Herbs of Love

Pills made from a Peruvian vine known as Cat's Claw are all the rage among Latino health buffs

Even before she became very ill, Esther Perla was taking una de gato twice a day. Without it, she thinks, things would have gone downhill much faster. For this she thanks her mother, a part-time distributor and full-time believer in the curative powers of herbs and natural products like garlic and echinacea.

Perla (not her real name) grew up poor in the Mexican cities of Matamoros and Zacatecas and, like many of similar background, was raised with natural remedies handed down through Mexican tradition: teas made with yerba buena (mint) and manzanilla (chamomile) to soothe sore throats and upset stomachs. "Cascara sagrada [buckthorn] is very good, too," she says of the natural laxative. "It cleans your system."

But while such treatments for common maladies arepalatable to Western medicine, others are less so. Perla says her mother knows a woman in El Paso, Texas, a naturista, who has used herbs and traditional healing to cure people medical doctors could not--awoman who'd suffered a stroke, a boy with a slippeddisk who now plays football.

Such claims also are the province of una de gato, or "cat's claw," the curious rage of the booming herbal industry. The herb's popularity, mostly among low-income Latinos, has been built on a barrage of advertising and personal testimonies.

Virtually unheard of in the United States 18 months ago, una de gato is now a $100million-a-year business in Peru, where the woody vine--which has curved thorns resembling the claws of a cat--is harvested from the Amazon rain forest. Its supposed curative powers are hawked on infomercials saturating Spanish-language television and discussed in herbal trade publications; as a result, it's not only a hot seller in yerberias and botanicas offering traditional Mexican herbs, but in more mainstream stores like Hi-Health Supermart and General Nutrition Center, too.

Una de gato most often appears as gelatin capsules in amounts up to 550 milligrams, but also shows up as tea and bark chips. Marketed as a "dietary supplement," it thus bypasses the thorough testing and analysis required for drugs.

"Antioxidant herb used for generations by native tribes of the Amazon rain forest," informs a Hi-Health brochure.

"In my 20 years of working with natural products, I have not found any other herb that even closely compares with the healing power and magnitude of [una de gato]," one nutritional consultant says in an ad taped to the window of a Phoenix yerberia.

These are the claims spouted by TV ads, touted by vendors and doubted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: that una de gato, known botanically as uncaria tomentosa, can cure, treat or prevent everything from cancer, AIDS and arthritis to diabetes, PMS and genital herpes. Such claims, gathering bits of steam in studies beyond the U.S., rankle health officials, who say there is noclinical evidence proving the plant does anything. They also worry that its use could be harmful, especially if taken in lieu of proven remedies.

Says Gil Meza of the FDA's Phoenix office: "When people start to substitute it for prescription medication, it puts them at high risk--particularly with diabetics. And most of the time, they don't share that information with their doctors."

"The appeals are there [for Latinos]," says Felipe Castro, director of Arizona State University's Hispanic Research Center. "We grew up with yerba buena. But if somebody says, 'Here, take yerba buena, you'll feel better,' that's one thing. If they say, 'Take it and you'll be cured,' that's another."

That isn't stopping people like Perla, whose experience with such remedies, distrust of conventional medicine and sometimes simple desperation tell them otherwise, despite incomes that often don't leave much room for such expenditures.

In 1986, after Perla and her husband divorced, she and her daughter came to Arizona from New Mexico. She got a job with a Phoenix moving company and by last year was working the ticket counter for a major airline at Sky Harbor International Airport.

In the meantime, her mother had introduced her to una de gato and stories of people who credited the herb with curing various ailments and diseases. Perla added it to her regular doses of liquid chlorophyll and pau d'arco. "I feel great," she says. "I don't feel very tired. It's increasing my appetite."

Now, she says, she is going to be honest about something. She sits in her living room in Mesa, a 34-year-old woman with long, black hair, thick eyebrows, chalky skin, and a dignified, cheerful optimism that belies her condition.

A few years ago, she says, she learned that her ex-husband had had homosexual affairs while they were married. Then, just before Thanksgiving, what she first thought was the flu knocked her down for a month. When, a little later, her heart rate began to drop and her breathing surged into overdrive, she had to pretend she didn't know what was happening.

At the hospital, they asked her: Is it possible you have AIDS?
I don't know, she said. You tell me.
Will you allow us to test you?
Do what you have to. I just want to get well.

Three times they tested her. Finally, they told her and her boyfriend the bad news: Not only was she carrying the HIV virus, she had AIDS. They gave her five years to live.

From the living-room sofa, she watches as her 1-year-old son reaches innocently for anything within grasp.

"Hey," she exclaims, flashing her bottle of una de gato capsules. She has heard of too many testimonies to just give up. "With this, I may live longer than that."

Around the country, cat's claw fever takes hold: In New York, a 77-year-old Cuban emigre says an ovarian tumor turned out to be benign because of una de gato. A Miami chiropractor begins telling patients about the herb after it eases his grandmother's arthritis and joint pain.

A vendor in San Jose, California, tells the newspapers he takes una de gato because it makes him feel "younger, more energized." And Penny King of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas, says her husband swears by it after taking it for an enlarged prostate. Did it work? "Something did," she says. Then again, she also has a friend who imports the stuff from Peru.

The most significant and most cited in thegrowing conga line of individual testimonies, however, is that of actor Andres Garcia. You probably have never heard of Garcia, but he is to Mexican cinema what someone like, say, Clint Eastwood is to theAmerican movie landscape.

Now, instead of starring in another action film, Garcia is the headliner in ubiquitous infomercials hawking bottles of una de gato on Spanish-language networks like Univision, Telemundo and GEMS. The bottles are sold by Brooklyn-based Nutrivida, which imports its u–a de gato from a Peruvian company founded by Oscar Schuler Egg, who, the ad says, pinpointed the particular ingredients that give the herb its power.

A few years ago, Garcia's fans discovered that this 57-year-old, turtlenecked hunk, this father of more than a dozen children by several wives, this virile titan said to have fought off a pair of carjackers in Mexico City, had developed cancer of the prostate.

In the ads, Garcia tells the interviewer that after three months of taking una de gato, his cancer had gone into remission. Within a year, he said, it was completely gone. His story is buttressed with reports of u–a de gato studies overseas and its use in fighting diseases such as AIDS.

Throughout the broadcast--peppered with shots of Machu Picchu and weathered Peruvian faces spelling ancient wisdom--a voice exhorts viewers not to settle for the implied substandard botanical concoctions of other brands. "Es la autentica!" it intones repeatedly. In other words--Nutrivida: It's the real thing.

"They actually go down to Peru," Gil Meza of the FDA's Phoenix office says of the infomercial. "They literally go into the jungle and find the tree. Then it shows them knocking the tree down and bringing it into the manufacturing plant, and the next thing you see are these people in white coats, like an assembly line, packing it into boxes."

The Nutrivida brand is priced at $29.95 for 60 capsules, or about five times more than most u–a de gato found in Valley yerberias and health stores.

"There's another program," Meza says, "an investigative-type show, where they interview six people--one guy lost half his liver, and it regenerated. There's another guy with HIV, and his white-cell count has gone up. Another guy has bone cancer, and then no trace of it--real miraculous cures, all as a result of taking una de gato."

As for clinical studies supporting it all, Meza says: "From all indications, none of that has been done."

Not in the U.S., anyway. But herbal scribes say studies of una de gato's unique mixture of alkaloids have been ongoing since the Seventies at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, the universities of Milan and Naples in Italy, and England's Huntington Research Center.

Studies also are reportedly under way in Peru, where the popularity of the vine has forced the government to act to keep it from being wiped out. It is now illegal to harvest or disturb the plant's root. For many Peruvian highland farmers, una de gato has unseated coca, the source of cocaine, as their numero-uno crop.

During the Eighties, as European researchers began reporting on una de gato's clinical use with AZT in treating AIDS and heightened immunity in cancer patients, scientists hotfooted it into the jungle; they returned with accounts of how the Peruvian Ashanica Indians used una de gato to treat a variety of health problems involving the immune and digestive systems.

Peruvian manufacturers weren't shy about hyping such curative powers in their labeling. But that doesn't fly in the U.S. without some serious Yankee clinical testing to back up that hype. The FDA quashed such claims on packaging of una de gato sold in the country.

Still, you never know what vendors themselves are going to say. But that's for the Federal Trade Commission to worry about.

"I've been in botanicas, and many times it's the salesperson that makes the pitch on it," Meza says. "You tell them you're looking for something for cancer, and they turn around and give you this little vial. Then you ask questions, and they say you just have to have faith in it."

At the Christown Hi-Health store, a smallplacard folded along a shelf of Nature's Herbs-brand cat's claw last month informed buyers that the dietary supplement has been "historically used to treat" a number of ailments, including diabetes, ulcers, arthritis and PMS. A bottle of 100, 550-milligram capsules sold for $9.99.

In Florida, the Attorney General's Office is looking into cat's claw advertising for possible deception. The Arizona Attorney General's Office says any complaints received about a product are confidential until someone is formally charged, and, to date, no one has been. AG's Office spokeswoman Karie Dozer says her office may not hear from potential u–a de gato complainants because "a lot of Spanish-speaking people don't know about us."

Ann Guler of the FTC's Los Angeles office says that when it comes to health products, the agency has its hands full with scads of weight-loss and balding-cure claims. The agency also has a policy of keeping complaints secret until a lawsuit has been lodged, but in recent years has brought cases involving phony cures for AIDS, allergies, anorexia, obesity, breast cancer, heart disease and the flu. In each, distributors could not substantiate their claims.

Meanwhile, cat's claw mania rolls on. A newsletter called Cat's Claw News is published out of Georgetown, Colorado. The herb has its own Web site on the Internet. "We're going to be coming out with an u–a de gato shampoo soon," one vendor told the Chicago Sun-Times last fall.

In a Miami print advertisement, actor Erik Estrada pushes una de gato produced by Premier Vitamins Corporation, saying it "helped alleviate the arthritis that was developing in my broken wrist which was caused in part from some accidents that occurred during the filming of my show CHiPs." The ad says a donation to AIDS research will be made for every bottle sold.

"This is just the Latino version of the melatonin fad," says Felipe Castro of ASU's Hispanic Research Center. He advocates natural substances, "but a testimonial based on spontaneous remission, or people who take it and say, 'It happened to me, it could happen to you, too'--that's not good public health."

"There's a certain amount of mystique in taking something from a wilderness," says John Renner of the Consumer Health Information Research Center in Kansas City, which monitors potential health fraud. "But we just had some people in Maine die from what they thought was water ginseng; [instead], it was water hemlock."

Closer to home, copycat's claw has clobbered some clueless consumers. In Texas, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported that some people became ill after ingesting a cheap version of una de gato. The plant was Acacia gregii, a hook-thorned shrub of the same nickname that grows along the Texas-Mexico border and is believed to contain a wee bit of cyanide. (Locally, the yellow trumpet vine is also known as cat's claw vine, the claw referring to its three-pronged tendrils.)

"I went to a holistic conference in New York City, and [una de gato] was being marketed more heavily than anything I've ever seen," Renner says. It's the "cure-all," queen-on-the-chessboard power of the claims that he questions; most products that live up to hype have a specific purpose. But, he notes: "It's not just a Hispanic phenomenon. The AIDS community has jumped on it, too."

Thanks to people like Esther Perla, the nation's natural-cure industry was managing pretty well on its own before cat's claw came along. It was doing so on the shoulders of panicked, aging baby boomers, last year's melatonin craze and people who don't eat their vegetables.

Herbal medicines speak to personal empowerment, and the $4billion-a-year vitamin-and-dietary-supplement industry is growing at a 15 percent clip.

Newsweek reported last September that consumers would spend nearly $1billion on herbs and other tonics in 1995, about a third of what they spent on vitamins and minerals. At the time, the movement's largest beneficiary, General Nutrition Center Corporation, had opened a new store daily for three years running.

Melatonin, the natural answer to insomnia and jet lag, still ranks as a top seller; so does shark cartilage, the latest fad in cancer treatment and subject of the cult book Sharks Don't Get Cancer.

In 1991, the government created an Office for Alternative Medicine within the National Institutes of Health to research nontraditional therapies. OAM was the brain child of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who credited AllerBee-Gone-brand bee pollen with curing his allergies. OAM stalled in a morass of politics and potholes, not the least of which was that AllerBee-Gone's maker had to pay the FTC $200,000 for making false claims about the product's efficacy.

At Jane's Vitamins and Health Products at Central Avenue and Baseline Road in Phoenix, Jane Soza is trying to grab a slice of the health-product pie. She stocks it all--vitamins A through E, diet aids, garlic and goldenseal, astragalus and gordolobo, aloe vera and blessed thistle, teas and honeys, and more. As with other stores in Latino neighborhoods, Jane's Vitamins doubles in religious items.

"I've used it myself," Soza says of u–a de gato. "It makes you feel good. People want it for rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, aches and pains, tumors--you know, they say it cures cancer. They say it's a cure-all. Especially for diabetes--the sugar goes down."

Since Soza started selling cat's claw seven months ago, she's run out a couple of times. Some clients order in advance. She says she still sells a half-dozen bottles of 100, 500-milligram capsules daily for $10.95 apiece. At the Yerberia San Francisco store on McDowell Road near 16th Street, however, that's the price you'll pay for 30 capsules.

A woman at Yerberia La Unica, at Central and Southern avenues, says some customers come from Mexico to buy una de gato because they don't trust brands sold there. On the other hand, the brand sold at La Unica, Peruvian Rainforest Botanicals, bears an official-looking gold seal of authenticity. It will also run you $24.95 for 30 capsules.

Soza has had to convince customers that her Nature's Herbs-brand cat's claw is just as good as the Nutrivida brand (Es la autentica!) they've seen on TV.

In his starkly furnished house near Third Street and Broadway Road, Fidencio Hinojosa is a case in point. "This guy makes a lot of movies in Mexico," he says, referring to Nutrivida pitchman Andres Garcia. "I listened to him on TV. It's better buying from them instead of going to these yerberias. The quality is not the same."

An aging, bearded musician of 63, Hinojosa paid Nutrivida $59.95 for a shipment of una de gato and shark cartilage, a mix he heard was good for rheumatoid arthritis. The combination was promoted in a column by Yerberia San Francisco's Rosa Maria Estrada in Prensa Hispana, a local Spanish-language newspaper, but Estrada offered no substantiation for the claim.

Adela Lujan, a South Phoenix community organizer, says she also plans to order some for herself and a daughter-in-law who is ill. "I have faith in that stuff, especially when it comes from the jungle," she says. "But there's some stuff I don't believe in, like those creams that remove fat. You gotta exercise and eat right to do that."

One recent afternoon, a short, hale, 70-year-old man who regularly buys garlic from Soza enters the store and inquires as to this una de gato he's been hearing about.

Soza walks to the shelves where the cat's claw is displayed, and hands him a bottle for inspection.

He rolls it around in his hand for a few seconds, then looks up. Es la autentica? he asks.

Es la igual! Soza says. It's the same thing.
Don't you have the other kind? he asks.
Por que quiere otra clase? Why do you need the other brand? She tells him he's been watching too much Channel 33.

Later, she says: "People from Mexico watch Channel 33 [the Valley's Univision affiliate]. Everything it says is gospel to them. They don't realize this una de gato is distributed to all the health stores in the U.S.

"It's because of that actor, the one who says it helped his cancer. I'm not saying it didn't; I'm pretty sure it did. But they think it's the only one."

As one of the few bilingual staffers at Mountain Park Health Center on Baseline Road in Phoenix, Charmaine Trujillo, operations director for internal medicine, spends a lot of time translating for physicians attempting to communicate with Spanish speakers. Nevertheless, she says of una de gato, "this is the first I've heard of it."

"That's not something we can help you with," says Dorothy Garcia, whose husband, Robert, runs a family medical practice in central Phoenix with a largely Latino clientele.

Gil Meza of the FDA says that's not unusual. "Most doctors are not familiar with una de gato, with how it works or its content or whether it's safe," he says. "We find that a lot of people take dietary supplements without their doctor's knowledge. If they get sick, they stay home and tough it out, because they don't want to let the doctor know they didn't follow their recommendation."

Rachel Pollack, a nurse with Maricopa Medical Center's diabetes program, says she recently met an elderly woman in Guadalupe who developed loss of balance and extreme lethargy after taking twice the recommended amount of una de gato. Although hypoglycemic and probably on her way to diabetes, "she's very healthy and active," Pollack says. "So it really scared her."

If cat's claw was the culprit, it would be an exception to the rule: So far, research has shown una de gato to be fairly harmless, even in large doses.

What health officials really fear is that patients will put so much faith in something like una de gato that they'll abandon prescription medications. "The problem is that [manufacturers] offer a glitzy quick fix without too much effort being expended," says Ray Childs of the state Health Department's diabetes program. "Diabetes takes a lot of work to keep it under control."

Antoney Aguallo of Body Positive, a support agency for people with HIV/AIDS, says one woman told him that her brother, who has cancer, abandoned his treatment in favor of una de gato and "is doing incredibly well now."

Still, Aguallo says, "I wouldn't recommend that."
Such anecdotal evidence abounds, most of it secondhand, and whether it's the magic beans or the placebo effect is impossible to know without study. But with research elsewhere showing promising results for una de gato's effectiveness in fighting viral and bacterial infection and gastrointestinal ailments, the question would seem to be: Why isn't it being actively studied in the U.S.?

"That's a question I ask myself all the time," says Lise Alschuler, who chairs thebotanical medicine department at Scottsdale's Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine. Like others in her field, she suspects the answer has much to do with politics and vested interests. Funding for plant research is hard to get.

"Few plants have had the privilege to be subjected to clinical trials," says ASU anthropology professor Michael Winkelman, an herbal-medicine expert. "There's no payback in it. Virtually nobody will do it, because after you spend millions of dollars, anybody can use it. You can't patent a natural product."

Natural remedies in general are belittled, Winkelman agrees, by traditional medicine, as much out of ignorance as out of protectionism. Just the same, he says, some open-minded doctors exist, like the one who called him recently to ask what herbs he could safely recommend to diabetes patients.

The general public, he says, is more open to these things. A 1993 study in the New England Journal of Medicine bears him out: One third of all Americans, the study found, has used some form of alternative treatment at least once, and a healthy number of them elected not to tell their regular doctors about it.

Quoting results of an Italian study published in 1993, Better Nutrition for Today's Living reported that the plant's antioxidant properties--the same ones that make many vegetables good for preventive health care--might quash singlet oxygen, associated with cancer. And a 1985 study by researchers in Munich, Germany, revisited in the June 1995 issue of Health Foods Business, found that una de gato's ingredients improved phagocytosis, the power of white blood cells to dispose of harmful foes.

So far, however, results have been achieved only in test tubes, which could overstate their actual worth.

Mark Hoffman of Being Alive, an HIV/AIDS support group, isn't holding his breath. "In the HIV field, this kind of thing happens every few months," he says. "Some new product comes into acceptance for a short period of time, and then, when all the people aren't cured, it kind of fades. Then the next thing comes around."

Esther Perla isn't waiting for the next thing to come around. She likes her chances with una de gato.

"You never know," she says in unintended understatement. If others can be cured, why can't she? "It makes me feel more confident. Some people don't believe in these things. But if youdon't try it, you don't know."

To combat the ravages of AIDS and its accompanying effects, the doctors at Desert Samaritan Hospital have prescribed for her a number of medications, including AZT, Prozac and Septra. "I don't have faith in those," she says. "I take them because I have to take them."

The virus is winning the war, but you'd never know it to talk to her. She is forthright about her condition, but well aware of the stigma attached to the disease,which is why she does not want herreal name used. A Catholic, she plans to go to Mexico to make offerings at sites where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared.

Her faith defies common sense because that's what faith is. Faith gives strength and answers why. And some people get rich peddling it.

Perla's baby son bangs the bottles of una de gato and shark cartilage hard on the living-room table. "No, sweetheart," she says, taking them away. Like his older half sister, he will have to be tested for the HIV virus at some point. Perla's boyfriend refuses; he says no son of a bitch is going to tell him when he's going to die.

"My children, they keep me going," Perla says. "Maybe that's why I take the una de gato."

Her AIDS has brought them all closer together.
"I feel very good about this," she says, cradling the capsules close to her chest. "They tell me I'm going to live only five years. Nah-ah--that's only people who's ready to give up. I'm not ready to die. I'm ready to fight.

"Some people say that for them ... [the virus] has gone bye-bye," she says, her hand shaping wings fluttering away. "And I'm hoping that happens to me, too.

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