Herb therapy: Getting it right

It seems that every corner drug store, grocery and super center has herbals for sale these days. Do you know what you just purchased, where it came from, how it was stored, or do you just trust that it is what it says it is because the label uses words like "natural," "high quality" or "standardized?" Better think again!

To make an informed choice, we’ll need to do some backtracking. Herbals come from three sources, wildcrafting, commercial farms or certified organic farms. Wildcrafting is simply the process of harvesting a plant from a non-cultivated source. This means it could have been picked along a road, in a drainage ditch, a farm field, but hopefully in an old growth woods or forest. Commercial herb farming uses chemicals on the crops in some form and certified organic farms follow strict regulations, which support sustainable farming without the use of harmful chemicals.

Most of our herbals come from wildcrafters who are not botanists. Therefore, the problem with wildcrafting is that many herbs are picked in areas or in ways that compromise the quality of the herb. Or worse yet, proper identification of the plant was not made.

Example: A crop of dried herbs sold to several companies as plantain turned out to be foxglove, or as we know it digitalis. Granted, one dried herb can many times look just like the next, but this mistake cost several individuals a night’s stay in their local hospital.

So, just who is doing the quality analysis and testing on the herbs you are taking? Once an herb has been harvested, it is usually dried and shipped to companies for packaging and sale to the general public. Each individual company will do their own quality assurance and analysis. If it does not meet their standards they will send it back to the supplier who will sell it to the next highest bidder.

And what of today’s buzz word in herbals, standardization? Does that mean it’s better? To make a standardized product, the herb will undergo an extraction process that is many times done with toxic solvents. These standardized products can then be labeled as containing a particular milligram dosage of, say, echinacea, but the co-factors, the other parts of the plant, are left behind – which is many times why herbs work so well. These herbs are much more drug than they are herb. They are never certified organic products; they can’t be.

Americans are particularly fond of taking tablets and capsules; if this is the only way you are willing to take an herb, I guess it’s better than nothing – or is it? These capsules and tablets are littered with cellulose fillers, anticaking agents, sometimes food coloring and other strange chemicals.

Herbs are best taken as tinctures or teas. The phytochemical contents, the part that makes an herb work, is inside of the cell. The cell wall structure being very hard will need either a physical or chemical reaction to break it open and release its contents. When we make a tea from an herb, the heat works as a physical reaction and breaks the cell open. Tinctures are formulated by taking the whole fresh herb, mashing it and allowing it to sit in high grain alcohol for usually two weeks. The alcohol works creates a chemical reaction, breaking down cell wall structure. The herb and alcohol mixture is then strained and bottled into brown glass which will protect it and keep the active ingredients safe for very long periods of time.

A simple and inexpensive way to try an herb is to stop by your local health food store and purchase an ounce or so of a dried herb – preferably certified organic – and make it into a tea. You can make a cupful or brew up the whole ounce. You will need the same tea items for herbs that you would if you were using loose-leaf tea. Start by drinking a Chinese teacup full one to three times daily. Make only what you will use in the next few days and store the rest in the refrigerator.

Bottled tinctures are more expensive but will last a very long time. A few drops under the tongue, or in an ounce of water, is the best way to take a tincture. Herb tinctures and teas are best taken at least 30 minutes away from food.

Herbal therapy, when used appropriately, is safe and inexpensive. Always look or ask for certified organic; they are always your best choice.

Till next time, Rebecca.