When you stop and think about it, it’s not hard to find examples of how the natural world influences the health of our children and us. We are an integral part of our environment, and our environment is an integral part of us. Weather, air quality, water quality, radiation levels, the presence or absence of light: these are just some of the environmental factors that determine the health of you and your child.
Like with most things, it is useful to look at extremes cases to try and define the more subtle affects of environmental factors.
Let’s begin with sunlight. Too much sunlight, especially when your child is young, and they get skin burns immediately (and skin cancers and cataracts in the long run). Some believe that light exposure to children at night can cause common vision problems like nearsightedness and astigmatism. Clearly too much sun is not good for your children. On the other hand, too little sunlight can give a child vitamin D deficiency along with its associated health problems both immediate (a metabolic bone disease called rickets) and long term (possibly multiple sclerosis, breast and prostate cancer, and adult onset diabetes).
Let’s also consider radiation exposure like that from the sun, the earth (in the form of discharges. Large amounts of radiation do very bad things to us just like visible light does. Occupations where people work near radiation are associated with premature illness and death. Examples of these are radiologists, nuclear power plant workers, and pilots and flight attendants. Naturally occurring sources such as radon gas, medical exposures (like those from a CAT scan), and pollutions exposures (nuclear wastes and, in my generation, above ground nuclear testing) to radiation can also be a negative influence on your child’s health. How about a lack of radiation? Could it be possible that we need a small amount of radiation to stimulate certain biologic processes in us just like light does with Vitamin D? I really don’t know, but I suspect so.
Finally, let’s consider our relationship with the microbial world. Traditionally in medicine, we have concentrated on the microbes that we know cause disease like Salmonella stomach infections, Strep Pneumonia (which causes so many lung infections), and Staph Aureus (which causes invasive wound infections). In the past 10 years, researchers have realized that the vast majority of microbes on and inside us are absolutely necessary to our health! We cannot be healthy without these little creatures. Furthermore, the very artificial and sterile world that we have created for ourselves may be causing a lot of disease! The point is that too many pathogenic bacteria are clearly bad for you and your children’s health, but equally harmful may be a lack of healthy bacteria that we cause by being too clean and sterile. Antibiotics for the treatment of disease, food irradiation, soil depletion, etc. may be robbing us of essential “health sustaining” microbial life.
Finding the balance with the natural world is a constant struggle as our species takes over and dominates the earth. I certainly do not advocate going back to the cave, but I feel we need to pull back and find a more natural balance with our surroundings. My approach is the minimalist approach. Any time I can replicate what I call a natural life, I will. That means walking or riding a bike whenever possible, being outdoors whenever possible, eating locally grown food, even from your backyard when possible, opening those windows and turning off the A/C system, handling and using complex chemicals such as pesticides and solvents as little as possible, living with animals, slowing down the pace of life with less media and more human interaction. Our relationship with the natural world is one of the great challenges facing us and our children.