Lora Basch, 59, sometimes suffers from poor sleep and anxiety. She’s uncomfortable with the side effects of drugs, so she’s tried acupuncture and magnesium supplements, but with only minimal success. After years of low energy, she went a different route altogether: gui pi tang, a mix of licorice root, ginseng and ginger meant to rejuvenate the body. Three months later, the Cleveland native is finally falling asleep at night, and she has more energy during the day. “The remedy is a huge relief,” she says. “I have a more stable life.”
Though herbal therapy has been practiced in China for centuries, it is still an afterthought in the U.S., in part because pharmaceutical remedies are usually easier to obtain. Now that’s beginning to change: in January, the Cleveland Clinic opened a Chinese herbal-therapy ward. In the past three months, therapists at the clinic have seen patients suffering from chronic pain, fatigue, poor digestion, infertility and, in the case of Basch, sleep disorders. “Western medicine may not have all the answers,” says Daniel Neides, the clinic’s medical director.
A certified herbalist runs the unit under the supervision of multiple Western-trained M.D.s. Patients must be referred to the clinic by their physician, who in accordance with Ohio law must oversee their treatment for at least a year. Executives at Cleveland say the clinic is the first of its kind to be affiliated with a Western hospital. “We’re incorporating ancient knowledge into patient care,” says in-house herbalist Galina Roofener.
Cleveland is starting modestly: its clinic is a single room with bright pillows, a tapestry, candles and a cot reserved for procedures like acupuncture. The center doesn’t take walk-ins and primarily sees patients with conditions that Western medicine has, for whatever reason, failed to remedy. “For something like acute pneumonia, Western antibiotics may be faster and more cost-effective,” says Roofener. “But if someone has antibiotic resistance, we can strengthen their immune system.”
All herbal formulas at the clinic are encapsulated for easy consumption. (By contrast, in China, patients are usually sent home with raw herbs to brew themselves.) The FDA doesn’t regulate herbs and supplements, so finding pharmacies that can both supply them and still meet hospital safety standards was a top priority. After a lengthy search, the clinic tapped a Kaiser Pharmaceutical subsidiary out of Taiwan as well as a Chinese herb–specific compounding pharmacy in Massachusetts and California that specializes in custom blends.
The primary uncertainty in herbal medicine is the prospect of an unpleasant or dangerous herb-drug interaction, which is why the clinic requires herbalists and physicians to have joint access to patients’ electronic medical records. To become an herbal therapist requires three to four years of master’s-degree-level education in Chinese medicine and a series of certification exams in Oriental medicine, herbology and biomedicine.
As it happened, I was battling a cold when I visited the clinic, so I signed up for the $100 consultation. Roofener spent 30 minutes reviewing my medical history, sleep routine, diet and even my spirituality–I was asked about what I practice and whether I meditate. She took my pulse Chinese-style: holding my wrists, she measured what she said were the multiple “pulses” of my organ systems. “Did you eat breakfast?” she asked. “The pulse on your stomach position is very weak.” I had eaten half a slice of toast.
I left the clinic with my own herbal remedy: 80 capsules of a diverse mixture of ingredients ranging from Lonicera flower to mint leaf, with instructions to take two pills four times a day for 10 days. Though an over-the-counter drug usually does the trick for me, my symptoms were cleared on the herbs alone. Now if only I could find an herb to make me taller.
This appears in the April 28, 2014 issue of TIME.