Many of you will have already seen this remarkable photo of the hand of a fetus gripping the finger of a surgeon. I still find it very moving and it reminds me of our vulnerability but also of our strength and determination to survive.
I discovered this article on immunity a few weeks ago. It is one of the best articles I’ve read on immunity and the immune system.
Strategies for better health should ideally begin with taking care of the gut. Gastrointestinal mucosa is the major contact area between the human body and the external world of micro flora and is over 400 square metres in size. Gut bacteria (flora), of which there are approximately 100 trillion, are in constant communication with our immune cells with 70-80 percent of all immune cells in the human body located in the gastrointestinal-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). Research now provides us with a better understanding of the interaction of bacterial species and the immune system. This represents a somewhat paradoxical shift – from the belief that the immune system controls microorganisms to the understanding that it is the microorganisms that control the immune system. Supporting GALT with optimised micro flora is therefore key to our ability to fight diseases and ward off common infections. A key problem with antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs is that they destroy the normal gut flora, which in turn leads to immune disturbance. The gut flora not only influences the immune system, but can also influence virtually all body systems, for example the brain and weight (metabolism).
All of the systems in the body, including the gastrointestinal system, are influenced by lifestyle, hence how we live affects how well our body responds to the threat of pathogens and disease. The connection between stress and depression and health is best explained through the disciplines of Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) and Psychoneuroendocrinology (PNE). Stress and depression influence the body through the brain – PNI is the study of how the mind influences the immune system (to be normal, abnormal or hyperactive) and PNE describes how the mind influences the body’s hormones
Key risk factors for immunity include:
• Stress – chronic stress and depression
• Lack of sleep
• Lack of sunshine – vitamin D deficiency
• Exercise – too little or too much (extreme) exercise
• Obesity or being underweight
• Poor nutritional intake and poor diets generally
• Environment – climate changes including overheating, poor housing and/or living conditions such as overcrowding
• Environmental syndromes including chemical sensitivities
• Chemical exposure and pollutants – occupational, industrial, pollution, smoking
• Medications – especially immuno-supressors and chemotherapy medications
• Exposure to infections – through poor water and food quality, and poor hygiene. Also exposure to bacterial, fungal, viral and parasitic infections
• Nutrient deficiencies, for example, vitamins A, C, D, E, B6, B12, folate, zinc, iron and copper. However, all micronutrients are important for proper immune function
It cannot be overemphasised just how important it is to keep the immune system healthy, especially for adoptees, because we may have been exposed to stress in utero which has affected our gut. The chickens may not come home to roost for many decades. While I am not qualified to advise or even have an opinion (!) I know from my own experience that the health problems arising from adoption can manifest themselves in many complicated ways which can be debilitating, even life threatening. No matter how good our diet, our exercise ‘regime’ and our attention to lifestyle we seem to need to pay extra attention from the beginning or hope our adopters have done that for us, until we can be responsible for ourselves. Life is hard enough as an adoptee without all the attendant health problems so many of us seem to suffer.The more we can do to look after ourselves the better.
We need to take great care of ourselves emotionally, attend to what hurts and gives us pain. If we can’t do it for ourselves we sometimes need to get professional help to clear the decks and deal with the loss and trauma we have suffered. All adoptions begin with loss and trauma. No matter how we have been cared for, loved and nurtured, the loss of our mother leaves it’s mark.
And a couple of other references which are relevant –
Prenatal stress (PS) and maternal exposure to exogenous glucocorticoids can lead to permanent modification of hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function and stress-related behaviour. Both of these manipulations lead to increased fetal exposure to glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoids are essential for many aspects of normal brain development, but exposure of the fetal brain to an excess of glucocorticoids can have life-long effects on neuroendocrine function. Both endogenous glucocorticoid and synthetic glucocorticoid exposure have a number of rapid effects in the fetal brain, including modification of neurotransmitter systems and transcriptional machinery. Such fetal exposure permanently alters HPA function in prepubertal, postpubertal and ageing offspring, in a sex-dependent manner. Prenatal stress and exogenous glucocorticoid manipulation also lead to the modification of behaviour, brain and organ morphology, as well as altered regulation of other endocrine systems. It is also becoming increasingly apparent that the timing of exposure to PS or synthetic glucocorticoids has tremendous effects on the nature of the phenotypic outcome. Permanent changes in endocrine function will ultimately impact on health in both human and animal populations.<p>Fetal programming of hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal function: prenatal stress and glucocorticoids – Kapoor – 2006 – The Journal of Physiology – Wiley Online Library.
Recent evidence demonstrates important maternal effects on an offspring’s risk of developing metabolic disease. These effects extend across the full range of maternal environments and partly involve epigenetic mechanisms. The maternal effects can be explained in evolutionary terms, and there is some evidence for their transmission into succeeding generations. Unbalanced maternal diet or body composition, ranging from poor to rich environments, adversely influences the offspring’s response to later challenges such as an obesogenic diet or physical inactivity, increasing the risk of disease. Adopting a life course approach that takes into account intergenerational effects has important implications for prevention of non-communicable diseases, particularly in populations undergoing rapid economic transition