Can Poverty and Food Insecurity Make you Sick?

A growing body of evidence suggests that the very condition of living with no money, in a tumultuous environment, and amid stark inequality can alter individuals’ gene expression.  The pressure of being poor sometimes weighs so heavily that the body pumps out more stress hormones “toxic stress” which ravages the immune system over time.

Poor nutrition, trying times, and environmental toxins in childhood can turn certain genes “on” or “off”.  Even poor children who seemingly overcome the hardships of poverty- by making good grades and adapting socially-tend to have higher levels of stress hormones, blood pressure, and body mass index than their more affluent peers, according to Olga Khazan with the Atlantic.

“Exposure to stress over time gets under the skin of children and adolescents, which makes them more vulnerable to disease later in life”, says Gene Brody, founder and director of the University of Georgia Center for Family Research.

“Toxic stress” is more prevalent among poor households, such as chronic neglect or a parent’s incarceration, not enough money to pay the rent and a combination of other obstacles.  One study found that the anxiety of living in poverty is a stronger predictor of mental health problems than going to war.  All of these factors combined mean that when doctors treat low-income patients, they’re facing not just one aliment, but two: the illness itself, and the economic fragility that underlies it.

The problems and potential solutions are beyond the scope of practicing pediatricians.  It really takes the community & the community development sector to share in engaged efforts to improve the health and growth of our most at-risk children.  We can transform neighborhoods in ways that will have a profound effect on childrens’ health, both during childhood and throughout life.


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