A Conversation with Sanjay Gupta, M.D.
Dr. Gupta is a practicing neurosurgeon and CNN’s Emmy Award-winning chief medical correspondent. He has reported on and testified before Congress on the environment and children’s health. He and his wife, Rebecca Olson, a family law attorney, have three daughters. He spoke recently with NIH MedlinePlus Magazine Coordinator Christopher Klose about children’s health and the environment, including the National Children’s Study. (See accompanying story.)
Please share some of your concerns about the environment and children’s health.
Dr. Gupta: We are surrounded by more chemicals now than ever before. Up to 200 chemicals are in the blood of babies before they’re even born. The exact ramifications of all these chemicals are unclear. We have seen an increase in various diseases, from asthma and autism to childhood obesity. It will take a national long-term study to say for sure what these chemicals may be contributing.
The National Children’s Study will be conducted over many years and look at all sorts of environmental impacts on children’s health. Why is this study important to Americans?
Dr. Gupta: While there are notions of what it might show, the scientists must allow themselves to be surprised. There may be relationships we were convinced of that don’t pan out and vice versa.
For example, much of what we know about heart disease comes from the Framingham Heart Study that began in 1948. It took that study to prove what we now know to be obvious—that high blood pressure and high cholesterol are risk factors for heart disease, for example.
The National Children’s Study could do for toxic environmental exposures what Framingham did for heart disease. It could help explain some real mysteries, such as the increase in autism, which some pediatricians believe is due to a combination of environmental exposures.
So, you’re encouraged by both the breadth and depth of the National Children’s Study?
Dr. Gupta: Yes. It is a broad study, a good cross-section of America. When you participate in a study like this, there is a real opportunity to have evidence-based science. If you’re a pregnant mom, you could help change science and the way we prevent some diseases of childhood.
What would you say to a would-be or young mother about kids’ health these days? What about your own family?
Dr. Gupta: I have three young children. We stay away from a lot of processed foods because they may be introducing contaminants into our children’s bodies. We don’t always buy organic foods, but we do buy organic milk. I’m worried about growth hormones used in cows being transmitted to my children.
We always take off our shoes at home. Shoes can drag in lots of contaminants, pesticides, and all sorts of things. And young children spend a lot of time on the floor, placing them in contact with potential contaminants.
We keep lots of plants. They can filter some of the toxins that inevitably build up in the air. We also use BPA-free bottles. Many people say BPA has never been proven to cause any physical harm. The National Children’s Study may bear that out, but we have decided to abide by the precautionary principle here. The same goes for water bottles.
What about children and the time they spend outside versus time inside?
Dr. Gupta: There are two reasons for children being outside. First, the air inside your home may be more problematic than the air outside. Second is that keeping kids exposed to nature allows them to build up a more consistent, reliable natural immunity to things that may be allergens later in life. We let our kids play outside a lot.
What would be your top two or three ways for families to keep kids healthy?
Dr. Gupta: Here’s what I believe, maybe more so as a father than a doctor. Children have an innate tendency to be healthy and do the right things for their bodies. For example, my children have healthy eating habits. They actually like healthy food, because it’s what we’ve always given them.
Having healthy eating habits from the beginning works, because kids then never crave unhealthy foods. Part of that for us is that we have a little garden in our back yard where we grow vegetables. The kids know they come out of the ground and recognize their value because they help grow them. And they love tomatoes, for example.
I’m always struck that when their friends come over, I can tell by their questions that they may not realize that food comes out of the ground.
What about exercise?
Dr. Gupta: For the past two years, I’ve been in a lot of athletic competitions that entail training. I’m very busy with work, as it is, so, on weekends, to go for a long bike ride, or run or swim was taking me away from the kids even more.
This was a big discussion point with my wife. But we decided it was really good for the kids to see me doing that. I try to incorporate them into my training as much as I can. For them to see me exercise, and that it’s important in my life, makes them want to do it.
So, seeing their parents exercise motivates children, too?
Dr. Gupta: Absolutely. You can find a thousand reasons not to exercise, and one is that it takes away from spending time with your children. So, it’s really important for your kids to see you exercising. They will remember and incorporate it into their own lives.
To Find Out More
- Children’s Health: MedlinePlus
- Children’s Health: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
- National Children’s Study
- What You Can Do to Protect Children from Environmental Risks
- Health and Human Development