The Inuit way of life can hold the key to a good immune system

Researchers are investigating whether it is healthy to eat narwhal intestines and to wash hair in urine.


By Uffe Wilken, Polarfronten 


While we have been busy industrializing our food and making our homes more hygienic, we have lost some good, old friends. Namely, parasites and microbes. In scientific circles, some researchers assume that the sharply increasing incidence of allergies, asthma, and eczema owes partly to the fact that we have lost touch with these old friends in our modern lifestyle.


Two researchers will now test this in a Greenlandic context. Has the original Inuit lifestyle been the source of microbial friends who have strengthened our immune system, and can it be a potential source to understanding the increasing incidence of asthma and allergies?


The hunt for ‘Old Friends’

Let’s be clear from the outset: microbiologist Aviaja Lyberth Hauptmann and historian Inge Seiding from Ilisimatusarfik – University of Greenland, who are behind the project Forgotten Friends, are not in favor of a Greenlandic return to wearing leather clothes exclusively or washing hair in urine. Aviaja L. Hauptmann clarifies:


“No, our mission with this pilot project is that we will identify potential sources of Old Friends in the form of beneficial microorganisms and parasites in the original Inuit lifestyle. Inuits haven’t experienced the slow development through agriculture, so there is an interesting opportunity to identify sources of Old Friends from a very original and non-industrialized lifestyle. In Greenland, for example, some people still live in close, daily contact with sled dogs. Due to the microorganisms that dogs expose us to, we know that children who grow up with dogs are less prone to allergies compared to children who grow up without dogs.”

They hope to find some historical sources in the archives that can tell about the way of life of the past from the Inuits’ own point of view:


“Has anyone said that this is healthy and important, or that we’re doing this because it’s wise? One example could be washing hair in urine. There was another relationship to cleanliness, and we’ll go in and see if the relationship to cleanliness – or lack thereof – is linked to an idea of ​​health.”


Inge Seiding says:


“We’ll question what health benefits the original diet and lifestyle may have had and talk about the good things that can be found in a lifestyle that’s not strictly hypermodern. Maybe we can identify something that has value in a lifestyle we’ve had in the past?”

Old Friends can be useful friends

The assumption that there may have been some beneficial microbes and parasites in a past way of life is a so-called hypothesis that goes by the name Old Friends. It emerged at a time when it was discovered that the incidence of allergies increased a lot in well-developed countries. Studies of children living in the countryside, who are in close contact with animals and get soil under their nails compared to children living in the city, show that the children in the countryside have a lower incidence of allergies, asthma, and eczema. Disorders that are common today – also in Greenland. This led to studies building on the idea that humans need microbes to have a balanced immune system. Today, there is a greater understanding that we need microorganisms because they are a major part of human health and disease.


Parasites are Old Friends because they have a strong influence on the immune system. When we are exposed to certain parasites, the immune system learns to regulate itself. Allergies are characterized by a hyperactive immune system in which our body attacks something that is harmless. The Old Friends regulate the immune system so it does not become hyperactive and react to things it should not react to – which can lead to avoiding, for example, allergies.


It looks like caramel, but…

Part of the traditional Greenlandic diet such as narwhal intestines and filled reindeer stomachs have clearly been sources of large amounts of microorganisms. According to Aviaja L. Hauptmann and Inge Seiding, narwhal intestines are still quite common in the north of Greenland, reindeer stomachs less so. The microbiologist explains:


“Today, people go hunting for meat. In the past, everybody knew that if you only ate muscle, you’d get sick. You had to eat all the other things to meet your nutritional needs.”

Are narwhal intestines and reindeer stomachs perhaps overlooked delicacies? Aviaja L. Hauptmann talks about her own experience:


“Narwhal intestine is especially difficult to describe. When you cut it up, the inside looks like sticky caramel – but it’s not caramel! It has a very strong and deep taste with some sea creature, blood, and iron to it. It’s something I can’t compare to anything else. Personally, I don’t like the taste – it’s clearly too fierce for my distinctly western tastes.”

Decolonizing the diet

Both researchers see a cultural-historical angle on the project, which speaks directly into today’s debate in Greenland about health and diet. Aviaja Lyberth Hauptmann explains:


“We risk overlooking important strengths in the Greenlandic food culture and diet when we always take a Western view of food and health as our starting point. As an example, the research focus on original Greenlandic food has largely been on contaminants in the food, rather than the importance of diet for physical, mental, and social health. And this despite the fact that some of society’s health problems such as diabetes are caused by poor imported food, not our original diet.”


Inge Seiding concludes:


“The project occurs at a good time where Greenland is allowed to go back to something it has lost. It can add something valuable to the way people look at themselves in the Greenland of the future, as being much more than a former Danish colony. We believe that we can help to show that the understanding of health must be combined with something that we’ve lost – and that it can be rediscovered.”


Contact: Inge Seiding or Aviaja Lyberth Hauptmann.

This article is part of a theme issue of Polarfronten about Arctic Hub. The issue has been made as a collaboration between Arctic Hub and Polarfronten.

Top photo In a microbiological study of stomach contents from freshly caught reindeer in 2019, Aviaja L. Hauptmann and a group of researchers found that it is a potential source of healthy nutrition due to the plant content and the microbes that contribute to the breakdown of plants in reindeer stomachs (photo: Inge Høst Seiding, reindeer hunting, Nuup Kangerlua, August 2021).
Photo 2 In the 1950s, the Greenland Technical Organization (GTO) prepared a radical modernization of infrastructure and housing. The images from GTO’s archive at Nunatta Katersugaasivia Allagaateqarfialu (NKA) show examples of the water supply of the time from surface water in the terrain and melting of ice floes.