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Alternative Medicine

Top hospital opens up to Chinese herbs as medicines

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A worker prepares traditional Chinese herbal medicines at Beijing's Capital Medical University Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital May 25, 2011. Cleveland Clinic in Ohio is now offering similar medications for some patients. (REUTERS/David Gray)

Christina Lunka appeared nervous and excited as she sat in the Chinese herbal therapy center recently opened by the Cleveland Clinic.

The 49-year-old had been to many doctors seeking help for ongoing issues that included joint pain and digestive problems. Now the Kirtland, Ohio, resident was hoping to find relief through herbal remedies.

"Do you have something for inflammation?" Ms. Lunka asked herbalist Galina Roofener during a one-hour consultation.

"Absolutely," responded Ms. Roofener. "This is for pain, for digestion, for inflammation, all of the above," she said, handing Ms. Lunka a bottle with capsules of an herbal combination called Xiao Yao San, which translates as free and easy wanderer. The capsules include about eight different herbs, including licorice, mint leaf and white peony root.

"Please do not expect immediate results," said Ms. Roofener. "The first effects, three weeks. The best therapeutic potential, three months. It will be slow, tedious work."

The Cleveland Clinic, one of the country's top hospitals, is a surprising venue for the dispensing of herbs, a practice that is well established in China and other Eastern countries but has yet to make inroads in the U.S. because of a lack of evidence proving their effectiveness. The herbal clinic, which opened in January, has one herbalist who sees patients on Thursdays. Patients must be referred by a doctor and will be monitored to ensure that there are no drug-herbal interactions or other complications. The herbal clinic is part of the hospital's Center for Integrative Medicine, whose offerings also include acupunture, holistic psychotherapy and massage therapy.

"Western medicine does acute care phenomenally.… But we're still struggling a bit with our chronic-care patients and this fills in that gap and can be used concurrently," says Melissa Young, an integrative medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic.

While acupuncture programs have sprouted across the U.S., there are only a handful of herbal clinics. Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University and NorthShore University HealthSystem, affiliated with the University of Chicago, both include herbal medicine among their offerings.

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