Cultural Anthropology/Health and Healing

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Theoretical Approaches in Medical Anthropology[edit]

Three theoretical approaches exist in understanding human health. First, is the epidemiological or the ecological approach. This approach examines the way culture and the natural environment interact to create the patterns of which result in health and disease. The second is the interpretivist approach, this approach looks at the way cultures use symbolic meaning to describe and understand health and disease. The third is Critical Medical Anthropology, this approach focuses on how socioeconomic and political factors affect human health.

Epidemiological Approach[edit]

Epidemiology is the study of factors affecting health and disease among populations and is considered a fundamental aspect of public health research. Epidemiology focuses on identifying disease risk factors based on how, when, and where they occur. By collecting this data, epidemiologists provide data for measuring the occurrence of health phenomena. Epidemiologists use various forms of investigation and analysis to examine the relationships between human disease and the environment and ultimately to determine the causes of a particular disease. Anthropologists may use this approach to examine the cultural patterns that may affect the prevalence of a particular disease. Cultural factors that may contribute to disease include, but are not limited to, eating habits, work, location, sexual activity, where drinking water comes from and medical practices. Yet, even with all these factors included, epidemiological studies can never prove causation; meaning that it can never prove the exact factor that caused the disease or health problems. It can only associate a factor with a health issue. Epidemiology involves the usage of mapping out diseases and showing where in an environment that disease arose. This can be done using geographic information systems to identify where in a population a disease has spread and how far. (

In addition, epidemiological studies are divided into two types: Retrospective and Prospective. Retrospective describes whether the events have already occurred and Prospective describes whether the events may occur in the future. Retrospective studies are the most common of epidemiological studies and are also known as case-control studies. Case-control studies take place when there is an outbreak of disease in the population and the cause of the disease is unknown or when the population is not familiar with the disease. (

Interpretivist Approach[edit]

Cultures throughout the world use different systems of meaning to describe and respond to illness. Anthropologists who study these differences with symbolic meaning employ the interpretivist approach to medical anthropology. This approach looks at illness from an emic perspective attempting to understand health and disease relative to a particular culture. By gaining an emic perspective on a culture, medical anthropologists can further understand that notion of "embodied person-hood." Embodied person-hood is defined as the relationship of cultural beliefs and practices in connection with health and illness to the sentient human body, this is the core focus for anthropologists using the interpretivist approach.

Critical Medical Anthropology[edit]

Critical medical anthropology focuses on how economics and politics shape the overall status of human health. Critical medical anthropology addresses the disparities in the quality of health and care in the presence of social inequalities. Social divisions based on race, ethnicity, gender and class can influence access to health care and susceptibility to disease. Critical medical anthropologists acknowledge these social factors when looking at the prevalence of a particular disease and ways to prevent it. In a 1998 study of inner-city Hispanic children, critical medical anthropologist Merrill Singer found that food insecurity and hunger were prevalent conditions. By identifying variables associated with these conditions, Singer was able to determine risk factors for food insecurity and hunger that could be used by policy makers to improve food programs and public health policy. Critical medical anthropologists have worked hard to critique bio-medical practices to decrease health problems such as hunger, malnutrition, and disease in order to promote wellness.


Ethnomedicine refers to the medical systems based on the cultural beliefs of varying ethnic groups (e.g. Traditional Chinese Medicine).

1. Ethno-nosology: Refers to the cross-cultural systems of classification of health issues.[1]

2.Culture-bound syndromes: Psychological conditions and physical symptoms that only occur (or are only meaningful) in a specific culture.

3. Disease/Illness Dichotomy: Dichotomy is the division of one thing into two parts or a subdivision into halves or pairs. In medical anthropology, the two aspects of sickness are divided to better care and heal those in need. Disease and Illness are two very different things in the medical field that are responded in different ways. Diseases are the biological and psychological malfunctioning of the body physically. Illnesses deal with the psychology of the human where the psychosocial experiences bring on the sense of illness or disease.

4. Diagnosis/Divination: A diagnosis is the act of identifying or determining the nature and cause of a disease or injury through the evaluation of a patient. Divination is the seeing of future events or somehow gaining unknown knowledge through the supernatural.


1. Acupuncturist: One who inserts needles into various points on the body in order to relieve pain or to relax certain areas of the body. Although acupuncture there is great amounts of skepticism among western medicine practitioners, it is still quite popular not only in its original country of China but also in many western countries. [2] When acupuncture traditionally originated in China, it was founded solely on the belief that illnesses were caused by an off-balance of qi energy in the body. Qi energy is considered a universal energy that flows through lines in the body called meridians. The acupuncturist would insert a needle into points along the meridian in order to stimulate the blockage or imbalance of energy. Some modern Western medical scientists believe there is an alternative explanation to the idea of qi energy. It is believed that success in acupuncture is due to the needles stimulating the nervous, endocrine, and lymphatic systems as a whole. In my personal experience with acupuncture, the needles are inserted in areas of the body that one would not normally associate with the problems they are initially experiencing. The placement of the needle in areas other than where the patient is experiencing the pain stimulates specific hormones to relieve pain and thus relaxing the body. [1]. [2].

Needles being inserted into a patient's skin.

2. Bonesetter: A person who treats or sets fractures, broken or dislocated bones. Bonesetter originated from ancient Egyptian and Asian Cultures. Bonesetters are most typically used to aid the healing the process of the bones, which will allow them to heal in a proper fashion. This is essential for example in athletes, where bone fractures or breaks can be a possible end to their careers.

3. Chiropractor: Chiropractors treat problems with the musculoskeletal system many times through the manipulation of the spine. It is a natural, drug free way of healing the nervous system and general health. Some practitioners use methods such as water therapy, light, massage, ultrasound, acupuncture and heat for healing purposes.

4. Surgeon: Surgeons have been around since the development of practitioners, and have evolved from such roles as "bonesetters." A High profile position, many of today's surgeons go through extensive schooling of usually 8 or more years. A vast array of surgeon jobs can be seen throughout the world with different forms varying from plastic surgery to brain surgery. These dedicated men and women can be seen as the top healers and medical professionals of our time. [3]

Dentist works on patient

5. Dentist: One whose sole career it is to clean, extract, or repair natural teeth, and to make and insert artificial ones; a dental surgeon. Dentistry carries special significance in cultures where physical appearance is of great importance for social standing. From the perspective of a middle class American, most Americans today receive good dental health care. Most people go to the dentist every six months for a cleaning or dental examine to check the health of their teeth. [4]

6. General Practitioner: A medical practitioner who provides primary care and specializes in family medicine. In American society, doctors generally do not extend their role as health care provider to include social health, mental health, or general well-being outside of physical health.

7. Herbalist: A person who uses herbs (plants and plant extracts) as their way of healing and alleviating illness.

The greatest challenge herbalists face is the issue of isolating what substances have what effects, and in what doses [3]. As living organisms, plants can contain hundreds of chemical compounds, each with different effects on the human body. Beyond this, dosage is affected dramatically by growing conditions, and as a result it is nearly impossible to standardize treatment when using strictly plant-based medicine, as herbalists do.

Western health care systems are often seem as running in direct opposition to an herbalist (see [doctor] and [surgeon]). In recent years, however, the value of herbalists as both practitioners of medicine and ambassadors to cultural knowledge of treatments unknown in many parts of the world has been noticed. Herbalists have the potential to make a tremendous contribution to the United States' primary care crisis, especially, through health promotion, disease prevention, and affordable, ecologically sound treatment alternatives.[5] I do agree with this statement, but with my own herbalist, she recommends to go to a biomedical physician if you have any serious illness.

An Iraqi doctor examining a little girl

8. Midwife: A health care profession where providers give prenatal care to expecting mothers, attend the birth of the infant, and provide postpartum care to the mother and her infant. Midwives must be certified as such but do not need to be certified as a nurse, they are most commonly used in uncomplicated, low risk pregnancies.
Midwives spend time with the mother during her pregnancy, they are there to support the mother and encourage her to trust her instincts, ultimately letting nature take its course. Many medical doctors in this case would use preventive testing and medical technology such as ultrasounds and pain medication to monitor the birthing process. These techniques are usually unnecessary in uncomplicated deliveries, midwives will perform these if necessary but cannot do so without a doctors supervision.
In the past midwives were not obligated to have the extensive formal training they are today, they traditionally learned through apprenticeship and did not know how to fight infections. This resulted in a higher death rate of a mother and her child with midwives than with doctors. In order to give midwives the medical training they needed a school for certified American nurse-midwifery was founded in 1932.

9. Oneself: Healing of ones self is usually used to heal spiritually, mentally or emotionally rather than physically. When it is used for physical purposes, this usually means that other health care is not available for the individual.
Some cultures have individuals who are designated specialist in healing. Others such as the Subanun in Mandanao have no assigned healers, they are all active participants in the health of their kin and neighbors and are called upon to aid each other.

10. Psychiatrist: A Psychiatrist a doctor who is certified in treating mental illness.[6]They are also authorized to prescribe medications to their patients. Like a psychologist, psychiatrist treat illness by methods of psychoanalysis, psychotherapy. A psychiatrist is unique in that they are required to obtain medical certification as a doctor, whereas a psychologist, who has many of the same responsibilities as a psychiatrist is not. [7]

11. Shaman: A shaman is a practitioner of shamanism, or alternatively, a mediator between the human and spiritual worlds. They are known for their ability to cure illness, and to communicate with both the supernatural and natural worlds while doing so. Shamans are often said to be able to use divination and to tell the future. Shamanism is used most commonly in Central Asia. [2] [4]However, many cultures all over the world have a Shaman. Some cultures in South America, and even cultures in Canada, practice shamanism. Occasionally, many Shaman from various regions in the Americas will come together and practice ceremonies together, such as the "sweat hut" ceremony. The Shaman of a culture in Ecuador spoke of these Shaman "conventions." [8] The Ju/'hoansi of Southern Africa have Shamans who can allegedly enter "half death" (what would be called "trance" in English). "Half death" enables them to travel to the world of the spirits to cure those who are sick. [9]

12. Massage Therapist: One who uses physical pressure on muscle groups to treat various symptoms. Although the validity of its effectiveness in treating more than chronic muscular pain is questioned, many stand firmly by its success rate. It is said to lower the heart rate and decrease blood pressure, as well as anxiety and fatigue. Furthermore, it may releases 'toxins' stored in the muscles, and can be therapeutic. [10]

13. Faith Healing: Faith healing involves the placebo effect, which is a form of medication with no actual medicine in it. However, the patient can still "feel better" when they take the treatment, even if it is not directly affecting the body. This is because "the patient has a certain belief in the treatment...the patient's belief leads him or her to expect that, following this treatment, he or she is likely to get better..." Consequently, he or she will quite literally mentally heal themselves. [11]

While some view faith healing as purely a placebo effect, those who seriously practice it believe that their healing comes from divine blessing or divine intervention. Due to the fact that science cannot actually disprove this idea, but simply explain what is physically happening in the body during this process, faith healing should not be dismissed by those who describe themselves as scientifically minded. Faith healing is practiced in abrahamic religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Within these circles of people there are multitudes of people who are highly educated in the sciences, and still see the potential authenticity of faith healing.

14. Physical Therapist: A health care professional who issues services and help to those in need of rehabilitation as a result of old age, injury or disease. The main goal is to promote the utmost range of movement and functionality of the body. Often a patient will meet with a PT and receive a diagnosis based on patient history and physical examination. After which a program based on the patients needs will be issued and followed through with. PT programs vary based on patient needs. [12]

15. Naturopath: [5] A health care provider who follows a natural approach to healing of the body using natural remedies and the body's vital ability to heal and maintain itself. Naturopathic philosophy favors a holistic approach and minimal use of surgery and drugs. Instead of treating your symptoms, like most health care providers, naturopathic doctors aim to treat the cause of your ailment. This is done through holistic evaluation of the patients health. If someone is experiencing insomnia, instead prescribing pharmaceutical medicine, a naturopathic physician will ask more questions about the patients life. A question the naturopath might ask is if the patient is experiencing major stress. Because stress can act as an inhibitor of natural sleep cycles, the naturopath may teach the patient new ways to manage stress in order to assist them in getting sleep at night. [13]

16. Reiki Healer: A reiki healer is someone who practices reiki using "hands-on" healing, literally using their hands to slowly move over the body, transferring energy into the recipient. Reiki is originally a Japanese technique, used for reduction of stress a relaxation as well as treating emotional and physical problems. Some forms of reiki concentrate on chakras which are different energy points on the body, this focuses in on each part of a persons being from their mental emotions of self, their sexuality, how grounded they are, or how they see others. (

Healing Substances[edit]

Cultures use a variety of different substances for healing. Some cultures rely on drugs to induce a state of healing, while others put their lives in the hands of healers such as shamans to regain health. In many cases, people rely on both medical pluralism and medical syncretism. Medical pluralism refers to the employment of more than one medical system or the use of both conventional and complementary and alternative medicine, while medical syncretism is the fusing of traditional and biomedical practices. It is important to note that in many cases the state of healing that is accomplished in one culture may not be able to be accomplished in another due to differing perspectives on how the substance is meant to affect a person. For example, there is a vast difference between the use of drugs for recreation and their use for healing. In some cultures it is believed that during drug use a person reaches a heightened state in which they are able to begin healing, whereas in other cultures this heightened state is used for pure enjoyment.

The Peyote cactus is an example of a substance that it used in indigenous cultures in the Americas. It is a small, spineless cactus that is native to the southwest United States, parts of central Mexico, and primarily in the Chihuahuan desert. Peyote gives the consumer an enhanced feeling of deep introspection and insight that can be accompanied by audio or visual hallucinations. These hallucinations have made Peyote a sought after recreational drug leading to it becoming a controlled substance in many countries around the world.[14] With this heightened awareness of self, Peyote users can be healed of any type of spiritual, physical, or other social hindrance. Traditionally, peyote has also been used to heal toothache, pain experienced during childbirth, fever, breast pain, skin diseases, rheumatism, diabetes, colds, and blindness.

A flowering peyote, in cultivation.

More examples of healing substances include magic mushrooms of Oaxaca, similar to the Peyote in which the consumer enters a psychedelic state and is able to allow the mushrooms to heal themselves spiritually and physically. Ayahuasca is an Amazonian plant mixture that is capable of inducing altered states of consciousness, usually lasting between 4 to 8 hours after ingestion. Shamans or medicine men take ayahuasca to communicate with nature or to see what is causing a patient’s illness on a spiritual level. The drink is taken in the form of tea, typically in a ceremonial session under the guidance of an experienced drinker. The main ingredient of this jungle tea is a vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, which like the tea itself is also called ayahuasca (which means ‘vine of the soul’ or ‘vine with a soul’). Coca, tobacco and alcohol can also be considered healing substances and are more prevalent across cultures than the aforementioned drugs.


Ethnobotany is the analysis of indigenous plants that are used by a particular culture for food, medicine or other purposes. The study of these plants is used to garner accurate understanding of their medical potential and cultural usage. An ethnobotanist's job is to travel to different locations in the world for the purpose of studying the relationships between plants and culture. Their knowledge is gleaned from the perspective and information provided by the culture with which the plant is used. Ethnobotanists look for plants which effectively treat disease or relieve symptoms. These plants can then be synthesized into medication to provide treatment for other populations.

Mayan priest performing healing

The roots of ethnobotany can be traced back to an ancient Greek surgeon named Dioscorides. He was the first person to organize plants into specific classifications. Around AD 77, Dioscorides produced the publication, “De Materia Medica”, which consisted of information on all the plants he researched. This botanical reference book compartmentalized approximately 600 plants. It also included facts about the plants such as; what season it was in bloom, how to use it medicinally, its toxicity level and whether or not it was edible. In 1542 Leonhart Fuchs achieved a similar feat when he published, “De Historia Stirpium”, another botanical reference book that catalogued plants indigenous Germany and Austria (the book contained information on about 400 plants). Another important figure in the development of ethnobotany was John Ray. He was the first person to understand and explain the concept of species; he also produced important publications such as, Catalogue of Cambridge Plants, Synopsis Methodica Avium et Piscium and Methodus Plantarum (works were published between 1660-1713). The methods for categorizing plants continued to develop and it reached its apex with a Swedish medical student named Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus invented the classification system known as taxonomy. This system of classifying organisms is still utilized in contemporary times. His book, Species Plantarum, had listings for approximately 5,900 plants. The term ethnobotany was developed by John Harshberger around 1895. Harshberger was the professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania. He spent many years traveling the globe researching and cataloguing different regions native plant life.

Iboga, a principal component of ibogaine

As stated previously, ethnobotany is the study of how a culture uses its indigenous plants for medicinal purposes. The native plant species and their preparation for use are usually new and different (sometimes confusing) to the ethnobotanist. An example of an idiosyncratic way of healing (pertinent to ethnobotany) can be seen in the religious rituals of the Bwiti. Bwiti is a religion that is practiced by the people of Gabon (a country in west central Africa). This particular creed relies heavily on the use of ibogaine (a powerful psychoactive which is derived from the root of the Tabernanthe ibona shrub). Tabernanthe iboga is indigenous to Gabon and is easily accessible to people of the Bwiti religion. Iboga is most commonly ingested through chewing on the root of the shrub or brewing the plant into a tea. The plant is revered by the Bwiti because of its hallucinogenic properties which cause practitioners to receive revealing visions and deep introspective self-contemplation. Iboga is consumed for religious ceremonies, initiations, coming of age rituals and healing processes. When a person within the Bwiti community becomes ill he or she is fed iboga to get in touch with their imbwiri. The imbwiri is a spirit represented in human configuration which will either cure the individual or provide valuable information on the antidote. Iboga was brought to Europe by French and Belgian researchers in the late 1800’s. By the 1960’s ibogaine (although still rare) had been introduced to many different parts of the world. (mainly as a psychoactive drug). The medical potential of this drug was discovered by a man named Howard Lotsof in 1963. He realized that this substance could combat heroin and opiate addiction. It also could alleviate the painful and mentally exhausting withdrawal symptoms. Howard cured his own heroin addiction through this method and introduced ibogaine to his friends who were also habitual heroin users with positive results. As time progressed ibogaine was found to be useful in treating many addictions including unhealthy reliance on cocaine, crack, alcohol, methamphetamine and nicotine. Even though this drug showed potential towards battling addiction it was outlawed in many countries (including the U.S.) because of its hallucinogenic properties. Although ibogaine has been marked illegal there are still underground clinics that provide full treatments serving the drugs medical ideology. Research on ibogaine is still being conducted today and it could eventually become a fully marketable, synthesized anti-addiction medication.

Candlenut Tree[edit]

The Kukui or Candlenut tree, is an example of an indigenous plant used by a culture for food, medicine, and other purposes. Native Hawaiians used the nut, sap, and leaves for various everyday uses. The nut, which produces copious amounts of oil, was strung onto palm fronds and used a torch or candle (thus the name Candlenut). The nut was also roasted and sprinkled on food for added flavor, but it was also known to have laxative properties. The sap of the green nut was spread on cuts and cold sores to speed up healing. The leaves and flowers were used for making lei. As a child growing up in Hawaii, my friends and I made spinning tops out of the shell of the nut. Many visitors to Hawaii would recognize the Kukui nut as the black, shiny nut strung on ribbon to make a lei that lasts indefinitely. The unique part about this tree is that all of the components of the tree are toxic, but the seed, leaves, flowers and bark can be all be used in medicine systems if used in the correct way. The candlenut tree provides a multitude of uses including health benefits, decoration, jewelry making, and more.

The Cure-All Herb

The "Cure All Herb" is Kinkiliba and is from West Africa, specifically Senegal. This drinking herb is made into a drink that keeps most of the people healthy. Kinkiliba (combretum micrantum) is the most common herbal tea found throughout West Africa. Many West-Africans begin their morning with a cup of this powerful tea that is great for maintaining general health and well-being. Kinkiliba is known to aid in the treatment of fevers, colds, aches, pains, and the flu. This herb is a natural diuretic and helps to speed up the healing process when one is ill. One may also apply solutions of the leaves or the roots to speed up the healing of old wounds. This miracle tea is also known to prevent malaria and lower blood pressure. The herb serves as an antibacterial and antispasmodic as well.

The Detoxifying Herb

Kelle (khaya senegalensis) is a common herb used throughout West Africa for a body cleanser and energy booster. West Africans soak the bark in water and drink the mixture for a general detoxification and intestinal cleanser. Kelle is also used to bring down fevers and to combat general fatigue. Khaya senegalensis is very effective when it is used as a body cleanser or an energy booster, but it also has other uses. For example, the seeds and leaves can be used to treat fevers and headaches, and the roots can help with the treatment of mental illness or as an aphrodisiac.

Acacia Senegal

Uses - Gum arabic’s main effect is to form a soothing, protective coating over the respiratory, alimentary, and urinary tracts. In conjunction with various astringents, it is helpful for coughs, sore throat, and catarrh (excessive discharge or buildup of mucus in the nose or throat, associated with inflammation of the mucous membrane.), as well as in cases of diarrhoea and dysentery. The mucilage makes a good vehicle for other medicines, in addition to having nutritional value in its own right. However, most of the gum arabic imported to USA goes to the food industry to give body and texture to products for bakers and a hard sheen coating on candies.

Medicinal Marijuana

Some cannabis bud, which is well-cured (i.e. dried slowly following a specific procedure). The strain is Sweet Tooth #3

Marijuana is used in many cultures as a healing remedy for a great number of ailments. Medicinal Marijuana is legal to possess in a few various states in America with an appropriate prescription. California has the greatest number of Marijuana dispensaries and the greatest number of legal cannabis users. However, due to the federal government's lack of support for medicinal marijuana, raids on dispensaries are still common. [15]It also means that an individual who uses marijuana with a legal prescription can be subject to federal punishment even though their state allows for prescription use of the drug. Marijuana has long been sought out as a medicine for patients looking to 'ease the tension'. It is primarily used as a pain reliever of muscle relaxant but it has also been claimed to help with insomnia, glaucoma, and alcoholism. Cancer patients receiving radiation are also given the option to take the plant in order to settle the stomach and promote eating. For patients with Multiple Sclerosis, prominent in the Pacific North West and Northern Europe, Medicinal Marijuana is an effective and viable treatment for pain, muscle spasms, and the reduction of pressure in the optic nerves.

Marijuana has been recognized and used as an effective remedy to various ailments for thousands of years. As early as the third century B.C. people had discovered the benefits of marijuana and partaken in its advantages. Since then marijuana has been used for recreational, medicinal, and religious/spiritual purposes. In 1937 marijuana was criminalized in the U.S. after the Marihuana Tax Act, which included penalty provisions and detailed rules for handlers of marijuana. Violating this law could result in a fine of up to $2000 and five years in prison. Now, at the end of 2016 Marijuana has become legal in more states for both recreational and medical purposes. Seven states have legalized recreational marijuana and another ten states have legalized medical marijuana. A number of states have also decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Other states have passed medical marijuana laws allowing for limited use of cannabis. Some medical marijuana laws are broader than others, with types of medical conditions that allow for treatment varying from state to state. Also some states have passed laws allowing residents to possess cannabis oil if they suffer from certain medical illnesses.

Essential Oils[edit]

Another form of ethnobotany that has been on the rise in popularity in the United States is the use of 'essential oils'. Essential oils are potent oils that are “extracted from flowers, barks, stem, leaves, roots, fruits and other parts of the plant by various methods” (Ali, et al., 2015). Those who use them believe that they are nature's medicine, and if used properly can treat many infections and ailments, replacing or assisting modern medicine. Through laboratory studies, scientists have found that these oils contain antiseptic and skin permeability properties. Certain essential oils can be even more effective than pharmaceutical antibiotics due to their complex chemical make up.

One popular way that essential oils are used is through aromatherapy. “Inhalation, local application and baths are the major methods used in aromatherapy that utilize these oils to penetrate the human skin surface with marked aura” (Ali, et al., 2015). Through use of single oils, as well as combinations or mixtures of oils, people have used essential oil aromatherapy to get relief from “numerous ailments like depression, indigestion, headache, insomnia, muscular pain, respiratory problems, skin ailments, swollen joints, urine associated complications, etc.” (Ali, et al., 2015).

One caution that must be considered when buying essential oils is to notice whether the oil is pure or not. Some companies sell oils that are not truly medicine grade, meaning they will not be as beneficial as hoped, or could even be harmful if used improperly. Simply because essential oils are derived from plants, does not mean that they are safe. When using essential oils, one must be extremely knowledgeable in the field, or follow their naturopathic physician’s instructions on how to use essential oils.

Even though there has been large amounts of research done in the field of essential oils, many are still skeptical of its use. Additionally, the FDA has not approved of the oils acting as medicine. However, use of plants has been the way that many cultures have historically gone about creating medicine, and the effectiveness of essential oils has been proven by many who choose to fight their ailments a more natural way.

American Ethnobotany

There are many plants which play important roles in North American culture through medicine and recreation. One well known example is Echinacea, a popular herbal remedy. Echinacea is native to North America and has long been used by the Plains Indians for its medicinal properties. It is believed to shorten the duration of a cold and treat many of the symptoms such as coughing, sore throats, and headaches. Recent studies have suggested that Echinacea has little or no effect on the duration or severity of a cold, and it is merely taken to provide some sort of comfort to the sick person, in many ways a placebo. The effectiveness of Echinacea is still a subject of debate , but it remains a culturally important remedy in North American ethnobotany.

Goldenseal- (Orange-root, Orangeroot; Hydrastis canadensis) is a perennial herb in the buttercup family Ranunculaceae, native to southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States and is another prominent herb used in North America. Goldenseal was in extensive use among certain Native American tribes of North America, both as a medicine and as a coloring material. Goldenseal was extensively used for cancers and swellings of the breasts by the Eclectics, although it was not considered sufficient for cancer alone [16]

Pacific Yew- (taxus brevifoila) also known as the Western Yew, is a small fir like tree that can be identified by its flaky bark, as well as its flat needles that protrude horizontally from either side of the twig. It is usually found in shaded environments alongside trees such as Douglas firs and hemlock. The bark is a traditional medicine used for “internal problems like ulcers and liver ailments”(Turner & Hebda). In recent years Yew bark has become famous for containing a cancer fighting compound called Taxol that slows or stops cell replication in cancer cells. It is most commonly used in the treatment of breast, lung, and ovarian cancer. "Pacific Yew, Taxus Brevifolia." Native Plants PNW. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2016. "Paclitaxel (Taxol®, Abraxane®): Cancer Drug Information | CTCA." N.p., 01 Jan. 0001. Web. 01 Dec. 2016. "Taxus Baccata (common Yew)." Taxus Baccata (common Yew) | Plants & Fungi At Kew. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2016. Turner, Nancy J., and Richard J. Hebda. Saanich Ethnobotany: Culturally Important Plants of the WSANEC People. Victoria, BC: Royal BC Museum, 2012. Print.

Critics of Ethnomedicine

Although most individual ethnomedical practices have been criticized for various traits they possess (e.g. claims of spiritual healing being a hoax, psychiatry not being able to cure alcoholism), one argument stands out as criticizing almost all forms of ethnomedicine. This argument criticized the mental orientation of most forms of ethnomedicine. Biologist Horacio Fabrega Jr. Writes:

The implicit assumption adopted by the researcher is that he is dealing with a disorder that is either typically psychiatric or at least psychiatric-like. Excessive preoccupation with this dimension on the part of culturally oriented anthropologists has tended to obscure the influences that biological components have on [culturally defines] illnesses. Consequently, the potential of examining the reciprocal influences that phsychoculture and biological factors have on instances of illness occurrence [as defined and categorized by subjects] has been missed.

Doctors and anthropologist who practice ethnomedicine experience criticism for making the assumption that an ailment can be cured using ethnomedicine without weighing the possibility of biological medicine.


Leaves and flowers of a Neem tree in Kolkata, West Bengal, India.

Biopiracy is the appropriation, or patent, of indigenous biomedical knowledge by foreign entities without compensatory payment. In other words, it is the illegal harvest of plants used by a particular culture for medicinal purposes by individuals from another culture. The 'piracy' or taking, takes place when individuals or corporations patent these plants and the methods of processing plant based substances or the genetic information for their exclusive use and sale. The patent often prohibits the communities that identified the bio active properties, developed processing and extractive technologies and bred the plants, for personal use or sale.

A related concept is bioprospecting. This term is sometimes used to refer to biopiracy with a less negative connotation, where the assumption is the patented item had a known use already. Alternately, the bioprospecting company is searching for novel compounds or genes in items that were not used traditionally. Companies can harvest plants or organisms with little to no opposition in some parts of the world, and then patent any part of them that ends up being useful.[17] In the Brazilian State of Amazonas an estimated 20,000 plant samples are removed every year by bioprospectors.

An example of biopiracy is the Neem tree which has been used in India for over 2000 years for medicinal and other purposes. In 1995 a the US Department of Agriculture and multinational WR Grace.[18], patented through the European Patent Office (EPO) the emulsions of Neem tree and is suing Indian firms for using it in products. The Indian government challenged the patent when it was granted, claiming that the process for which the patent had been granted had actually been in use in India for over 2000 years. In 2000 the EPO ruled in India's favour but the US multinational mounted an appeal claiming that prior art about the product had never been published in a scientific journal. On 8 March 2005, that appeal was lost and the EPO revoked the Neem patent rights keeping the tree free of any patent restrictions.[18]

Medical Systems[edit]

Naturalistic System

Naturalistic Systems can be an approach to the explanation, diagnosis, and treatment of illness which focuses on the underlying bio-mechanical processes behind human disorder. Naturalistic medicine is largely the foundation of the Western model of bio-medicine and practitioners rely heavily on the use of imaging technologies and the scientific method to develop treatment plans. Philosophically, naturalists approach human disorder from the perspective that illness is impersonal and that there is always an identifiable source of pathology in the diagnostic process.

Personalistic System

Largely uncommon in the developed world, the personalistic approach to medicine explains human disorder in terms of preternatural sources of pathology (such as spiritual possession or religious transgression). Illness is considered unique to the patient and medical practitioners often call upon supernatural forces to facilitate the diagnosis and treatment of disorders. An example of this is the “evil eye.” A person who is envious of another’s good fortune may transfer malignant influence through the “evil eye”, which will result in harm to the recipient. [19]

Modernly, personalistic systems of medicine are most commonly found in small-scale societies. Globally, the personalist approach in decline and has disappeared completely in some cultures. For example, therapeutic shamanism was commonly practiced amongst Inuit peoples and a complex tradition of spiritual healthcare was reported by early ethnographers (see Merkur 85). These traditions are now very rarely practiced and many of the traditional practices have been lost entirely (see Shamanism amongst Eskimo peoples).

Medical Models[edit]

Medical models are the explanations of health and illness that are accepted by different cultures. The biomedical model is the most widely accepted medical model by many cultures, including the vast majority of Western culture, but there are multiple other explanations that are accepted by some cultures.

The medical model of disability is a model by which illness or disability is the result of a physical condition, is intrinsic to the individual (it is part of that individual’s own body), may reduce the individual's quality of life, and causes clear disadvantages to the individual.

Some anthropologists believe that the biomedical model is quite provincial. They do not believe that there is enough room for the interpretation of the psychological, behavioral, and social aspects of all of the illnesses. Something called a biopsychosocial[6] model has been proposed. In this there would be more room different aspects of health care.


The term Humoral refers to elements in the blood or other fluids that reside within the body. In medicine,the term humor refers to a fluid substance. The aqueous humor is the fluid that normally resides within the front and rear chambers of the eye. The humors were part of an ancient theory that believed that health came from balance between the bodily liquids. These liquids were termed humors. If these fluids were not balanced, a person was more likely to become infected with diseases.

Paired qualities were associated with each humour and its season and element,the humors were:

  1. Phlegm: winter, water, characteristics: rational, calm, unemotional
  2. Blood: spring, air, characteristics: courageous, hopeful, amorous
  3. Gall: (black bile thought to be secreted by the kidneys and spleen) autumn, earth, characteristics: guardian, despondent, sleepless, irritable
  4. Choler: (yellow bile secreted by the liver) winter, water, characteristics: rational, calm, unemotional

This theory which was also known as the humoral theory, humoralism, and humorism was devised before the time of Hippocrates (c.460-c.375 BC). Today pathology rests on a cellular and molecular foundation. All of the humors have been dispelled, except for the aqueous humor and vitreous humor of the eye. The theory of humors was commonly used until the nineteenth century when modern medical techniques were developed.


The health and healing system of Haiti incorporates humoral-influenced concepts from West Africa. Their system relies on monitoring and regulating their four humors (hot and cold, dry and wet). Eventually their system was simplified, with the dry and wet humors being omitted. They believe a balance is necessary to maintain good health. The balance is affected by the season, how they live and especially how they eat.[20]

Kallawaya Traditional Medicine[edit]

The shamans of the Kallawaya people, located in the Andes in Bolivia are an example of humoral medicine. They believe that health and illness are affected by the balance of spirit and soul caused by the earth, or the goddess Pachamama. Their healing art is based in their ability to look into the lives of the ill to see patterns in the day to day aspects such as work, health, routines and relationships and to recognize where there are imbalances. Shamans make use of music, dance, and animal sacrifice to help appease the divine, thus curing illness. The shamans use many herbs, for instance most of the Kallawaya healers have knowledge of at least 300 herbs. They also incorporate alcohol and ayahuasca, which, with the guidance of the shaman, can produce a drug-induced state of healing[21]


Dwanandhari Deva is believed to be the Lord of Ayurveda

Ayurveda is a 5000-year old traditional system of medicine in India that originated during the [Vedic] period of Indian history. [[7]] It is also practiced as an alternative system of medicine in other parts of the world, where yoga, meditation, massage, or healing herbs or foods are used as a supplement to the biomedical model.

Ayurveda is a humoral system, in which blood, chyle, flesh, fat, bone, marrow, and semen are the primary elements. These are divided into air (or spirit), phlegm, and bile, each of which represent a divine force, or dosha. The three doshas are vata (air), pitta (bile) and kapha (phlegm). According to Ayurveda, humans are dominated by one or two of these doshas. Having a balance between the three means that one is in complete health. This balance is achieved through moderation of sleep, sexual intercourse, medicine, and food. Different types of foods are beneficial to people of different doshas. When the doshas are too far out of balance, it can lead to both physical and mental sickness.

Ayurvedic practices include hygienic rituals, ingestion of certain foods and herbs as treatments, and yoga or meditation. The balance between the physical and mental is an important aspect of Ayurvedic healing.

Spiritual Healing[edit]

A man practices yoga meditation outside.

Spiritual healing practices transmit energy to a person in need through means of meditation, prayer, or the presence of a healer, and provide an alternative to standard medical procedures. It is part of the holistic approach to healing, which involves the unification and harmony of the mind, body, and spirit in order to achieve wellness. Because sickness often originates in the mind, spiritual healing can be beneficial in alleviating stress, coping with emotional issues, and increasing overall happiness. The absence of such mental problems can eliminate physical troubles. For example, meditation aids in lowering heart rate, decreasing high blood pressure, and lessening cholesterol levels because it clears and calms the mind to the extent that stress does not affect the physical state of the body.

A popular and recommended act of spiritual healing, is found in Yoga. It has been said by many that it allows and gives a sense of self-awareness, benefits to positive mental presentation, and overall encourages personal strength and confidence through living a spiritual and healthy lifestyle.

In various cultures, healers who practice spiritual healing believe that human beings are surrounded by healing mechanisms in the form of energy, which maintain a balance and order between mind, body, and spirit. A healing procedure often begins with a healer hovering his or her hands above a patient’s body to uncover areas where energy is blocked and healing is needed. Healing energy is then transported through the healer’s hands and into the patient.

Religion often plays a role in spiritual healing in that people form a relationship with a higher source and are able to channel energy from such a source. This being could be God, nature, or something else meaningful to the individual. It is important to note that if the individual who chooses to form this connection holds full commitment and trust in the higher source, feelings of security, peace of mind, and guidance and are likely to follow, all of which are essential in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Kundalini Tantric Yoga[edit]

A popular form of spiritual healing is found in Kundalini Tantric Yoga, practiced in various parts of India and the United States. Kundalini energy refers to dormant or spiritual energy within the body that we are usually unaware of. Once Kundalini energy is activated through deep meditation and yoga, the Nadi system, referring to channels of Kundalini energy, is activated as well. This creates a connection between the seven levels of chakras; the centers of consciousness potential that reside along the spine. Each chakra corresponds to a set of desires connected to a certain element.

The seven different chakras pictured in their locations, with the exact number of petals each chakra is said to have.

The first of the seven chakras is called the Muladhara. Its color is red and it is said to lie between the genitals and the scrotom. It governs sexuality and instinct. The second chakra is orange and it is called the Svadhisthana. It lies on the belly and is said to govern, among other things, creativity. Manipura is the third chakra. It is yellow, lies just under the solar plex and controls one's will power. The fourth chakra is the Anhata. Anhata is located near and governs the heart. It is the color green. Vishuddha is the fifth. Its color is turquoise and it governs the voice. It is located in the throat. Ajna, the sixth chakra, is indigo blue. It lies in the brain and governs wisdom. The final chakra can only be tapped upon once all the other chakras have energy flowing through them. It is called Sahasrara. It is purple and it brings enlightenment. It sits on top of the head and is said to inspire universal consciousness and unity.

The goal of Kundalini Tantric yoga is to free oneself from such desires as energy moves higher and higher along the chakras, opening them until it reaches the seventh chakra, called the Sahasra Chakra, located at the top of the cranium. A person can move energy through his or her chakras through tantric yoga, a form of yoga in which one seeks to free the mind of desires through various breathing exercises, contemplation, and meditation. When the seventh chakra is finally opened, a person is said to achieve full consciousness and liberation from the slavery of desires. Through the spiritual experiences one has encountered with the opening of each chakra, the result is inner harmony and overall happiness, which are significant aspects of living a positive, healthy lifestyle.

On a religious note, Hindu mythology offers an explanation for the movement of Kundalini energy throughout the body as one practices Tantric yoga. It is said that the serpent goddess Kundalini Shakti resides at the base of the spine, coiled up around the first chakra. As energy is activated and released through Tantric Yoga, she awakens and rises up the spine, opening the chakras along the way and energizing these conscious potentials. When she reaches the seventh chakra, she is united with her spouse, the God Shiva. Shiva is a symbol of change and the destruction of old habits. Their union leads to the liberation of the individual practicing the yoga, turning them into an “individual of the universe.”

Western Biomedical Model[edit]

Cell culture vials.

This is the most popular medical model in medicine today and can be found all across Western societies, as well as others. It looks at humans as biological organisms in order to discover methods for curing diseases and treating illness. This model focuses mainly on physical processes such as physiology and biochemistry and disregards social or spiritual factors. Under the biomedical model, health is defined as the absence of pain or disease, and the body is treated with scientifically-based methods.

It should be noted that the Western approach to biomedical theory and practice is constantly adapting in response to new scientific and philosophical revelations regarding illness. The model focuses on the treatment and cure of disease through medical science, and does not promote disease prevention. In recent years, naturopathic medicine (once largely considered at odds with orthodox bio-medicine)has gained recognition as a viable facet of treatment for a wide variety of disorders. Biomedicine is seen as a model that allows for the repair of the body and to fix problems that happen to the body from the surrounding environment. Biomedicine arose during the industrial revolution as a way to help people recover from diseases that effected them. (

One of the criticisms of the Western Biomedical Model is that it discounts the personal knowledge and beliefs of its participants. The system is said to consider ‘professional knowledge’ as the correct, rational, scientific approach while lay beliefs are considered non-rational, unscientific, suppression and are thus ignored. This leads to potential tension between health care providers and patients. [22]

Ethnographic example: The biomedical model has been critical in the development of our country. One of the many influences it has had was treating tuberculosis, a life threatening infectious disease. In 1880, after studying the disease, scientists confirmed that it was contagious. Even before antibiotics this helped to dramatically decrease the number of people that died by using quarantining and sanitizing methods. The first successful immunization was developed in 1906 by Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin. The bovine-strain tuberculosis vaccine (also known known as bacille Calmette–Guérin or BCG), became mainstream after World War II in the U.S., Great Britain and Germany. In the mid 20th century, the antibiotic streptomycin was discovered and offered an effective alternative cure for tuberculosis. Many strains have become resistant to certain antibiotics, however, forcing immunologists to develop new vaccines and treatments to cure more virulent species.


Infant being administered a measles vaccine in Kibati, Congo

The term immunization refers to rendering an organism immune to a specific communicable disease (1). Immunizations work by triggering the human body to produce antibodies that will help fight a particular disease. The antibody response is created by injecting a small amount of either a dead or live virus, (depending on the virus) into the person receiving the immunization in order to initialize a immune system response to the virus (2). Therefore in the future if the person who was immunized was exposed to the virus, he or she would already have the antibodies to fend off the virus. Along with the introduction and transmission of many new complex diseases, population growth and the globalization of medicine has brought about the eradication of many previously devastating disorders, including small pox and polio, through wider availability of immunizations. Many parents in Western countries routinely schedule immunizations for their children to prevent them from contracting a specific communicable disease. While many vaccinations are routine and readily available only in developed nations, the continued globalization of medicine will eventually have a dramatic effect on the improvement of health care in developing countries.[23] [24]

There is a great deal of controversy over vaccination in some cultures regarding the morality, ethics, necessity, safety, and practicality of vaccination have led some parents to keep their children from being vaccinated. Opponents of vaccines claim that they are dangerous, ineffective, and infringe on personal rights.

And example of this is the current debate over whether or not certain vaccines cause autism in children. There is a small but dedicated group of doctors who claim that vaccines may be linked to the onset of autism in children. As a result many parents are insisting their children be exempt from the mandatory vaccines although there are no medical findings which prove the link between the two. [25]

CRISPR Cas9[edit]

CRISPR immune response in microbial cultures.

CRISPR/Cas9 is a prokaryotic immune system response discovered in 1987 that allows resistance to foreign genes from viruses or bacterial DNA that enter a cell.CRISPR associated proteins (Cas) uses the CRISPER gene binding regions and internal nucleases (proteins that identify and cut genetic material at the base pair level) to cut out and digest unfamiliar DNA or RNA segments. This prevents potentially harmful viral or pathogenic genes from altering the host genome (which encodes all cellular instructions). In 2012, this highly efficient bacterial process was applied by independent genetics research groups to attempt gene transfers. By adding an RNA guide to the system, a cell's genome can be cut at a specified location to allow new genes to be added, or unwanted genes to be removed. In 2015, complex CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing became the 'breakthrough of the year' according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The applications of the CRISPER/Cas9 system are promising for genome editing such as in the germlines of food crops, animals and humans. Several biotech startup companies have already raised $158 million dollars in research funding for medical applications of CRISPR/Cas9. [26] Other companies have already begun conducting genetic surgery in clinical trials.

Ethical concerns on this subject arise with the possibility of simplified human gene editing. This prospect offers opportunity to rid animals, plants and humans of diseases and deformities before they become problematic. However, it also creates a future category for discrimination based on genetic composition and content. Some scientists have even gone so far as to propose the engineering of mythical creatures from common ones such as making a unicorn by fusing horse and cow horn DNA. Unlike selective breeding, which requires years, CRISPR/Cas9 allows the same engineering outcome to occur in one generation. The anthropological issues that result involve global and environmental carrying capacity as well as environmental and ethical consequences of reviving extinct species or inventing new ones. There is a high potential for a single group to patent the technology and prevent study within the scientific community as seen with many high demand drugs. The CRISPR system still shows signs of off-target cutting that can negatively affect vital genes and lead to cell death. Thus far, CRISPR/Cas9 use on human embryos has been prohibited once they pass a certain age due to unforeseen effects and lack of trial testing. While this is a promising field of study, many of these concerns remain unresolved to date. [27]

Globalization and Health[edit]

Epidemiologic Transitions[edit]

New Infectious Diseases 
A disease that emerges within a population that is new or the number of infectious cases within a population or geographic area rapidly increases. Since 1940 over 300 new infectious diseases have been discovered, some of the most well known being severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), methicillin-resistant staph (MRSA), and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Many drug-resistant strains of diseases are becoming more common and 71% of these new infectious diseases start in the wildlife. As globalization increases, infectious diseases will continue to affect a larger and wider population. [8] Classification of disease is as follows; an epidemic is a local outbreak of a rare disease. When this disease spreads through many human populations across a large region, it is then classified as a pandemic.
Medical Pluralism 
The integration of biomedicine and other forms of health care. Examples of medical pluralism include taking antibiotics and vaccines upon acute trauma or infection, as well as relaxation rituals to decrease stress and improve mental health. Medical pluralism includes involving different wellness techniques to improve, maintain, and prevent overall well-being. In earlier times, medical pluralism was considered a war zone, and was seen as "other" or alternative medicines therapies that were trying to take over. Today, medical pluralism is seen as a positive thing as it can provide multiple solutions / treatments to something [9]
Diseases of Development 
The main causes of illness and death in developed countries are cancer and diseases of the respiratory, cardiovascular and nervous systems. In the developing world, communicable diseases are the main problem, with deaths occurring primarily due to respiratory infections, HIV/AIDS, infections at birth, diarrhoeal disease and tropical diseases such as malaria. Failure to use existing treatments effectively, inadequate or non-existent interventions, and insufficient knowledge of disease all contribute to damaged health.

Some Diseases that are Intensified Due to Globalization[edit]


  • Falciparum Malaria is a vector-borne infectious disease caused by protozoan parasites. It kills around one million people per year, mostly children. Even though initiative was taken to eradicate the disease after World War 2, it prevails in many parts of the world. In some areas, globalization is fostering an increase in malaria. In low-income countries, economic hardships have made it difficult to install strong mosquito control programs. Global warming may also extend the latitude and altitude of malaria because misquotes thrive in certain temperatures. An example of how malaria can be brought from one country to another on the other side of the world can be seen in a close friend of mine who traveled to Kenya a couple of years ago. He had all of the necessary vaccines to travel to Kenya, despite this, he still contracted malaria. Being from the U.S. he has the means to afford the medications necessary to control the disease and has not caused any form of an outbreak in the U.S. thanks to precautions taken by the U.S. to eradicate the disease. All of this is to show that it is still possible to contract the disease even if one is from a developed country. [10]

2.Chagas Disease

Chagas in Latin America (A:Endemic zones)
  • Land clearance in South America has spread the triatomine bugs to much of the continent. Due to economic adversity and social unrest, there has not been a great stride in establishing sufficient housing. As more virgin forests are deforested the more the disease is able to spread to people. There is however effective control programs that are fighting the disease. The disease is usually spread by insect through the sucking of blood but can also be spread from mother to fetus, blood transfusions, organ transplants and contaminated food.


  • Transmission occurs from the bite of a female sandfly. This disease is spread most rapidly when people live in a newly deforested area. In the 1980’s there was a huge housing crisis because the population of the Brazilian city of Amazonas doubled. The disease flourished because of the insects' high adaptability to human blood.

4.Lyme Disease

  • This ancient bacterial infection is returning to North America, Europe and temperate Asia resulting in a skin rash, swollen joints and flu-like symptoms. Some suspect that this is due to the reversion of farmland to woodland, which led to the increase of deer that possess ticks which carry Lyme disease. The deer’s predators were killed over a century ago in the deforestation and as a result, deer populations have increased. According to the CDC, some symptoms that will occur include headache, fatigue, fever, chills, and aching and the bite can result in a target or bulls-eye shape. In general, Lyme disease is treated with an oral antibiotic.


  • Uncontrolled urbanization and inadequate management of water and waste has led to increase of this disease. Cases have increased 20-fold since the 1950’s. Air travel has allowed the disease to create newer more deadly versions of itself, such as dengue hemorrhagic fever. It had been found that of the diseases commonly contracted by tourists, 8% are Dengue. Dengue often starts with a headache muscle and joint pains fever, and rash. The rash usually appears on the lower limbs and the chest and continues to spread over the body.

6. HIV

  • Possibly the greatest pandemic of our generation, HIV frequently leads to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which is responsible for over 2.1 million deaths, 330,000 of which were children. Three quarters of these deaths occurred in sub-Sahara Africa. Although greater global connectivity helped to spread this disease around the world, it is also helping to clean up its own mess. Globalization has allowed for the flow of information about safe sex practices and sterile drug practices to avoid further infections. By becoming one of the greatest killers of our time, AIDS has also brought awareness to most of the world and has recruited millions to fight against it.


7. Cholera

  • Found in sources such as water, or food, that have been tainted by feces, Cholera is a diarrheal disease that impacts millions. This disease generally occurs in environments that do not have adequate water treatment systems or lack sanitation. A person can contract this deadly disease by simply ingesting water or food that has been contaminated with the bacteria and it can spread extremely quickly. In many cases symptoms will not show, but the disease can reach its peak and kill a person in a matter of hours. Cholera is a disease that causes loss of bodily fluids in a short period of time, which can also lead to dehydration. To properly treat cholera, the most important thing is re-hydrating, or replacing the fluids and salts that were lost.

In October of 2010, there was a large Haitian Cholera outbreak that affected 93,000 and killed 2,100. This disease reached all 10 provinces in Haiti. According to The New England Journal of Medicine, cholera reached the Americas in 1991. Its track began in Peru and continued to spread throughout South and Central America. According to research done by Haitian and U.S. laboratories, the outbreak in Haiti is the seventh pandemic of cholera.

Mental Health and Culture-Bound Syndromes[edit]

Culture Bound Syndromes are those in which changes in behavior and experiences have substantial effects on peoples lives. These illnesses are not "sicknesses" but rather identified as syndromes. A syndrome is a group of symptoms when present together are characteristics of a specific disorder, disease, etc.[11] The patterns of the symptoms that characterize or indicate can be of a particular social condition like heavy pollution. Syndromes can be a culture bound syndrome like Anorexia Nervosa or they can be a biological syndromes like Down’s Syndrome. The word syndrome comes from the Greek meaning “run together”. Medical anthropology describes culture-bound syndrome as a combination of psychiatric and somatic symptoms that are considered to be an identifiable disease that is only discovered within a specific society or culture. There are no changes in the biochemical or structural of body organs or functions, and the disease is not recognized in other cultures. A substantial portion of mental disorders are at least partially if not completely conditioned by the culture in which they are found. Some disorders however are more culture-specific than others. The concept of culture-bound syndromes is a controversial subject to which many psychologists, medical doctors and anthropologists reject the concept.


Addiction is a serious mental health issue that is present in cultures world wide. Addiction is the condition of being mentally or physically reliant on single or multiple substances. Addiction is often sprouted from an early age. Factors that can effect an individual's likelihood of becoming a substance abuser can range from their upbringing and environment in their youth, to the people they chose to surround themselves with later on in life. Many substances are highly addictive upon first use such as heroin. Heroin has become one of the largest health concerns in many countries with alarming rates of growth. According to 90,000 people in the United States reported trying heroin for the first time in 2006, compared to the alarming 156,000 people who tried it just 6 years later in 2012. Addiction originates as a mental disorder through the cravings and desires an addict possesses, however it very soon turns into a physical health issue as well. Addiction to many different drugs including heroin almost always quickly deteriorates the addict's body and is very often fatal.

Addiction can also occur due to cultural factors such as being addicted to a certain activity or a certain hobby a great deal to the point that it interferes with other activities that are necessary in everyday life for wellbeing. (

Culture bound syndromes can include:


High-fructose corn syrup, found in most soda beverages, is public enemy number one in the war against obesity.

Obesity is a condition affecting more than 300 million people.([28]) Obesity is most common in first world countries and it affects millions of people. Obesity is a term used to describe a person who is overweight to the point that it becomes the cause of many other afflictions that could potentially threaten their life. A person is obese when their body mass index (BMI) exceeds 30 kg/m2([29])The World Health Organization (WHO) considers obesity to be one of the top 10 causes of preventable death worldwide. It is a Culture Bound Syndrome that exists almost entirely in the richest countries in the world. Overweight individuals in developing countries are considered attractive and desirable due to connotations such as excess wealth, the ability to live lavishly and abundantly, etc. Interestingly, this is the opposite to viewof body weight in developed countries, where thinness implies beauty, wealth, and good health. One who is wealthy can eat a balanced and healthy (and often more expensive) diet and has the luxury, time and money to exercise in either a gym or with the help of a personal trainer.

Ataque de Nervios[edit]

Commonly found in Hispanics, Ataque de Nervios is a type of "out-of-consciousness" state said to be caused by evil spirits. Symptoms may include but are not limited to attacks of crying, trembling, uncontrollable shouting, physical or verbal aggression, and intense heat in the chest moving to the head. These attacks are often associated with stressful events (e.g., death of a loved one, divorce or separation, or witnessing an accident including a family member).

Mal de Ojo[edit]

Medical problems, such as vomiting, fever, diarrhea, and mental problems (e.g., anxiety, depression) could result from the mal de Ojo (evil eye) that an individual has experienced from another person. Mal de Ojo is initiated when a person of higher strength gazes upon the weaker counterpart out of envy or admiration [30]. The condition is common among infants and children; adults might also experience similar symptoms resulting from this mal de Ojo. There are many different ways in curing mal de Ojo. In Latin America the most common way is to have the parent rub an egg on the child while saying a prayer over the child then put the egg in a bowl and put it under the child's pillow. In the morning if the bowl has this white fog then you can tell the child was affected by the mal de Ojo. This process also cures it. [31]

Eating Disorders[edit]

Pop icons suffering from Anorexia have raised popular awareness to this disease.

Eating disorders are defined as any of a range of psychological disorders characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits. The most common eating disorder is anorexia nervosa.

  • Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa is a eating disorder and is commonly shortened to anorexia. Anorexia Nervosa is a psychiatric illness which is specifically defined as the "obsessive fear of gaining weight". This fear causes the individual to avoid food consumption. This disorder most commonly affects young, teenage girls, but males account for 10% of the reported cases. Bulimia Nervosa is a similar culture-bound syndrome to Anorexia Nervosa in which purging is the method of losing weight. Many times people who have these eating disorders though do not have one strict eating disorder. It tends to be a combination of anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. For example, a person may restrict themselves to not eating, but if they do they may go and work out excessively and then binge eat after [32] In some cases however, these eating disorders are developed as a coping mechanism for problems other than the common fear of weight gain. Providing its victims with a sense of control, anorexia and bulimia can help ease the mind even if the goal is to find stability in areas other than weight loss.

The process used to initially lose and prevent weight gain is voluntary starvation, but other methods such as purging, excessive exercise and the use of dietary pills are used also to control body image. One of the proposed reasons for the cause of this disease is the effect of images portrayed by the media on young women and men, demanding a necessity to be slim, because that is the only socially acceptable way to look

Symptoms include: -Loss of at least 3 regular menstrual periods (in women).

-Refusing, avoiding, or not wanting to eat in public



-Brittle skin

-Shortness of breath

-Obsessiveness about calorie intake

-muscle loss/degeneration

-Additionally, anorexic people have a tendency to create a distorted, negative view of themselves "Anorexia". Mama's Health. Retrieved 2009-03-10.  </ref> [33]

  • Body Image and Fitness

Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa are often caused by body image issues. Every culture around the world has varying ideas of what the “ideal body” should look like. These standards are especially high in the in United States. With an increasingly high exposure to social media, fashion magazines and beauty advertisements, adolescents in the US (especially young women) are feeling an increased pressure to obtain these “perfect bodies.” In recent years there have been cases of some people going to the extremes to be “perfect,” which are more often than not unhealthy and potentially life threatening. For example eating disorders such as Anorexia nervosa or Bulimia nervosa. Others are spending hundreds of dollars to pay doctors to essentially cut or suction the unwanted fat from their bodies. Procedures like [[w:Liposuction|Liposuction] or other forms of plastic/cosmetic surgery are increasingly popular as they are often considered to be the quickest and easiest—though very costly—form of body transformation.

A healthy alternative that people are turning to now is personal fitness. Instead of getting exercise by playing sports or cutting fat by going under the knife, weight training and conditioning are becoming more and more popular. Many people are either hiring a personal trainer to coach them along the way of their fitness transformation, and others are taking it into their own hands and planning their own workouts. With this rising awareness of how important being healthy is, the “ideal body” standards are also developing accordingly. 90’s magazines often displayed models who are thin and have little muscle development (Heroin-Chic), however now it is more likely to see models who portray themselves as strong and in shape.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder[edit]

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, or ARFID, is an eating disorder that was recently made independent from EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) when the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) was released in 2013. Originally, there was a disorder labeled as "Feeding Disorder of Infancy or Early Childhood" which listed similar diagnoses, but this was removed in the DSM-V, as it was decided that ARFID was a disorder that also occurred in adults.

The disorder itself can be described similarly to a phobic fear, and usually stems from anxiety around new and unfamiliar foods, rather than with body image and self-esteem issues that are associated with eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.

To be diagnosed with ARFID, the DSM-V gives these criteria:

  • Disturbance in eating or feeding, as evidenced by one or more of:
  • Substantial weight loss (or, in children, absence of expected weight gain)
  • Nutritional deficiency
  • Dependence on a feeding tube or dietary supplements
  • Significant psychosocial interference
  • Disturbance not due to unavailability of food, or to observation of cultural norms
  • Disturbance not due to anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, and no evidence of disturbance in experience of body shape or weight
  • Disturbance not better explained by another medical condition or mental disorder, or when occurring concurrently with another condition, the disturbance exceeds what is normally caused by that condition

A person with ARFID acts similarly to a child who is a "picky eater." They typically have a small number of "safe foods" that they eat normally and do not have any trouble with for the most part, but most new or unfamiliar foods outside of their safe ones cause seemingly irrational and extreme (sometimes phobic-level) fear and anxiety, often leading to a full-on anxiety/panic attack or breakdown. This may be caused by a food's appearance, smell, texture, or any other number of reasons.

Many teenagers and adults with ARFID have gone and continue to go undiagnosed and untreated for most of their lives, due to the disorder only being classified in recent years. It can also be assumed that the majority of people who have ARFID are completely unaware that their strange eating problems are likely a legitimate disorder, and not just "picky eating" that they never grew out of in childhood. ARFID can get in the way of not only a person's health, but also their social life: people with ARFID may tend to avoid social gatherings involving food, holidays that involve eating may become more anxiety-inducing than enjoyable, etc.

While there has not been much research done on the treatment of ARFID, many people choose Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or hypnotism as ways to work towards a normal food palette and healthy diet.


Malaysian sudden mood change/aggression.

Amok is the psychological disorder where males who typically have never acted out before experience a sudden mood change and become violent and angry. Deep shame experienced by the male often seems to be the cause of the sudden mood changes, cause by situations and feelings such as jealousy or gambling losses. People suffering from a mood change will often attempt to hurt or kill anyone they run into. Often, people who have these mood shifts will end up being killed by a bystander out of self-defense or other reasons, or the person suffering from Amok will commit suicide. The word was derived from the Malay, Indonesian and Filipino word "amuk" which means "mad with rage." The term has been changed into slang in the United States and the phrase Running Amok is used to describe someone who is acting crazy or can't control themselves.

Dhat Syndrome[edit]

The patient is preoccupied with the excessive loss of semen by nocturnal emissions. There is a fear that semen is being lost and mixed in urine. In the Hindu culture and religion, it is believed that "40 meals create one drop of blood, 40 drops of blood create one drop of bone marrow and 40 drops of marrow create one drop of semen." It is thought in the Hindu culture in India, although not isolated there, that the loss of semen can deteriorate your health and create health problems. Symptoms of Dhat Symdrome are depression, preoccupation, trouble sleeping, inability to perform sexually, exhaustion and headaches, and others. In order to treat these symptoms of depression and anxiety, counseling or anti-anxiety or anti-depression medications have been found to be of use. [12]

Genital Retraction Syndrome (Koro)[edit]

Retraction into body. (Malay Koro, Sudan melting penis/cell phone phenomenon)

Genital Retraction syndrome is a culture-bound syndrome occurring mostly in African and Asian men. This syndrome causes the men to think that their penis is going to shrivel into their stomach and that they will die. In South East Asia this syndrome has become known as “Koro”, which means “head of the turtle”. It can also be referred to as penis panic. In this case a large group of men can become panicked about their genitalia disappearing. Often these fears come about in cultures where witchcraft is used, or where biological education isn’t available. In 1997 lynch mobs in Ghana attacked foreigners they accused of being sorcerers capable of shrinking men’s penises.


Latah is a culture-bound syndrome that exist in Malaysian and Indonesian cultures. People showing signs of this syndrome respond to minimal stimuli with exaggerated startles. Sometimes, after becoming started, people suffering from this syndrome will obey the commands or imitate the actions of the people around them. Most occurrences of Latah are intentionally provoked to act as entertainment for those surrounding. Latah is very closely tied to specific factors in the cultural systems of the Southeast Asian societies in which it is found. The Latah syndrome exemplifies the very dynamic and complex ways in which neurophysiological, experiential, and cultural variables coincide with each other to produce a strongly marked phenomenon in these cultures. It is most widely known as a hyperstartling condition which mainly occurs in Malayan cultures. Latah is also the name for those who have the condition, which consists mainly of adult women. During episodes of this behavior, Latah's are usually not held responsible for their actions. It is also closely related to another condition called Hyperexplexia. (SE Asia women, obey, not responsible for acts)


Two Inuit women and child. Origin: Taken by Angsar Walk [

Piblokto, pronounced (pee-block-toh) and loosely translated from Inuit to English means "running crazy" is a hysterical/dissociative state. It occurs mostly in the winter season and typically shown in Inuit or Eskimo women and is characterized by short attacks of disturbed behavior that are not remembered by the individual afterward.

The symptoms can include running naked through the snow, an insensitivity to extreme cold, coprophagia (the consumption of feces), echolalia (the repetition of words), depression, screaming, crying, and violence towards other people and animals. Piblokto is most often seen in women of the Inuit tribe. These people inhabit the areas of northern Canada,Greenland, the coastal regions of Alaska and north eastern Asia/Russia. They are able to inhabit very harsh conditions and tolerate the snow and ice of the Arctic tundra for most of the year. There has never been a recorded case of Piblotko in children, although women in tribal groups have been recorded as having as many as 5 attacks of hysteria a day. The Inuit people's diet mainly consists wild game, whale and seal meat. A diet high in protein, selenium, and fats may help these people escape the risks of cancer but not the biological/psychological malady of Piblokto. Although commonly thought of as a psychological ailment, Piblotko may be linked to vitamin A toxicity, or hypervitaminosis A. Vitamin A toxicity is caused by an overconsumption of pre-formed Vitamin A, which is the result of high amounts of vitamin A in the diet at one time. This can lead to altered mental state, confusion, headache,and irritability, as well as many symptoms that are common to Piblotko. Piblotko has also been recorded in Inuit dogs and while these dogs are not considered infectious, they are shot when symptoms first occur and then eaten by the tribe. SAD- seasonal affective disease; loosely linked to this syndrome, as the weather and light are factors that play straight into symptoms like depression. [34]


Susto is a Folk Illness that is most commonly found in Latin America. The term "susto" comes from the Portuguese and Spanish word for fright. In this way, the illness is called “fright sickness”. It is also referred to as "spirit attacks," most common among Native Americans. The disease is usually generated from a traumatic experience like the death of a loved one, an accident, or anything else that might cause physiological pain. It is most common in women but can also be found in men and children. The illness in not recognized by Western Traditional Medicine, but is commonly compared to anxiety disorders.

Symptoms of susto can be nervousness, anorexia, insomnia, listlessness, despondency, involuntary muscle tics, and diarrhea. Treatments for this illness are mostly natural and herbal, such as consuming marijuana teas, Brazil wood, and orange blossom. The most effective treatments are done by what is called a healer and can include different sort of rituals. The closer these rituals are practiced to when the traumatic experience occurred, the better. It is also very important to recognize the event and not suppress it.

Susto is often compared to other biomedical illnesses. In 2002 studies about susto were conducted in; Latin communities, the United States, Mexico and Guatemala. First they defined susto in the different communities. Although the definition differed from region to region, the main idea was that susto was an illness caused by fright, and not necessarily loss of soul. It was seen as a serious illness that could even lead to death. But to better understand this folk illness, in biomedical culture and culture I am familiar with in United states, susto is best related to depressive disorders, post traumatic stress disorder, and somatoform disorders.[35]


Opsophagos was an ancient Greek label given to anyone who had an extreme and irrepressible desire for eating fish.

The term is a definition one’s character, not literally their general palate for fish. Charging someone with the term is directed in a very negative manner- it parallels being indicted with having over-indulgent behavior, a taboo in Greek society. Opsophagos is synonymous with words like unsophisticated and barbaric- words opposite of rationality. The fish is simply a symbol for overindulgence.

Greek tall tales describe an opsophagos as a gluttonous and greedy man who would consume all prepared fish, sharing none with anyone. The painted image of an opsophagos was the opposite of an ideal human- a man with a heat-resistant throat to handle fish too hot for anyone else to eat, thus keeping the fish for only themselves.

Opposite of America’s Judeo-Christian tradition, Greek thought and morality is more flexible than the orthodox, black and white view of simple rights or wrongs. For example, instead of ruling out women or wine, Greeks believe in “nothing in excess”-enjoy life’s pleasure but under control. This is contrary to the American idea of suppressing vices and how negative habits should be cut out completely “cold turkey”.

Ghost Sickness[edit]

A Dust Devil is an example of a manifestation of Ghost Sickness

Ghost Sickness originates from the Navajo Nation and is believed to be a psychotic disorder associated with death. Common symptoms include fatigue, recurring nightmares, hallucinations, and a constant feeling of terror. The people of the Navajo Nation believe that a Chindi causes Ghost Sickness. A Chindi is the ghost of the Navajo Tribe and many believe that this ghost is released during a person’s dying breath, and it is also believed to nearly always be an evil force. A common manifestation of a Chindi is believed to be a Dust Devil, and the direction they spin signifies whether it is a ‘good’ Chindi or a ‘bad’ one; a clockwise spin is considered good – a counter-clockwise is considered bad. Other Native American tribes have modified beliefs of Ghost Sickness and have attempted to prevent or avoid passing it on. For example, the Lakota Tribe attempted a ban on mourning rituals in order to avoid the illness in the 1800's, but many still practice modified rituals.


Windigo (or Witiko) A culturally bound syndrome found among the Algonkian Indians, NE United States and Eastern Canada. Windigo is the famous syndrome of obsessive cannibalism or the consumption of another’s flesh. Windigo has fallen under skeptical eyes and to many is now somewhat discredited. A modern medical diagnosis of this condition would probably label it as paranoia, due to the irrational perceptions of being persecuted for suffering from Windingo. Fear of prosecution is prevalent among victims of Windingo because of the cultural universal that eating humans is wrong. Windigo was supposed to have been brought about by consuming human flesh in desperate circumstances such as famines. Afterwards, the individual who consumed flesh was supposed to be haunted by cravings for human flesh and thoughts of killing and eating humans. In other words, Windigo is the unwanted transformation into a cannibal.

In the Great Lakes of Canada and the United States where climate was harsh, Windingo would develop among families who, isolated in their homes due to heavy snow storms, had inadequate food and supplies. Symptoms of Windigo include vomiting and lack of appetite. The individual would then begin to develop delusions of him or herself believing they are becoming a Windigo Monster. People suffering from Windigo psychosis claim to see others as edible, which only increases with time. As the individual becomes aware of the transformation they begin to deeply fear becoming a cannibal. Victims of Windigo psychosis often experience severe panic and anxiety. Suicide is common in order to prevent themselves from becoming Windigo monsters. [13]


Zar[14] is experienced in Ethiopia, Somalia, Egypt, Sudan, Iran, and other places in the Middle East and North Africa. The feeling you get when you have zar is spirit possession. Some symptoms that could occur are dissociative episodes with shouting, laughing, singing, weeping, or hitting the head against some sort of surface. Individuals may refuse to do simple tasks such as eat or go about their tasks in daily life. They also may show withdrawal and apathy. In some cases the person might develop a long-term relationship with the possessing spirit, but this is the rarest symptom. Zar can also be used as part of the training and practice of shamanistic healers. [15] This is usually practiced in Africa and is unfamiliar in Europe. Since this is a trance that is induced voluntarily as part of a shamanistic ritual, it is not considered a disorder.

Zar was experienced in many cases when immigrants would move from Ethiopia to Israel. This is when zar was known to happen the most. Zar as a voluntarily induced spirit would occur the most in Northern African countries. One of the most common possession phenomena in Africa and in other continents is the belief in possession by spirits, known as zar.


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