Former President Harry Truman said, "A Nation is only as healthy as its children."

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I tried to do everything right to ensure she was healthy. I ate the right foods, exercised, and tried to reduce stress. I even insisted on no medications during her birth. After she was born, I chose to nurse because I knew breastfeeding would give her the best possible start in life. Sometimes, however, harmful elements we are not aware of can affect a child’s health.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the current generation of children may have a shorter life expectancy. This is due in part by the increase in the number of children with chronic health conditions. These conditions are having an adverse effect on their daily lives and normal activities.

The most common neurodevelopmental disorder, affecting 1 in 10 children, is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disease (ADHD). Other chronic diseases include, but are not limited to, asthma, autism, cancer, diabetes, food allergies, and obesity. Studies suggest that lifestyle and environmental changes over the past few decades could be a contributing factor to the increase.

The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non- partisan organization that advocates healthy living. In a study, they commissioned five laboratories to examine the umbilical cord blood of 10 babies. This study found more than 200 chemicals in each newborn. Chemicals can accumulate in the fetal environment and be absorbed at greater levels by fetuses than by the pregnant women themselves. This could have significant consequences for the growing fetus, since many of these chemicals are known to affect development.

It’s not just what our children are exposed to, but also what they are being deprived of that may be a contributing factor. For example, a third of births in the United States are by C-Section. C-sections deprive newborns of the microbiome inoculation they should receive in the birth canal. These bacteria play an important role in the development of the babies’ immune system.

A strong immune system is the best defense against chronic disease in our children. That immune system begins to develop in the womb. When a C-section birth is necessary, a discussion with the doctor can determine whether swabbing the birth flora onto the newborn is an option. This procedure can provide the beneficial microbes needed to protect them from harmful bacteria that can cause illnesses. In addition, breastfeeding provides the antibodies needed to fight off viruses and bacteria. Although it is a personal matter, studies show that mother’s milk is the best first nutrient for babies.

Another way to ensure a strong immune system in our children is to avoid antibiotics, if possible. A report in 2016 by The Center for Disease Control revealed that 29 percent of all antibiotics prescribed for children 0-19 were unnecessary. Antibiotics destroy both bad and good bacteria. A discussion with your doctor might lead to other options that are less disruptive to a child’s immune system. Antibiotics deplete good bacteria, but outdoor play can have the opposite effect. Playing in dirt can actually strengthen young immune systems. Gardening is one way to expose children to both healthy microbes and healthy food. Growing your own food or buying organic is always best, as well as using personal and cleaning products that are free of chemicals. The extra cost of purchasing organic food and “clean” products in your home is a healthy investment when compared to the higher cost of potential chronic illnesses and pharmaceuticals later in life.

When children show signs of illness or irregular behavior, one option is to look at what they are eating along with what they may be missing in their diet. Doctors should also consider testing for toxins. Often young children are put on medications without knowing what is causing the condition. As with all diseases, finding the root cause of an illness or behavior will ensure that our children receive the best healthcare along with the best results. Their healthy future depends on it!

Lisa Carlson lives in Danville. A retired Air Force veteran, she serves on the Vermont Commission on Women.