For as long as people have been getting sick or hurt, cures and treatments to speed them on the road to recovery have come and gone.
Over the years, things once considered modern or cutting edge in western medicine have been replaced by more effective curatives or relegated to the status of “alternative” or “folk remedies.”
Those who study traditional or folk medicine and examine how the remedies work and evolve in a population can trace the medical journey from mainstream to alternative and sometimes back again, according to Dr. Mark Silber, medical anthropologist at the University of Southern Maine.
“There are a lot of home remedies that have been incorporated into the mainstream,” he said. “Look at digitalis from the foxglove plant that is now a common drug for heart problems.”
Other treatments once popular have — thankfully — fallen out of favor.
Medical treatments today for infant jaundice, for example, include light therapy and blood transfusions. Decades ago however, young patients were given a tea made by boiling a whole mouse in water.
“Jaundice was a real common ailment years ago,” according to Don Cyr, an Acadian historian from the St. John Valley. “Most of the time you naturally grow out of it, so everything ‘worked’ on it — including the boiled mouse tea.”
Cyr, who teaches Acadian history and folklore at a The University of Maine at Presque Isle, has collected many of the old time traditional cures and draws upon work collected by fellow Acadian academic Marielle Boudreau.
“The interesting thing is a lot of these remedies existed in Acadian populations all over the world, with some variations,” Cyr said. “They were always changing to meet the needs of the culture.”
Most Acadian populations, Cyr said, had a variation to cure warts that involved rubbing a raw potato on the growth.
“It was believed the starch in the potato that cured the warts,” he said.
Today home remedies — many passed down generation to generation — are as popular as they ever were, and according to Jane Frederick, homeopathic consultant at the Baylight Center for Homeopathy.
Homeopathy advocates the use of ancient principles and remedies made from natural substances that they say treats the whole person, not just a single symptom.
And it seems every person who eschews over-the-counter cold or other pharmaceutical medicines has a favorite home cure by which they swear.
For some, it’s hot tea with local honey, others would not let a cold season begin without a good supply of the herbal immune booster echinacea on hand. Other popular herbal and natural immune boosters and illness suppressants include goldenseal and elderberry. Some people turn to supplements like zinc.
“I am totally on board with all of these,” Frederick said. “And honey is amazing.”
Honey — particularly local honey — is a favorite among home remedy fans, and some like to kick it up a notch with the addition of lemon and rum for sore throats or coughs.
There was a time when spruce gum taken directly from the tree was used to cure coughs, sore throats and even worms and Cyr said there was an endless list of the curative properties believed to be in human urine.
“It was believed to be a real healer,” he said. “If you had chapped hands in the winter, urine rubbed on the affected areas would help. Drinking urine — preferably your own — was also used to treat stroke victims.”
And speaking of waste, it was once thought that rubbing the manure from a black cow on the head would cure baldness, Cyr said.
Then there was that mouse tea.
“Boiled mice or antibiotics, it’s about finding balance in the body and in health,” Dr. Julie Pelletier, a cultural and medical anthropologist from northern Maine and acting director of Chicago’s Newberry D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies, said. “All of those are medical belief systems [and] how humans understand wellness and illness.”
Things that are today viewed as “folk medicine,” Pelletier said, made perfect sense to people at the time, and the same will be true years in the future.
“Some of the things we do now I wonder how people in the future will look at them,” she said. “Cutting things out of our bodies — we don’t think that is weird at all because it makes sense to our understandings of health and treatment.”
Finding that balance in traditional or natural remedies, is key, according to Frederick.
“The problem with drugs like cold and cough medicines is that what you are doing with them is trying to get rid of the cough and, believe me, I know why — having a cough is miserable,” Frederick said. “But what you end up doing is just getting rid of the cough and not solving the underlying problem that caused the cough in the first place.”
To help the body heal — and get rid of the cough or sore throat or a case of the sniffles — Frederick said, a person needs to help the body’s own systems “buff up” to fight the illness.
“The best thing to do is to support the immune system so that in an ideal world we don’t get sick in the first place,” Frederick said. “In the case of homeopathy, every person is different, every person suffers differently and every person heals differently.”
“In the cases of viruses that go around that involve those snuffly noses and sore throats, they look the similar on everyone but treatments really need to be based on the individual,” Frederick said. “What each person needs is a remedy that suits them and helps get all the body’s healing systems working.”
Frederick is a fan of “switchel,” a drink made with ginger, apple cider vinegar, local honey and lemon.
“It’s one of those things that helps support my immune system when things get the point I’m run down or stressed,” she said. “Getting like that makes me more susceptible to any bug going around.”
Every remedy, according to Silber, has some sort of side effect, be it mild or extreme, and knowing that is a crucial part to every form of healing.
“In modern medicine everything has a list of those side effects,” he said. “By the same token, every natural remedy has a side effect and in both cases there needs to be the ability to calibrate dosages and that is as much an art today as it has been historically.”
Cyr agreed, and noted it was not uncommon decades ago for people — including his own mother — to employ their tried and true home remedies but also seek professional medical help when available.
“When I was a young boy and were on vacation at the lake I stepped on a rusty nail that went all the way through my foot,” he said. “My mom did not want to cut our trip short, so she wrapped my foot in salt pork and put bandages around that.”
Cyr said he ran around like that for the next several days until they got home and his mother took him to see a doctor.
“When the doctor unwrapped my foot, he could not believe how clean the wound was,” he said. “The salt pork had drawn all of the rust out.”
Which is why, according to Pelletier, people still seek treatment in both the traditional and modern arenas.
“Most of us still like to mix it up,” she said. “Or I guess you could just drink mouse water and see what happens.”