'Incurable' Patients Try Witch Doctor Remedies In New Documentary

For many ailments, Western medicine works extremely well. There are pills to vanquish or alleviate illnesses from syphilis to the flu, and surgeries to fix everything from broken bones to failing hearts. And yet, when it comes to addressing many less clear-cut health problems — chronic pain, extreme anxiety, migraines and allergies, to name a few — modern doctors are often stumped.

For a new miniseries on the National Geographic Channel called "The Witch Doctor Will See You Now," British explorer and tribal expert Piers Gibbon led Americans with just those kinds of "incurable" illnesses to far corners of the Earth, where they met with witch doctors and traditional healers in a last-ditch effort to alleviate their suffering.

To name a few examples, Gibbon took a woman with chronic asthma deep into the Amazon rain forest in Peru, where healers gave her hallucinogenic tea and broth from a boiled termite nest. In China, chronic back pain was treated with "tongue acupuncture," where healers inserted needles into different points on the patient's tongue. Tinnitus and eczema were fought off with cow urine and yoga in India, and a woman who experiences claustrophobia and frequent panic attacks was fed a still-beating heart of a freshly killed chicken in Africa.

While most doctors are skeptical, at best, of these remedies, and may even consider some of them to be dangerous, the patients who volunteered to try them for the National Geographic series felt they had nothing else to lose. Life's Little Mysteries caught up with Piers Gibbon to find out how the experience turned out for them. Did any of the bizarre non-Western therapies work? "Many of them certainly deserve a closer look," Gibbon told us.

In particular, Gibbon said the hallucinogen tea drunk by Peruvians, called "Ayahuasca" or "Hoasca," seemed to have a powerful curative effect on the chronic pain and asthma sufferers who drank it for the show. In 1993, an international consortium of scientists investigated the long-term effects of the tea, which is a national treasure in Peru. The "Hoasca Project," as it was called, "found that the medicine was not harmful, and that people who took it were actually healthier than people in the control group," Gibbon said. Despite that finding, the active ingredient in Ayahuasca, called dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is illegal in the United States and many other countries.

Gibbon hopes his series will reinvigorate scientific interest in the tea. "I'm not claiming Ayahuasca is a panacea, but I'm intrigued by what it seems to do," he said. "It may be that we in the West are right to keep it out of our culture, or it may be one of the things we can learn from medical traditions outside our own."

Another remedy explored in the series that is worthy of further study, Gibbon said, is a tongue acupuncture therapy used in Hong Kong. In this tradition, acupuncturists believe the whole body is mapped onto the tongue, and pain in a specific body part can be treated by inserting a needle in the corresponding spot on the tongue.

"It had a fairly miraculous effect on one of our patients who was suffering from back pain," Gibbon said. "I may not believe in the whole worldview, but I had it done on myself and you really do feel like it's having some effect."

The results were so striking that Gibbon now regularly receives acupuncture. [Ancient 'Jin Shin' Acupressure Technique Seems to Work]

Gibbon concedes that some of the more bizarre remedies investigated in the documentary series may have worked by way of the "placebo effect." This is the phenomenon where an inert medication is effective simply because a patient believes in it. For example, a snake-oil-and-herb remedy used in China seemed to relieve back pain, Gibbon said, despite the fact that snake oil is often used as a metaphor for quack medicine. "A lot of the therapies and medicines seemed to require belief, which would suggest they work through the placebo effect. Well, I believe there would be more to be learned about the placebo effect."

He continued: "The point is, let's have another look. We can't research everything, but let's see what we should look at first. And in particular, the series suggests that scientists should look at acupuncture and Ayahuasca tea," he said.

"The Witch Doctor Will See You Now" airs in four parts, each night from today (Nov. 7) to Thursday (Nov. 10) at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

This article was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow us on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook. Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover.

Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.