on reducing potentially harmful chemicals in the diet, but eating organic can cost more. Figuring out the best places to make investing in organic a priority can seem overwhelming. My Organic Rx lists the top organic choices a family can make to reduce their exposure to harmful chemicals in the diet and to keep our environment cleaner.

4. Ears – Noise pollution is often overlooked, but ask anyone suffering from noise related hearing loss and they will tell you how much impact the environment as had on their life. A recent study calls into question the use of high volume-white noise machines for baby. Some babies are soothed by these machines, but if you decide to try one, be careful with how it is used. Keep the volume very low and place the machine at the far corner of your child’s room to reduce the possibility that a white noise machine could become noise pollution for your child.

5. Eyes – The invention of the electric light has had a profound impact on our lives. Without it our after-dark activities would be severely limited. Without electric light we wouldn’t have had the industrial revolution or the information revolution.

The impact of light on our health wasn’t studied before artificial light became widespread. The wavelength of light plays a huge role in the intricate dance of our hormone surges that allow us to sleep well and wake up rested. We function best with blue wavelength exposure during the day (the sun and sky) and different wavelengths at night (the moon, fire, and candle light). The cycle of healthy sleep gives our bodies and brains time to heal, sets memories in place, and impacts our moods.

Sadly, most of us are exposed to blue wavelengths of light well beyond sunset. This stops the sleep-signaling surge of melatonin and makes it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. The good news is products are being developed, after scientific study, that adjust the wavelengths of light to offer a healthier alternative. I’m proud to say I’ve just joined the Scientific Advisory Board of Lighting Science, a company with a revolutionary light made just for your baby’s room. The light emitted by the bulb appears white (this was the hard part of development) but the wavelength is the soothing spectrum that signals your baby’s brain that it’s time to fall asleep — and don’t we all want more restful nights?

Published on: May 03, 2014
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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