Natural Remedies: More Than Just a Cultural Tradition Among Hispanics

Herbs and natural remedies in small plates on a table

Millions of people in Latin America, regardless of their socioeconomic status, turn to plants and herbs to cure their diseases and ailments — natural remedies for everything from a common cold and muscle pain, to even as a way to prevent cancer.

Whether some of these remedies are effective or not is a matter of debate, but clearly, the use of natural medicine is an important part of the culture and history of Latinos. And to this day, it remains a principal way of healing among indigenous peoples.

saludmóvil ™ traveled to Mexico to gain some insight on what kinds of natural remedies Mexicans, and other Hispanic cultures, are using in their everyday life, and how this practice is integrated to modern society.

According to the Ministry of Health of Mexico, it is estimated that about 90% of the population has turned to herbal remedies, at least once, to alleviate a health issue, relieve discomfort, or  as a preventive measure.

Interview with an expert in herbal remedies

Jose Rodriguez is a Mexican herbalist who has, for over 40 years, been offering natural remedies in the form of microdosis. A herbalist is known as a person who studies and treats diseases with medicinal plants. Microdosing is a technique used by herbalists to treat various diseases by administering small amounts of plant extracts that have medicinal properties. The type of diseases that Rodriguez treats with microdosis vary from simple ailments like a headache, to chronic diseases such as diabetes.

“There is a lot of diabetes and gastrointestinal problems, also a lot of stress,” says Rodriguez, when asked what kind of ailments is he contacted for the most. “These are what people in big cities often suffer from,” adds Rodriguez during our interview in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Although natural remedies are not just limited to people without access to health insurance, they are highly popular for that reason. Rodriguez says that for people who live in developing countries without access to allopathic medicine, or don’t have the economic resources to see a doctor, a natural remedy is an inexpensive alternative.

Rodriguez says that depending on the plant he uses, a microdosis treatment can vary between $50 and $200 MXN ($2 to $10), a fraction of the cost of visiting a private doctor.

The sale of medicinal herbs and natural remedies: A business opportunity

In Latin America, the unlabeled black market is one of the main distributors of herbs and ready-to-use natural remedies.

Tourists and visitors alike can quickly recognize these small businesses in a marketplace because they are surrounded by small bags of dried herbs, flowers, and sometimes candles with religious figures printed on them.

Although it can be risky to buy from an unregulated market, the growth of plants and herbs has proven to be a profitable business for many farmers who sell their crops in the big city.  

For example, chamomile, of European origin, is mainly grown in the State of Mexico and Puebla and sold to the tea processing industry.

Magdalena Hernandez has spent several years behind a small business in downtown Guadalajara, where she sells more than 400 different types of herbs with medicinal properties. She also mixes different plants to create healing teas such as tadin tea, a blend of seven blossoms designed to help relax and strengthen the central nervous system.

Hernandez told us, “Some people come in tired of so much medicine, with black teeth from all the chemicals, looking for a natural alternative.”

While we were filming, I noticed several people came in searching for a remedy for a sore throat; another person was looking to alleviate pain from arthritis, and a third person, a young girl, bought a bag of tea to soothe the pain of menstrual cramps.

“However, don’t be fooled,” warns Rodriguez. “The use of plants as medicine can be risky and ineffective, especially when dealing with plants that are dangerous to humans.” A taste of certain fruits derived from these plants can be deadly to humans.

“You have to know the properties of each plant very well, how to extract adequate amounts for healing, and which plants to not even consider,” said Rodriguez.

But despite the risks, Latinos sometimes feel more comfortable with these type of remedies than with conventional medicine. This explains why Latinos often tend not to see a doctor.

A recent article by Consumer Reports explains how dangerous it can be to treat certain diseases with natural products, even when these are prescribed by a doctor.

Grandma’s recipes, a staple of the Hispanic family

If you spend some intimate time with a Hispanic family, you will soon notice that the grandmother plays, or has played, a very important role in the family’s health.

Often home remedies that are still used today, have been passed down through generations from grandparents and great-grandparents. Usually it is grandma who knows best about how to prepare a quick and safe remedy.

Esperanza Cervantes remembers how her grandmother, and her mother, turned to home remedies to alleviate symptoms. “When we got the measles, my mother used corn starch on our skin to soothe the urge to scratch,” she explains.

Cervantes showed me some of the plants she grows in her backyard that can be used to make remedies to treat common ailments such as a cough, anxiety, and minor aches and pains of the muscles and joints.

“Mullein is great to cure anything related to a sore throat, coughs, and such,” Esperanza explains. “Arnica (a plant from the daisy family which bears yellow, daisy-like flowers) is very good for treating muscle soreness, bruising, joint pain, swelling, and inflammation.”

A new generation that favors alternative medicine

A Nielsen study revealed that younger generations, including Millennials (18 to 36 years old) tend to move away from traditional medicine and favor more natural alternatives.

In the United States, this generation is showing particular interest in taking care of their personal health, and are increasingly more active in buying products such as supplements, vitamins, and preventive treatments.

According to the report, Millennials are 40 times more likely to use alternative medicine, such as herbal and natural supplements, than other generations. They also turn to the Internet as a primary source for information and recipes for home remedies.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the market for products of alternative medicine has grown exponentially in the United States. According to the Nutrition Business Journal, dietary supplement sales have increased by 81% in the last decade.

Herbalism in the United States

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA ) allows the sale of products made from medicinal herbs under the category of dietary supplements. The product must clarify that it does not treat, cure, or prevent a disease or condition.

This is because dietary supplements are not held to the same standard, and regulation, that a medication with or without a prescription is held to. For example, manufacturers of dietary supplements do not necessarily have to prove to the FDA that the supplements are effective. However, if the product were a drug and claims to have some medical benefit, manufacturers would have to provide evidence and go through a series of clinical trials, which can be expensive and can take years to get approved.

As a young Hispanic, and new mom, now living in the United States, my interview with Rodriguez and Cervantes left me wondering if I am sometimes too quick to run to the pharmacy, even for minor aches and pains.

During an off-camera conversation with Rodriguez, I mentioned to him that my mother has been struggling with hemorrhoids ever since she gave birth to me, 32 years ago. He paused then walked off the set, and to the back of his car, where he reached for a bag and pulled out a small plastic container with the word “hemorrhoids” handwritten in blue ink.  Without asking for a dime, he insisted I give it to my mom for her to try. Sure enough, things did get much better for her shortly after trying it.

The idea of being able to not only alleviate certain ailments without the damaging effects of chemicals on our bodies, but also passing down a cultural tradition that has been effective for generations is one that I plan to embrace more in my own life. I am certainly not ready to cancel my next checkup, nor would I skip a round of antibiotics prescribed by my child’s pediatrician. But upon my return from Mexico, I did buy an aloe vera plant for my backyard.  It’s healing gel is widely known to work like magic to treat scrapes and burns.  So the next time my son falls down and scrapes his knee, I will be visiting my backyard instead of the drug store.

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