Maria Dorais, of Sacramento, holds bags of Arnica flower, which she said she will use as a rub on sore muscles after letting it sit for a couple of weeks in alcohol. - MCT

Home remedies

SACRAMENTO — In a carniceria on Franklin Boulevard, Valentin Curiel often stands off in a corner near the meat counter, waiting for customers who need his help — the mothers whose babies have colic, the insomniacs, the people with skin infections.

Curiel, who's in his 60s, grew up in Mexico when most families did not visit the doctor if they got sick. Instead, they relied on herbs, minerals and botanicals — and the advice of elders on how to use them.

Residents of south Sacramento, Calif. — many of them Mexican immigrants who've heard of Curiel from friends or relatives — tell him about their ailments and get his suggestions for cures.

"Some of the home remedies I know about really work," Curiel said.

Manzanilla, or chamomile, can sooth a stomachache or insomnia when drunk as tea, he tells them. If the manzanilla doesn't work, he recommends hierba buena, or mint tea.

Dr. Hillary Campbell of Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, Sacramento, said she found a survey from the World Health Organization while researching alternative medicine that suggested 80 percent of developing countries use herbal medicine.

Many combine the home remedies with modern medicine, working with doctors who teach them to avoid bad combinations or overuse of alternative treatments.

Like Curiel, Rebecca Gonzalez's grandmother was known in her town in Mexico as the woman with the remedies and knowledge. Gonzalez said that back then, in the rural town, even if people wanted to go to a doctor it was impossible to find one.

"So part of it may have been necessity, but part of it may have been a way of life," she said.

Gonzalez said she still relies on teas to help with a sore throat or insomnia before she'll go to a doctor or take a pill. And in the winter, to avoid getting sick, she said, she always has cinnamon or mint tea brewing.

But the Sacramento woman said she doesn't use all the handed-down remedies, among them softening the pain of tonsillitis by swallowing an egg yolk sprinkled with sugar. Or warming a banana peel and placing it on the bottom of her foot to soothe a sore throat.

"I am more cautious now and I probably would take the kids to the doctor for things that may seem more serious," Gonzalez said.

Dr. Ashby Wolfe of the department of family and community medicine at the University of California-Davis Medical Center said many of her Latino patients have used some kind of alternative medication.

It's her routine to ask every patient.

"It is important that we as doctors ask if they are using alternative medications and pay attention to these forms of medications," Wolfe said.

Too much of an herb can become toxic, and it can be unsafe to take some of them with prescribed medications.

But alternative medicine can also complement prescribed medicines, Wolfe said.

A 2007 National Health Interview Survey found that 38 percent of adults reported using complementary and alternative medicine in the previous months.

Wolfe and Campbell both said they believe doctors don't get enough training in complementary and alternative medicines.

Curiel's training has come from experience. And the success of his advice relies partly on faith.

"Not all the home remedies I know of work for everyone, but staying hopeful and positive definitely helps," he said.

For depression, Curiel suggests showering with palo de Brazil, or Brazilwood. He tells people it can heal the heart and calm the nerves just by holding it while in the shower.

For people who have skin infections or gastritis, he suggests a plant called cuachalalate that can be soaked in water and be rubbed on the skin. He also tells them to drink the leftover water as a tea.

Curiel treats his own diabetes with nopalitos, a cactus. He said it also can be used to lower the need for cholesterol medication and treat gastrointestinal disorders, skin ailments and viral infections. He tells people to cook the nopalitos and eat them on their own or drink them in a smoothie.

Gonzales said she believes her children will continue the home-remedy tradition.

"These remedies are part of their culture and they come with the story of 'This is what my grandmother did,' so maybe it will work," Gonzalez said.

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