A Guide to Hispanic Healing Herbs

Victor Sierpina, MD, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston.

MIAMI—In an effort to help educate non-Hispanic health care professionals about Hispanic herbal practices, Drs. Loera and Sierpina are working on a book that combines traditional knowledge with data from the German Commission E monographs and other non-Spanish source books. To aid dialog with Spanish-speaking patients, the book will contain side-by-side English and Spanish text.

They offered the following brief descriptions of some commonly used herbs in Latin American communities, but urged physicians to remember that the terms "Hispanic" or "Latino" encompass an extremely broad range of cultures, geographic climates, and healing traditions. Patterns of herb use can vary widely among different Hispanic sub-groups.

Cumin (Cumimum cyminom): Known as Comino in Spanish, this popular cooking spice is often used medicinally by Latin Americans. As a tea, it is taken as a carminative, stimulating gastrointestinal musculature to expel flatus and ease GI spasm. Some people also use it as an antibacterial plaster to treat minor wounds. There are no published adverse effects or drug interactions with cumin taken either internally or applied externally.

Rue (Ruta graveolens), known as Ruda in Spanish, is a useful antispasmodic for menstrual cramps. Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), called Ajenjo, is used for the same indication, and also to destroy parasites, hence its name. © 2000 stevenfoster.com.

Rue (Ruta graveolens): Called Ruda in Spanish, this herb contains a tangy alkaloid-rich oil that is used as an antispasmodic and muscle relaxant. It is most commonly given to treat menstrual cramps, but some Hispanic herbalists also recommend chewing the leaves to treat intestinal parasites. In concentrated doses, oil of rue can be hepatotoxic and nephrotoxic, and it can also be an abortifacient. There are no known interactions with conventional pharmaceuticals.

Sage (Salvia officinalis): Latin Americans have discovered many uses for this plant, which grows widely in the Southwestern US and many parts of Latin America. Topically, it is an excellent antibacterial and astringent, and some people make a plaster of sage which is used to curb excess perspiration. It is also used for mucositis and gingivitis. Because it contains caffeic acid, sage is also an appetite stimulant. There are reported cases of tachycardia with its use, and it is not recommended for pregnant women.

Spearmint (Mentha spicata): Latin Americans refer to this as Yerba Buena or "good herb." It contains L-carvone and a flavinoid called thymonin, which is an excellent carminative. Spearmint is a pleasant and inexpensive means of stimulating GI muscle activity and can be used to expel flatus, relieve hiccoughs, and relieve nausea. Most often, it is taken as a tea. There are no known adverse reactions or drug interactions with spearmint tea, though topically-applied spearmint oil can cause localized dermatitis in some patients.

Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis): Millions of Americans of all ethnicities now keep aloe plants growing in their kitchens as a quick source of first-aid for burns. But the gel in this plant is also excellent for relieving common gastrointestinal complaints, including gastritis and esophagitis. "I give it to my patients who cannot afford proton-pump inhibitors or H2 blockers," said Dr. Sierpina. The proper dose is 30 ml of the juice or between 50–200 mg of dry aloe per day. "Too much and you can induce diarrhea," he said.

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita): Spanish speakers often refer to it as Manzanilla, and it is probably the most popular herb among Latin Americans, who use it to reduce stress and anxiety and relieve minor GI complaints. It is antispasmodic and mildly sedating, and can be safely used in children. Because it is related to the daisy, patients with known allergic reactions to daisies, asters or chrysanthemums should probably avoid chamomile. Other than this, there are no known adverse effects or drug interactions.

Wormwood (Artemisia absinthum): Known as Ajenjo in Spanish, this herb has a somewhat undeserved bad reputation owing to widely publicized psychoses induced by Absinthe-drinking in turn-of-the-century Europe. In retrospect, this may have reflected wide consumption of "pseudo-absinthe," poorly processed Artemisia extracts colored with far cheaper copper sulfate. Wormwood does contain thujone, which can be neurotoxic in high concentration. In some Hispanic communities, Ajenjo is still widely used, taken as a tea to treat menstrual cramps, indigestion, heartburn, and to destroy intestinal parasites (hence the plant's name).

Though neither Dr. Sierpina nor Dr. Loera have seen adverse events associated with wormwood use here in the US, Dr. Loera said some of his colleagues in Mexico have seen neurotoxicities.

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