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  • Writer's pictureAlexander Lebedev

Plant Medicines: Bridging the Divide between Western and Indigenous Healing Traditions

Updated: Jan 16

For centuries, indigenous communities around the world have relied on plant and fungi medicines as a primary way of healing and connecting with nature. Yet the western approach has been substantially different creating tensions between the two worlds. In this post we will explore ways of how this divide can be addressed.

A traditional curandera | COURTESY LARRY LAMSA

One of the main areas of contention is the overmedicalisation of plant medicines by western approaches and business models. In the western world, there is a tendency to view plant medicines through the lens of scientific reductionism, breaking down the active ingredients and seeking to isolate and synthesize them in the laboratory. While this approach has led to many important medical discoveries and innovations, it has also contributed to a certain disconnection from the holistic, spiritual, and cultural context in which these plant medicines have traditionally been used (Fotiou, 2019).

Psilocybin in a pill form | Photograph: NYU Langone Medical Center.

Furthermore, the profit-driven nature of the pharmaceutical industry has led to the commodification of plant medicines (and of nature in general really), with companies seeking to patent and profit from these natural resources (George et al., 2022; Goldacre, 2012; Timmermans, 2003). This has often resulted in a disrespect for the intellectual property and traditional knowledge of indigenous communities, as well as a lack of benefit-sharing for the communities that have relied on these plants for their livelihood and well-being.

The story of María Sabina

The story of Gordon Wasson and María Sabina is a particularly illustrative example of how the Western approach can damage indigenous traditions (Gerber et al., 2021).

Maria Sabina (1894-1985). Huautla, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Gordon Wasson was a banker and an amateur ethnomycologist, fascinated by the use of psychedelics in indigenous cultures. In the 1950s, he traveled to the Sierra Mazateca region of Mexico, where he met with María Sabina, a curandera (traditional healer) who used the psychedelic mushroom Psilocybe mexicana in her healing practices. Maria was hesitant about bringing a westerner to her ceremonies, but ultimately agreed to do that on a condition that the participant would not disclose her name and location.

Life Magazine cover with article on Magic Mushrooms, written by R. Gordon Wasson.

Wasson was impressed by the powerful experiences he had during the mushroom ceremonies facilitated by Sabina, and soon wrote about his journey in a 1957 article for Life magazine, disclosing Sabina’s name and location. His article and a book that he published later in co-authorship with his wife brought widespread attention to the use of psychedelics in indigenous cultures, and sparked a wave of "psychedelic tourism" to the Sierra Mazateca region. However, the influx of outsiders seeking to participate in the mushroom ceremonies had unintended consequences for the Mazatec community. Many of the visitors were disrespectful of local traditions and customs, and some even stole mushrooms from the Mazatec to bring back to the United States.

Some believe that the attention brought by Wasson's article also led to the criminalisation of psychedelics in Mexico, making it difficult for the Mazatec to continue their traditional healing practices. Sabina herself was ostracised by her community for facilitating the ceremonies for outsiders, and her reputation was forever damaged by the negative attention brought by the article.


Science & Spirituality | COURTESY THE EPOCH TIMES

We nevertheless have to acknowledge that western medicine has much to offer, and has made significant contributions to improving public health and extending life expectancy. However, there is a clear need to accept the wisdom and knowledge of plant medicines that exist within indigenous communities, to establish a dialogue between different approaches to healing (Bouso & Sánchez-Avilés, 2020).

One solution is to adopt a more integrative approach to healthcare, which takes into account the strengths of both western medicine and traditional healing practices. This could involve incorporating traditional plant medicines into modern medical treatment protocols, as well as training healthcare professionals in the use of these medicines (Gobbi et al., 2022).

Another solution is to support the conservation and sustainable use of plant resources, recognizing the rights and knowledge of indigenous communities (Kor et al., 2021). This could involve initiatives such as fair trade and benefit-sharing arrangements, as well as the development of community-based enterprises that allow indigenous communities to retain control over their natural resources.

It is important to understand that indigenous communities have been working with plants for a very long time, and that they have a wealth of knowledge and expertise to offer. By establishing a dialogue between western and traditional cultures, we can not only learn from each other, but also work together to address some of the pressing health challenges facing our world.

By acknowledging the strengths of both approaches and working towards a more integrative and respectful model of healthcare, we can build a more balanced and holistic system that benefits all. We, Katharsis Journeys, are fully committed to making this happen.

Doctors and traditional healers are joining forces to prepare a ceremony at Katharsis Journeys retreat.


Dr. Alexander Lebedev , CEO at Katharsis Journeys

Psychiatrist and neuroscientist with over 15 years experience in clinical and biomedical research. His academic work is focused on understanding complex relationships between global societal dynamics and people's health, wellbeing, beliefs and decision-making. As a part of his academic career, he published dozens of peer-reviewed articles on brain imaging, socionomics, psychopharmacology, psychedelics and coordinated several research studies, including Sweden’s first clinical trial investigating psilocybin's potential to treat depression. Alexander's mission is to develop novel wellbeing models that foster individual and societal resilience.




  • Bouso, J. C., & Sánchez-Avilés, C. (2020). Traditional Healing Practices Involving Psychoactive Plants and the Global Mental Health Agenda: Opportunities, Pitfalls, and Challenges in the “Right to Science” Framework. Health and Human Rights, 22(1), 145–150.

  • Fotiou, E. (2019). The role of Indigenous knowledges in psychedelic science. Journal of Psychedelic Studies, 4(1), 16–23.

  • George, D. R., Hanson, R., Wilkinson, D., & Garcia-Romeu, A. (2022). Ancient Roots of Today’s Emerging Renaissance in Psychedelic Medicine. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, 46(4), 890–903.

  • Gerber, K., Flores, I. G., Ruiz, A. C., Ali, I., Ginsberg, N. L., & Schenberg, E. E. (2021). Ethical Concerns about Psilocybin Intellectual Property. ACS Pharmacology & Translational Science, 4(2), 573–577.

  • Gobbi, G., Inserra, A., Greenway, K. T., Lifshitz, M., & Kirmayer, L. J. (2022). Psychedelic medicine at a crossroads: Advancing an integrative approach to research and practice. Transcultural Psychiatry, 59(5), 718–724.

  • Goldacre, B. (2012). Bad pharma: How drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients. Fourth Estate.

  • Kor, L., Homewood, K., Dawson, T. P., & Diazgranados, M. (2021). Sustainability of wild plant use in the Andean Community of South America. Ambio, 50(9), 1681–1697.

  • Timmermans, K. (2003). Intellectual property rights and traditional medicine: Policy dilemmas at the interface. Social Science & Medicine, 57(4), 745–756.

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