We invited Araceli Benavides, a Certified Nutritionist Specialist (CNS) and Licensed Nutritionist Dietitian (LDN) with a Master in Integrative Medicina from Georgetown University, to tell us about the differences between western medicine and the holistic approach to healing taken by shamans.
Although health systems and medical practices across the world differ in many ways, they all have a common goal: to reduce suffering and promote health. Western medicine typically divides the body into seemingly independent sections, with specialists focusing on their own areas, often without coordinating with other doctors. But because the human body is highly interconnected, this approach regularly poses problems.
Meanwhile, the field of Integrative medicine combines Western medicine knowledge with other complementary and alternative practices that are evidence based and safe. Unlike Western medicine, which usually focuses on treating physical symptoms, this is a holistic field that treats the body as a whole, addressing the interconnections between organ systems and taking into consideration the mind, body and spirit.
How do shamans work?
Curanderismo and Shamanism are considered part of Integrative medicine, and they’ve been in practice for at least 10,000 years. Shamans work with the healing power of nature, since they use herbs and foods as medicine, and the shaman is considered the conduit of the treatment. Shamans take into consideration the emotional state of the person they're treating, as well as their harmony with the environment.
The spiritual component of shamanism makes it challenging to conduct clinical trials to evaluate the benefits of this practice. So their effectiveness is mainly measured by their success in treating patients throughout centuries, or through witnesses, qualitative studies and reports of individual treatments.
Holistic healing in practice
A case report from the University of Colorado showed that the use of curanderismo and indigenous healing for patients with non-malignant pain improved function ability, mood, and sleep, and resulted in a decreased use of narcotics. The treatments included massage, aromatherapy and sound healing.
A qualitative study conducted in Iquitos, Peru, in 2013, and approved by New College of Florida’s International Review Board, interviewed and followed the work of 3 shamans, 1 curandero and 1 vendor of traditional medicines for 1 year. The study shows that the placebo effect might play a role in the ritual component, which will have a physiological manifestation by modulating opioid and dopamine pathways. It also explores how the immune system can be affected by the intentions proposed during the rituals, creating a desired response. It does mention witnessing health benefits during shamanic ceremonies.
Ultimately, no health system alone may be right for everyone, but there is sufficient scientific evidence to support that addressing mind, body and spirit during a treatment improves the chances of recovery.