Traditional Ways of Thinking About Food and Medicine
23 Aug 2012
Some symbolic beliefs held by ancient cultures have turned out to be “true” in modern science. Some perhaps through coincidence, but others not. The Mayans believed that sun is the great father and that people eat his skin. Now we believe in photosynthesis. These same people had a number system and a calendar that would repeat – they avoided very large numbers because they thought it was dangerous for humanity to arrive at that point. Not that long ago physicists made calculations that brought us the atomic bomb. The Mayans were great believers in balance, balance of energy that permeated most aspects of the culture, especially food.
Their beliefs about how to balance energy in diet worked for them in a specific cultural time and space. The available food fit with their views to create a healthy diet. But with the rapid modernization of the world and the globalization of products, sometimes it has not worked as well. Yet the beliefs about diet persist, and effective Guatemalan healthcare workers are aware of them.
Foods are sorted into two different families, hot and cold. The families each have their own spirit or energy and so have different effects on the organism. To conserve balance one must partake equally of the two groups. Cheap and plentiful staples are all cold: wheat, beans, rice, vegetables, meat, processed food, and water. They are balanced by fare of the hot variety: spices, sugar, and especially coffee. Guatemalans drink a lot of coffee. Something else to note is that all western medicine is hot.
Christina was another student who was here for four weeks. One of our first conversations was about SNL where she imitated Andy Samberg. I liked her immediately. She had a particularly attentive host family who worried when she stayed out late and whose daughters got upset when she couldn’t attend their soccer games. They were very concerned when she got an amoeba GI infection, and were convinced it happened because Christina drinks a lot of bottled water – too much from the cold category that made her sick. They tried to convince her to drink more coffee.
The whole family including the two girls, ages 6 and 10, drink boatloads of coffee. And they all complain of chronic headaches. (Headaches have been linked to excessive caffeine intake.) Christina has tried to convince the family to give the girls less coffee and more milk.
Soon after Christina’s illness we were given a lecture on traditional Guatemalan medicine. I was amazed at how many fruits and greens used that modern medicine would agree works. Two of the foremost examples that stand out in my mind are pomegranate for kidney stones and orange leaves for bipolar disorder. The Mayans knew pomegranate to work for only some kidney stones, but not all. It is high in potassium citrate, a base that keeps urine from becoming too acidic – an ideal environment for uric acid stones. They boiled hefty amounts of orange leaves several times a day to make tea for people with profound mood swings and sometimes hallucinations. Orange leaves contain lithium.
A cultural reality 9,000 years in the making will discover things that work. It will also cultivate philosophies and thoughts that people will hold on to for centuries. Whether they are “true” or not, they are real. It can be difficult to show consideration for beliefs that we do not share. But there is always the choice to try.