Doctors in parts of Nigeria have reportedly seen an increase in patients treated for allergies.
This may be partly as a result of Nigerian societies adopting Westernised lifestyles and substituting traditional options for more modern choices. The allergy increase is due to their lifestyle choices preventing them from being exposed to the good micro-organisms that prevent allergies.
Nigeria is not unique. Research shows that allergic diseases have been increasing in both developed and developing countries as a result of rising living standards and the adoption of western lifestyles.
The World Health Organisation suggests that more than 235 million people worldwide suffer from atopic dermatitis, allergic rhinitis and allergic asthma.
Although not being exposed to good bacteria early in life is one possible cause of the increase in allergies, Western lifestyle factors such as exposure to pollution and tobacco smoke are also to blame.
Reducing the time mothers' breastfeed and/or cutting it out completely could also contribute to the increased incidence of allergic diseases.
In Nigeria, some cultures recommend extended breastfeeding to help babies develop strong immune systems. But there are also several other indigenous child-rearing practices that have traditionally helped babies beef up their immune systems and ward off allergies. These are viable options that should be promoted locally. They include:
weaning babies off breast milk with pap and soya milk; and
surrounding the new mother with family members.
A balanced immune system
A child’s immune system starts developing in its mother’s womb and continues until it turns two. This is thought to be a critical developmental window as it can alter the risk for children developing allergic diseases.
To prevent allergies and other related immune mediated disorders, there is a need for a diverse microbial community and a balanced immune system. Microbial communities are groupings of “good” bacteria that live in different parts of the body, including the skin, gastrointestinal and genital tracts. This good bacteria helps in the efficient development of the immune system.
In the first two years of a baby’s life, there is a need to encounter and interact with as much of this good bacteria as possible. One of the most efficient ways for this bacteria to be transferred is through normal delivery. As the baby goes through the genital tract, it accesses this bacteria.
However, during a Cesarean section birthing process, there is limited transfer of this good bacteria to the child.
Another process of transferring these good bacteria to the baby is through breastfeeding. The child gets to interact with the bacteria on the mother’s skin. Therefore, as the baby develops and encounters different bacteria populations, the bacteria community becomes more diverse.
This helps the immune system develop and become tolerant of innocuous substances – and subsequently prevents the development of most allergic diseases.
There are several traditional practises in Nigerian societies that aid this process.
In some Nigerian societies, cultural and tradition practices are performed until a child turns two. Some of these practices have immunological basis as they contribute to the immune system developing efficiently.
For example, mothers from the Efik and Ibibio culture in southern Nigeria breastfeed their children until they are one year old.
Coincidentally, this is similar to the World Health Organisation’s recommendation to breastfeed infants until they are two. Breast milk contains several immune modulating components which help in effectively developing a child’s immune system.
It also helps expose the child to preformed antibodies which helps to prevent diseases in the early stages of their immune system developing. By this stage, their immune systems have not yet developed the full capability of combating infectious diseases.
A locally produced weaning meal
Another immune boosting mechanism in some Nigerian cultures is weaning babies off breast milk with pap. The Yoruba people call it “ogi baba/koko” while the Igbo people call it “akamu” and Hausas call it “Kwunu zaaki”.
Pap is a semi-solid food made from fermentation of cereals and legumes – maize, guinea corn, millet and sorghum. Pap helps diversify the microbial community that the baby develops from the starter cultures it has got during the delivery process and breastfeeding.
Scientists have shown that these locally produced meals help to calibrate the immune and metabolic functions which decrease the risk of immune-mediated diseases including allergies. As a result of the pap, the baby has a natural supply of probiotics that help develop a microbial community for the immune system.
In the Yoruba community, lactating mothers are also encouraged to take pap as it improves their production of breast milk. This cultural practice also has potential immune benefits. Studies have shown that locally prepared pap contains naturally present probiotic supplements. This may lead to them having higher levels of anti-inflammatory molecules in their breast milk which offers their babies reduced risks against allergy and other diseases.
There is also a social practice in which the new mother is encouraged to keep the company of other family members immediately after birth. Research suggests that this reduces the risk of postnatal depression in new mothers. But it also provides a window for the child to have early encounters with a wider range of microbial communities.
Promoting some indigenous cultural practices is important as it would aid the effective development of children’s immune systems and reduce susceptibility to allergic conditions.