Research Supporting Indigenous and Alternative Health Practices

Calvin Krippner

In Lower West Side Chicago sits the vibrant community of Pilsen, known for its rich Latino culture overflowing with music, art, and culinary tradition. On a cold Wednesday night in February, the Papalotzin Healing Collective gathered at one of Pilsen’s most well-known cultural centers, La Casa de Cultura. Here, the Collective prepares for a night of community healing, a sound bath orchestrated by the Collective, which involves a combination of sounds and vibrations to produce a healing and meditative environment inspired by their ancestral knowledge. Members of the community set up their yoga mats for an hour-long sound therapy session. 

When the session is over, participants are offered the chance to share their experience with the others. Many offer appreciation towards the Collective and the importance they feel towards the work the group is doing to offer the community a time and place to connect with Latino indigenous and alternative healing practices that are often not included in typical health modalities. Many share feelings of peace, love, and relaxation following the session.

Jessi Belmares of the Papalotzin Healing Collective works to implement this sound therapy as a healing technique in the Pilsen community. She says it works by activating certain brain waves, such as Theta brainwaves, which she describes as the in-between state of being awake and asleep (a lucid state). Furthermore, other beats can help activate Delta brain waves, which help ease the body into deep relaxation. 

“And then, at that point, your body’s own healing mechanisms start to work,” said Jessi. “Your brain, and the biology of it all, will start beginning a tuning process.”

Belmares says that these particular methods seek to address problems within the nervous system. She says that most people spend their day-to-day life operating in what is called the sympathetic nervous system, which is rooted in survival and the fight or flight response, and that certain types of breathwork and sound treatment can help activate its counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the parasympathetic nervous system helps the body to conserve and store energy while regulating basic body functions. She says her healing procedure helps to bring the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems into a greater balance.

The Private Therapy Clinic in the United Kingdom states that a dysregulated nervous system can result in chronic pain and other illnesses. This suggests that providing treatment where the nervous system finds a greater balance can work to counteract the onset of certain chronic conditions.

They report: “Over time if you’re experiencing chronic nervous system dysregulation, it can lead to other physical symptoms that have no apparent explanation or cause. This is usually a sign you’ve been experiencing high levels of sympathetic nervous system responses for an extended period.”

The type of treatment the Papalotzin Healing Collective uses is similar to other sorts of sound and light therapies being tested on the onset and symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease. These approaches have not yet been normalized and widely implemented by our health departments in the prevention of chronic illnesses.

The gong plays a key role in the sound therapy administered by the Papalotzin 
Healing Collective. (Calvin Krippner)

In August of 2021, professor and neuroscientist Li-Huei Tsai gave a TED talk at TEDMonterrey in which she presented findings from a study asking the question: can Alzheimer’s Disease be treated with light and sound therapy? Her findings revealed that sight and sound stimulation at the 40-hertz level increased the power and synchrony of gamma brain waves in mice, then people later on, reaching key parts of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex (where we do planning and reasoning) and the hippocampus (where we create memories). Key parts of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s Disease.

“Unlike a drug, this stimulation is completely non-invasive and has minimal side effects, which could make this approach very accessible,” said Professor Li-Huei Tsai.

Professor Li-Huei Tsai co-founded a company called Cognito Therapeutics in order to test these therapies on people, and said they have seen a reduced level of atrophy and an improvement in mental functioning in participants that point to its ability to help treat and even prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. She often dreams of a society where we integrate gamma wave stimulation into our daily environment through our lighting or even our video entertainment as a way to promote healthier brain activity. 

Putting gamma wave stimulation on our computers is an example of the reimagining that may be necessary for creating a healthier society. However, if our business and healthcare sectors are focused on monetary revenue in the realm of health, and practices outside the norm do not provide any such incentive, will they be implemented? 

Belmares also noted that we know we can ask more of our food industry to ensure we have healthier food. She said we have systems of knowledge tied to indigenous farming practices that can better teach us how to grow and consume foods that are healthier for us and the environment. This type of shift can be demanded when indigenous practices are more thoroughly considered in finding health solutions. 

SUGGESTION: Complicating The Narrative: Healthcare Incentives Align with Treatment not Prevention

Can Public Health 3.0 empower communities in their cultural health practices? 

In our previous story, Illinois Latino News sought to analyze avenues and barriers in the healthcare system for introducing more prevention-based approaches when it comes to chronic diseases. In doing so, we found a desire for this shift from health professionals like Dr. Mike Pginone and community groups such as the Papalotzin Healing Collective. In uncovering how this was being addressed by our health agencies, Public Health 3.0 revealed itself as the proposed multi-pronged approach to implementing a prevention-based system for public health on a national scale.

Public Health 3.0 was formed in 2017 by Dr. Karen DeSalvo when health officials realized that there needed to be a system-wide shift in our approach to health in America. It is a strategy that aims to focus on prevention, but since its implementation, there has been little to no shift towards a preventative approach in our healthcare system.

It is possible that this strategy needs more time for its effects to be felt. A significant part of the Public Health 3.0 plan is to consider and act upon the social determinants of health, meaning the ways in which particular economic groups and ethnic communities approach health and how their health is affected by their living circumstances and they seek to grow the impact and effectiveness of local health departments in order take on this challenge. However, if a sincere look into that approach involves a shift away from the current healthcare model that accounts for 17.3% of our national GDP, what is the likelihood that perspectives like community empowerment and the use of culturally proactive healing, as proposed by the Papalotzin Healing Collective, will be seriously considered and invested in on a large scale if they are not in alignment with financial growth? 

Current rates of chronic illness are high, but they are projected to skyrocket in the coming years. According to the National Institutes of Health National Library of Medicine, the number of adults 50 years and older with one or more chronic conditions is expected to increase by 99.5% between 2020 and 2050, jumping from 71.522 million people in 2020 to 142.66 million people in 2050. Part of this has to do with an increasing number of people moving into this age group; however, the numbers still reveal an immense increase in the percentage of that population developing one or multiple chronic conditions. Furthermore, all age groups have seen and are expected to experience increasing rates of chronic illness. 

The response to this expected trend from pharmacology is one of market growth. The fastest growing drivers in this sector are listed as obesity, neurological conditions, and cancer. A major market catalyst drug that has been receiving substantial investment is Ozempic. It is a drug meant for weight loss and is prescribed to people with pre and existing diabetes. Over the last three years, Ozempic and its sister drug Wegovy have worked to produce weight loss for many, but have simultaneously resulted in a roughly nine time increased risk of pancreatitis, more than four times greater risk of a bowel obstruction, and a more than 3.5 times higher risk of stomach paralysis amongst users of the drug. 

These drugs are part of the reactionary approach to chronic illness that props up roughly 86% of our healthcare industry, and they have to be taken throughout one’s life and come with adverse risks. Pharmaceutical companies see increasing rates of chronic illness as an untapped market. Therefore, when it comes to financial projections, the proactive and preventative approaches in healthcare become a barrier for pharmaceutical companies since these approaches work to limit the necessity of pharmaceutical drugs and reactionary procedures.

If Public Health 3.0 is sincere in its approach to establishing a prevention-based system, then it will have to stand in the way of the companies that profit off of our current treatment-based model.

The Papalotzin Healing Collective offers an approach to public health that empowers local communities and seeks to not only fill in missing gaps in health access but also expand on the meaning of health by connecting it to their cultural health knowledge systems and values. The collective does not advocate for public policies, instead they represent a movement for health empowerment that is not necessarily associated with public or private agencies, and can be replicated in other communities with different knowledge systems and values.

A stated goal of Public Health 3.0 is that “Local health departments embracing PH3.0 should welcome community engagement both formally—for example, through community advisory boards—and informally. Community engagement means focusing not only on disseminating information to communities but also on collecting information from communities.”

A significant goal of Public Health 3.0 is to enhance the power and legitimacy of local health departments since they can better connect with the needs of their local community directly.

In our previous story, Marcia Morales spoke of her time as a moderator between doulas and physicians when bringing the Public Health 3.0 strategy to indigenous communities in Wisconsin. She helped communicate to physicians the importance of respecting indigenous health leaders as experts in their community.

Similarly, the Papalotzin Healing Collective does not seek to be integrated into a public health department. Instead, they ask to be taken seriously as people bringing their cultural health practices into our larger cultural health discussions. They believe Western medicine is forgetting the significance of spiritual and communal healing, bringing people together to help one another lead healthier lives from the ground up, not top down. 

“In the indigenous context, healers were seen as someone who is a part of the community and is taken care of and respected by the community,” said Cristina Puzio, a founder of the Papalotzin Healing Collective. “However, they were not there to profit off of the community and to exploit the community… it was a reciprocal relationship.”

Public Health 3.0 is a complicated approach because it is put forward by the institutions responsible for our current public health culture, and it is a culture where profit is sought to be maximized by corporations. Furthermore, many of their strategies offer to further public and private relationships, which they call cross-sector partnerships, to meet their goals. At the same time, they are proposing a shift towards strengthening local health departments, including communities in health conversations and promoting a preventative approach that contests the ability of profit to be maximized. It is unclear where they truly stand and what will result from HHS adopting this program. 

Their response to the growing need for prevention amidst our chronic illness crisis will reveal much about the program’s intention. What is not up for interpretation is the focus of the Papalotzin Healing Collective in their search for community health empowerment and their passion to generate a place where the Pilsen community can come together around their health and wellbeing. The Collective is hosting fundraisers to journey to a conference called Curanderismo at The University of New Mexico in June, where they will meet with and learn from other groups doing similar work. They say this is important because these groups help one another piece together the lost knowledge of their communities after centuries of colonization, and they are optimistic that a further discovery of their cultural health practices will help them to expand and deepen their current impact on their community.

Cover Photo: The Papalotzin Healing Collective uses a variety of different instruments in order to stimulate different parts of the brain, body, and nervous system. (Calvin Krippner)

© 2024 All Rights Reserved.