When Lelia Wildy has a stomachache, she makes mint or fig leaf tea -- dried or fresh from her own back yard in Northeast. She nibbles garlic to help keep her blood pressure in check.
Marie Ponce, an Arlington grandmother, still suggests an occasional dose of castor oil as a laxative.
Dr. Howard Lutz prescribes old-fashioned alfalfa, in tablet form, to arthritis patients because, he says, it helps ease pain and is a useful source of fiber.
These and other folk remedies are coming back in vogue as an increasing number of people turn to more natural and nontraditional healing methods. It is part of a national holistic health movement that Lutz says is beginning to grow in the District despite the continued skepticism of many traditionally trained physicians.
Recently, 2,500 people attended the international "Healing in Our Time" symposium at the Shoreham Hotel. Presentations were given on healing techniques, many of which are as old as laying on of hands -- a method that some believe enables people to transfer, by touch, healing electrical energy from person to person.
In Annandale, Va., the American Holistic Medical Association reports that its membership has doubled since the organization was formed in 1978. AHMA says it represents over 500 medical doctors and osteopaths converted into believers in the holistic philosophy of treating the emotional as well as the physical person by using fewer drugs, some vitamins and herbs, and teaching how to deal with stress and eat properly to stave off chronic disease.
AHMA's president, Dr. Elmer Cranton, says physicians are turning to these nontraditional approaches because they are frustrated with writing prescriptions only to find they can "relieve symptoms but can't really ward off progression of the disease." But he adds that traditional "medical schools aren't terribly open-minded about new theories," therefore methods like biofeedback and acupuncture are not taught; doctors have to learn on their own.
"There is also a resurgence in herbal medicine; the World Health Organization has a major interest in that area," Cranton said. He believes "there are many herbal remedies that have real benefit." He notes that many common drugs come from plants such as foxglove, from which digitalis, a major heart medication, is made.
Wildy believes in the power of plants. She is deeply religious and says God has provided nearly everything we need to stay healthy. She is a tall, lean woman with long, thin silver hair, a hardy voice, steely gaze and far more energy than one might expect for a woman in her eighties. For nearly 40 years Wildy has been growing vegetables and herbs in her garden -- sage, burdock, figs, parsley, garlic, potatoes, beets -- and reading books on their nutritional and healing properties.
"A lot of people call me and say such and such a thing is wrong and I tell them what I would do if I was them," Wildy said. She advises that sage tea is good for sore throats, and that burdock cleanses the blood. She says many of her friends, however, turn up their noses at the idea of eating raw garlic cloves.
Lutz is not one to sniff at grandmotherly advice, noting that Wildy's garlic, for instance, is "useful in the improvement of hypertension (high blood pressure) or metal toxicity." He doesn't know why the pungent plant lowers blood pressure, but points out that the Chinese use a similar root to help thin the blood.
Lutz, an expert on thyroid disorders and diabetes, operates the Institute of Preventive Medicine in Northwest. In addition to established medical treatments, institute patients receive nutritional counseling, vitamins, minerals and acupuncture.
Lutz maintains that many of the old herbal remedies he remembers from his own childhood make sense. Cod liver oil, for example, is a "general preventive tonic" and a good source of vitamin A and D, Lutz says. Lemon or vinegar mixed with honey is also generally good for keeping one's system on an even keel, he claims.
"The healthy person who has minor complaints is often helped by herb teas," Lutz said. He claims many herbs he is familiar with are useful in ridding the body of excess water, and aiding digestive and bowel problems. Lutz suggests valerian tea, which "has the odor of old socks," as a mild sedative, and senna for constipation.
But not everyone agrees about the effectiveness of herbal teas. Dr. Lewis Biben, president of the Medical Society of the District of Columbia, says many popular herbal remedies are questionable.
But "at least the vast majority of them aren't harmful," Biben said. Much of the clammor over these herbs is "faddism" he believes. If these preparations, like ginseng, an ancient Chinese cure-all, were really effective, Biben says, modern medicine would have isolated the active ingredients and doctors would be treating their patients with them today.
Biben said some physicians in the area who practice nutritional medicine are "outside the mainstream." He said most established medical authorities disagree with claims that hair analysis or mineral supplements are of any value.
In Dr. D. Warren Harrison's stark waiting room a sign reads: "Anyone caught smoking on the premises will be hung by the toenails and pommeled into unconsciouness with an organic carrot."
Harrison is a general practitioner with a booming preventive health practice in District Heights, Md. But he also practices homeopathy, an old-but-recognized medicinal field that assumes tiny doses of specially prepared drugs which cause various symptoms in healthy people will cure the same symptoms in a sick person.
Harrison, 57, sees mostly middle-aged patients from throughout the metropolitan area who have chronic ailments like arthritis and heart disease. "Many of my patients have been through the things orthodox medicine has to offer. When they come to me, they are at the end of the rope."
He also relies on some old-fashioned methods. He, too, uses garlic and alfalfa to treat patients with high blood pressure and arthritis, claiming it aids metabolism. While Harrison only suggests herbal teas as an alternative to coffee -- he says the caffeine is bad for your nerves -- he sings high praises for some farm-style dietary practices.
To ward off the evils of high cholesterol, blood pressure and stomach problems, Harrison prescribes diets of raw fruits, vegetables and whole grains like oats, barley and cracked wheat, and plays on the memories of Southerners, in particular, to point out good eating habits. Even before the advent of health food stores, Harrison recommended iron-rich greens like kale and collards, but "I try to encourage them (patients) to cut down on the fatback."
Some patients still laugh when he recommends that they eat bran. Years ago in the South wheat germ and bran were called "shorts and grugin's." White people ate the white flour, and the bran left over from the milling process was given to the pigs and blacks, said Harrison, who grew up in California, but recalls this from his early days as a doctor in North Carolina.
In Arlington, Marie Ponce, a spry, 79-year-old grandmother, grows several types of vegetables and fruits in her backyard. She is particularly fond of the wild cherry and fig trees, from which she plucks leaves for tea to cure stomachaches. Ponce and her friend Margaret Harris, who is in her sixties, remember the often-smelly poultices and other topical remedies used to cure various ailments. For rubbing down aching muscles and limbs there's mallard-leaf tea or a plaster made from flour, water and dry mustard, both applied with warm towels. "For breaking a fever, just wet the cabbage (leaf) in vinegar and put it right on the body," suggests Harris; the fever will almost cook the leaf.
"The surface area of the skin makes it very accessible to the transport of medicine," says Gerald Douglass, the District's only practicing naturopath, explaining why many of these remedies work. The acid in the vinegar activates materials in the cabbage that accelerate the body's infection-fighting white blood cells, he said. One of the most most useful old-fashioned remedies is hot towels used with the plasters, Douglass says, noting that heat "is one way to stimulate circulation."
Douglass studied at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Oregon, which teaches conventional medical philosophies as well as an understanding that the body and mind are governed by laws of nature that can be used to heal. Like Harrison, Douglass believes that vitamin and mineral deficiencies resulting from poor diet cause many diseases. Both practioners often rely on hair analysis to determine which minerals patients lack.
The established medical community casts a skeptical eye on many of these practitioners, especially those who, like Douglass, have been trained in schools other than established medical colleges. The District's Healing Arts Commission, composed mainly of traditional physicians, has denied Douglass a license to practice naturopathy despite a recent Superior Court order to do so. The case is still in litigation.
These new health fields and America's new emphasis on changing lifestyles have also spurred a booming health food and herb industry. Ronald Weaner, spokesman for the National Nutritional Food Association in California, says there are now a minimum of 8,300 full-line, free-standing health food stores in the country. "Herbs," he said "are the fastest-growing selling item -- especially in encapsulated form."
This growing market is beneficial to people like Theresa Mayfield, who runs Clover Horn, an herb and candle shop on the corner of 14th and Euclid streets NW. Mayfield is a tall, handsome woman whose demeanor is as warm as the spicy smells that hug you when you walk through the doors of her shop.
There are barrels full of powdered incense and large mayonnaise and peanut butter jars filled with chopped, shredded, diced and powdered wonders like horseradish root, skullcap, yohimbine and chamomile. "Everything is psychological," says Mayfield, who also maintains that having faith in something is half the cure. She relies on a number of herbal reference books to help customers decide what to buy for what condition.
Mayfield also sells old goodies like turpentine (given with a spoon of sugar, it purportedly kills intestinal worms and cures sore throats), cod liver oil and Jericho's rubbing liniment. There's ginseng and goldenseal, herbs widely used as general perk-up tonics. Mayfield says the neighborhood youngsters are particularly fond of gnawing on a fat, brownish twig that she sells like stick candy: natural licorice. "It cleans you out and is a hormone balancer," Mayfield contends.
Next door, at August Moon, a health food store run by Mayfield's son Victor, you can buy whole grain breads, nuts, unsalted cheese, fresh vegetables and vitamins to go with your herb tea.