Debilidad within Andean Peasants

The culture-bound syndrome, debilidad, manifests with a generalized debility, and a physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion that mainly affects older Andean peasant women chronically, and most frequently, post-reproductive women.  In this study, one woman in every three households reported having debilidad, the majority of which were menopausal.  Upon examination of the gender roles in these Andean communities, the author explains that peasant life in this setting takes a large psychological, social, and physical toll on women.  There is a well-established cultural value placed on women for their reproductive and eventual productive contributions (by having children to increase productivity) that sets high expectations on fertility.  As a result, powerful women in these communities, are often associated with their high number of offspring.

The symptoms described by the Andean women with debilidad most often included headaches, constant body aches, chills, numbness, dizziness, loss of appetite, and an aching or agitated heart.  Much of this could be attributed to their strong work ethic that was simply the result of overexertion, but others were frequently associated with their life hardships.  These hardships included loss (particularly of a child), economic stresses, or even psychosocial problems.  Overall, the women with debilidad very clearly suffered more from physical and psychological stresses over their lifetimes.

For some, debilidad is viewed as episodic and is something that is dealt with on a daily basis and does not excuse them from their demanding work days.  Others find symptomatic relief from rich foods such as eggs, milk, honey fruit, meat, and especially vitamins to fortify the body, regenerate blood, and restore energy.  Local doctors attribute the illness to poor nutrition caused by the socioeconomic inequalities that surround the Andean highlanders.  This is exemplified by the fact that highlanders will trade luxury items they produce such as meat and milk for less costly, but higher-calorie foods such as fatback and rice.


Oths, Kathryn. “Debilidad: A Biocultural Assessment of an Embodied Andean Illness.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly. no. 3 (1999): 286-315.

This Post Has 1 Comment

  1. Amber Schmenk says:

    I think culture is a set of social standards, ideas, religious beliefs, and customs that have developed over a period of time in a particular area or environment. I think debilidad should be considered a culture-bound syndrome because it affects a particular demographic and the causes seem to be shaped by the societal expectations of women in Andean society. As a CBS, causes due to cultural norms specific to the Andeans, such as the demands of women, need to be addressed in order to consider diagnosis. If these were disregarded and only the symptoms expressed were taken into account, patients might be misdiagnosed. For example, in a patient with anorexia, you can’t simply put them on a diet to help them gain more weight. You need to look at the pressures society puts on maintaining a certain image and also treat the psychological aspect of the disorder. Considering debilidad often occurred after periods of emotional stress, other cultures, such as African, Hmong or Hispanic cultures, could take into account their religious beliefs and attribute the disorder to spiritual infestation. For example, in Hmong culture, after a loved one or spouse passes away, they believe that one’s soul can wander off or be captured by the dead’s spirit.

Leave a Reply