A Beginner’s Guide to Traditional Mexican Medicine (Curanderismo) and Herbalism

Published on May 20, 2024

By Kristen Boye BS, Natural Health

Kristen Boye

Kristen Boye is a natural health expert, writer, copywriter, and editor. Kristen was raised on an organic farm in British Columbia which inspired her life’s work. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Health, is a Certified Natural Foods Chef, co-owner of a medicinal herb farm, and is a natural foods and children’s health advocate. Kristen lives with her husband and two children on their medicinal herb farm in Western North Carolina.

Traditional Mexican Medicine, also known as Mexican folk medicine, herbalism, or Curanderismo, has been practiced for over 5,000 years and is still prevalent in Mexico.

Like other traditional healing practices, Mexican Traditional Medicine is rooted in various indigenous traditions and influenced by colonialism and immigration throughout the centuries.

At the heart of Mexican folklore are its healers, known as Curanderos, who employ various healing methodologists, including herbalism and plant medicine, bodywork, rituals, spiritual healing, bone-setting, and more.

In this article, you’ll explore the fascinating history, healers, plants, and practices behind one of the world’s most ancient traditional medicines. 

What is Traditional Mexican Medicine/Curanderismo?

Traditional Mexican Medicine, also known as Mexican Traditional Medicine, MTM, Curanderismo, or Mexican folk medicine, encompasses Mexico's many traditional healing practices.

This system of healing was established over 5,000 years ago and has been influenced by many people, cultures, and civilizations, including:

  • The ancient Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs,
  • Various indigenous tribes,
  • Africans, via Afro-Cuban influences,
  • Spanish-Catholics,
  • Islamic medicine,
  • And Greek medicine.

Mexican Traditional Medicine (MTM) is a holistic system that greatly emphasizes the mind/emotion-body-spirit connection and its role in healing. 

Mexican Traditional Medicine systems share various principles, herbs, and practices with other traditional healing practices in Central and Latin America.

As previously mentioned, traditional healers, known as Curanderos, are at the heart of MTM and are still sought-after today for their wisdom and holistic approach to healing.

Curanderos are experts in various traditional healing practices, from herbalism and rituals to bone-setting and faith healing.

We explore more about Curanderos and the guiding principles and practices of MTM in the following sections.

The Role of Traditional Healers in Mexican Traditional Medicine

Traditional Mexican Healers or Shamans are known as Curanderos, who practice Curanderismo.

Curanderos do not first study to become healers but come to their vocation through a spiritual calling or family lineage, such as a mother Curandero passing the baton to a daughter. REF#3977

God, or a higher power, is believed to grant them divine knowledge and skills to practice healing.

Once their calling is accepted and established, they develop their knowledge and skills through multi-year apprenticeships with practicing healers.

These ancient holistic modalities of Curanderos target three hierarchical realms:REF#3978

  1. The religious and/or spiritual realm
  2. The emotional realm
  3. The process of health and mental illness

As mentioned previously, Curanderos are sought-after healers and thus have extensive knowledge in various traditional modalities, including herbs and plants, prayers, chanting, bodywork, mental/emotional counseling, and other rituals and modalities.

There are four main subtypes of Curanderos. These may overlap based on their specialties, calling, or approaches to health and include: 

  1. Sobadores typically perform bodywork to support digestion and ease musculoskeletal pain.
  2. Yerberos are herbalists and nutritional experts who recommend various herbal formulas and nutritional advice.
  3. Espiritualistas are faith healers who address soul sounds through religion, spiritualities, and rituals.
  4. Hueseros are experts at resetting broken bones and addressing sprains or muscular damage.

Other practitioners of Traditional Mexican Medicine may work with Curanderos, practice as Curanderos, or practice their specialty independently, depending on the practitioner.

Some of these traditional healers include:REF#3979

  • Parteras are traditional midwives. They attend births and also recommend herbal treatments, massages, and other treatments to support pregnancy, labor and delivery, and postpartum.
  • Promotores de salud (health promoters), although they may not be seen as traditional healers, Promotores have basic healthcare training and play an important role as a bridge between Mexican communities, Western healthcare clinics, and mental health centers.
    • Snake healers (culebreros): Healers authorized to heal snake or spider bites using traditional herbs and modalities.

      Drawing on Greek and Islamic medicine influences, some Curanderos view physical health as related to the four bodily humors: hot blood fluid, yellow bile, cold phlegm fluid, and black bile.

      Traditional Mexican healers also typically believe God or a higher power has the power to grant health and healing and emphasize prayer, religion, rituals, and symbols, in addition to herbs, plants, and other modalities.

      These healers have been practicing for thousands of years and are still practicing throughout Mexico, the United States, South and Central America, and many other parts of the world.

      Their wisdom, which was primarily passed down orally, has benefitted countless people and has been integral to the rise of modern complementary alternative medicine and even some pharmaceutical drugs.

      The 8 Philosophical Principles of Curanderismo

      Although the practice of Curanderismo varies throughout Mexico, these eight philosophical premises make up the general perspective of patients regarding the roots of disease, healing, care, and the patient/healer relationship:REF#3980

      Disease or illness may be caused by:

      1. Strong emotional states or transitions of life (such as feeling rage, fear, envy, helplessness, or grief) 
      2. Being out of balance or harmony with one's environment
      3. A patient is often an innocent victim of evil or harmful forces 
      4. Loss of soul (the soul separating from the body)

      Other principles philosophical principles include:

      1. The cure or return to health requires that the entire family participates
      2. The natural world is not always separate from the supernatural
      3. Sickness often serves a social function, such as re-establishing a sense of belonging (resocialization) or increasing family bonding
      4. Latino patients respond better to an open interaction with their healer

      Many of these principles are consistent with indigenous healing systems worldwide, where the mind, body, family, ancestors, and spirit world are all encompassed within holistic healing.

      The Significant Role of Female Healers in Traditional Mexican Medicine

      Many traditional healing practices are patriarchal, with men serving as shamans, herbalists, practitioners, or healers and women limited to the roles of midwives, herbalists, or assistants.

      However, in Mexican Traditional Medicine, women play a significant role as herbalists, Curanderos, shamans, and more. 

      According to a research article entitled: “Mexican Traditional Medicines For Women’s Reproductive Health,” published in the journal Nature, women make up a large percentage of MTM, including:REF#3981

      • 80% of midwives
      • 50% of Curanderos
      • 50% of herbalists
      • 50% of bone-setters
      • 50% of shamans
      • 20% for snake healers (culebreros)
      • 20% prayers 
      • 40% for massage therapists (sobadores)

      Women are also strong advocates of Traditional Mexican Medicine, with 12 to 60% of Mexican women depending on MTM practices and herbal medicines for their primary healthcare needs, depending on location.

      Like all traditional medicine today, people in rural areas rely on these healing practices more than those in urban areas, although various services exist within cities and towns.

      Examples of Traditional Mexican Herbs and Home Remedies

      Mexico’s diverse climate, including jungles, mountains, and coastal areas, is home to approximately 4,500 species of plants (native and introduced).

      These plants are used by over 52 different ethnic groups, with many of these plants recognized and used by approximately 90–92% of the general population.REF#3982

      Herbs are also the most common modality employed in Mexican Traditional Medicine by herbolaria or yerbero/a.

      Various herbs have been used in Mexican Folklore depending on the location and ethnic groups. Some examples include: REF#3983 REF#3984 REF#3985 REF#3986

      • Aloe Vera
      • Artemisia ludoviciana
      • Black Radish
      • Cacao and chocolate
      • Castor oil
      • Chamomile
      • Chaparral
      • Chilies
      • Cilantro
      • Cinnamon
      • Copal tree
      • Damania
      • Garlic
      • Guava
      • Ligusticum porter, also known as “chuchupate”
      • Mexican Honeysuckle
      • Mimosa albida
      • Mint
      • Oregano
      • Onion
      • Peppermint
      • Rosemary
      • Tilia 
      • Sage
      • Tobacco

      Other Traditional Mexican Medicine Remedies

      Herbalism is central to Mexican Traditional Medicine. However, Curanderos and other healers also utilize other traditional remedies, including but not limited to:

      • Amulets, poultices, or talismans: Amulets or talismans are a type of charm worn to cleanse, protect, and heal the spirit. Poultices are combinations of herbs and other ingredients applied directly to the skin to draw out impurities. 
      • Animal Therapies: Such as snake oil or bufo toad medicine—a psychedelic.
      • Limpa: An energy therapy that cleanses the aura and dispels negative energy or energetic influences.
      • Nutritional Therapies and Traditional Foods: Healers typically recommend returning to a traditional diet, which, depending on the geographic location, includes plenty of maize, beans, plant-based foods, herbs, spices, and moderate amounts of animal foods. Traditional foods, such as Tepache—also known as Mexican kombucha, are also commonly enjoyed to support good health.
      • Rituals: There are various spiritual and religious rituals employed in MTM. One example is a temazcal ceremony, a type of sweat lodge that utilizes steam infused with herbs or scents to cleanse and detoxify the body, mind, and spirit.

      The modalities utilized in MTM vary widely based on the healer, their specialty, the patient, and the location. 

      This list is not fully inclusive but is an example of common modalities practiced in Mexican folklore.

      Traditional Mexican Medicine Today

      As mentioned throughout this article, much of the modern Mexican population still relies on Mexican Traditional Medicine and Curanderismo—at home and abroad.

      In the United States, for example, Curanderismo is alive and well and growing in popularity among Mexican Americans, the Latin community, and non-Latin communities as well, as noted by the University of Notre Dame Institute for Latino Studies.REF#3987

      It is estimated that up to 75% of Mexican-Americans utilized MTM in certain parts of the country.

      This traditional wisdom serves as a grounding point for immigrants by helping them maintain essential elements of their culture, beliefs, and identities while providing cultural connection. It’s also easily accessible and affordable with or without insurance or access to public healthcare.

      Today, many Curanderos work from Botanicas (herb and spiritual shops), while others may practice in villages, clinics, their homes, via house calls, or even in spas.

      Like many other global traditional medicine practices, it appears Mexican Traditional Medicine will remain a staple in Mexico and other countries with Latin influence.

      Interested in Learning More About Traditional Healing Practices and Herbalism?

      As documented in previous articles, traditional and indigenous medicines form the foundation of modern herbalism, from which nearly everyone benefits today.

      At Gaia Herbs, we are committed to doing our part in preserving this precious ancient wisdom through educational content, our organic regenerative certified herb farm, and working with suppliers who honor these plants and their growers.

      You can learn more about traditional medicine practices from around the world in:


      • 1. , "Curanderismo: The Prevalence Of Traditional Healing In The Context Of Western Medicine. ", University of Notre Dame Institute for Latino Studies. Student Research Brief. Volume 20. Issue 4..
      • 2. , "Traditional Healers as Health Care Providers for the Latine Community in the United States, a Systematic Review", Health Equity.
      • 3. , "Surviving the Distance on JSTOR", Journal Immigrant Minority Health.
      • 4. , "Curanderismo and Latino Views of Disease and Curing", Western Journal of Medicine.
      • 5. , "Mexican traditional medicines for women’s reproductive health", Journal: Nature 2023.
      • 6. , "Mexican traditional medicines for women’s reproductive health", Journal: Nature 2023.
      • 7. , "A review of curanderismo and healing practices among Mexicans and Mexican Americans ", Occup. Ther. Int., 16: 82-88.
      • 8. , "Actualized inventory of medicinal plants used in traditional medicine in Oaxaca, Mexico ", Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine.
      • 9. , "Traditional Herbal Medicine in Mesoamerica: Toward Its Evidence Base for Improving Universal Health Coverage", Frontiers in Pharmacology.
      • 10. , "Mexican Plants and Derivatives Compounds as Alternative for Inflammatory and Neuropathic Pain Treatment—A Review", Plants.
      • 11. , "Curanderismo: The Prevalence Of Traditional Healing In The Context Of Western Medicine", University of Notre Dame Institute for Latino Studies. Student Research Brief. Volume 20. Issue 4.