An Herb A Day Keeps The Doctor Away: Exploring Traditional Medicine in New Orleans

By Wynona Bernasconi

There is a societal pressure to blindly trust what the scientists say. Turning to traditional practices of medicine from any culture could be either met with hostility, disdain, confusion, and sometimes even with a laugh. 

However, why is it that practices that now are commonly referred to as “alternative medicine” have existed in evolution with humans for tens of thousands of years and are the alternative to a dominant form of medicine that has sexist, homophobic, fatphobic, and racist roots? 

In opposition to that, Michael Moran, a local massage therapist, acupuncturist, and herbalist, says, “Plant-based medical practices are not exactly rooted in forces that seek power. They are much more benevolent.” And believes that the dominant medical practices result from a “desire for power over the desire for peace.” 

These are two different forms of healing, and it is no surprise that in a capitalist patriarchal individualistic society with many racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, and other discriminatory forms of established institutions would have a power hungry approach to healing. 

Ultimately, the prevalent social hierarchies in many modern Western societies have led to the erasure of cultural practices but have also led to the physical depletion of plant resources. Moran believes that “western earth-based tradition is natural resource extraction. No wonder we have left behind an unsustainable, infertile earth.” In Louisiana, we have “fucked so much with the Mississippi.”

We view mother nature as something to take from– it’s the tragedy of the commons.  

A joint reflection post-pandemic, where there has been a natural influx of interaction with medicine for most of us, is that we are much more lenient with western medicine when it makes mistakes. Moran goes as far as to say that “Western biomedical medicine is a belief-based medicine. Many of these drugs we are told to take are not well-researched or supported by research. There is plant-based medicine that is far more supported by research than some of these pharmaceuticals.”

“We have weaponized medicine as a force of superiority you must submit to because it is the truth nothing else is”, Moran argues. Opium For The Masses by Jim Hogshire is the perfect read for Moran because it argues just that. Hogshire informs readers that large institutions are in control of our pain management and pain is a common political tool to make people submit. Thus it would be an act of political revolution to regain charge of our own pain by learning how to grow our opium poppies. Moran went and bought a copy from Sisters in Christ the following week.

While traditional and modern western medicine is often contrasted, most pill-form medications are synthetic versions of the chemical structures of plants. According to Dr. Liji Thomas, “about 8 out of 10 drugs used to treat infection, cardiovascular disease, or cancers, or as immunosuppressives, come from plants, directly or as derivatives.” Moran goes as far as to say, “Everything we put in our bodies that has been prescribed, whether it be a hypodermic needle or a pharmaceutical drug, was derived from or influenced by at one point some sort of demonic or plant based demonological type therapy.” 

However, the influences of traditional medicines in our current medical model are rare for a reason. Overlaps are avoided, “history is such a funny word because we have been fed information that was mostly documented by white men crusading their way through the world power hungry deceiving the traditions of anyone they felt threatened by,” Moran says. 

Figures such as Witches and Shamans have been discredited, demonized, and ridiculed by this retelling of history through the one-dimensional lens of the white man who refuses to call them what they were, doctors. 

Magic seems to be especially infantilized in modern society. Moran explains the importance and erasure of magic in medicine: “Magic is a very important part of medicine in which we have come to understand a lot of medicinal correspondences. No matter where it’s from, every traditional medicine has roots in magical omens in spiritual correspondences. Just because our most modern iterations of medicine have been thoroughly sanitized of all mention of spiritual or energetic influences doesn’t mean that’s not where they came from.” 

However, grand failures of the current medical system are being recognized by the Institute of minority groups, persistent healthcare and systems illiteracy, dwindling reproductive health, patients having no connection to their practitioners, and staying in the hospital comes with a long line of negative emotional and psychological symptoms. 

But in traditional medicine, connection between healer and the healed is the secret ingredient. Moran and his patients have a more therapeutic relationship that involves much talking to find the root of the problem. One of his patients even keeps a journal for him so that he can better understand their needs. 

Practicing or taking inspiration from the ethos of traditional medicine is especially crucial in a predominantly black city like New Orleans. Moran describes the relationship of conventional medicine in New Orleans with the fact that “Before this city was called New Orleans, it was called Bulbancha and was a reference to the fact that there were so many different cultures living here.” Cultural exchange has led to cultural medicinal food inventions such as the Creole Chinese hangover dish “Yaka Mein.” Moran also describes that “indigenous groups such as the Choctaw have reestablished themselves here as plant medicine workers.”

The significant issue with our current medical model is that hospitals are a center for acute care when eight out of the ten top causes of death are related to chronic disease. Moran says that “in traditional medicine, gentle intervention things like diet, exercise, breath, and other work non-intensive interventions are considered the more superior approach to the body.” 

Additionally, midwifery, a form of traditional reproductive care, lends a gentle approach to childbirth. Steph Smith, the documentarian of Give Light, explores midwife and doula practices in multiple corners of the world, including New Orleans. In her own words, she describes the importance of midwife and doula practices as it “tends to look at it as a whole with women and childbirth as a natural rather than pathological process.” The midwifery profession used to be a power position and still is in places such as New Zealand, centered in Give Light. 

Smith recognizes how the medical system is failing us as she notices that “We are becoming a more medicalized society and moving away from stuff beneficial to people and more into an aggressive approach instead of a healing or wellness approach.”

 This approach is harmful as it often just “Slaps a bandaid on the problem rather than looking for the underlying issues so it can complete healing and not create more problems,” says Smith. One of Smith’s takeaways from filming this documentary and learning from the wisdom of Midwives was realizing just “how poorly women are treated all over the world” in the form of birth trauma.

Smith fully understands the depth of birth trauma, “Birth trauma is significant in our culture; it is not only the immediate trauma of unnecessary aggressive interventions and obstetric violence on women, it is trauma that impacts peoples nervous system and can have a lifelong effect of trying to, you know, to understand their existence in the world because it was circumvented their expression of how they came into the world.”

Cherry Staub is a current junior at Tulane university and labeled as a herbal medicine advocate by everyone who knows her. While herbal medicine is used differently cross culturally as well as between the individual level, Cherry said that she used herbal medicine “To help with negative symptoms of [her] menstrual cycle, and also for some other things like headaches. I also use herbal medicine for mental health and mood improvement.” 

In 2020, Cherry actively started to take control over her own medical journey after living on her own for the first time. She says that this was the result of feeling unsatisfied by her Western prescriptions with their long lists of side effects while not even solving problems but rather covering up certain symptoms. 

Cherry told me that “Sometimes herbs can target the cause of a negative symptom rather than simply masking the feeling of the symptom.” This is due to a general ethos that medicine should be life enhancing rather than death prevention. 

Similarly to Moran and Smith, Cherry expressed how her journey with herbal medicine started by recognizing the failures of the dominant western health systems and as well as their personal desires for how they want to approach the health of their body.

However, Cherry does admit that there are certain forms of healing that she still turns to Western medicine for. “There are things the Western medical system performs very well such as surgeries or fixing broken bones,” Cherry says. However, herbal medicine similar to midwife practices is in conjunction with western medicine rather than separate. You can have a surgery or your kidney by someone with a medical degree and then post op treat your own pain with Capsaicin.

Social groups such as race, gender, and class differences are apparent within New Orleans through a variety of sectors of public life. Treatments and outlooks on healthcare services vary between dominant and minority groups. “Traditional medicine definitely has a positive impact in any city, especially New Orleans where there are great injustices within the healthcare system including different standards of care based on race or gender, and great class inequity.Alternate forms of healing could be cheaper and also could possibly be approached with more care,” says Cherry. 

Cherry personally struggles with the failures of menstrual care within this city. “Gynecological healthcare is so expensive and flawed, and there are many natural ways to improve your cycle.” The history of gynecological care-similar to other specialties of the American medical system- has racist roots. 

The father of modern gynecology, James Marion Smith, practiced cruel experiments on enslaved women. The women often denied of anesthesia or numbing solutions due to the false myth that darker skin is tougher and less permeable to pain than that of fair skin. 

“People are made of so many plant compounds and I believe strengthening our understanding of and relationship to plants can bring so many levels of healing.”

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