Caitlin Dreisbach ’12, a biology and society and communications double major, participated in the Cornell-Nepal Study Program (CNSP) in the spring of 2011 and studied the perception of alcohol consumption and its effects on lactation in rural Nepal.
In many parts of Nepal, it is believed that drinking chhyang, a Nepalese grain-based beer, increases lactation in nursing women. This belief is grounded in tradition and culture. With the government-backed promotion in recent years of a more scientifically-based practice of health and medicine, Dreisbach investigated how government efforts were changing perceptions surrounding health and medicine in rural Nepal. She described her research as “looking at the transitions between their traditional medicinal belief and the new wave of western medical influence.”
According to Dreisbach, women drink about one glass of chhyang a day, or about 200 to 300 milliliters, which is not enough to “get drunk,” but enough, supposedly, to promote the production of milk.
But scientific studies have suggested that alcohol consumption actually reduces the amount of lactation although this claim is disputed. Additionally, the scientific community is in general agreement that alcohol will be present in the breast milk if the nursing mother consumes alcohol, which would be harmful to the infant, although the time it stays in the breast milk is also still under debate. The government-backed health posts established in rural areas advise nursing women not to drink, against their culture.
Dreisbach studied the Thakali people in the Mustang district of Nepal, which is in the northern part of the country. There, the question of whether to drink alcohol during the nursing period becomes a conflict of tradition, culture and family against the perceived higher knowledge and education of the medical professionals working at the government health post. Although about half of the women did consume chhyang during their nursing period, Dreisbach found many of those women would not recommend their daughters to consume alcohol, primarily due to the advice given to them by the government workers in the health posts.
The government health posts have proven to have positive results for the Thakali, and as a result, the people have become more accepting of other recommendations made by the health posts. Dreisbach also learned that many of the Thakali women considered the medical professionals working in the health posts as having “worldly knowledge” that they should follow because they themselves have had minimal education.
Dreisbach learned that Nepalese locals use alcohol consumption to promote lactation through her research advisor, Danbar Chemchong, a Cornell anthropology Ph.D. student in Nepal. Chemchong’s wife brews chhyang for nursing women. Dreisbach was intrigued by the practice and decided to study the issue further.
Dreisbach stated, “My main goal is to instigate more research about the specific biological components of alcohol consumption to promote lactation. Hopefully, that increased amount of knowledge on the subject and increased research about it will lead to better and accurate recommendations” for nursing mothers.
CNSP became an option after her plans to spend a semester in Thailand fell apart. Dreisbach said, “I will never forget my Nepal experience. And I would be nowhere near as interested in my honors thesis.”
As a result, Dreisbach states, “I am always trying to convince people to do some sort of exploratory semester, even if it’s Cornell-in-Washington,” she said.
“My Nepal experience was a catalyst for my interest in women’s health and my interest in breastfeeding and women’s health care throughout pregnancy,” she said. After graduating, Dreisbach plans to go to graduate school for nursing and midwifery.