Vitality

4 Things Native American Doctors Got Right Long Before Modern Medicine

When people think of medicine men or spiritual healers, they may not take those traditional practices seriously. Common themes like astrology and superstition seem at odds with the scientifically driven doctors who dominate our modern hospitals and medical offices. But Native American societies like the Maya and the Navajo have certain traditions and practices that could improve modern medical care. Here are four traditional practices that have been shown to work.

Getting to know you

In today’s hospitals and doctors’ offices, the emphasis is often on getting patients in and out as quickly as possible. As a result, some physicians may not know very much about their patients besides symptoms they are presenting. But Quartz notes that Mayan medicine focuses on the whole individual, with the healer spending “enough time with his patients to actually understand what is happening in their lives — and that can lead to better care.” That extra insight could be into the person’s relationships or other social factors, which can “affect almost any illness or health condition, from diabetes to life expectancy to maternal mortality.”

Having faith

In a purely scientific sense, faith and medicine do not add up. But studies have shown that positive spiritual experiences can improve a patient’s health: “People who attend religious services do have a lower risk of dying in any one year than people who don't attend,” Time says. “People who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God.”

Argue whether it’s really divine intervention or just the placebo effect, but in the case of Native American medicine men, the emphasis on spirituality could help patients. At one medical facility in Tuba City, Arizona, where there is a sizeable native population, sometimes Navajo or Hopi healers work in the same room as a doctor, USA Today reports. During a birth, “a medicine man might be performing a ceremony to ease any complications and establish a foundation of beauty, harmony and strength for the baby. Meanwhile, a medically trained midwife is checking on the mother and may deliver the baby before the ceremony ends.”

pow-wow-249204_1920 Native Americans have some traditional medical practices that still work in the modern world. Image courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

Touch me

Having faith in the healing power of a medicine man could play into the effectiveness of touch therapy, but contact can be crucial, particularly for mental health. One writer for the Atlantic, who received touch therapy from a Chickasaw healer, said it “lent itself to moments of extreme clarity, and as I alternated between mental states of hypnosis and Quaalude-like sedation there on the table, I learned to temper my skepticism and embrace some of the hocus-pocus.” That same medicine man played off the patient’s nervous system, applying a thumb to certain pressure points throughout the body in much the same way a masseuse or an acupunturist might. That strategy, the author wrote, made him feel relaxed and “I fell into a trance-like state.”

Pass the peyote

Various Native American societies have long used peyote in medicinal and other cultural practices. Although federal law makes the hallucinogen illegal to possess or ingest, there is an exception for Native American religions. Any drug of its power comes with possible side effects, but some believe peyote could positively affect mental health. While the jury is still out, it has been suggested that a psychedelic such as peyote could relieve alcoholism and other addictions, according to Discover. One study published in PLOS One found that psychedelics, which include LSD, did not increase mental health risks, but rather in some cases lowered the rate of mental health issues. And Scientific American notes that LSD has previously been studied as an addiction treatment: “LSD could act as a kind of chemical catalyst for the ‘moment of clarity’ cited by many addicts as a turning point in their treatment.”

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