Hispanic Communities Show Unique Patterns of Herb Use

Jose Loera, MD, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston.

MIAMI—Much of the dialog about herbal medicine in the US centers on Asiatic or European herbal traditions. But Latin Americans have their own botanical heritage which can differ from the herbal practices of non-Hispanic communities, said Victor Sierpina, MD, at the annual meeting of the American Holistic Medical Association.

"The potential for benefit as well as harm from commonly used Hispanic healing herbs … is poorly documented and understood. Non-Hispanic medical and nursing practitioners often lack knowledge in this area. Lack of communication about this parallel system of cultural medicine creates a potential for lack of compliance with standard therapy, as well as an ignorance of the helpful effects of these ancient folk remedies," said Dr. Sierpina, of the department of family medicine, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston.

Some of the most comprehensive data on herb use among Latin Americans comes from a large, ongoing survey of Mexican-Americans over age 65, headed by Jose Loera, MD, a gerontologist, also at the University of Texas. Since 1993, he and his colleagues have conducted face-to-face surveys with more than 3,000 individuals living in the southwest from Texas to California. The study is designed to address a broad range of health issues.

These people are asked, "Have you used any herbal medicines or home remedies in the two weeks prior to the survey?" If the answer is yes, they are asked to give details. Dr. Loera presented preliminary results at the AHMA conference.

Overall, 9.8% reported using herbs within 14 days of the survey. This is somewhat lower than expected given the herbal medicine boom in the general population. Dr. Loera said it likely underestimates actual use in Mexican communities. Firstly, these individuals are all elderly and under the care of conventional doctors. There are likely many younger Mexican-Americans with little or no connection to the conventional system who make wider use of herbs.

Secondly, this is essentially a point-prevalence finding: the question contained a very specific time parameter. It is likely many patients who answered "no" to the survey question have used herbs at times not covered by the survey.

A Preference for Teas

According to Dr. Sierpina, Latin Americans—even second or third-generation US citizens—differ from other ethnic groups in that they have a strong preference for herbal teas as opposed to capsules or tablets. Many Latinos also use herbal plasters or poultices, a practice far less common in other racial or ethnic populations.

Hispanics also differ in terms of which herbs they use. In 1998, the three top-selling herbs in the US general population were Ginkgo biloba, Saint John's Wort, and Ginseng. Among Hispanics in general, the top three were: Chamomile, Aloe Vera, and Ginseng. Among Mexican-Americans, it was Chamomile, Spearmint and Aloe Vera.

There are many herbs, like Rue, Wormwood, Chaya, Orange Leaf, Epazote, and Una de Gato, that are used almost exclusively by Hispanic populations, reflecting the specific traditions of Latin America and the Caribbean islands.

"Given the overall lack of adverse reactions associated with Hispanic herbs, I, as an allopathic physician generally encourage their use," said Dr. Loera. "Who knows? The patients may be better as a result, and herbal medicines are something they can put their faith and trust into. It gives them more sense of control."