ASTHMA, behavior issues, depression, diabetes, eczema, food allergies, obesity...there’s an alphabet soup of negative health conditions that are becoming increasingly more common in childhood.
The Journal of American Medicine reports that chronic illness in American kids and teens has more than doubled since the 1990s, adding higher numbers to the pot: One in six has a developmental disability. One in 13 has allergic reactions to one or more foods. One in 68 is on the autism spectrum.
According to the group Focus for Health, more than 33 percent of those childhood chronic illnesses are caused by environmental exposure, and conditions like Type 2 diabetes and obesity have direct links to socioeconomic levels.
“There is an epidemic of chronic illness in children in what is supposed to be the most advanced country in the world,” says activist and advocate Kim Spencer, who has worked with over 300 families with sick kids, many of them with special needs. “Something is not right.”
While many follow traditional medical advice that can include a pharmacopeia of expensive pills and an ensuing laundry list of unfortunate side effects, Spencer is part of the fast-growing movement to help parents reverse and prevent chronic illness in their kids through education, diet, and conscious consumerism.
“As an advocate, I get calls all the time from parents struggling with how to manage tantrums or what to feed a kid who’s allergic to dairy,” says Spencer.
“Last fall I got so many that I knew we had to do something local and get all those resources in one room.”
Next week, she’s bringing together some of Savannah’s biggest names in natural living for the first annual Healthy Homes Happy Families Expo on Saturday, Feb. 25. From non-toxic cleaning options to chiropractors to relaxation techniques, the day promises a wealth of information that’s easy to digest for frazzled parents.
“We definitely don’t want to overwhelm anybody,” says wellness expert Chelsea Dye, who will offer up easy, inexpensive fixes to remove hidden toxins from the kitchen, bathroom and laundry room.
“There are really short lists of things you can eliminate that can have a big impact immediately and in the long run, especially with kids.”
Dye recognizes that one of the hurdles to making changes is the belief that natural products are more expensive. She’s prepared to share her recommendations of affordable products vetted by the Environmental Working Group as well as her recipes for homemade soaps and cleaning supplies. But she says that simply getting rid of chemical air fresheners and swapping out vinegar for formaldehyde-laden fabric softeners are instant money savers, allowing for more investment in the pricier stuff.
“Many people start at this first level and realize the value, so we’ll also take a deeper look at improving air and water quality in the home with plants and changing shower filters,” she adds with the caveat that even small changes make a difference.
“You can go all the way and change out your mattress and get a filter for the entire house, but this is about baby steps. Even just taking away one toxin can help.”
Other speakers include Dr. Sheryl Kaufman, a behavioral therapist and the former principal of the Park Lake School, a special needs public school based in Morris County, New Jersey. Through her practice Educational Journeys LLC, Dr. Kaufman has guided dozens of local families through techniques for better time management, resolving homework struggles and reinforcing social skills and has plenty of practical strategies for parents dealing with behavioral issues.
Rounding out the morning will be award-winning pediatrician Dr. Ramon Ramos sharing observations on healthy parenting choices gleaned from his 36-year career. After a midday break, Brighter Day founder and certified nutritional consultant Peter Brodhead takes the stage to provide an overview of the delicious basics of healthy eating and how families can kick processed foods to the curb.
While the focus of the expo is helping parents with their kids, there is a major emphasis on self-care: After all, caregivers have to stay strong and healthy themselves if they’re going to be the best advocates for their families. Throughout the day there will be yoga sessions and relaxing ionic footbaths provided by A Major Difference, plus informal time to chat with vendors and other participants.
“If you’re new to this, it can be a learning curve. I call it the ‘season’ where you’re taking on and implementing a bunch of new information,” counsels Dr. Tassie Hargrove of Holistic Wellness of Savannah, who will discuss the importance of adequate rest and proper nutrition for all parents, especially those dealing with their children’s health issues.
“I’m amazed at what mothers do for their kids, reading the research, changing the diets, but it can come at a cost if they’re not getting the sleep and support they need.”
In practice since 1999, Dr. Hargrove has seen an uptick in thyroid problems and hormonal imbalances in mothers that parallel the epidemic in childhood chronic issues.
“These aren’t necessarily diseases—these conditions are caused by stress,” explains the mother of two.
“You can’t ‘go go go’ indefinitely or you’ll burn out—and then what happens? So taking care of your home and your children means paying attention to your own health, too.”
As with every speaker, Dr. Hargrove will provide the “how” along with the “what”—incorporating healthy practices at home takes patience and plenty of trial and error.
Organizer Spencer knows from experience, having raised a son with autism who is now in mainstream high school classes and holds down an after school job.
“We tried out tons of different things and some worked, some didn’t, but we kept trying and he improved,” she says. “If someone as severe as our son could be helped with cleaning out the chemicals and making changes in his diet, then I believe anyone can.”
The statistics show that almost everyone knows a child affected by ADHD, autism or another condition on the chronic illness checklist, and Spencer vows that the information at Saturday’s conference is accessible enough to create positive change for all families.
“These strategies can benefit sick kids and keep the healthy ones healthy,” she says.
“Sometimes one or two tweaks can make all the difference in the world.”