Updated: Aug 23, 2022
Guest Post by Dr. Becky Andrews, CAFF Board Member
Airway structure and development begin in-utero and continue through early childhood. In some (maybe many) cases, the development of a small airway is both predictable and preventable with the right nutritional resources.
Prenatal and early childhood diets are central to providing both the right nutrient building blocks and the right physical stimulus to developing a full, healthy airway.
I know it is horrifically cliche - but we are what we eat in a very literal sense. Every single thing in our body (cells, bones, organs, hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters, everything) is made out of the food that we eat. So, if you don’t have the right raw materials, you cannot possibly have a body that functions well or stays healthy. This is doubly true when a brand-new human is being built (fetal and early childhood development).
HOW DIET IMPACTS AIRWAY DEVELOPMENT
Diet applies to airway development in 2 different ways:
I. Fiber, Chewing, and Sugar
Having a non-refined, plant-heavy, whole foods diet that involves lots of chewing creates strong chewing muscles. The strength of these muscles changes the structure of the jaw and palate in a developing child, and remarkably appears to be influenced by maternal diet even before pregnancy.
II. Nutrients Necessary for Building Correct Structure
There are several nutrients that are necessary for the formation of the upper palate and the jaw:
ARE JAWS GETTING SMALLER?
The earliest work associating refined foods and poor jaw development was done by a dentist named Weston Price in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, his work started out as part of the eugenics movement (it was the dominant “scientific” theory at the time). The goal of eugenics science was to “prove” the superiority of the European white male in part by showing the “superior” bone structure of the face and skull.
Dr. Price traveled worldwide visiting and documenting the jaw, tooth, and palate structures of indigenous peoples. He took lots of detailed measurements of facial structures and took hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures.
What he found was the OPPOSITE of what he assumed would be true. He found that indigenous people, who consumed indigenous, whole (wild) food diets consistently had beautiful, well-developed wide jaws and palates, large open sinuses, high cheekbones, no crowding of their teeth, no cavities, and no need for having teeth pulled.
To further his discoveries, he was able to find instances of siblings that had been raised by different families and found that the ones that had been fed a more “modern” European diet of refined foods, consistently had much narrower faces and jaws, crooked teeth (due to crowding), tooth decay and other developmental issues. Happily, this led him to conclude that the eugenics theories were incorrect (white Europeans were NOT physically healthier or superior to indigenous peoples).
His work pointed to the likelihood that both maternal diet (before and during pregnancy) and early childhood diet could make a profound impact on the development of the jaw. He documented narrowing of the jaw in children that had been born with a normal jaw structure and attributed this change to the presence of refined flour and sugar in the diet.
Later anthropological studies have supported these observations, and the prevailing theory in anthropology is still that the “chewing intensity” needed to consume high fiber, unrefined foods encourages the development of a wide jaw (and thus an improved airway).
THE NUTRIENT PIECE OF CHILDHOOD AIRWAY DEVELOPMENT
Ok, so the nutrient piece. As I mentioned before, there are specific nutrients that are needed by the body to build all of our tissues, including bone, and our jaw (palate). The idea that mothers need to have adequate nutrients during the prenatal period is not new. However, the fact that specific nutrients can affect airway development is not often discussed.
Vitamin K is essential for incorporating calcium into bone, and so is essential for bone development. There are several studies that link vitamin K deficiency specifically to underdevelopment of the maxillonasal bones (the bones in the nose and front of the face, including the palate).
Vitamin D is another important “bone health” nutrient. Both vitamin D and vitamin K levels tend to be very low in both mothers and babies. Since these nutrients are high in dark leafy green vegetables, and those veggies are not commonly consumed, this deficiency trend is not surprising.
Additionally, we need healthy bacteria in our intestines to convert the nutrients in leafy greens into Vitamin K that our body can use, so having a healthy microbiome is also important. Our microbiome is heavily affected by antibiotics (both the ones we take on purpose and the ones we don’t realize we are getting – in our food) and is also affected by our diet. Healthy gut bacteria eat plant fiber, and the modern diet tends to focus on starch and meat instead of veggies.
Folate (not to be confused with synthetic folic acid) is a B-vitamin that is found in leafy greens (foliage). Folate is essential for the development of the midline of the body. Severe folate deficiencies result in “midline” defects such as spina bifida (the spinal column bones not fusing around the spine) and cleft palate. Folate levels in the modern diet are often quite low, and additionally, many people (approximately 1/3 to ½ the population) have a genetic variation that makes it slower for them to activate and use folate (this is the MTHFR/ methyl-folate that you may have read about). For this reason, folate is the #1 most commonly recommended pre-natal nutrient. Following this idea, milder folate deficiencies can result in weaker palate development, and a high arched palate (which is associated with a narrower airway).
Much of our modern diet consists of foods that are highly refined. Refined foods are almost universally extremely low in nutrients. Refined flours are “fortified” with nutrients because if you ate the unfortified versions for more than a few months, you would develop nutrient deficiency diseases. Commercial farming has further depleted the nutrient levels in the soils, so most commercial produce is lower in nutrient content than its organic or wild counterparts.
Refined foods usually also have the fiber removed, so they also fail to provide the chewing exercise we need to trigger full jaw and palate development.
Lastly, it is also important to remember that most prescription medications cause nutrient depletion. One really common issue is antacid medications – several of our nutrients (B12 and most minerals) require stomach acid in order to be absorbed. So many people are on medications for reflux and heartburn. It is important to remember that these medications lower our ability to absorb essential nutrients. There are databases online where you can look up the drug-nutrient depletions that are currently known.
WHAT MOMS SHOULD EAT FOR HEALTHY BABY AIRWAY DEVELOPMENT
Overall, you can see that our modern diet and lifestyle tend to provide a “perfect storm” for poor jaw and airway development. So what should mom’s eat and what should they feed their kids to meet all of these criteria?
#1 - Leafy greens like kale, collards, mustard greens, and brussel sprouts (these are tough to chew, so they provide jaw exercise, they are full of folate, vitamin K and vitamin D)
#2 - Avoid sugar as much as possible
#3 - Avoid other refined foods (especially refined grains like bread, pastries, etc.)
#4 - Eat foods that are high in Vitamin A and D like cod, salmon, sardines, and beef liver
It probably goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, these foods should be organic, and in the case of the animal-based foods, be wild caught / pasture-raised --- eating their native diet.
Dr. Becky Andrews is a Naturopathic doctor, acupuncturist, and herbalist. She is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and Bastyr University. Dr. Andrews specializes in chronic "mystery" illnesses, mood and neurotransmitter issues, genomics, pain, sports injuries, digestive issues, fatigue, environmental, and mold illness. In Seattle, she had a private practice and served as faculty at Bastyr University.
She moved to Austin in late 2011 to work as the Education Coordinator for the American Botanical Council. Following that appointment, she served as adjunct faculty at AOMA School of Integrative Medicine. She currently serves as a naturopathic health consultant at Peoples Rx and has a private naturopathic and acupuncture practice at Si Shou Acupuncture Wellness. She is also on the CAFF Advisory Board.
You can find out more about Dr. Becky at www.doctorbecky.net.