Inflamed in the MembraneOn
Our children are being poisoned. Autism and disorders such as ADD and ADHD are likely caused by mal-programming of the brain in utero. This is largely due to chronic inflammation, caused in turn by our out-of-control food industry. The spectrum disorders are therefore easily preventable. Our political system prevents reform, so we will have to change that first.
Numbers of children on the spectrum continue to rise. One extensive study showed a nearly four-fold increase between 1993 and 2010 (1), an alarming rate of growth that has continued in subsequent years (ie 2, 3).
Some of this is diagnostic artefact. Healthcare and other professionals are more aware of spectrum disorders and better able to diagnose even mild versions of these conditions. In some areas children have been deliberately mis-diagnosed to give them access to better educational support. But most of the increase appears to be real, and research has started to uncover what might be driving this trend.
There is an emerging consensus that our old friend chronic inflammation is involved – not in the children, but in their mothers.
Known risk factors for spectrum disorders include maternal obesity, diabetes, depression, smoking, infection and auto-immune disease, all of which have an inflammatory component. When the pivotal importance of chronic inflammation during pregnancy in creating neurodevelopmental problems was recently confirmed in a pre-clinical model (4), few scientists working in the area were surprised.
The accompanying editorial (5) commented, ‘Giving pregnant females a protein that stimulated immune responses was enough to cause autism spectrum-like and schizophrenia-like behaviors in offspring’.
During fetal growth, a vastly complex network of neural circuits takes shape. Glia and neurons grow, migrate, multiply and undergo selective programmed cell death. Axons are myelinated, dendrites and synapses form and are selectively pruned back. Chemical and electrical information shuttles back and forth in an expanding and self-refining system buzzing with talk and cross-talk until the CNS settles into a reasonably stable (but still adaptable) working configuration.
All of these processes are affected by inflammatory stress, which alters brain architecture before birth (6-10) and therefore behavioral and cognitive development post-partum. This kind of mal-programming of the fetal brain increases the risk of spectrum disorders (11-14), and impairs memory and cognition (7, 8). It also contributes to anxiety disorders in children (15-17), which have hugely increased (18) and probably to childhood depression (16, 19, 20) to the point where 1 in 6 American children has been diagnosed with a mental illness (21, 22).
The fact that Americans consume the most ultra-processed and therefore pro-inflammatory diet on earth (23) is, I believe, no coincidence.
To our increasingly ultra-processed diet, and the related rise of obesity which is itself pro-inflammatory, we must add social stress.
Chronic stress has been very clearly identified as a driver of inflammatory stress during pregnancy (24, 25) and in life in general (26). Factor in Covid-related social isolation, lockdown and diminishing employment prospects (27), and it is clear that our children’s mental health will continue to decline.
And it is not just the growing brain that is damaged. Chronic inflammation in the mother and possibly in the father can be transmitted to children via epigenetic changes (AKA developmental or metabolic programming) which damage the fetal immune and metabolic systems (28-31); thereby increasing the risk of many inflammatory diseases in later life (32-38).
This brings us back to the evils of the modern, ultra-processed and pro-inflammatory diet. Hot off the academic press are two excellent papers, assembled by multi-disciplinary teams out of McGill (one of my favourite campuses) and other centres in Canada and the USA, which focus on this very topic (39, 40).
These papers provide a comprehensive review of nutritional factors known to impact on maternal and fetal health, and what becomes apparent as you read through them is that almost all the dietary changes which occurred after the nutrition transition are negative to fetal brain development.
Increased calory density and reduced nutrient density, which are the hallmark of ultra-processed foods, lead directly to overweight, dysnutrition and chronic inflammation (41, 42). The near-absence of prebiotic fibers in such foods leads inevitably to dysbiosis and more inflammation (42, 43). The electrolyte imbalance typical of these foods is an exacerbating factor, as are the high levels of advanced glycation and lipoxidation end products (44).
In short, today’s fetus is bathed in inflammatory mediators, and the situation is made worse if the mother also smokes and/or experiences immune activation due to infection, auto-immune disease or chronic stress.
After birth, children’s already damaged brains will decline further if they continue their parents’ junk food diet during childhood and adolescence (37, 45).
From this perspective is not surprising that the current generation of children has been so undermined. I referred to their extremely high incidence of mental illness (20-22); but there are more subtle changes. Chronic neuro-inflammation also goes some way to explaining their exaggerated vulnerability to social pressure (15-17) in a way which, I suspect, makes them fodder for the cancel culture.
This is why captains of the food industry and the elites in general eschew the foods their companies sell us, and do not encourage their children to consume them. Understandably, they do not wish their children to be damaged by the fodder they foist on us.
One imaginative group of researchers wants to protect fetal brains against inflammation by dosing pregnant mothers with cannabinoids (46). A better answer would be a food-based anti-inflammatory program including omega 3’s / lipophile polyphenols and blended prebiotics (ie 47, 48). The best answer would be to eradicate the current food environment, the political cronyism that currently prevents this and the baby-killing vermin who dominate the system.
I have been reliably informed that I am in danger of becoming a crusty old man, fulminating from my arm chair and spewing out prejudice and hatred. There is clearly some truth to that. But the time for politesse is long gone.
While some of our politicians can be quite personable, I am livid that so many are happy to receive financial support from the food and pharma industries, and allow the chronic poisoning of our children to continue. They know that the limiting factor for economic growth has shifted from cheap labour to consumption, and that the current version of capitalism drives consumers to over-consume over-processed foods. They pay lip service to caring; but there is no action.
This is because ordinary citizens no longer have much influence over what their governments do. Government policy-making over the last few decades increasingly reflects the preferences of economic elites and business interest groups (49). The age of representative democracy has been replaced by corporatism. Whoever you vote for, government policy is largely constructed of incentives for companies to maximize profits, pork barrel spending to win re-election and financial favors for individual politicians.
This is why politicians of left and right push ultra-divisive identity politics and constantly create internal and external ‘enemies’, rather than attempt meaningful, structural change. They are whores and criminals, responsible for and oblivious to the extensive loss of health and life caused by food and drug industries.
Strong language. But I see too many of the victims, and hear too many of their stories to remain unaffected. If I were more highly evolved I could perhaps leave anger behind, and learn to tolerate and even accept the benevolence of our elites. But I am not there yet, and will continue to rail for a while longer. I will mend my manners when conditions permit. Until then, cry havoc and let slip Turchin’s disintegrative forces (50).
For the cognoscenti, here is today’s theme song: (51).
Next week: Fertility is in free-fall. This post is about protecting your baby’s growing brain; the next post shows you how to improve the chances of conception.
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