On a chilly October afternoon, Herbs Etc. is a quiet refuge from the rush of passing cars on Cerrillos Road.
At one end of the store, herbalist Joshua Laurenzi, 27, carefully weighs bags of tobacco that he says some customers mix with herbs when they're trying to quit smoking. Victoria McAnallen, a self-described "herb addict," browses the aisles for the supplements she uses to treat Lyme disease and fibromyalgia, while James Norwood, 33, quotes Hippocrates from behind the counter.
The list of things that we forego in a recession—pedicures, pearls and the occasional mortgage—does not include alternative medicine. In fact, herbal supplement sales—along with yoga studios, acupuncture clinics and massage therapy—have proven remarkably resilient in the face of the recession.
"We've noticed, in the last year, more people turning toward herbal medicine," Daniel Gagnon, Herbs Etc.'s owner, says. He claims that a general trend toward preventive care, as well as a general reassessment of Western medicine are fueling the boom.
"When [people] had more money, they'd go to the doctor because the health insurance was there. If they don't have health insurance, they have to think about it twice," Gagnon says. And the price of a visit to the doctor, he says, plus tests and prescriptions, makes people start to wonder: "'What if I try alternative medicine first? What if I tried some herbs? What if I tried some other way of treating this problem?'"
According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), herbs and other alternative treatments are part of a $34 billion industry. In 2007, a third of the money Americans spent out-of-pocket on prescription drugs went to vitamins, minerals and herbs; this May, Reuters reported that herbal supplement sales rose again in 2008.
Ellie Gray, a licensed massage therapist who shares her Santa Fe practice with her husband, a chiropractor and naturopath, has noticed a similar trend.
"Surprisingly, our practice has increased, and [it's] been as busy or busier a year [as] prior to the downturn," Gray says. "A lot of our patients still have their Blue Cross, but even the ones that have lost insurance are still coming to see us. They might come less frequently, but we have not had a loss of clientele in our practice at all."
Gray ventures a guess as to what's behind the upswing: "As people are becoming more conscious about their finances and more concerned about the state of things in the world, a lot of people are re-evaluating their own health and their health care," she says. "They're choosing alternative over conventional care because it makes more sense to them. [It's] more holistic, going to a practitioner who helps give them a lot of tools they can use on a daily basis to maintain a healthier lifestyle."
David Riley, editor of the medical journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine and founder of the Integrative Medicine Institute in Santa Fe, has a more moderated view: that people are relying more on alternative medicine "to the degree that those treatments are less expensive"—like the Southwest Acupuncture College's student clinic, which Riley says is more affordable than many mainstream clinics. But with a shortage of novel H1N1 vaccines and an impending flu season, Santa Feans may have to look for alternative health care options no matter what the cost. For the flu, Riley recommends Umcka (a widely available extract of the plant Pelargonium sidoides) and the usual—plenty of sleep, water, exercise and healthy food.
"I would be forced to confess that when I am under a lot of stress, I tend to do less of the very things that would help me cope," Riley admits with a laugh. "I'll go, 'Oh, I need an extra coffee today,' or 'Oh, I don't have time to go to the gym.'"
When people are stressed about economic difficulties, it's "probably not the time they decide to make really healthy lifestyle choices," he continues. "That's just kind of the way people are."
Daniel Gagnon's Flu Cure
"When you feel you are getting something, hit it as hard as you can, as quickly as you can," Gagnon advises. "If you do that the moment you feel symptoms, usually by the end of the day you're over it."
1. Echinacea, Andrographis and elder: "Take a dropperful or softgel of those every hour."
2. Vitamin C: 500 mg every hour
3. "Jewish penicillin": chicken soup (or vegetable broth or miso soup), about half a cup every hour
4. "Russian penicillin": No, not vodka; fresh garlic, thinly sliced, used as a garnish on the soup