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 Herbal Medicine: Herbal Preparations: Choosing (Not Confusing) the Best 
Choices--they aren't so hard when we clearly see all the options. When considering ways to relieve symptoms and heal ourselves, or prevent illness in the first place, one is confronted with a vast array of healing models. Allopathy, naturopathy, herbalism, homeopathy and crystal healing to name a few.

Herbalism is a time-honored natural system of medicine, that may be one of the oldest. Medicinal herbs have been found near stone-age sites (ca. 10,000 BC), and we have written records of the extensive use of medicinal herbs by the Egyptians from at least 2,000 BC.

Many people who have become interested in exploring the benefits of healing plants, have little experience with them, or time to grow them and prepare them, are uncertain how to go about it. This is where your local natural food store or herb store can be an excellent resource. I have found in my lectures throughout the country that the staff in these stores are increasingly knowledgeable. Also, the quality and variety of patent (pre-made) herbal medicines is increasingly sophisticated and of high quality. But there are so many different brands and styles of preparations, one often wonders--what is the best form and type of preparation for one's needs?

Not only do patent herbal products come in a variety of forms, such as teas, capsules, tablets, syrups, salves and elixirs, but there are several underlying general philosophies that determine how a particular remedy is made and used. At present, there seems to be two schools of thought developing on the American herb market, determining how an herbal remedy is processed and manufactured. These are the "folk medicines" category, and the "phytomedicines" (as it is called in Europe) category. These general models are becoming firmly established in Europe and are already in place in Canada.

1. Folk-Medicines Category

Many herbs or herbal products are used and recommended without specific reference to modern scientific testing, yet have, in many cases, a long illustrious past of human use throughout the ages, even as far back as human records are kept.

Many of these herbs or herbal products have a good track record of safety, and are considered effective by generations of herbalists that have used them. These herbs have not had their active ingredients in the finished product boosted beyond their natural levels (such as 5% ginsenosides in Panax ginseng).

In Canada and some European countries, limited claims, based on available historical, traditional and empirical knowledge can be made on the product or product literature. In the U.S., this information is currently available through books and magazine articles, but most herbalists feel that it is more responsible to advise consumers right on the product label, resulting in more informed, safe and effective use.

2. Phytomedicines Category

This name has been borrowed from Europe, and if it sounds more official, it is aptly termed. In this category falls herbal preparations that are extracted and standardized to an active constituent or constituent group. These preparations are often highly purified, which results in a more concentrated activity. These preparations are more controversial, especially among traditional herbalists, because they feel that the natural balance of the plant has been changed, leading to medicines that are uncomfortably (to them) like the synthetic drugs they are trying to get away from.

On the other hand, these standardized and purified herbal preparations have the advantage of consistency and reliability in their operation, and of course, are more powerfully active in cases where a practitioner or consumer is attempting to treat pathology, where actual illness and symptoms are present.

Although the controversy continues, and we don't have time to look here at all the issues, practical applications for the two categories seem clear, in my experience--for maintaining health and organic balance, for gently assisting nature, for long-term use, where no pathology is present, whole herbs and unpurified herb products work very well. Where there is pathology present, where the patient or consumer is in a state that is closer to disease, with overt pathology, than health, then the purified extracts offer some advantages, especially when used under the guidance of an experienced herbalist or holistic health practitioner.

Traditional herbalists often feel that herbal remedies are best when used in their whole or extracted form, but where the internal balance of the herb is not significantly altered. Examples or these dose forms (as I will call them) include teas, simple powders and tinctures or liquid extracts. In all these types of preparations, the herb is either taken whole, with no further processing than drying it, cutting it or powdering it--the actual chemical constituents are not intentionally altered before customer use. I say intentionally, because immediately after an herb is harvested, enzymes are released that start to alter the chemical makeup of the plant. In most cases, the changes may not be beneficial--the desired medicinal qualities may be weakened. Also, during the process of making tea, the herbs are heated in water, which can cause changes in activity--sometimes for the better.

When the first-time herb buyer enters the natural food store or herb shop, there may seem to be an overwhelming variety. If the store offers bulk herbs, then the myriad of glass jars, each containing different colors of whole herbs, powdered herbs and cut and sifted herbs presents an interesting, if not confusing display. Bottles of all shapes and sizes, bearing liquids, capsules and tablets are also displayed.

The other day I watched a person enter the supplement department in a large natural foods market and buy a bottle of echinacea--a common occurrence these days. The indomitable shopper picked up the first bottle she saw with the name "ECHINACEA" on it and scrutinized the label, turning the bottle to read every word. Putting the bottle down, she snatched another and looked it over as well, then a third and a fourth. She was about to carry the first bottle off to the check-out counter when she spotted another section that had two or three more kinds of echinacea. Eventually she walked off with the first bottle anyway. I caught up to her and asked her what had determined her selection--what had she looked for in the shopping process. She immediately replied, "first I was looking for the word "organic", and then I looked at the price." After a few more polite questions, I learned that she also was attentive to the word "concentrated."

After speaking with many herb shoppers from different parts of the country, I have learned that many people today are aware that some herbal products are much more concentrated than others, and that some offer excellent values, if the concentration, form of the herbs, freshness, organic or commercial herbs, quantity in the bottle and price all are taken into consideration.

The uninformed consumer will often shop for price alone, but increasingly I have seen shoppers who read high-quality and informative consumer education publications such as Delicious! and are aware that there are other factors more important than price in determining how effective a product will be and how much of a bargain it is.

For the sake of clarity, it can be said that there are two first considerations when evaluating an herb product:

1. How effective the product is

2. The overall value/price ratio

The effectiveness of an herb or herbal product will depend on several important factors:
  • Freshness and quality of the source herb(s), which is in turn determined by how they were grown (organic is best) when they were picked, how they were dried (some herbs are also extracted fresh) and how they was stored. How long the herbs were harvested before processing and before the consumer buys the herb or herb product is also important.
  • How the herb was processed--was it milled or powdered where excessive heat was produced? Or was it extracted in a cold solution (menstruum) or cool-dried, which may better preserve delicate constituents.
  • The final form of the product--powder or extract?

The second point, the cost to quality ratio, we'll come back to in a minute, after we look at the most popular dose forms.

To begin with, herb products can be purchased in 2 general forms: extracted or unextracted (for lack of a better word).

Unextracted Herbs and Herb Products
Unextracted herbs (when purchased) can be either whole or processed in some way. When considering western herbs (including European and South American herbs), processing consists of cutting, slicing, chopping or grinding. Remember that this processing is for convenience sake, not for preserving quality! If you are buying herbs to make tea from, it is best to buy the herb in its whole state, and store it in a cool, dark place. Oxygen and moisture are the most potent degraders of herb quality--and these harmful agents can much more quickly work on herbs that have been cut or powdered because of the greatly increased surface area.

Unextracted herbs can be encapsulated by the herb buyer, either singly, or with the help of a small encapsulating device (available through some natural food stores and herb shops). Unextracted herbs can also be "extracted" by the user, in the form of an infusion (soaking the herbs in boiled water for 20 minutes) or a decoction (simmering the herbs in water for up to an hour, depending on the hardness and size of the herb pieces. Usually, when making a tea, the herbs are purchased in their whole form (leaves, bark, roots), or sometimes roots and barks are sliced to make the active constituents infuse into the water more effectively.

When making either of these kinds of teas, start with one part of the herb or herb mixture to five parts of water (1:5). It is advisable to brew the herbs for a longer or shorter period of time (or at higher or lower heat) to make the finished tea as strong as desired. Remember that some herbs (such as ginseng and astragalus) are very expensive, and so it makes sense (and dollars too!) to get as much of the active essence out of the herbs as possible.

When making teas, avoid powdered herbs, or herbs that smell or taste musty or moldy. Leafy herbs (such as peppermint or alfalfa should be green, not brown!

Self-encapsulated capsules and teas have one thing in common--they are the least expensive way to take herbs. Considering the high cost of some herbs, such as wild American ginseng (up to $40/oz, or more), the cost could be considerably less than a more convenient patent product, especially when taking the herb or herbs for a few months up to a year, which is often recommended for tonic herbs like ginseng.

Teas and powdered herbs in capsules differ in that the active constituents of powdered herbs, because of the cellulose and other plant-wall structures, are not as efficiently absorbed as those in teas. The boiling water softens the cell walls of powdered herbs and helps the constituents to be released into our system.

Extracted Herbs and Herb Products

We already know that making a tea is making an extract. An extract is simply an herb being acted upon by some solvent, or liquid, that dissolves and concentrates the active constituents. We are not placing teas into this category, because here we are considering extracts that are made by the manufacturer.

There are four basic kinds of extracts available in the American and European herb markets.
1. Liquid extracts or tinctures
2. Powdered extracts
3. Elixirs or syrups
4. Salves, creams or ointments

Each kind of extract has its strong points and a few possible drawbacks, depending on the buyer's personal needs and likes. The advantages of each type of extract are presented in table 1.

First, we should consider the advantages of extracts compared with powders. Powders have the advantage of being little processed--grinding or chopping usually doesn't require any expensive or fancy equipment, so it can be accomplished by most anyone in the convenience of their own kitchen--a blender and knife is all that is required. As mentioned previously, products that are in their whole state, or only sliced or powdered usually cost the least up front for the amount of active constituents available. So the cost/benefit ratio is high, especially for teas, where the active ingredients may be as much as 90% absorbed. Powders, such as in capsules, are less efficient (I estimate about 60-70%), and their shelf life is the shortest of any product (about 1 to 1 1/2 years).

In contrast, extracts, although costing more initially, offer a better cost/benefit ratio in the long run. For extracts, the shelf life can be as much as 2 or 3 years, they are efficiently absorbed, and usually faster-acting and have more effect-density. In other words, they can have a greater impact in a shorter period of time, because the active constituents are being assimilated more quickly than simple powders--so there may be a more dramatic effect, especially on symptomology. If I had a headache, I would much rather depend on a willow bark or periwinkle (my favorite herb for tension headaches) extract than powder.

If all this sounds complicated, the bottom line is that for some strong and resilient herbs, such as golden seal, rhubarb, aloe or black cohosh, powders offer a good value, and may be strong enough for self-treatment, especially in chronic conditions, where the herbs are taken over a long period of time.

Extracts are favored in Europe, where the herb market is more evolved that in the U.S., and many manufacturers here, realizing the benefits, are moving in the direction of extracts.

Liquid extracts are made with the use of ethanol (usually grain alcohol). The fresh or dried herbs are ground up (preferably just before extraction) and either soaked (or macerated) in the menstrual for at least two weeks or have the menstrual dripped through them (called percolation).

Powdered extracts are made with the use of many kinds of solvents, but mostly ethanol and methanol (wood alcohol). With these, a two-step process is usually followed. First, the liquid extract is made, similar to above, then the liquid concentrate is dried under low heat, for instance by spray-drying into a vacuum chamber.

In simple terms, an elixir or syrup is made by adding a liquid extract to a sweet, thick base (such as honey or rice syrup). Lozenges are candies that have a small amount of herbal extract added to them.

Salves, creams and ointments are herbal preparations that are used externally. Salves are often made by infusing powdered herbs in olive oil (or other light vegetable oil), and adding beeswax to make a thick, oily paste that can be applied to cuts, stings, burns and bites. Salves are usually dispensed in jars or tins, and have the advantage of resisting washing off, are readily absorbed through the skin, and provide a protective coating. Ointments are thinner and more fluid than salves, but are also oil-based--they are often dispensed in tubes. Creams are water-based, so they disappear faster than the other two preparations. There is less likelihood that they will stain or be messy on clothes, but they do not offer protection as long as salves or ointments, and may not be as well absorbed.

Table 1 Advantages of Different Extracts
Extract Type Advantages
Liquid Extracts "Pre-digested" and concentrated, the most quickly absorbed of any preparation, herbs can be extracted fresh at the optimum time of year-- freshness well preserved (2-3 years), can be disguised in juice or water for children
Powdered Extracts "Pre-digested" and concentrated, taste disguised in capsules or tablets, fast-acting, no alcohol, freshness preserved (2-3 years)
Standardized Extracts All the advantages of powdered extracts, but are more consistent, because active constituents are detected and set at identified levels, original balance of the herb is usually altered
Elixirs or Syrups Sweet-tasting, palatable for children (and adults sensitive to strong tastes), can coat and soothe the throat to help relieve coughs, concentrated, fast-acting
Lozenges Sweet-tasting, very palatable for children of all ages, convenient to carry and use for sore throats and upper-respiratory imbalances
Salves, Creams, Ointments Excellent for external trauma-- burns, bites, stings, cuts, aches and pains, easy to carry, convenient

Obviously, there is no "right" or "wrong" herbal preparation. Which is best is determined by the needs of the person taking the preparation: factors such as the nature of the ailment, convenience, cost and strength. Considering these factors, it is possible to maximize the tremendous value herbs can offer for restoring and maintaining individual wellness.
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 About The Author
Christopher Hobbs LAc, AHG Christopher Hobbs is a fourth generation herbalist and botanist with over 30 years experience with herbs. Founder of Native Herb Custom Extracts (now Rainbow Light Custom Extracts) and the Institute for Natural Products......more
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