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Traditional Medicine: Urban Myth or Secret Lifesaver?

JPierre's picture

When I was sick as a little girl, my mother would use all types of traditional Haitian concoctions and ideas to treat my symptoms. Fearing them immensely, I would run and hide thinking that she was absolutely nuts and preferring Tylenol or Robitussin instead. Yet, now I find myself following her traditions as opposed to shelling out money on the generic medicines at CVS. Maybe over time I became used to these, but I truly believed that they worked.

However, during my first couple of years in college, I recommended using lemon juice to to treat my friend’s mucus-filled noise and she laughed thinking it was absurd. I told her it was actually an effective idea with guaranteed results, but she refused to believe me. It was then that I realized that my mother’s traditional medicine or traditional forms of medicine in general, seem ineffective in comparison to mainstream medicine. I wondered how people could be so skeptical about techniques that had been so helpful in some of my worst times. Moreover, I wondered if traditional medicine was to visiting the doctor every time one experiences cold-like symptoms.

More commonly known as folk medicine, The World Health Organization (WHO) defines it as,

“the sum total of knowledge, skills and practices based on the theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures that are used to maintain health, as well as to prevent, diagnose, improve or treat physical and mental illnesses. Traditional medicine that has been adopted by other populations (outside its indigenous culture) is often termed alternative or complementary medicine.” (1)

However, WHO also goes on to note that in Asian or African countries, 80% of its residents use some form of traditional medicine as a primary or complement to a source of health care, yet the organization itself must do more study on the field in order to determine its safety in use and application. 

Nevertheless, what exactly is considered “traditional medicine”? Initially when I began writing about this topic, I was only narrowly focused on my mother’s tricks such as squeezing lemon down your nasal passages or her infamous white chalky liquid with beets and onions that seems to make my colds disappear. However, as my research progressed, my knowledge of traditional medicines expanded. One of the most popular forms of traditional medicines is the herbal treatments, which are ironically, a highly lucrative business in the US- totaling about five million in 2003-2004. More specifically in the Caribbean, there seem to be three types of traditional medicines: 1) medicinal herbs introduced by colonists, but still cultivated in the country, 2) indigenous wild life and plants, and 3) other plants that have healing abilities. (2) Moreover, traditional medicine contains a certain ideology as well. One Laotian patient receiving traditional medicine explained that “‘Doctors are good at diseases….The soul is the shaman’s responsibility.”’ (3) It is more than remedies, but a belief that a positive lifestyle accompanies good health. 

Moreover, the belief in alternative medicine seems to be expanding in the US and Western countries in general. The New York Times noted that more than 33% of American adults use some form of traditional medicine and the newspaper has even produced articles examining various natural medicines and its effect. People are interested in the uses of traditional medicines, so the Times is channeling their interests in articles. Furthermore, hospitals are finally getting in tune with patient requests by training shamans and mid-wives on the basics of Western medicine. “The approach is being adopted by dozens of medical institutions and clinics across the country that cater to immigrant, refugee, and ethnic minority populations.” (4) 

So is alternative medicine credible? Was my mother just playing psychological tricks on me as a child? At this point in my research, I do not think I can answer this. However, I can say with absolute certainty that my mother’s methods were indeed a lifesaver for me as a child. Moreover, although I cannot guarantee the efficiency of traditional medicines, I can speak to people’s fear or skepticism of them. Folk medicine was passed down orally as opposed to being written and documented such as Western treatments. This method can create much skepticism among strangers to folk medicine as they believe that these medicines are things that people had made up over time. I certainly shared the same skepticism as a child. However, what people fail to realize is that these methods have been around for hundreds of years-if not thousands of years in some regions- in comparison to Western medicine and discoveries that are fairly new and young in age. This signifies its ability to sustain over time. Therefore, its historical documentation should not be reason enough to discredit it. Or even its seemingly strange methodology. People need to realize that before there was Robitussin and Sudafed, our ancestors were using simple things such as a lemon or oil. 

Thus, traditional medicines are becoming a fast growing means to accompany Western medicine. As more people are realizing and acknowledging its successes with small-scale sicknesses, it may be able to shed is negative connotation as simple non-sense. Whether it penetrates mainstream society or not, I believe in its efficiency. And next time you have the sniffles, squeeze a little lemon up your nose, and trust me, you’ll become a little less skeptical of it too.


1. "Traditional Medicine." World Health Organization. December 2008. 27 September 2009 <>.

2. "Traditional Medicine." Wikepedia. 27 September 2009 <>.

3. Brown, Patricia Leigh. "A Doctor for Disease, a Shaman for the Soul." The New York Times. 19 September 2009. 27 September 2009 <>.

4. O'Connor, Anahad. "The Alternative Medicine Cabinet: Arnica for Pain Relief." The New York Times. 19 September 2009. 27 September 2009


Paul Grobstein's picture

"traditional medicine" versus ?

Could one perhaps characterize "Western medicine" as "“the sum total of knowledge, skills and practices based on the theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to Western cultures that is used to maintain health"?  and "traditional medicine" as that which differs from "Western medicine"?  You've made a nice argument for paying more attention to efficacy than to origin of health care practices, and raised a whole set of intriguing questions by doing so.  For more along these lines, see The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman and  Anne Harrington's The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine.