updated 7/6/2005 4:32:44 PM ET 2005-07-06T20:32:44

When Luckner Pierrsaint feels congested from the flu or bronchitis, he doesn’t go to a doctor or a drugstore. He takes his own concoction: a spoonful of a sugar-and-purple-onion mixture left outside for three nights.

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Pierrsaint fled Haiti for Florida in 1989 but still relies on the plant-based remedies he learned back home from his father and grandfather, both voodoo priests.

“In my country, it can take three days to see a doctor, so we know what to do,” said Pierrsaint, 52, who grows ingredients in his North Miami backyard.

Faced with skyrocketing health care costs, lack of insurance and language barriers, many immigrants believe they are better off with homegrown remedies from their native cultures than conventional treatments.

Doctors once dismissed alternative therapies because there is no scientific proof the remedies work, but the treatments are beginning to win some mainstream acceptance.

Alternative therapies go mainstream
More than a third of American adults have tried alternative medical therapies, including prayer, folk medicine and natural products, according to a 2002 survey by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health.

But the Food and Drug Administration cautions that “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean safe because alternative medicines do not undergo the rigorous testing required for conventional medicines. There are no scientific studies to determine the correct dosage, side effects, or risk of interactions with other medication or certain foods.

In 2003, for example, the FDA warned against drinking teas brewed from star anise plants, believed to soothe colic in infants. That is because the Chinese star anise is often indistinguishable from a toxic Japanese star anise plant, which can cause serious neurological problems such as seizures.

Dr. Marie-Denise Gervais, who practices at a free clinic in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, has seen poor patients jeopardize themselves by relying on alternative therapies, such as a woman with high blood-sugar who was at risk for a diabetic coma.

She had difficulty buying insulin but paid $50 for a homegrown remedy.

“God knows if this potion is loaded with sugar,” Gervais said.

“On Haitian radio, you hear ads. People have some syrup or herb that’s good for HIV, fertility, erectile dysfunction. These are all poor people spending money they don’t have and yet won’t come to see a doctor for basic labs,” she said.

Nearly half of foreign-born non-citizens in the United States lacked health coverage in 2003, according to a recent study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. The nonpartisan research group blamed the problem in part on a 1996 federal law banning legal immigrants from participating in public insurance programs for five years after arriving in this country.

Those restrictions have since been loosened, but the fear of being reported to authorities for lacking documentation still keeps some immigrants from consulting a doctor, said Elva Heredia, who founded a New Mexico organization to help migrant workers navigate the U.S. health care system.

'Two different worlds'
Patients add to the treatment risks when they finally see doctors but fail to tell them about home remedies they have used.

“They consider it two different worlds,” said Dr. Anthony Foong, a gastroenterologist in New York City’s Chinatown.

Some of Foong’s immigrant patients, he said, believe their herbal medicines must be safe because they have been used in China for thousands of years.

“My recommendation to patients is that no system is perfect, Western or Chinese. But you might as well use a system where the side effects and medications are studied more,” Foong said.

Pierrsaint said he is aware of some of the dangers. He knows, for example, that a tea brewed from almond tree leaves lowers blood pressure, but too much can be harmful.

“Your blood pressure might be so low, that you might be dead,” he said. “If I have to use it, I use the small leaves.”

Still, he said U.S. doctors and their prescriptions cost too much, and he worries about side effects from conventional “chemical” medicines.

Doctors say patients who favor natural remedies should be reminded that many modern medicines were derived from plants, including aspirin, which was created from a substance in the leaves and bark of willow trees.

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