A Window into the Culture of Home Remedies
By Parnika Agrawal, Neha Bollam, Jailyn Neville, and John Obiefuna
This playlist explores the incorporation of home remedies in healthcare regimens across rural North Carolina. Freddie King remembers the odd home remedies that his aunt used as a child. Lisa Mckeithan speaks about the use of home remedies as a result of racism and prejudice in healthcare. Cynthia Songs explores the use of home remedies over conventional healthcare. Stephanie Atkinson shares how the role of caretaker of the family was beyond just being a mother but also their doctor. Ethel Crowell discusses her experience with home remedies when her mother had pneumonia. Sabra Jane Hammond delves into what home remedies meant in the terms of economic standing. Thomas McLaughlin talks about how environmental factors influence the use of home remedies. Finally, Willie Ramey discusses his skepticism with modern medicine compared to home remedies. While these clips only highlight a few of the stories associated with home remedies, we hope to utilize this playlist to share more unique home remedies, explore the generational influence of home remedies, the skepticism around conventional medicine, and how physicians play a role in utilizing home remedies as a form of healthcare.
People in the United States have many different approaches to healthcare, which include combining a variety of methods for healing. These varying approaches are often shaped by heritage and family backgrounds, attitudes towards different aspects of healthcare, and the availability or accessibility to certain types of healthcare. One form of healthcare seen across the country at a diminishing but still prevalent rate is the use of home remedies. Home remedies–such as supplements, herbal medicine, and other alternative treatments–seem to be especially prevalent in rural communities, as reflected by the Stories to Save Lives interviews. These interviews and other studies communicate patterns and trends seen in the use of home remedies by members of North Carolina communities. This includes the specific ways home remedies are incorporated into people’s lives, how this use has been influenced by relatives and older generations, how home remedy-users view conventional medicine, and how physicians in these communities have responded to home remedies.
An immense variety of home remedies have been incorporated into people’s lives. A personal example of a generational familial home remedy is called “sweet ocean water.” This home remedy consists of hot water mixed with salt and sugar, and is designed to cure a sore throat. My family’s use of this home remedy demonstrates the simplicity and use of home remedies by many families to date. In the interviews from the Southern Oral History Program, many interviewees share specific home remedies that have similarly been preserved through generations. Due to the diversity of home remedies, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly how home remedies work. Scholars have explained that “it’s not clear exactly what makes a home remedy do the trick. Is it an actual physiological change in the body or more of a placebo effect?” (Khan). Yet despite this skepticism surrounding the practice, many interviewees and their families remain firm in their beliefs surrounding these remedies.
One interviewee, Stephanie Atkinson, describes a specific remedy that her grandmother used for pain. This remedy utilizes a “concoction that was some type of alcohol with a banana peel, and that was supposed to be for arthritis and leg pain and she was swearing by it” (Atkinson 0:20:08:05). This home remedy can now be found on modern media sites, along with possible explanations for its effects. Atkinson describes other home remedies such as the use of honey for its many healing properties. Thomas McLaughlin also describes several examples of home remedy he used growing up. McLaughlin cited the use of boiling sassafras tea and pine needles, “catnip for the colic,” and even “an herb that would help my younger brothers and sisters from wetting in the bed,” (McLaughlin 0:16:55.2). These are only a few of many examples of home remedies used throughout North Carolina communities.
Much like folk tales, many of these home remedies were passed down through generations by word of mouth and were implemented into lifestyles through repetitive use. According to a study exploring the utilization of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) across the United States, children who had parents who utilized CAM in the past twelve months were five more times likely to have also utilized CAM in the past twelve months (Barnes 6). Children who have been raised in this environment continue to utilize home remedies later on in their life due to reasons including family ties to a certain remedy, a generational socio-economic difference, or the first line of defense against going to the doctor.
The example previously described involving the banana peel and alcohol demonstrates that the use of home remedies is often connected to certain beliefs that a family holds. In this example, Atkinson explains that her grandmother swore by this remedy and would share bottles of this concoction with the rest of her family. Although Atkinson no longer uses this specific remedy often, she remembers that it was successful. Her grandmother’s religious use of the home remedy led Atkinson to continue using other home remedies due to the positive memory correlated with its use. These strong connections to the family and positive memories associated with home remedies are one of the main reasons we see the continued use of home remedies.
Home remedies are also passed down as a form of socio-cultural transmission. Home remedies are often infused with parts of a culture that contribute to the use or the lack of use of home remedies. A study done in North Carolina found that the experiences of African American men with home remedies were more prevalent than those with other forms of medical care due to the high expenses that come with going to the doctor’s office and the fact that their “culture is just so self-preserving” (Eley et. al. 6). The process of providing treatment for themselves as opposed to seeing a doctor evolved to become a part of their heritage. One participant of the study explained that “this is a learned process. And you might not think about it like that but it was taught to us and we taught our kids that things cost money, don’t bother” (Eley et. al. 6). Home remedies passed down through generations are passed along with stories of their origin and use, creating an immense association between these remedies and culture or heritage.
Another important point to consider when understanding the use of home remedies in these communities is the relationship between the use of home remedies and conventional medicine. Home remedies are sometimes used complementary to conventional medicine because certain remedies have been passed down through families and communities. The results of a study interviewing 145 rural older adults in North Carolina found that this population used traditional home remedies (such as those previously described), but did not extend this use into herbalists, acupuncturists, or faith healers (Arcury et. al., “Rural Older Adults’ Beliefs”). A similar study found similar results in a different community, but also cited a large prevalence of faith healers in this community (Cavender and Beck). These populations surveyed were not skeptical of conventional medicine and made sure their use of home remedies did not conflict with their physician’s advice (Arcury et. al. “Complementary and Alternative Medicine”). However, as seen among many interviewees in the Oral History Project, others may use home remedies in place of conventional medicine, either due to skepticism or different barriers to access.
Certain interviews provide evidence that there are groups who are reluctant to receive treatment via conventional medicine for many reasons and view home remedies as a substitute for this method of treatment. The previously cited study focusing on the prevalence of home remedy use among African American men provides one explanation for this. Lisa McKeithan expresses similar sentiments in her interview. She explains that the root of her community’s home remedies might be because “in the sixties and seventies … the doctors in rural communities in the South who were treating black men or women were slim” (McKeithan [0:56:05]). Because of this, her community developed a culture of using home remedies before having to go to a doctor. This self-sufficiency is a common response to mistreatment from healthcare workers, and the history of prejudice in North Carolina has motivated other communities of color to do the same. A survey conducted among black families who regularly used home remedies found that 43% of them turned to home remedies because they felt it was the safest, most feasible, and most comforting option for them (Boyd, E.L., et al. 347).
Other interviewees express a more general distaste or distrust towards conventional medicine. Among McLaughlin’s family, “none of them liked going to the doctor … although we was [sic] about two miles from the Moore Regional Hospital, but they managed to do a lot of things on they own [sic]” (McLaughlin 0:27:28). This preference to manage treatment in the home rather than a hospital is echoed among many interviewees, such as Willie Ramey. Ramey reminisces of the time before medicine was so widespread, remembering that “there were home remedies that people in our family knew to take for almost everything that was wrong with you … when you look at medicine … the list of things that it may cause is greater than what you’re taking it for,” (Ramey 0:31:33). This provides a contrast from the cultural view of home remedies, since home remedies might also be used out of a feeling of necessity and security.
While the view of home remedy-users has been thoroughly discussed, another important perspective on home remedies is that of physicians and their relationship with the practice. Physicians have mixed responses when it comes to incorporating home remedies into the treatment plan of their patients. Many physicians disregard the use of home remedies, deferring to their medical education and trusting only in biomedical treatments. However, the experiences of many, such as Lisa McKeithan, demonstrate that the reason behind this might be seen in roots of conflict between conventional medicine and home remedies. McKeithan explains that her family was unable to receive proper health care due to racial prejudice. Therefore, her family looked back into home remedies their ancestors used and incorporated them into their own lifestyle, resulting in their negative relationship with physicians and conventional medicine.
Despite this, many studies are prompting physicians to form a more positive relationship with the use of home remedies in the communities they serve. A study demonstrated that older Americans are 65% more likely to use home remedies as a part of their treatment, with black Americans using them far more often than their white counterparts (Roberson 38). This data demonstrates the importance of a physician’s acceptance and understanding of these practices, and the need for physicians to discuss these practices with their patients.
Home remedies can tell an important story about a patient, conveying factors such as access or knowledge–both important in determining how likely they are to follow particular treatment plans. Roberson mentions that the discussion of home remedies will be difficult to incorporate among all physicians as it would require them to forgo some of the authority they’ve grown accustomed to having. However, because home remedies and associated beliefs could potentially interfere with biomedical treatments and negatively impact the health of the patient, physicians that choose to not discuss them with their patients put their lives at serious risk. Freddie King provides an example of these interfering or detrimental practices through his family’s experience. While some of his family’s home remedies had successful effects–such as using ice baths to bring down a fever–others had no impact on his health or even made him feel worse (King). For this reason, it is important that physicians develop a positive relationship with home remedies, better situating them to offer care to a diverse set of patients.
Home remedy use among rural populations and older adults appears to be a snapshot of generations, heritage, and culture. While the specific remedies themselves have an immense variety, there are many patterns and commonality seen among their use. Many populations use home remedies out of family habit or as a cultural token. However, others use these remedies as an alternative to medical treatment for another variety of reasons. Due to the continuing prevalence of home remedies, it is especially important for physicians to understand, accept, and appreciate these remedies. While the use of biomedicine is rapidly overtaking other forms of healthcare in the United States, projects such as the Southern Oral History Program and the Stories to Save Lives series provide a keen look at the historical and culture-filled practice of using home remedies.
Arcury, Thomas A., et al. “Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use Among Rural Residents in Western North Carolina.” Complementary Health Practice Review, vol. 9, no. 2, 2004, pp. 93–102.
Arcury, Thomas A., et al. “Rural Older Adults’ Beliefs and Behavior Related to Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use.” Complementary Health Practice Review, vol. 10, no. 1, Jan. 2005, pp. 33–44.
Arcury, Thomas A., et al. “Herbal Remedy Use as Health Self-Management Among Older Adults.” Journals of Gerontology, Series B, Psychological Science and Social Sciences, vol. 62, no. 2, 2007.
Atkinson, Stephanie. Interview with Maddy Kemeny. 25 June 2018 (Y-0003). Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Barnes, Patricia M., et al. “Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use Among Adults and Children: United States, 2007.” National Health Statistics Report, no. 12, 2008.
Boyd, E.L., et al. “An Assessment of Home Remedy Use by African Americans.” Journal of the National Medical Association, vol. 92, no. 7, July 2000, pp. 341–353.
Cavender, Anthony P., and Scott H. Beck. “Generational Change, Folk Medicine, and Medical Self-Care in a Rural Appalachian Community.” Society for Applied Anthropology, vol. 54, no. 2, 1995, pp. 129–42.
Ekor, Martins. “The Growing Use of Herbal Medicines: Issues Relating to Adverse Reactions and Challenges in Monitoring Safety.” Frontiers in Pharmacology, vol. 4, no. 177, NCBI, 2014.
Eley, Natalie T., et al. “Beyond the Individual: Social and Cultural Influences on the Health-Seeking Behaviors of African American Men.” American Journal of Mens Health, vol. 13, no. 1, 2019, pp. 1–11.
Firenzuoli, Fabio, and Luigi Gori. “Herbal Medicine Today: Clinical and Research Issues.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 4, 2007, pp. 37-40.
Khan, Nizam. “9 Home Remedies Backed by Science.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 22 Apr. 2020, www.healthline.com/health/home-remedies.
King, Freddie. Interview with Maddy Kameny. 27 June 2018 (Y-0035). Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
McKeithan, Lisa. Interview with Maddy Kameny. 29 June 2018 (Y-0038). Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
McLaughlin, Thomas. Interview with Maddy Kameny. 28 June 2018 (Y-0040). Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Oldendick, Robert, et al. “Population-Based Survey of Complementary and Alternative Medicine Usage, Patient Satisfaction, and Physician Involvement.” Southern Medical Journal, vol. 93, no. 4, 2000, pp. 375–381.
Parisius, Lisa Marie, et al. “Use of Home Remedies: a Cross-Sectional Survey of Patients in Germany.” BMC Family Practice, vol. 116, no. 15, 11 June 2014.
Ramey, Willie. Interview with Darius Scott. 7 July 2018 (Y-0043). Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Roberson, Mildred H.B. “Home Remedies: A Cultural Study.” Home Healthcare Nurse: The Journal for the Home Care and Hospice Professional, vol. 5, no. 1, 2000, pp. 35–40.
Smitherman, Lynn C., et al. “The Use of Folk Remedies Among Children in an Urban Black Community: Remedies for Fever, Colic, and Teething.” PEDIATRICS (American Academy of Pediatrics), vol. 115, no. 3, Mar. 2005, pp. 297–304.