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‘What we consume is fundamental to achieving good health’

By Maria Diamond
16 April 2022   |   4:00 am
It started about 12 years ago in Latin America, Mexico, where I spent most of my time on researching the source of consumed foods as well as studying their chemical compounds.

Folakemi Okunoren is an expert in the alternative healthcare industry, who campaigns for a shift in mainstream or western medicine to a natural and healthier lifestyle change as a healing therapy. A Chemical Engineering graduate from the University College London, United Kingdom (UK), she holds a Masters Degree in Biochemical Engineering. Okunoren, who is the Founder of So Well Institute, is an active member of the Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) UK. She is also a member of the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine, California, United States of America.

In this interview with MARIA DIAMOND, she spoke about how alternative therapies provide self-healing processes, the state of alternative healthcare in Africa and how it could boost the continent’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) if properly harnessed, among other issues

Kindly take us to the outset of your career in the alternative healthcare industry?
It started about 12 years ago in Latin America, Mexico, where I spent most of my time on researching the source of consumed foods as well as studying their chemical compounds. My passion for healthy food research while living in Mexico helped me focus more on food and herbs.

This marked the basis of the Institute of Alternative Healthcare. In the last 10 years, I have specifically focused on the use of homeopathic remedies in the treatment of various diseases especially in women’s health.

Presently, my work is in Sub-Saharan Africa — southern Nigeria (Oyo and Ondo states) and the Massai communities in southern Kenya and Tanzania, alongside a group of naturopath practitioners under the umbrella of the Institute. With the help of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in our research work we are currently working on smart devices for diagnosis and treatment.

Kindly throw more light on alternative healthcare and what works?
Alternative medicine is basically traditional therapies used in healing as opposed to the conventional or mainstream therapies whilst achieving the healing effects of mainstream medicine. We can also liken alternative medicine therapies to a shift to a natural and healthier lifestyle change as a healing therapy. Alternative therapies provide self-healing processes through natural therapies.

How does keying into alternative healthcare boost Africa GDP?
The alternative and integrative healthcare industry is a potential economic boom for Africa because of the vast resources at our disposal. The industry is rapidly growing and fast becoming a widely adopted treatment method for conventional therapies, especially with the rising number of people trying to keep a natural, healthy lifestyle. It has become increasingly acceptable as people now resort to more traditional and natural healing methods.

However, the Alternative Healthcare providers industry is characterised by a low level of market share concentration especially in Africa despite the fact that the global market opportunity stands at about $82.3 billion. Africa has more potential to drive growth of 34.78 per cent of the global market share from 2021 to 2028 based on multiple factors such as the aging population, increased awareness and need for conventional therapies alternatives, which are safer with lesser or no side effects.

Tell us about the available healthcare services in this industry and the adopted methods?
Well, one of the most widely used classification structures divides complementary and alternative modalities into five categories: Alternative medical systems, Mind-body interventions, biologically based treatments, Manipulative and body-based methods and Energy therapies. These may further include: Acupuncture, Ayurveda, Homeopathy, Naturopathy and Chinese or Oriental medicine.

Over the years, other alternative therapies have evolved and become more popular. For example, using creative outlets such as art, music and dance as therapy, reflexology, chiropractic therapy, energy healing which has been used in many cases as part of therapy for cancer patients and also as an aftercare procedure for cancer survivors.
The above methods are certified by the American National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCAAM), which shows you the level of efficacy of these methods.
On how alternative medicine works, it specifically focuses on healing pain and disease by balancing out other aspects of your life. Sleep, nutrition and stress can affect your body; so adapting lifestyle plans and health plans with these in mind is important with alternative medicine. Mainstream medicine is not nearly as well rounded. Each and every one of us is an individual with particular nutritional needs and specific lifestyle choices, and more often than not we unknowingly eat foods that are toxic to our health. This is the beauty with alternative treatment methods – it gives a personalised self-healing process.

In the alternative health space, it is really a mix of the foods we consume (nutrition), lifestyle choices and our environment with food being a fundamental factor to our health. There is an old saying that some people live to eat, while others eat to live. But the tragic fact is that most people are actually eating to die, suffering from Toxic Food Syndrome (TFS). When was the last time that you complained about something in your body that hurt or simply a lack of energy to get up and go about your day-to-day activities? What health problems have we simply learnt to live with making excuses that it is as a result of old age?

My mentor Dr. Aris Latham, who is 73 and vegan, frequently climbs the coconut tree to get his daily dose of coconut water, which he doesn’t fail to drink every morning. Or consider Edith Autorino, who in 2000 completed the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii and swam 2.4 miles, bicycled 112 miles and ran 26.2 miles. Here we are, nursing aches, pains and minor ailments all the time and these folks are out here running marathons when they are 50, 30, 20 years older than a lot of people struggling with their health. Most of the chronic conditions taking away our good health are the direct result of what we consume. When an individual stops eating the foods that are causing toxic reactions in their system, their symptoms disappear.

Children are not left out. Increasingly, over the years we have more cases of autistic spectrum disorder amongst children, a strikingly increasing number of children year after year. Worldwide, roughly one in 160 people are thought to have autism. Consumed food can trigger autism-like symptoms in children; this is why there is an increase in the number of children who are facing developmental challenges – children who begin life normally and then gradually withdraw into themselves and are later on diagnosed to be autistic. Tragically there is no cure for autism but we hear of cases where autistic children improve when they stop eating toxic foods.

Is there a meeting point between alternative healthcare and mainstream medicine or therapies?
Definitely! A lot of the treatments done today using alternative medicine are usually integrated alongside conventional methods of healing/therapies. Herbs like the Euphorbia hirta (asthma weed), whole leaf plus stem, garlic, onion juice and honey are a mixture of herbs that can be used to cure asthma. For instance, in the treatment of cancer patients, an integrative approach is mostly used with 80 per cent traditional therapy and 20 per cent conventional methods to yield faster healing results especially for patients in the late stages. For example, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C) administered intravenously has been used for many years to cure stage-three cancer patients without the need for radiotherapy or chemotherapy. Other herbal remedies like the sour soup, beetroot, mixture of papaya and ripe tomatoes, taking five cloves of garlic and three medium sizes of carrots three times a day for a period of one month; these herbs and more when combined together alongside a change in diet and lifestyle can provide therapy for patients. It has to be a combination therapy because amongst other things, stress is a contributing factor to a lot of diseases.

What is the difference between alternative and mainstream medicine?
Alternative medicine is designed to actually treat the cause of the pain or disease. Chiropractors and other alternative medicine professionals are able to work at the root of the problem. Mainstream medicine, on the other hand, tends to treat the symptom that the disease or pain is causing, not actually the cause. When we use mainstream prescription drugs, we generally see an improvement in pain, but once the drug goes out of our system the pain would relapse.

When using alternative medicine, there is a drastic improvement in the quality of life a person has. It is also a more flexible approach to treatment as the plans are tailored according to lifestyle changes as opposed to the mainstream that offers dependency on prescription pills or treatment plans.

Furthermore, alternative therapies provide a platform for first line immune stimulating, supportive and restorative therapies. There is a lot of work going on especially in research space for alternative healthcare outside of Africa due to the fact that more than ever, the healthcare practitioners understand the power of natural therapies to bring health and healing to people. The safe and effective use of natural therapies improves results from conventional treatments, maximises patients’ health after treatment and reduces risk of disease recurrence.

Tell us about the So Well Institute?
The main focus of the Institute is for Advocacy and to promote the alternative healthcare industry in Africa. Our projects mainly focus on research and development of non-invasive methods of treatment of patients working with a community of alternative healthcare practitioners in Africa and the world. Presently, we have our affiliations with Naturopath doctors in Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Canada, the United States, Mexico, India, China, and Switzerland; most of who are advocates for alternative healthcare practices in Africa. Our goal is to make alternative healthcare more accessible, portable and mainstream to the average African. We also have the mandate to develop non-toxic medicines and therapies making use of the available local resources at our disposal. Beyond these, we have been working with a number of traditional medicine practitioners in Africa to provide a funding platform in order to develop a more robust industry. We are currently in partnership with a development institution in Canada.

Do you have a hospital or medical centre where patients consult and get treatment?
So Well Institute is not set up as a hospital or medical centre. We are a not-for-profit organisation – an alternative health and wellness enthusiasts promoting alternative healthcare in Africa. We are not Business-to-Consumer (B2C). We are focused on advocacy, research and development in the alternative healthcare industry. The industry is largely moribund and needs proper structure to explore the opportunities on ground.

As a Chemical Engineer, what is the link between your field of study and the healthcare industry?
I am a Biochemical Engineer with a combined degree in Chemical Engineering as well. My background as a Biochemical Engineer helped me to see the science of nature and appreciate the beauty in the science of what nature has to offer us as humans.

Why do you think Nigerians prefer to go for western treatment as opposed to alternative healthcare?
Some find it as a last resort when all mainstream medicine fails. It is the lack of awareness that has made us dependent on western medicine and that has increasingly made us forget our natural habitat in Nigeria and Africa and its healing properties. Need I say, over the years, we have allowed westernisation to override our natural healing herbs. Isn’t it mind blowing when we have everything under our nose, yet Nigerians travel all the way to China to get treatment using Chinese medicine. On the other hand, we have foreigners who are constantly trooping into our country to get herbal treatments, learning our culture and using our herbs for their own medicines.
The China Project in 1970 is a perfect example of the lack of awareness, which is tied to the diseases of the affluence and our dietary lifestyle. In 1970, Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, was diagnosed with cancer, and he commissioned a cross-sectional account of death rates by disease and counties across China. Data was collected for 880 million people (95 per cent of the population), which showed that cancer was localised to different areas of China, and they were not primarily by genetics but dietary factors and environmental factors. Dr. Campbell and his team studied blood and urine samples from 6,500 Chinese adults across different cities in China together with information on their dietary and lifestyle questions. His team found out there was a correlation between types of diseases and wealth. Chronic and degenerative diseases tended to occur in affluent regions. The diseases were attributed to nutritional extravagance that involved excessive consumption of processed foods and meats. Diseases of the affluence consisted of chronic, non-communicable diseases such as cancer, depression and hypertension, to mention a few. 

On the other hand, diseases of poverty were due to nutritional inadequacy and poor sanitation; diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS/HIV. People who lived in rural areas who ate whole foods, plant based diets or ate close to it in general did not suffer from diseases of the affluent or diseases of poverty. 

So, ultimately it is the fact that we have allowed westernisation and affluence to think that we are consuming or doing the right things with modern medicine a hundred per cent. We are not aware of the gold mine that we are sitting on. There are so much untapped resources, which if properly funded, could promote health tourism in Africa.

How would you explain the issue of affordability and availability of alternative healthcare in Nigeria?
Everything that we need for this industry to grow is at our disposal. The beauty of this is that it is not import dependent. If we take the right steps to properly invest in our resources, it can in fact be more cost effective than conventional options.

As a woman, why did you choose the healthcare industry and how do you juggle your professional responsibilities with your personal life?  
For me, my health is a lifestyle. My interest and passion for the industry is an everyday activity for me. It has become a lifestyle. More so, my husband is on the same path and has been for the most part of his life. It has enabled me to go deeper with my research and my knowledge of the industry helped me appreciate the beauty of nature in general.