Given the steady stream of drugs Western doctors prescribe and the soaring costs of health care, a lot of people are looking for alternative treatments for what ails them.
Some are finding it in Chinese herbal medicine, which uses the leaves, branches, roots, stems and seeds of natural plants to help treat maladies of all kinds, from anxiety and stress to asthma, the flu and stomach pain.
The herbalists prepare strong brews and medicinal teas, or combine herbal powders into capsules to treat their patients.
"When I take Chinese medicine it brings balance back into my life," said Darlene Rose De Maria, an educational therapist in Burlingame who recently took a Chinese herbal brew for a bad sore throat. "It balanced my entire energy flow, and my sore throat went away."
A previous scare from a "life-threatening disease" was also treated with Chinese herbs, and De Maria said they spelled recovery and fewer chemotherapy treatments.
While older Asian people are the traditional users, many Chinese herbalists and acupuncturists on the Peninsula are seeing more Caucasians, Hispanics and others seeking Chinese herbal treatments.
"A lot of people don't want to take drugs, because there are too many side effects," said Jong Soo Han, a Chinese herbalist and acupuncturist in Redwood City with 35 years of practice under his belt.
Han points out that hundreds of combinations of plants used in Chinese herbal treatments have 3,000 to 5,000 years of testimony and "clinical evidence." His business has climbed steadily, especially among non-Chinese people.
"We say herbs are the same as food," Han said. "Plants are already chemically balanced."
One knock on Western pharmaceuticals is that they are often derived from a tiny part of a plant, which Chinese herbalists think makes them unbalanced and, therefore, more capable of creating side effects.
Patients use the herbs for everything, from the common cold to chronic ailments like diabetes, heart disease, migraine headaches and repetitive stress pain from computer work.
"They can't find results from Western medicine, and they're trying something new," said Chen Chung Ho, an acupuncturist and herbalist in Burlingame for 23 years.
But Ho, too, was quick to point out that many of the herbal treatments have been tried and tested for thousands of years. The herbs are sometimes used in conjunction with acupuncture.
"There's so much stress in this society, I see a lot of people for anxiety, depression and stress," said Ho, who added there are few side effects with the herbs. About 80 percent of Ho's patients are Caucasian.
People without health care know how expensive Western medicine can be. It can cost between $600 to $1,000 a month or more for an individual or family to sign up for an HMO plan.
Herbalists are certainly not for everybody. But some find them less expensive than Western medicine, and more healing.
The herbalists charge as little as $5 to $30 for an herbal concoction or tea taken over two successive days, Han said. But prices can vary significantly, since some herbs are more expensive than others. For a tea that lasts six days, the cost can range from $40 to $50, or more if the herbs are expensive.
The herbal brews are concocted in five main categories: salty, sweet, hot, bitter and sour, depending on the disease.
Some of the herbs include tang kuei root for blood cleansing; mulberry twigs for pain and common cold; sandseed for stomach problems; safflower for female menstrual problems; and schisandra for liver and hepatitis ailments.
A typical appointment consists of an herbalist taking your pulse, and examining your tongue and eyes. The doctor then discusses your medical problems, and decides what herbs are best for treatment.
Lorraine Cortes of Redwood City recently used Chinese herbs for hair loss. She took a tea from the gusuibu plant for two months and her hair loss stopped.
"It turned my hair around and also gave me more vitality," she said.
Discussions about proper diet are also a part of the treatments, and exercise is considered an essential part of recovery.
"People are seeking out alternative medicines, and Chinese herbs are getting more popular," said Joseph Acquah, doctor for Oriental medicine and acupuncturist at the Osher Center for Integrated Medicine at UC San Francisco. "Health is a matter of balance. Chinese medicine aims to bring the body back in harmony with itself."
The herbal treatments are typically not covered by traditional health insurance, because they're considered food, said Hideshiro Minami, herbalist and acupuncturist at the Holistic Health Center, which has clinics in San Mateo and Menlo Park. Chinese herbalists usually accept the use of both Western medicine and Chinese herbs for treatments.
But Minami believes herbal medicine can cut medical expenses for many people, and get them well.
"Some people worry about the toxicity of natural herbs," Minami said. "But you just have to be careful about certain herbs, trust your doctor and know how those herbs are stored."
Ellen Shing, a women's lingerie store owner in San Mateo, doesn't like the taste of some of the Chinese brews, but used one recently for an ulcer instead of the drugs prescribed by her doctor.
"The drugs shut off my stomach acid, and I thought that was too extreme," Shing said. "I used some Asian herb roots in a powder form and got healed."
Business writer Tim Simmers can be reached at 650-348-4361 or by e-mail at tsimmers@bayareanewsgroup.