Written by Christopher Kelly
Dec. 9, 2014
Christopher: Hello and welcome to the Paleo Baby Podcast. My name is Christopher Kelly. And today, I'm joined by Jill Escher. Jill is well-known in the autism community for her philanthropy efforts. But the busy California native wears many hats. Not only is she the president of a local autism nonprofit and a real estate investor, Jill is also a mother to three children, two of whom have non-verbal autism.
After receiving her law degree from the University of California Berkeley, she worked for the US District Court in San Jose before devoting herself full time to the family fund that she founded with her husband. The Escher Fund for Autism finances a variety of autism research, program and outreach efforts. Hi, Jill. Thanks for coming on.
Jill: Thanks for having me.
Christopher: Maybe you can tell us a bit more about your background and that will explain better what you're about.
Jill: Yes. It's sort of a strange route to Paleo, isn't it? But basically, I'm a mother of three children, two of whom, they have non-verbal autism, pretty severe forms of autism. I've been a lawyer in the past. I'm a businesswoman, a real estate investor. I'm the president of Autism Society San Francisco Bay area. I've been very active in autism philanthropy both in terms of programs and funding science for more than ten years.
I also have an interest in nutrition and actually wrote a book about sugar addiction. So I do have some kind of direct interest in Paleo. But in terms of the health of the next generation, most of that comes from not my interest in nutrition but from my interest in autism causation and what might be causing this staggering increase in neurodevelopmental abnormalities in the latest generation of children.
Christopher: So, basically, autism has come out of nowhere, right? It's like before it didn't exist and literally in the last few decades, it's now really quite prevalent.
Jill: That's absolutely right. There are people who say, "Oh, autism has always been around. We just haven't noticed it." That's absolutely not true and there's absolutely no evidence for that. Certainly there are always been people with neurodevelopmental abnormality and certainly there are always been people who are quirky and crazy geniuses who maybe had sort of bad behavior or were not socially well-adjusted.
But that's a very different thing than what's happening now. What we have now is a very large population of people who are so neurodevelopmentally disabled that they cannot care for themselves. They cannot communicate. They cannot engage in social relationships. Their cognitive levels are so impaired. They cannot hold jobs. They cannot live independently. So we're talking about something that's really devastating and not something that's sort of cute and quirky.
And although that happens too and that's fine, I'm not dismissing that. But what you just said is entirely correct. Autism was a very, very rare condition until the 1980s when kind of out of the blue the rates started to climb kind of mystifying everybody. Nobody really knew why. Here in California, I live in the San Francisco Bay area, obviously. We've been keeping incredibly good and meticulous records in our state. And in the early 1980s, we had a few thousand people statewide with severe autism.
That number is now 72,000. And so that means that for every one person with autism -- Again, just severe autism. I'm not talking about cute and quirky. For every one person with autism in the early 1980s, we now have more than 20. So it's a staggering increase of a very severe disability. And we really have not yet figured out what's happening. I certainly have some ideas about what's contributing to it but I don't pretend to have every single answer.
Christopher: Two of the people affected by this are your own children and there's a really quite fascinating story how you came to be interested in all this stuff. Tell us about that.
Jill: Yeah. So I have three kids, a 17-year-old, a 15-year-old who's a boy and an eight-year old who's a girl. The 15 and 8-year-olds are the non-verbal autistic children. What's so interesting is that in my pregnancies, before my pregnancies, during my pregnancies, after my pregnancies, there were absolutely no risk factors. So to have two kids with catastrophic disabilities and having no risk factors should be seen as very, very, very odd. And I should stress that I'm a healthy person, well-nourished. I don't have medical conditions. My pregnancies were normal conceptions, normal gestations, normal deliveries, no complications at all, no drug exposures beyond some minimal stuff.
I think I had like one TUMS or something like that. And there was nothing in their early childhood to suggest some exposure, some illness, some difference. I have no autism, mental illness or any kind of developmental disability in my family history and neither does my husband. So to have this pop out of absolutely nowhere is kind of astonishing. But it was happening everywhere. It wasn't happening just in my family. I mean, this was happening to tens of thousands of families or hundreds of thousands of families across the country where there was no apparent risk factor but all this really devastating disability in their children.
So why was this happening? I certainly had no idea. And I have gone to all the top clinicians and researchers in the state. I'm a pretty well-connected person. And I have to say absolutely nobody had any idea. We had genetic tests but their genes are normal. We had all kinds of clinical tests. Nothing came out at all. We were left with no answers whatsoever and I had come to the point where I pretty much accepted like, huh, wow, there's just this big autism thing and we're part of it and no one knows why and maybe we'll never know why and really my goal in life is to take care of my kids which it remains.
But I gave up really hoping to come to any answers. But then something really weird happened and really out of the blue and quite extraordinary. I'm kind of a geeky person. In the scope of my work as an autism philanthropist, I read a whole lot of autism research. And several years ago, maybe it was about four years ago, I came across a study that linked IVF to increased risk of autism in offspring. Now, I had never used IVF. I was a very fertile girl.
I didn't really think that had any direct relationship to me. But I had this weird memory of being a 13-year old girl growing up in Beverly Hills, California and somebody telling me at that time of the birth of the first test tube baby that I was just like that baby, that I was a miracle child. Now, I thought, okay, well, maybe I was some kind of fertility treatment child. It was this vague thought that sort of came in to my head.
So I called my mom and like, "Mom, I have a really weird question. Did you use fertility treatments when you had me?" And she said, "Oh, how did you know?" And I said, "Well, I had this hunch. I have this really weird little wisp of a memory in my head and I'm just wondering, you know. Did you know what they did to you? Did you know what they gave you? What did this fertility treatment consist of?" And her answer was, "Oh, they gave me a whole bunch of stuff. I really don't know what it was."
I said, "Well, can you find out?" Well, to cut a long story short, she was -- And this was miracle number one. She was able to obtain some of her medical records from when she was pregnant with me and those records indicated that my mother had been given what are called synthetic hormone drugs to prevent miscarriage. So what does this mean? Why does it matter? It actually took me a long time to figure out why this probably matters.
In the '60s or the beginning -- Gosh, you could go way back to the late '30s and '40s. But really, it started pretty strongly in the late '50s and early '60s. There was an idea in the medical community that if a woman had what was called an at risk pregnancy, that this pregnancy could somehow be helped with the use of various synthetic hormone drugs that were thought to maybe enhance gestation in some way. These were fake estrogens, fake progesterones and fake corticosteroids. And there were other ones as well and the thyroid hormones as well.
But primarily progesterones and then also the estrogens. Now was the use of these drugs based on science? No, it was based on sort of a philosophy, a hypothesis that maybe supplementing hormone levels with really powerful drugs would help promote gestation.
Now, these were given to women who had prior miscarriages, which was the case my mother. Sometimes they were given to women who were holding twins and, therefore, thought to be at risk of miscarriage, or women who are considered small or feeble. They were given, routinely, the women who had type I diabetes. It was a variety. If they had bleeding or spotting or cramping, these drugs were prescribed, were reckless abandoned, I think we could say.
But that was only one class of drug that was ascendant in that period, the '50s and '60s. There were many other classes of drugs that were completely new to human evolution and to evolutionary biology but were, again, used with what can only be considered in retrospect absolutely reckless abandon. These were drugs like sedatives, phenobarbital. These were anti-nausea drugs, amphetamines, many, many kinds of drugs for pain and sleep and to reduce anxiety. Lots of lots of anti-anxiety drugs.
Also, let's not forget how that maternal smoking became very common in that era as well. And as you know, smoking is mutagenic. It's epimutagenic, very powerful toxic. More than 400 toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke. So a lot of stuff happened in those decades after the war. I consider it to be a mass human experiment for which there's been almost no follow-up. So I was one of these kids, one of these fetuses, one of these millions and millions of fetuses who was exposed to completely novel and very powerful drugs in her development.
Now, the story gets a little weirder because it turns out that when I was eight years old, I was the subject of a study that was undertaken by a Ph.D. student at Columbia University. And in that study, she tried to ascertain the developmental effects of all these heavy hormone drugs in pregnancy. So she looked at these kids who had been heavily hormone exposed and trying to figure out how were they different from their unexposed peers? So it turns out I was one of the 71 kids in that study. And mind you, there were millions of fetuses exposed to this stuff.
Christopher: You found this study and realized you're part of it?
Jill: I saw the study online. It popped up on Google. And I read it and I immediately recognized that I had been one of those kids. I mean, it was such a weird coincidence, completely bizarre coincidence. So I contacted the author of the study and I said, "Hey, I was one of these kids who was heavily exposed to these drugs and you studied me when I was eight years old and now I have these mysteriously autistic kids. I think something happened to my eggs. Is there a way that I could get more records from the study?"
And this woman said to me, "You know, I never throw anything away. I keep everything under lock and key. I have all of your records." So, I mean, I was able to obtain incredibly detailed records of my prenatal exposures and about the developmental impacts of those exposures probably have on me as well. So, I more than probably anyone else in the world, which is really weird, know more about my prenatal exposures.
Our prenatal exposures are possibly the most important medical information that we'll ever have yet very, very seldom do people have any access to that information. And that I was able to take this information in such exquisite detail, I think is nothing short of a miracle. So before any of this, I had no idea that I had been exposed to anything. My mother, she's like me. She's a geek. I mean, she doesn't smoke. She doesn't drink. She doesn't take drugs.
It never occurred to me that I could have been prenatally exposed to anything much less anything as powerful as these hormone drugs. So what all this discovery led to was this idea that these drugs perhaps affected me as a fetus. But a fetus is developing its germline throughout gestation. So the idea was: Did these drugs have an effect on my eggs? And that's what really launched me into this field of epigenetics and germline biology and reproductive biology.
And it has a huge, huge implication for ancestral health, I think huge implications for this idea that you have in your podcast of Paleo baby. What does it mean to live in accordance with ancestral principles?
But to me, it comes down to molecular biology. It comes down to what are we doing at the level of DNA that could be reprogramming our gametes, the most important cells in our body, in a way that could have adverse or other impacts on the next generation? And this is really an open book kind of question. It has not been well studied. Obviously, it's been studied to a certain degree and I talk about that on my website, which is germlineexposures.org, by the way.
But we don't have all the answers about how these 20th and 21st century exposures may be changing our humanity at the level of the DNA and of the epigenomes surrounding the DNA. This is a really, really important question. It has incredible implications for how we regulate pharmaceuticals, for how we regulate chemicals, for how we engage in reproductive technology and assisted reproduction.
But we're really just beginning to scratch the surface of what it could all mean. I could go into the science and explain why it's probably very important. But I'll take a break, see if you have a question. I've been talking and talking.
Christopher: Yeah. No, no. It's an amazing story and thank you for sharing it. And, I think, it's important to make clear and it took me a moment to get my head around this. You're not talking about being exposed to something whilst pregnant and that being problems for the baby. You're talking about the problems -- So, there this gene line thing or this germline that's actually been distracted.
Jill: Yes, let's talk about that. That's really important. I think I need to offer very small biology lesson. Okay. So, as we know, a fetus develops in the mother's womb. The fetus essentially is composed of two types of tissue. One is called the somatic tissue and that's everything that makes up our bodies, our hair, our skin, our muscles, our bones, our nervous systems. That's the somatic us. The other class of tissue is the stuff called germline, germ cells.
And those are the progenitor cells of what will become our mature sperm and our mature eggs, which would create the next generation. So within every embryo and every fetus are the somatic cells and the germ cells and they develop entirely differently. They are almost like two separate animals. They are little -- They're really actually two separate animals because the germ line will go on to become separate organisms.
And what we're seeing is that there are impacts on the somatic cells and impacts on the germ cells that may be quite different for different reasons. And they are vulnerable for different reasons as well. When we are fetuses, this sort of amazing thing happens that, yeah, we start off as a little ball of cells called the blastocyst. I think people know kind of enough about biology to know we start off as a single cell organism and then we divide and divide and divide, become a little ball that implants itself in the uterus and then from that grows the complicated fetus from all this tissue differentiation.
And eventually, after nine months, a full on baby. Well, separately, just as that fetus is growing, the germ cells are also growing. So my little eggs starting off as basically a couple of cells in that blastocyst and then they multiply and multiply -- and this is important -- get reprogrammed during gestation so that they can become these potent cells that can grow on to create the next generation. And that's a lot of science. I know it's weird.
But at least in biology in high school, we learn that, for example, a girl is born with all of her eggs. Where did these eggs come from? Does the stork like drop them in our ovaries? No. I mean, they come from this early embryo and they go through an incredibly complicated process of reprogramming. And that reprogramming is what's called an epigenetic phenomenon. Yeah, we hit into epigenetics too much right now. But basically, our eggs and sperm are not just DNA. They are DNA in meshed in a very complex matrix of regulatory chemicals and molecules.
And that's called the epigenome. So we're always talking about our DNA, our good genes, our bad genes. We're always assuming that our kids will be some sort of outgrowth of our DNA. Well, that's only partly true. They're also an outgrowth of this epigenome that wraps itself and regulates the expression and functionality of that DNA. So we have to be careful about both issues, both the genetic and mutation issues, but also the epigenetic issues.
So all that epigenome is being reprogrammed in our gemetes. I hate to do like too science. Hold on a second. My autistic son is kissing me. I love you very, very much but I'm on a podcast. Sorry.
Christopher: That's okay.
Jill: I had to kick out my autistic. He came in to give me a big kiss. He's a very loving boy. So, yeah, it's a lot of science. But when it comes down to it, we forget about germ line. We forget that that fetus that develops into a baby and it's so, so, so cute and you're looking at the five fingers and the five toes and the little nose and the cute button lips and they're so cute. And then the doctor checks his heart and the heart is beating perfectly and it's breathing well. The kid is 100% healthy.
We forget there's this whole other part of the fetus which is this containing the seeds for the next generation. And we have almost systematically ignored the health of that particular set of tissue, the germline tissue. It was assumed when I was born that I was born with no birth defects because I had the ten fingers and ten toes and each button nose and the whole thing. Hold on. Johnny, my love, sweetie , I need you to go out. Okay, honey bunny?
But nobody thought, "Oh, gosh, all those drugs that her mother took, could they have affected the germ cells?" Nobody even thought about that. And that's not remarkable for the '60s. It's completely unremarkable in the '60s that no one would think about the germ line. It was a very unsophisticated era in terms of reproductive biology. But what is remarkable is that even today in the year 2014, we're still ignoring it. It's still a question that is not asked.
When the FDA, for example, last year, they had approved an anti-nausea drug as what's called a Category A drug for pregnancy, they never asked the question, "Could this have an effect on germline?" And this is an important question. A birth defect can happen at the molecular level. A birth defect isn't just something that happens at the growth anatomical level and has to be obvious and visible. So really what I'm trying to do is push this idea that, people, we can drug our DNA.
It's not just drugging our body. We can our drug our DNA, our future generations. And that's we're really clearly trying to ascertain and protect against these effects.
Christopher: So it seems that there was a fundamental shift as well that we started to understand the placenta didn't actually protect the baby from harm. I know that's a common misconception.
Jill: Yes, exactly. That was the thought in the '50s and '60s, was that the placenta was the barrier.
Christopher: Right. And then how does methylation fit into the whole equation?
Jill: Yeah, okay.
Christopher: What is methylation? I thought your description of it was accidental. I'd like to hear that.
Jill: Well, sure. I talk about epigenetics and epigenetics, once again, is all these chemical function and chemical tags in and around the DNA. There are various levels of epigenetic regulation. One of them is called DNA methylation. And DNA methylation is really probably the best known and best studied of all the epigenetic mechanisms. And it's basically, these little guys, the little methyl groups that attach themselves to parts of the DNA to turn on or off a section of DNA, to turn on or off a gene.
So you can have a mutation at a gene which will result in some abnormal physiological process or you could have abnormal methylation at a gene without a mutation that will also result in abnormal physiological process. You don't need a mutation to have an effect of a mutation. So when these little methyl groups attach to the DNA, they can basically turn on or off the transcription of that DNA, meaning it turns on or off the functioning, the translation of that gene.
And it's been shown in animal models and also in some human. So, methylation, it's everywhere. It's just a normal part of how DNA works but it can go wrong. And so what we've seen in animal models, for example, is hypo or hyper-methylation of certain genes that result in pathologies down the line. And the ones that are best studied are things like cancer. So if you have hypo-methylation of a certain kind of gene that may suppress a tumor, then you might have increased risk for cancer. We've seen hypo and hyper-methylation caused by things like smoking or air pollution or endocrine disrupting, which basically means hormonal reactive chemicals and pesticides.
A lot of things can have an effect on methylation. Some of it is quite normal but some of it is quite adverse and can lead to pathology. So that's basically what methylation is. Some people say, "Oh, methylation, you know, that's fixable. It's something that can change with diet. There are methyl donors, for example, in our diet including folate." And that's true. You can really improve your health by eating methyl rich foods. I think that's not weird. But what happens is some of this stuff is permanent.
Some of these abnormal exposures get really baked into our genes at this germline level. And so the epigenome is not infinitely malleable as, I think, sometimes it's represented to be. Some of these marks are quite permanent and persist for generations. And we've seen this quite distinctly in animal models. Come on, Johnny. Johnny, go outside. Go outside. He's really cute. I wish he was on video. You could see how cute he is but he keeps coming up and he's been hugging me this whole time.
So, yeah, anyway, so that's methylation. And there are other forms of epigenetic modifications. I've talked a lot about how our DNA is packaged. We always are taught that DNA is this sleek and unadorned sort of linear molecule twisting around this double helix and that's really a very misleading image that we see in our high school biology textbooks.
What happens is DNA is such a long molecule. If you would stretch it out from a single cell, it would be about three meters tall. And in order to fit this incredibly gigantic molecule into a single nucleus, it gets wrapped and wrapped and wrapped and wrapped and wrapped and wrapped some more around these little balls of proteins called histones. And as histones get compressed, the DNA is less likely to be read, okay, less likely to be activated. But you can open and close those histones based on certain exposures including steroids hormones. So you have many, many levels at which we can really tinker with how our DNA is expressed and a lot of that could be activated by external signals such as steroid hormones, such as these and endocrine disrupting compounds, such as toxic found in cigarettes.
There are many, many more but it's really important that people not dwell on genetics. Our genes are pretty resistant to change. They are really sturdy stuff. It is hard to induce to mutations. You have to kind of work at it. But it's not that hard to induce changes at the epigenetic level and that's what people have to understand. We can't be complacent and say, "Well, you know, I've got good genes." The genes exist in a context and we have to be alert to that context. I mean, there's no doubt that I come from a family with really good genes and so does my husband. But maybe that's not what matters as much as what was our exposure histories.
Christopher: Right. There's two sides to this which I find quite interesting and the first is quite depressing in that we come to realize that it's not just your actions that are having the end effect. It has to do with your mother and your gene line which, I think, is kind of out of your control to some extent, isn't it? But then at the same time, you are telling me, the expression of the genome is definitely something that you can control. So there is something you can do.
Jill: What you're asking right now is just a hugely important question. Like how much is out of our control and how much power do we have over what I would call protective effects, right? So let's say you're somebody who is listening to this podcast and you're thinking about getting pregnant or you're already pregnant, all right, and you want to ensure the best health for your baby. And it's true, if your mother smoked, I'm going to guarantee you that there were some kind of adverse effect on your egg or sperm, right?
It might be negligible or it might be quite profound, I don't know. But I'm pretty sure at this point that you have the cards stacked a little bit against you. For example, smoking is just one example. So what can you do? I think -- And again, this is based on animal studies -- that you can take precautionary measures. I do think that diet and avoiding medications and drugs and chemicals, you can have some level of protective effect. Eating, I'm very much a fan of the sort of the Weston A. Price work and this idea about these nutrient-dense diets before conception and during gestation.
These methyl donors that we were just talking about, I mean, it's amazing when you read Weston A. Price's book, which I think every pregnant women should read. It's called Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. By the way, for those who don't know his work, it was written in the 1930s, published in 1939. It is so remarkable for his observational and descriptive skill. And that is so remarkable. What it highlights is that traditional cultures really understood how important it was for the pre-pregnant woman and also the pre-pregnant man, and the pregnant woman to be nourished with certain nutrients.
And these were things that turned out to be things like fat soluble vitamins, for example. I would also add to that cholesterol which is the precursor to all steroid hormones. It's a very important nutrient for anybody thinking about getting pregnant. You really want to have as robustly normal hormone levels as you possibly can. When I talk to young women who are thinking of getting pregnant, I tell them that ancestral nutrition, following in the steps of Weston A. Price but there are other approaches as well. I think it's a very, very wise thing to do.
Will it counteract any damage that's been done in the past? I don't know. I can't say for certain. But it seems to make sense. It stands to reason. And as I said, there's been animal models for which, for example, you can feed an animal BPA which is that plasticizer, which has estrogen that affects its estrogenic chemical. And some of that will be counteracted, for example, by additional folate. So what does that tell me? Maybe we can kind of turn back the clock a little bit. I don't know for sure but it sure as heck worth it, I think. It's an unexplored area and I hope to do more work on that in the coming years.
Christopher: So that's the diet that you recommend then to anyone that's looking to get pregnant or is pregnant already?
Jill: Oh, yes. Absolutely. My goodness, I think a human reproduction is a molecular act, okay. And we want to give those molecules the best fighting chance we possibly can. And you get that best fighting chance, I think, by staying off of drugs to the extent you can. Obviously, there are people who need to take certain medications for certain things. I'm not down on every form of medication but kind of clearing yourself of all of these evolutionarily strange compounds and enriching your body with the nutrients that are needed at this molecular level to synthesize new life.
I mean, that sounds kind of goofy but it's chemistry. It's all biochemistry. Life is biochemistry. Life is just the transformation of one set of molecules into another set of molecules. That's what it comes down to. And we need the best building blocks we can to create new generation of humans. I've reviewed the books that are out there, the sources of information that are out there. I'm really favorably impressed with recommendations of Weston A. Price. I would not suggest that a pregnant woman take raw milk, by the way. I know that Weston A. Price, they're really into raw milks. Don't even go close to that. The last thing you want is a bacterial or viral infection. When you're trying to get pregnant--
Christopher: My wife is a food scientist, and she's not keen on it either. She spent a number of years working in a lab and in the cow shed with cows and, yeah, she doesn’t recommend that either.
Jill: No. No. But in terms of the nutrient density, any kind of ancestral health approach, any kind of Paleo approach, I think, is well worth looking into. The fat soluble vitamins, the B vitamins in particular, very important. I tell people there's so many young women now who are vegan and vegetarian and I tell them, "Okay I am with you. I don't want to harm animals either. But you need animal products. You need healthy animal products in your body when you're trying to conceive and when you're carrying a baby." Okay, to me, like vegan, in gestation, to me, it's child abuse.
I hate to say that, people. I'll get hate letters for saying that. But it is. I mean, we have a duty to the next generation and part of that duty is to provide it with the right nutrients. So vegan as in vegetarian as in pregnancy is a very bad idea. I'm a huge fan of things like liver and natural fats, also duck fats. I cook with that a lot. Any organ meat is a good idea and definitely a big fan of all the nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits. But I'm not a nutritionist. I'm not going to go on and on about that. I'm sure you have many podcasts about nutrition.
Christopher: Right. So do you think this is a time which is important to get on board with all this stuff? Like before we even consider getting pregnant, you should be doing all of this? Or is there no dividing line? Just all of these rules apply all of the time.
Jill: Really good question. Obviously, the sooner the better. If you're a person thinking about having a baby, the sooner you can get your biochemistry in order, the better. You definitely don't want to smoke. Smoking is incredibly toxic to yourself and to your fetus and we now know to the germline. You definitely don't want to be taking antidepressants unless to really severe case, I suppose. We have incredibly high rates of antidepressants use now anywhere from 5% to 12% of young women depending who you ask.
And that's very alarming because we have seen in repeated studies that antidepressant use increases risks of neurodevelopmental abnormality including autism in the offspring. You definitely don't want to be in anything likes a statin drug because that's going to reduce your cholesterol levels. That's essential. We also know that's teratogenic. You don't want to be, if you have seizures, valproic acid, valproate is very damaging to a fetus. So, if there's any way to control seizures without medication, which I know is hard.
But Jimmy Moore would say ketogenic diet. And that's great if you could make that work. Ketogenesis is also probably problematic for a fetus as well but that's another story that I'm not too familiar with. But anyway, you asked a good question about the window. The sooner, the better. But let us tell all men, all men, "Alert, alert all men." Spermatogenesis, the act of creating a mature sperm from the stem cells in the testes, that takes about 72 days. And during that time period, there is very little DNA repair going on within that sperm.
Jill: So you really, really, really, don't want to be tampering with that process, with the process of spermatogenesis during that 72-day period. So what would you do? You would want to steer clear of medications. You probably don't want to smoke.
You definitely don't want to smoke. You don't want to smoke marijuana. Do I think a little drink here and there is a bad thing? Probably not, but you probably don't want to engage in heavy drinking. You want to be wary of all kinds of ambient exposures if there are pesticides, if there are industrial exposures, military exposures. You really want to give your sperm the best chance. You definitely don't want to be on any form of steroid drug. You do not want to be taking corticosteroids for inflammation or your backache.
If you're a body builder, you don't want to be taking any of those hormonal reactive drugs that are popular. You probably don't want to be taking things that are pain killers or sleeping aids. So, yes, men, do give your sperm the best chance by eating nutritious food and avoiding all the drugs and chemicals in that 72-day period. That's the sperm. With regards to the egg, it's pretty similar. The egg undergoes its final stage of maturation shortly before ovulation.
And just like that spermatogenesis is a very vulnerable period for the gamete, so definitely, the couple months before conception, you'll be kind to your gametes and you nourish them well and you give them the best fighting chance to create a healthy baby.
Christopher: And then what about other things that people have in their life other than foods? I think like personal care products and the types of materials just like cooking ware is made out of. What are your thoughts on that and the potential effect on the germline?
Jill: Yeah. That's a rally good question. I mostly focus on what I call the acute exposures, like the acute exposures are these drugs we put in our mouth, the cigarettes we put in our mouth. But there is this whole classification of what are called more ambient exposures and you were talking about, I think, endocrine disruptors, in the list you just offered. And those are very important. I had a discussion a couple months ago with the head of the NIEHS, the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.
She's s very smart woman and I was kind of subtly poo-pooing the idea that all these ambient exposures could possibly be as important as these more acute exposures that my work focuses on. She said to me, "No. Think about it. You're putting the stuff on your face, in your body, on your skin, in your hair, in your food, day after day after day maybe multiple times a day. And the chemicals in those products not only could add up but they could have accumulative effects. They could have synergistic effects. And we don't want to minimize the effects of some of these chemicals, some of what you've shown to have to have effects at very low doses. For example, BPA has been shown to have negative effects at very low doses."
I'm kind of coming around on this issue to say, "My goodness, you're right. We should be careful of these personal care products." Are there known toxic in them? Absolutely. Phthalates are big one. That's another plasticide or softener. BPA. There are parabens. This is not an area where I am an expert but there are plenty of studies to show that many, many of these chemicals that are commonly found in our personal care products and in our cookware and in the plastics. In our spatulas, for example. Or the plastic that we put in our, for example, microwave or dishwasher. They get heated up and they are leeched into our food, right?
We really should be wary of them. So yeah, I mean, if you're thinking of having a baby, I would throw out everything in your kitchen that's plastic. Just to err on the side of caution. I would use only organic personal care products and cosmetics as well. I was wearing lipstick. I'm a girl. And lord knows what's in them. And there are websites that -- Again, I don't remember. They are off the top of my head. There are websites that list some of the toxic chemicals found in our personal care products and cosmetics and those are definitely worth looking at. It brings out this question: Risk versus benefit.
Like, "Gosh, Jill, you're telling me to get rid of my plastic colander and my plastic serving spoon just because I want to have a baby? Isn't it that ridiculous?" I want to say something I think is really important and that really doesn't get said. And it's this: You are making a baby. You are making someone you are going to live with every single day for the rest of your life. Maybe not live with them but they're going to be part of your life. This person, this thing that you create is going to have 80 years on this earth. You really, really don't want to create a human with a disability if you can avoid it.
You don't want to create somebody with a cognitive impairment, somebody with enhanced risk for obesity or cancer or autoimmune disease if you could help it. You don't want a kid with ADHD if you can help it, okay. And people say, "Oh, you know, nine months." Nine months is nothing. Nine months is nothing compared to a lifetime of disability. Speaking of lifetime of disability, hi Johnny, sweetie I love you so much but could you leave? We now, in the State of California, as I said, we have 72,000 people with severe autism, at least that much. And we don't really have a mechanism in place, a system in place to take care of these people because it's so expensive.
And so I'm really in favor of anything we can do to protect future generations from what happened to me. Then people say, "Well, Jill, you don't really know that something happened to your eggs. I mean, you can't say for sure that these synthetic hormones misprogrammed your eggs." And that is true. I do want to say that. I don't have every single dot connected to prove that this is what happened. I'm basing my conclusion on basically animal models and some knowledge about certain things that happened at the genetic level called imprinting, which I will not get into now because it's so complicated.
But I do want to stress that I spend incredible amount of time talking to autism families. And I see these ancestral exposure histories over and over and over again. It is not just me. If it was just me, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. I see these stories everywhere. Sometimes, the parents were like me and they were exposed to anti-miscarriage protocols. Sometimes, they were exposed to smoking. Sometimes they were exposed to anti-nausea drugs or anesthesia or other things during these very critical windows of exposure.
I'm at a point where I am reasonably sure that these molecular aberrations can have really catastrophic effects. So I now apologize for the fact that I give people this, what seems like straight-end advice. You really want to do whatever you can to ensure the health of your baby.
Christopher: There are risk interventions as well. The things that you're describing, it's not like you're telling someone to take some drug that's been unproven. You're talking about throwing away some plastics. It's really not a big a deal, is it?
Jill: Yeah. No, exactly. And being careful what lotion you put on your body and what kind of lipstick you use. I guess it is, people might say, "Jill, it's extreme of you to say don't take an antidepressant or something like that." But I don't think it's extreme at all. The risk-benefit here, to me, doesn't even come close. The risks are just too high. And if you can find any other way to control your depression, for example, you should do that.
And what you guys in Paleo community know is that you can really, really improve a depressive state through nutrition, exercise and other forms of non-toxic intervention. And the general medical community tends to scoff at that idea. But I see it all the time in people. I see people completely turning themselves around through an ancestral health approach completely without the use of drugs. So I'm not convinced that we always need to intoxicate ourselves in order to remedy health problems.
Christopher: I would agree, absolutely.
Christopher: And then, finally, I wanted to ask you: So clearly, this is not a theory, right? This is not all set in stone, your ideas about germline. So what's going on to further the science and improve our understanding so that we make better recommendations in the future?
Jill: Yes. Good question. Well, this whole area, some people call it transgenerational epigenetics or transgenerational epigenetic inheritance or multigenerational epigenetics. It comes under a lot of labels. This is a very, very hot area of science right now. And there are now an increasing number of studies looking at this multigenerational effects of exposures. Again, these multigenerational effects happen only through the germline. There's no other mechanism.
So whenever you see a multigenerational study, it implicitly is about the vulnerability of germline. So this area is just exploding and we've seen more and more studies, and I've referred to them, on, for example, BPA of fungicides or pesticides or cigarettes, to ascertain what's happening in the subsequent generations. The stuff that I'm doing is around human -- Most of the stuff I'm doing is on human epidemiology. So I'm sponsoring studies, for example, that look at drug exposures from the 1960s.
So women, pregnant women, who were given any number of drugs when they were pregnant in the 1960s, and trying to ascertain the health of their grandchildren. It sounds a little wacky. Woman takes drug in 1960 and I'm saying, "Well, what happened to her grandchild?" Well, when I say what happened to her grandchild, I'm saying what happened to the fetus, the exposed fetus' gametes, the mom or dad of that grandchild. So it's a little bit complex. But I'm looking at the third generation results because the third generation corresponds to a germline exposure.
We have a couple of studies that are underway. They are nowhere near ready for publication or out the door. These studies are incredibly complex and they take incredibly long time. And these are also the first of its kind. So there's a lot of complications. So, yeah, I think that we will be seeing more and more interest and clarity on these issues. But as I said, for the time being, we know very well from animal models that the germline is vulnerable entering certain periods of synthesis. I've discussed those fetal developments as one of them.
So the human reproductive biology among mammals is not so different mammal to mammal. These are very highly evolutionarily conserved processes. So when you see germline disruption in a mouse, the chances that it's happening in other mammals including humans is pretty high. So, yeah, I hope to be able to report back at some time with some really definitive studies that take this issue head on but it's extremely complicated, very expensive, very hard.
Christopher: I'll look forward to it. It's exciting stuff. And so the best place to find you then is germlineexposures.org, is that right?
Jill: That's right, yes. And the core of that website is interviews with experts around the world who touch on various issues relating to the vulnerability of germline. I've a whole bunch more that will be going up soon. And so it's just going to be a repository of this information for lay people and scientists. Because there's nothing else that I could find on the web that was like it. So I just decided to create one on my own.
Christopher: Yeah, I certainly see nothing like it. And, yeah, the science actually was really interesting. We have genetics and stuff. There's a ton of information on the site. So I highly recommend it.
Jill: Yeah. Just remember, if I can have one parting word, that Paleo babies start with Paleo gametes. Okay. So, let's do the best we can for them.
Christopher: Absolutely. Thank you so much for your time today. It's been great. Thank you.
Jill: Okay, thank you for having me.
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