Is your child at risk for autoimmune disease?

Is Your Child at Risk of Autoimmunity?

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If you are a parent with an autoimmune disease, especially if it has seriously affected your quality of life or your fertility, perhaps you have worried about how to prevent autoimmune disease in your child.

When your child is frequently ill, or has developed allergies, it’s easy to wonder if you’ve done something wrong. But a child’s immune system is a work in progress, and sometimes predispositions play into losing immune tolerance or developing an immune mediated issue. The good news is that if you recognise your child is at high risk of autoimmunity, you can take simple steps to help them develop healthy immune tolerance.

Does My Child Have Immune Dysfunction?

Childhood is the time to pick up viruses and infections – and wiping a little one’s nose is part of your life as a parent. From the moment your child is born, he or she is working hard on developing a resilient immune system – and coming home from school or nursery with the latest sniffle is actually an important step in creating an immunological memory. This increases protection from the immune system, and as your child grows older, into their teens and beyond, their immune system is more resilient, and they fall ill less often.

But sometimes the infections seem to be non-stop or they don’t recover well. They catch everything going around and are sick for weeks each time, and you’re worried about your child’s health.

Does your child struggle with:

  • Frequent illnesses – not just colds and flu, but bronchitis, sinus infections, ear infections, meningitis, and pneumonia? 
  • Skin rashes and infections, including eczema or psoriasis?
  • Poor circulation?
  • Digestion issues – nausea, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, or diarrhea?
  • Achy limbs or joints?
  • Weight loss?
  • Developmental or growth delays?
  • Mild fever?
  • Dizziness?
  • Difficulty concentrating?
  • Fatigue?
  • Dry eyes or mouth?

If you said yes to more than one of these symptoms, then this may be an early warning clue that your child’s immune system could use some support.

How Does Immune Dysfunction in Children Work?

Your child’s immune system is made up of their:

  • Skin
  • Mouth mucosal epithelial barrier
  • Gut mucosal epithelial barrier
  • Respiratory mucosa of the airways and lungs
  • Immune system cells such as white blood cells
  • Complement system – proteins that weaken bacteria and set off the inflammatory response
  • Bone marrow
  • Spleen
  • Tonsils
  • Lymph nodes

The immune system is complex, and therefore, understandably, it takes time to mature. Because children’s immune systems aren’t fully developed yet, coming into contact with an allergen can sometimes trigger a childhood allergy, such as asthma where the airways narrow when triggered by allergens, toxins, or infection. Asthma can cause inflammation in the epithelial lining of the airways, which is connected with structural changes of the airways.

Common environmental allergies include:

  • Pollen
  • Pet dander
  • Mold and mildew
  • Dust mites
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Chemicals in cleaning products and pesticides

Common childhood food allergies include:

  1. Peanuts
  2. Cow’s milk
  3. Eggs
  4. Fish
  5. Shellfish
  6. Tree nuts
  7. Soy
  8. Wheat and gluten
  9. Seeds

Some of these allergies can be more dangerous than others, and some of them may only be temporary, with your child growing out of them over time. Interestingly, Celiac disease is both an allergy and an autoimmune disease in children. But allergy can also be a symptom of an overworked immune system, as the immune cells decide a previously benign substance is now a threat – and immune tolerance is lost.

What is immune tolerance?

Immune tolerance is when the immune system knows when to react and when NOT to react to the presence of particular proteins in your child’s body or environment . Antigens are proteins found on pathogens such as viruses and bacteria that act as identity badges, and they can trigger the immune system into making a response. Immune tolerance ensures that the immune system only attacks outside threats and not the regular cells and tissues of the body. When autoimmunity occurs, that ability to discern between friend and foe is lost – and autoimmunity can follow. In fact autoimmunity is defined by loss of immune tolerance to our own tissues.

What triggers autoimmunity and loss of intolerance?

Your child may have predispositions such as genetics, leaky gut, and environmental burden that contribute to their immune dysfunction. Environmental toxins, infections, inflammatory reactions to food, and stress are all triggers that can tip immune dysfunction into autoimmune disease. If his or her gut microbiome is disrupted, this can also play a part in the immune system going haywire. 

There’s a cycle of cause and effect around allergy and autoimmunity in children and it can be difficult to narrow down the trigger. I’ve written about triggers before – how knowing what triggered autoimmunity is less important than knowing how to manage your autoimmune disease in the here-and-now. That said, if you suspect your child is at high risk of autoimmunity, it’s worthwhile eliminating and managing possible triggers.

Common Autoimmune Diseases in Children

When your child loses some of their immune tolerance, it can cause a vicious circle of inflammation, followed by tissue damage – that continues the inflammation. Autoimmune disease occurs when the inflammation – usually a protective mechanism – starts to affect healthy tissue and normal function.

Here’s a list of the more common inflammatory autoimmune disease found in children:

  • Coeliac disease – It’s often treated as an allergy, but Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease that isn’t restricted to the gut – it’s systemic and raises the risk of developing a second autoimmune disease. Your child may be more sensitive to other foods. 
  • Juvenile idiopathic rheumatoid arthritis – causes joint pain, stiffness and swelling. Often results in regular fever, rash, and swollen lymph nodes.
  • Juvenile Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (JSLE) – Lupus is a truly systemic autoimmune disease and has the potential to cause inflammation in your child’s skin, joints, lungs, kidneys, nervous system, and other organs. Lupus can cause poor sleep and intense pain.
  • PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections) – Triggered by a Strep infection, your child’s immune system begins to target their brain, through molecule mimicry where the tissue is mistaken for a pathogen. PANDAS causes neurological changes, tics, sleeping problems, and developmental changes. PANS (Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome) is the umbrella for PANDAS and similar syndromes that can’t be traced back to an infection.

If you suspect your child has developed an autoimmune disease it’s important that they are seen by a specialist. But if you’re worried about your child’s immune tolerance, there are a few lifestyle changes you can make.

How Do You Build up a Child’s Immune Tolerance?

Don’t lose hope – you may have read a number of articles on children’s immune systems and began kicking yourself for choices you made in the past. But it’s possible to aid your child in developing a healthy immune tolerance.

Here are a few places to start:

  1. Don’t focus all the attention on the child. Children are hypersensitive to their environments and the need to belong to the group and be the same as everyone else is strong in childhood, instead I recommend creating a family culture around health where everyone participates, if that’s possible, so everyone is eating the same meals, taking simple vitamins, discussing managing emotions and stress etc.
  2. Improve nutrition. At the extreme end, malnutrition can cause immune dysfunction but it’s clear that good nutrition supports the gut mucosa and the gut microbiome, and supplies the building blocks needed to develop healthy tolerance. The obvious advice is to ditch the processed food, but I love to focus instead of what we’re going to add in! Eating the rainbow is a really fun activity that focuses on adding in healthful foods in a way that is easy and engaging for children. We’re aiming for 2 of each colour every single day. Here is a children’s rainbow checklist that you can download and use. And I have a number of healthy recipes to swap in for children’s birthday parties and social occasions.
  3. Put down the bleach and antibacterial soap. I know this may sound counterproductive, but keeping a home that’s too clean can have an adverse effect on your child’s immune system. If they live in a sterile environment then there’s little for their immune system to do. But when they do come in contact with a pathogen, the immune system overreacts. This is called the hygiene hypothesis, but more and more studies support it. For example, did you know your home has a microbiome of its own? Using antibacterial cleaner can destroy the good bacteria along with the bad – which in turn affects your child’s microbiome. Stick to gentler home cleaning products that are better for your family and the environment.
  4. Teach your child good sleep hygiene and stress management. The topic of sleep is MUCH discussed and lamented among parents, but quality sleep helps modulate the immune system and control inflammation so it needs to be prioritised even more if there is any issue. Stress is a huge trigger for immune dysfunction so it’s crucial that your child learns coping mechanisms to handle the ups and downs that we all experience in life. Encourage your child to get an early night, and use techniques like deep breathing journaling, art therapy, and meditation. Some schools are starting to implement these now, which makes me happy, but you can teach them yourself at home too, the earlier the better. And remember, the more the whole family participates in this the better.

It can be hard to know where to begin to help your child if they’re dealing with an autoimmune disease, or you suspect their immune tolerance is compromised. If you’re wondering what your next steps are please do get in touch with us for personalised adivice.

Also my Foundations of Health signature course may be for you if you’d like to be empowered with information on making healthy changes for the whole family! –  incorporating 16 webinars over eight months to give you the tools you need to make changes to your lifestyle in regards to diet, sleep patterns, stress management, gut health and toxin exposure.

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Robyn is a Clinical Nutritionist with a specialised interest in the Functional Medicine approach to health. Robyn is very involved with the field of Coeliac Disease, Gluten-Reactive Disorders and Autoimmune Disease. Her passion for the healing power of food, has led her to work with complex cases, involving multiple diagnoses, and chronic health issues such as ME, auto-immune diseases and fibromyalgia. She also has a passion for working with the growing tide of chronic, lifestyle mediated illness; diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity, and runs a lifestyle intervention clinic for these issues. Robyn works with patients to nutritionally support their bodies, so that they can heal. She has successfully helped many people around the world improve their health and increase their quality of life. Robyn sees clients in London, Tokyo and New York, and has a virtual practice that allows her to work with people all over the world.