The plant-based cures of the Mayan-descended curanderos are sometimes found in the traditional way of going into the forest and jungle surrounding the place the curanderos live or in gardens and window boxes at their homes, where they have cultivated the plants. However, not all the cures used by the curanderos stayed secret from Western medicine. In the 1960s, when the birth control pill was being developed, European countries and the United States sought a way to gather large amounts of hormones to create synthetic hormonal medications. Synthetic hormones were not just used for oral contraceptives but could be used as cortisone, which was a lifesaving discovery for patients worldwide. A discovery by a determined scientist would put Mexico on the map scientifically and change the world of synthetic hormones for the better.
Barbasco, a wild yam in Mexico, contains the chemical diosgenin, the base to create synthetic hormones such as those found in oral contraceptives. This yam had long been used by locals for various things, including fishing, since when thrown in the water, the water would bubble, and the fish would float up, dead. However, the locals soon discovered that pregnant women who ate the fish or water drunk by livestock downstream from where the yam was used to fish would have miscarriages. Locals soon used the yam more carefully. In the midwifery circle, it was passed down that one cup of brewed beverage using the yam was a very powerful abortifacient. The yam was not without other medical uses. Curanderos had long soaked the yam in alcohol and used it to relieve aching joints.
There was abject poverty in Oaxaca, where the barbasco was primarily farmed. Families lived in very small traditional homes, often without even the luxury of electricity or running water at the time of discovery in the 1930s. Once barbasco became the new cash crop, however, the people of Oaxaca found themselves sitting on a veritable goldmine. For Mexico, this meant that they would not only become the leader in the scientific world, but they also had control over the sale of diosgenin. While they would enjoy this freedom and benefit for a short while, it would not last. Mexican companies and laboratories soon found themselves bought out by international firms. Before long, the money that Mexico could have been profiting from was soon going to other nations, who then imported medications back into Mexico at a very high cost. The government tried to step in and stop things, but it was too late. Eventually, the need for barbasco died out as other synthetic hormone sources were discovered. The yam had outlived its usefulness, but it could be said that without the discovery of diosgenin, oral contraceptives would have taken much longer to create.
Barbasco yams were not the only plants that have found themselves being used in Western medicine. For thousands of years, indigenous people living in Mexico have used plants to heal, guide them in dreams and on spirit quests, and help flavor their food. Some of these plants, such as peyote and mushrooms, are still being studied by scientists today. These psychedelic plants find themselves listed as harmful drugs and on the DEA list of Schedule I substances, or “...drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” However, scientists are beginning to study the effects of these natural remedies in cases of mental illness, pain, and other psychological afflictions. With the legalization of medical marijuana and later recreational marijuana in many states, medical providers and scientists began to revisit the idea of plants that were previously considered useless medically or even potentially harmful.
Micro dosing, which is providing minuscule amounts of a particular plant or medication, of psychedelic mushrooms, which contain the compound psilocybin, have recently found themselves being studied in tests for Alzheimer’s related Dementia, as well as other studies for the treatment of chronic pain and other mental health disorders, including phantom limb pain. Many of the plants used in these studies, such as mescaline and other opioids, are found solely in Mexico or are primarily being harvested there. While many physicians still frown on the use of illegal substances, holistic providers have more open minds as new studies come out about these plants. These studies are reminiscent of the origins of the use of barbasco in that they are remedies and cures that have been known to local and indigenous healers for a very long time.
The poppy is a plant that has long grown in Mexico. It has also been used for thousands of years for its anesthetic properties. It has long been used by curanderos and other folk healers for the pain relief it brings, although it is a substance that a user can quickly become addicted to. Once morphine was distilled from it, Western medicine began to use it to help during surgeries. For many years, Western medicine used morphine as their leading pain relief. It was used in multiple wars, sometimes overly gratuitously on the battlefield, which did not help with addictions, but it was a significant source of relief to those who could not be treated right away.
The use of traditional cures evolving into modern pharmaceuticals is nothing new, going back to early vaccines and the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming. While the uses of these medications are not always successful, Pharmacology and the search for newer and better medicines is never ending. The jungles not only in Mexico but around the world are endless areas of potential cures and medicines that have yet to be discovered. Barbasco is a great example of this. It was a simple weed until a scientist was able to take it and turn it into something that not only changed the way women handled their reproductive choices and lives, but also saved lives by creating steroids such as cortisone.
Curanderos and Western medicine are very different, but they have the same goal- treating patients and keeping everyone in good health. While their methods, in the end, may be different, some of the ways they go about helping their patients are similar, including both using medicinals to help cure. While traditional medicine is still very alive in Mexico and the Southwestern United States, it can also be found in enough places across the world that the WHO has decided that working with instead of against it is the way to go. Western medicine has also taken cures and medicinals from curanderos such as the barbasco yam, opium, and psychedelic mushrooms. The legalization of some formerly non-medicinal medicines has opened the doors to new tests and studies on the effects and benefits of other non-medicinal plants. By working together, traditional medicine and Western medicine will be able to provide the best possible care for the citizens of Mexico.