By Roland Bayode
When Ogechi Odeke had her first son, Emmanuel, she knew her motherhood experience would be different but as a new mother, she immediately decided to find a permanent solution when her baby was diagnosed with the cerebral palsy disease, an ailment described as one of the most common motor disabilities in childhood. When Emmanuel clocked one, symptoms and physical effects like enlarged head circumference, abnormal posture, and developmental delays had gotten worse.
“My baby’s state got worse; he became unstable and could not talk, sit or walk,” Odeke said, describing her son’s condition.
Like Odeke, Okhayeme Rachel, a mother of a 6-year-old boy, found motherhood challenging. At least once or twice every month since his birth, Okhayeme’s son who is now six would go into static shock and start producing saliva from his mouth. When it first happened Okhayeme thought her son was going to die. He didn’t. But the attacks kept recurring and when she finally visited a hospital, he was diagnosed with a seizure disorder.
“Every time he starts running a temperature, he starts convulsing. It happens once or twice every month,” Okhayeme said, recounting his episodes.
Both mothers are just two out of possible millions whose children struggle with one neuro disability or the other. According to a medical journal titled Child Neurology Services in Africa, featured on the National Library of Medicine (National Centre for Biotechnology Information) platform, “the burden of neurologic disease on the African continent is not known,” demonstrating a lack of relevant and adequate data on many cases of neurological disorder present in Africa. However, in Nigeria, research has shown that the most common neurology disorders seen are seizure disorders and cerebral palsy, which have remained constant for over two decades.
In direct response, a non-profit called Brain and Body Foundation committed to reducing the death rate of children born with Sickle Cell Disease, partnered with Nigeria’s Ministry of Health to help children diagnosed with various form of neurology disorders. Their initial approach was to lead a sensitization campaign; creating awareness about childhood developmental disorders before graduating to use nutrition as an interventive cure.
“We have had very successful treatments for the past seven years since our inception. We have done so much that the federal ministry of health has given us a special dispensation to use nutrients to address all sources of problems, not just brain problems but for sickle cell and so on,” Dr. David Ajibade, the founder of Brain and Body Foundation said in an interview.
Dr. Ajibade submitted that neurology disorder in children occurs right from when they are in the womb. According to him, lack of good nutrition, or lack of good medical care leaves pregnant women and their babies susceptible to health challenges.
“Over 70% of kids are not even born in hospitals in Nigeria. Some are born in schools, churches, and mosques and this increases the potential for something to go wrong. The babies are usually affected, and sometimes, at the time of delivery, there might be issues of prolonged labour,” he added.
In addressing the issue, the foundation works to reduce the risk factor by educating the general public, especially pregnant women or couples who intend to have children so that they can give birth to healthy children. Leveraging social media, Dr. Ajibade says they try to reach a wide network of mothers who have concerns about their children’s physical and mental development
After carrying out a series of sensitization programs, new mothers are enrolled in a program where a more practical approach is initiated to support their affected children. Using science-based nutrients and supplements, the foundation attempts to reduce symptoms suffered by children. Some of the supplements they use include UASLABS Probiotics, Cardioforlife, Gastrex, Neuroplex, and Fastblast Purebody.
“These supplements are not manufactured by the Brain and Body Foundation. They are donated by international sponsors/partners and we have found significant improvements using them,” the foundation’s administrative assistant, Peculiar Obiukwu, said in a WhatsApp interview.
Independent study shows that some of these supplements contain a high-potency, selectively chosen probiotic blend that advances digestive and immune support. Some of them work naturally with the human body to support their unique wellness goals. While some also contain vitamins that boost the growth of the body, each of them has its side effects.
Gastrex for example is used for the symptomatic treatment of acute nonspecific diarrhea. Neuroplex is indicated as adjunctive monotherapy in the treatment of partial seizures. It is also used for the diagnosis or treatment of Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anemia, and Alzheimer’s disease. It has some side effects such as abdominal cramps, breathing problems, allergic reactions, and blockade of portal blood vessels due to fibrosis.
Fastblast is used to maintain energy by blasting cells with high-quality nutrition like organic fermented fruits and vegetables, organic pea protein, and medium-chain fatty acids from coconut.
To verify claims, Social Voices contacted 18 medical practitioners to expound on the effectiveness of nutrients and supplements in reversing neurological disorders. Most of them were hesitant with their responses, and only a fraction of the medical practitioners who pled for anonymity responded.
Some of the doctors disclosed that the approach of using nutrition to cure brain disorders is a new approach that still requires a lot of science and research.
“I can only comment on documented scientific trials and facts. They are not empirical in their approach to healing. They are simply there to make money as a non-profit,” a doctor who pleaded anonymity said.
Another doctor affirmed that antioxidants are very effective for most neurological disorders and that they do prescribe them, like Vitamin E, but the efficacy is still being studied. She revealed that the nerve cells which form a major part of the brain don’t regenerate when they die and that the deformity remains or only improves with regular physiotherapy.
“It seems like a good initiative, but there is not enough evidence to support this. It’s a new field that is being explored in Nigeria, but I have not had any contact or seen any patient that recovered from these illnesses,” she added.
Also, speaking with this reporter, a Natural Health consultant/Nutritionist in Lagos, Ruth Chisom, disclosed that supplements are not 100% natural due to the production process and therefore she’s not a fan or in support of it. What she believes in is the use of herbs and spices.
“As much as I do not condemn the use of supplements and drugs for healthy living, I don’t see them as the best option. Supplements are not 100% natural if you ask me because due to the production process, some things will have to be added to them.”
She stated that the use of herbs and spices like cinnamon, ginger, and rosemary is what will bring a positive change to patients going through amnesia and dementia. However, she noted that the use of drugs and supplements works faster but it has a negative effect.
“This approach is new to Nigeria with the prevalent cases of madness, brain disorder, brain cancer, amnesia, epilepsy, etc. People have not embraced spices because it takes a while like two to three months before it becomes effective but the result Is a lifetime. it doesn’t have a negative effect, unlike supplements.
“Many Nigerians don’t know how this thing is done yet. They have navigated out of the natural way of doing things and gone into the synthetic ways with the use of chemicals. People need to know the essence of herbs and spices instead of taking drugs to accelerate their condition and damage their brains. We need to educate people on the use of herbs and spices for brain disease or cancer that is prevailing in the country and the world,” she said.
A clinical nutritionist at the Federal Medical Centre Abeokuta, (FMCA) Akinwumi Joshua revealed that the brain has access to one food which is Glucose, and when the brain is not supplied with a good diet (glucose) the brain can shut down.
He affirmed that brain disorders might just come as a headache and then deteriorate.
“Nutrients are useful to our body system, the food we eat is absorbed into the bloodstream, and causes some growth. Instant food will cut people’s life short. Taking food that has too many additives like ice cream, soft drinks, noodles, sugar, and most food packed in cans contains sodium which may trigger brain disorder. Also, this fast and furious food will store inside the body and damage the brain.
“About 60 percent of the brain is made of fat and half of it contains omega-3 fatty acids. The brain uses this omega-3 fatty acid. Fats are essential. Fruit contains vitamins, and antioxidants like onions, Garlic is Good. Fruits like oranges help brain development. It contains vitamins that help to fight against depression disorder and anxiety. Eggs contain nutrients like vitamin B12. Green tea is also good.”
He further advised that people should not let the situation of the country affect their health status and therefore they must live within their capacity, and ensure their brain is healthy. “With the little money you have, instead of buying fast food, you can buy vegetables,” he added.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has disclosed that children who lack sleep may experience mental health issues like depression, anxiety, memory issues, and a detrimental impact on brain/cognitive development. However, the study recommends between nine and 12 hours of sleep nightly for children ages 6 to 12.
“We found that children who had insufficient sleep, less than nine hours per night, at the beginning of the study had less grey matter or smaller volume in certain areas of the brain responsible for attention, memory, and inhibition control, compared to those with healthy sleep habits.”
Impact of nutrition on brain development
A book titled Nutrition in Neurologic Disorders by Ethem Murat Arsava, MD, a Professor of Neurology at Hacettepe University Faculty of Medicine, Ankara, Turkey, revealed that nutritional deficits are highly common during neurological diseases. Stroke, acute and chronic neuromuscular diseases, and chronic neurodegenerative diseases are the most common neurologic disorders linked to swallowing problems and malnutrition.
A clinical dietitian who specialized as a certified nutrition support dietitian (CNSD), Katherine Marengo also confirmed that Omega-3 fatty acids help build and repair brain cells, and antioxidants reduce cellular stress and inflammation, which are linked to brain aging and neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Eating good foods has an impact on the health of the human brain which is an energy-intensive organ. A good diet can also boost both short- and long-term brain power. Experts also confirm that eating food like oily fish, dark chocolate, berries, nuts and seeds, whole grains, coffee, avocados, peanuts, eggs, and broccoli may improve brain function. However, the use of supplements like vitamins B, C, or E, beta-carotene, or magnesium is also mentioned; but it is unlikely to improve mental performance.
For a team whose major activities are dominant in the Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, they envisage an expansion into other States in Nigeria. “The major challenge is reaching out to the entire country to educate the people on brain issues. We would love to be on Radio and TV shows to educate people but finance is giving us a setback.” Dr. Ajibade said.
Another limitation is the lack of proper medical awareness at the grassroots level on how nutrition can help children’s brain development. Though the team operates majorly in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, other places are left untouched.
Also, illiteracy impedes the outreach’s success. Their adherence to unorthodox medical practices like self-medication and trade-medical beliefs has proven too hard to convince. Doing a medical checkup sounds strange to people at the grassroots level.
This story was produced in partnership with Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.