Is this everyday item connected to the rapid rise in neurological and autoimmune disorders in children?
I dont know about you, but before I started out on my research quest, I assumed that if a product was available for sale to the public - particularly to children - it must be safe.
Sadly, I have learnt that when it comes to most things - medication in particular - nothing is without consequence. I have also learnt that often we (the consumer) are sometimes not fully aware of a lot of these consequences and are therefore unable to make better choices. These things are almost implicitly decided for us - without us even realising. Just like Vogue decides the trends of the moment. The big corporations often decide our other consumption choices.
How is this possible?
Firstly there is the power of a brand - particularly a brand that has been around for a long time. Never underestimate the way that can make us implicitly trust it. Take Johnson’s baby powder for example, used by millions for years - found to contain Asbestos. Then aspirin which used to be regularly prescribed to pregnant women and children: found to cause Reye’s syndrome. There are many more examples. Secondly, research is constantly evolving. Take cigarettes for example - they used to be prescribed for coughs (yes really….). We most certainly don't know everything, particularly when it comes to complex diseases with multiple potential causes and triggers that are rapidly on the rise like asthma, eczema autism and ADHD and we’re making discoveries all the time. Thirdly: I have seen first hand from my near decade and a half in investment banking - companies are very motivated to post a profit - sometimes that means their interests come before yours. Finally, once a product is out there it is hard to get it removed.
All of this is why awareness for ourselves is so important. Particularly when it comes to everyday supposedly benign medicines that we are giving our kids on a semi regular basis.
For me, you can't possibly control everything, there are very few certainties. But, you can seek to reduce your risk factors wherever possible. If there are enough risks associated with a product - I want to know about it. I’m sure I’m not alone. Particularly as a parent.
Unfortunately there is now a lot of research linking Acetaminophen (also known as Paracetamol and in a couple of well known painkillers for children) to autoimmune and neurological developmental issues in children.
‘The therapeutic action of acetaminophen involves inhibition of prostaglandin synthesis, a surprisingly important biochemical process involved in development and neurological function’ (1)
Translation: the way this drug works can interfere with a process that is crucial to development and brain functionality.
Before you have a melt down and switch off from this article (I was also horrified when I started to read the research associated with this) there are a few important things to remember:
One: most of us have given, and often have to give painkillers to our children. Teething, fever, colds and coughs - no one wants to see their child suffer, I gave my son that common purple painkiller for kids until I learnt about this. Beating yourself up (as I initially did) is not the right thing to do.
Two: the research below suggests that there are increased risks associated, not that if you give a dose there will be an instant and awful reaction. So please do not worry. We all do our best. The main point of this article is not to make you panic, feel bad or see the end of the world as near (we all know the mum guilt is very real) it is instead raising the red flags and potential increased risks and showing that there are alternatives (I now give Ibuprofen for kids for example - ok as long as your child is +3 months old) so please read on as awareness is 90% of the battle and allows you to make choices.
So, here is what the research is suggesting:
Paracetamol as a pain medication started to be recommended much more routeinly to pregnant women and children in the 80s when aspirin began to get linked to Reye syndrome. However, the alternative that was suggested: Acetaminophen (aka. Paracetamol) is increasingly appearing to have its own potential impact on a developing person. What’s also interesting is that a lot of the modern day diseases in children have taken a massive step up since this period in time….
‘several investigators noted that the marked increase in autism, asthma, and ADHD in the early 1980s corresponded with the replacement of aspirin with acetaminophen. In addition, Schultz noted that the long-term, steady increase in the prevalence of autism was punctuated by short-term decreases coinciding with widely publicized cases of acetaminophen poisoning that temporarily deterred the public from using the drug’. (1)
To be clear: there is not proof of direct causation. There are however a number of red flags being raised….
So, what exactly is the problem?
The main issue (it seems) is that the way that this drug works and is subsequently detoxed by the body - particularly a young body. This occurs via the liver. The trouble is, this process depletes the body’s own defence system: Glutathione click here to read more as to why this is so crucial and Sulfate. Both are needed to detox and eliminate the drug from the body. However both are also needed to detoxify a whole host of other nasties that are around in our environment and can cause inflammation and oxidative stress which we are increasingly realising are the root causes of many chronic diseases.
If we don't have enough defence in our bodies we are vulnerable to problems.
‘oxidative stress is now associated with modern diseases. Oxidative stress, like inflammation, is associated with cancer, coronary artery disease, and a number of psychiatric disorders. It is widely thought that inflammation and oxidative stress go hand in hand.’ (1)
So - if you’re sick or have a vaccine (particularly one with heavy metals inside) then adding another element in the form of Paracetamol (which requires the body to detox) can cause overload and problems to follow. Particularly problematic for a small and rapidly developing person.
‘acetaminophen affects glutathione levels as well as pathways involved in transsulfuration. Glutathione metabolism is fundamental to many biological processes and alterations in glutathione homeostasis are implicated in numerous human diseases including immune and inflammatory disorders. Polymorphisms in glutathione pathways have been associated with both autism and inflammatory disorders’ (3)
Translation: this drug is depleting one of the key molecules that can leave us vulnerable to immune and inflammatory based illnesses.
In fact studies in adults also show that even at a low dose Acetaminophen triggers immune system activation and oxidative stress response.
‘The wide range of factors associated with the induction of autism is invariably linked with either inflammation or oxidative stress, and sometimes both. The use of acetaminophen in babies and young children may be much more strongly associated with autism than its use during pregnancy, perhaps because of well-known deficiencies in the metabolic breakdown of pharmaceuticals during early development. Thus, one explanation for the increased prevalence of autism is that increased exposure to acetaminophen, exacerbated by inflammation and oxidative stress, is neurotoxic in babies and small children.’ (1)
Once again: small people are especially vulnerable.
It makes sense, but always good to remember, that an immature and developing system can find breakdown of pharmaceutical products more challenging.
Animal studies have shown long term effects when Acetaminophen it is administered during ‘a time sensitive window in early postnatal life’ with ‘significant long term modifications to brain development...lower social interactions and lower sensory function in male brains.’ (1)
There are those (mainly who have vested interests) who may try and discredit these studies. However, when choosing which research to read, I always check who it is written by (the big drug companies themselves churn out a lot), who funded the research, and basic things like sample size. Yes nothing is certain, and to be very clear this is not showing a direct causation, however, the reality is that there are now numerous credible studies of large size that are raising red flags - flags that I as a parent, at least want to know about. I’m sure you do too.
In fact, new studies supporting the view that prenatal Acetaminophen use associated long-term negative effects on brain function are currently being published on a monthly basis.’ (1)
Asthma and eczema:
For example, one multinational study with more than 200,000 children found a dose dependent association between the use of Acetaminophen in the first year of life and the occurrence of inflammatory diseases such as asthma and eczema later in life. (1)
Once again although there is no known single cause - asthma and eczema have been linked to inflammation and oxidative stress in the body.
The causal relationship has of course been questioned (particularly between Acetaminophen and asthma), but, the consensus is now that a relationship exists. What’s interesting is that there has been a population wide increase in asthma of more than 40% since the 80’s which happens to coincide with the switch from aspirin to acetaminophen use. (1)
This doesn’t end with asthma and eczema. It is also being linked in part to other complex neurological diseases like ADHD and autism.
First and foremost it is really important to note that these diseases often have multiple triggers and we certainly don't know of any one single mechanism. It is suspected that many of these more common disorders in children are a combination of genetics and environmental triggers. However, we are starting to appreciate some environmental factors can have greater risks than others - including Acetaminophen.
When it comes to ADHD there is evidence that suggests an association with its development and Acetaminophen use during pregnancy. We know it gets in to a baby’s system if ingested during pregnancy and does cross the placenta. It has been traced in infant’s urine after prenatal exposure for example (2).
Alarmingly in the US for example reports have suggested that acetaminophen is used by ∼65% to 70% of pregnant women in the United States and by ∼50% to 60% of pregnant women in western and Northern Europe. (2)
‘Researchers conducting a large Danish birth cohort study found an association between prenatal acetaminophen use and both a clinical attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis and ADHD symptoms in offspring (2)
Another study of 50,000 children in Norway for example showed that use during pregnancy was correlated to psychomotor, temperamental and behavioural developmental issues in children at three years old. Another showed hyperactivity and emotional symptoms at seven alongside ADHD.
Now, once again, these disorders, like asthma, are increasingly being considered epigenetic based disorders. That means there is likely some genetic predisposition that is triggered by certain and likely numerous environmental exposures in combination - Acetaminophen being ONE potentially in question. So this is not to say this is the only cause:
‘Although gene structure (DNA) remains stable over a lifetime (except for mutations) gene expression is very labile. Genes are readily turned on or off by epigenetic mechanisms and environmental factors like toxins and even stress. Three environmental toxins most implicated in the U.S. autism epidemic are 1. analgesic/antipyretic acetaminophen (Tylenol), 2. oral antibiotic amoxicillin/clavulanate (Augmentin), and most recently 3. herbicide glyphosate’ (4)
However, it appears postnatal use in early childhood could be the thing to really watch as an increased risk factor. Something that you can therefore choose to avoid.
Could this be a reason behind the constantly debated vaccine/autism link?
There has been, and continues to be, huge debate over whether or not vaccines do or can cause/trigger autism in a child with passionate supporters both sides. Many parents with children who have regressive autism do continue to attribute the onset of the disease to a vaccine despite a lot of evidence on the other side that it is not the case. However - perhaps there is another link? Some research is arguing that it is not the vaccine alone but instead potentially the combination of vaccine (or metal within) plus administration of painkiller/Acetaminophen following that could potentially be a trigger. Similarly this argument is made to explain the link between high rates of autism and circumcision that has been reported.
‘An online parent survey by Schultz and colleagues found children given acetaminophen for pain/fever of the measlesemumpserubella vaccine (MMR) were far more likely to become autistic than children given ibuprofen: “Acetaminophen use after MMR vaccination was associated with an increase of sixfold in the likelihood of AD when considering only children 1-5 years ..’ (4)
Conclusion: many of these diseases which are on the rise in young kids have multiple causes and triggers. However, as parents all we can do is to identify where there is more or less of a risk and adjust our choices accordingly. The research associated with Acetaminophen, at least for me, raises enough red flags to avoid it, particularly as there are alternatives (Children’s Ibuprofen). Ultimately, knowledge remains power and often the full picture is not given to us, so it's good to question and to go looking. After that it is up to you.
PARKER W, HORNIK CD, NEVISON CD: The role of oxidative stress, inflammation and acetaminophen exposure from birth to early childhood in the induction of autism: Journal of International Medical Research: 2017 Apr: 45(2): 407-438
YSTROM E, GUSTAVSON K, REICHBORN-KJENNERUD T: Prenatal Exposure to Acetaminophen and Risk of ADHD: Pediatrics: 2017 Nov: 140(5)
BECKER KG, SCHULTZ ST: Similarities in features of autism and asthma and a possible link to acetaminophen use: Medical Hypotheses: 2010 Jan: 74(1) 7-11
GOOD P: Evidence the U.S. autism epidemic initiated by acetaminophen is aggravated by oral antibiotic amoxicillin/clavulante (Augmentin) and now exponentially by herbicide glyphosate (Roundup): Clinical Nutrition ESPEN: Feb 2018: Vol 23 171-183
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