Q: What forms do herbal products come in?
A: The most popular herbal products in America are capsules, softgels and tablets. Herbal teas, especially in teabags, account for a substantial amount of the herbs consumed in the United States. Herbs in liquid herbal extract form are also a popular way to ingest therapeutic herbal products. Finally, herbs are available in bulk form in some health and natural food stores.
Q: Which form of herbs offers the most therapeutic benefits?
A: The therapeutic benefits achieved by using herbs depend on a variety of factors. For instance, does the herbal product contain all of the active constituents in ratios found in nature, or have the constituents been altered? Is the herbal product fresh? What is the shelf life of the herb? Has the herb been processed in such a way to ensure that it will be effective when you are ready to take the product? Does the product require you to digest the herbs in order to get all of the benefits from these herbs? Is it convenient to take? Is it affordable? Does the product address the problem that you are trying to solve? Of all the available forms of herbs, liquid herbal extracts best address all of these factors. This is the reason that American herbalists recommend this form of herbs the most.
Q: What are liquid herbal extracts?
A: Liquid herbal extracts are herbs that have been processed in such a way that their active constituents (ingredients) are suspended in a liquefied medium, usually alcohol and water. If the alcohol is left in the formulation, an alcohol-containing extract is the result. However, once the constituents have been extracted, the alcohol in the extract can be removed using a heat-free process to produce alcohol-free herbal extracts. The alcohol-free herbal extracts are suspended in glycerin to make alcohol-free extracts or suspended in olive oil to create a liquid herbal concentrated extracts in softgels.
Q: Why are herbs in liquid herbal extract form preferable over dried herbs in capsule or tablet form?
A: The success of herbal products as healing agents is dependent upon how active their constituents (ingredients) are when you ingest them. For maximum therapeutic benefits, therefore, it is important to take herbs in the form that best captures and preserves their active constituents. Liquid herbal extracts achieve this, so they are the most therapeutically beneficial form of herbs available on the market today.
Most herbs in tablet or capsule form are ground months prior to appearing on store shelves. They lose many of their active ingredients both when they are ground and while they are in storage. Herbal tablets also contain fillers, binders and other materials necessary to compress ground herbs into tablet form. Tablets must also be dissolved by the body's digestive system before the herbs can be assimilated. Herbal capsules tend to be better than tablets because they do not contain the extra manufacturing materials and they dissolve easily in the stomach. However, if the body is not digesting and assimilating well, the potential therapeutic benefits of herbs in tablet and capsule form diminishes because the digestive system must break the active constituents free from the fiber and cellulose. Herbs in capsule and tablet form also lose potency as they are exposed to oxygen (capsules oxidize more rapidly than tablets).
Herbs in liquid extract form, on the other hand, contain no fillers, binders, or "extra" ingredients so they are immediately assimilated into the body. Nothing has to be broken down or digested in order for the body to absorb them. In liquid form, the herbs are immediately available for assimilation into the bloodstream, glands and organs. Even a person with poor digestion and assimilation can enjoy maximum benefits from liquid herbal extracts.
Q: You say herbalists recommend liquid herbal extracts over other forms of herbs. Can you explain more?
A: Herbalists prefer liquid herbal extracts over other forms of herbs for four reasons: freshness, potency, absorption and formulation.
Freshness: As detailed in the previous answer, herbs in liquid herbal extract form retain their freshness and potency much longer than ground herbs in capsule or tablet form. Also, in many instances, using fresh [undried] herbs is the only way to deliver the specific properties necessary for healing. Liquid herbal extracts start with fresh [undried] herbs that are picked and processed the same day so that the active constituents can be preserved. Herbs found in capsules, tablets, teas and loose herbs, on the other hand, must first be dried, which saps them of the fresh active constituents necessary for healing. Freshness is also dependent upon how herbs are ground. Super-cold (cryogenic) grinding, done minutes before extraction of the herbs, is effective in preserving all of the herbs' active ingredients because it prevents evaporation of essential oils and degradation of active substances.
Potency: Herbalists have long recognized that potency is not about isolating a single "active constituent". Potency results from the interaction of many constituents within each herb. Herbal products containing a full spectrum of bioavailable constituents promote healing as well as the maintenance of health. Liquid herbal extracts regardless of form, time and again, deliver more bioavailable constituents than any other herbal supplements.
Absorption: Experience has proven that liquid herbal extracts bypass the digestive process and enter the bloodstream rapidly. This makes them the most effective way for the body to absorb medicinal herbs. Once assimilated, the herbs start working in your body within minutes.
Formulation: Liquid herbal extracts can effectively deliver the healing power of several herbs at once. Clinical experience shows those herbal formulas, comprised of a combination of several herbs, produce better results than single herbs. In a formula, each herb is designed to support a specific body system in a manner that complements the action of other herbs, and the systems they support. Well-designed, time-tested formulations address the body's complete healing needs.
Q: How are the different forms of liquid herbal extracts made?
A: Liquid herbal extracts are available in alcohol-containing extracts, alcohol-free extracts and liquid herbal softgels. I advise consumers to pay attention to how different brands of extracts are formulated. Product information on the bottles should give you the information you need.
The most potent and effective extracts, whether they are in alcohol-factors, alcohol-free or softgel form, should share three important commonalties. They should all start as alcohol-containing extracts to ensure potency. Second, heat should not be used in their manufacturing processes, as heat is detrimental to the potency of liquid herbal extracts. Third, all should be produced in such a way to ensure that the herbs contain their full spectrum of active constituents.
Effective alcohol-containing extracts are produced by subjecting herbs, in freshly ground or powdered form, to precise ratios of water and alcohol for specified lengths of time. This is done in order to capture the active constituents of those herbs. Two methods yield the most potent herbal extracts. Fresh, undried herbs are most potent when they are "kinetically macerated". Using this method, herbs are first continuously agitated in an alcohol and water solution for 12 to 24 hours, and then soaked in that same liquid solution for a minimum of two weeks. For dried herbs, the active ingredients are best extracted with the use of a special glass funnel called a "cold-extraction percolator". Using this method, an alcohol and water solution is poured over freshly ground dried herbs in the cold-extraction percolator. Notice in both methods that no heat is used, since heat is damaging to the potency of the herbs' active ingredients.
Again, the most effective alcohol-free extracts begin as alcohol-containing extracts per the process explained above. Then, using a heat-free vacuum process, the alcohol is removed. The removal of the alcohol must also be done without the use of heat as it negatively affects the potency of the extract. Next, glycerin is added to bring the extract back to its original volume. Finally, it is important that a preservative be added to prevent the growth of microbes. Citric acid, found in citrus fruits, is a safe and natural preservative.
To deliver effective potency, liquid herbal softgels must also begin as alcohol containing extracts as explained above. Then, using a heat-free vacuum process, the alcohol is removed. Olive oil is added to this liquid concentrate to permit its encapsulation into a softgel. As an example, a softgel is what normally encapsulates vitamin E. A dropperful of active constituents of a liquid herbal extract is contained in each softgel.
Q: Is it better to buy liquid herbal extracts or softgels made from fresh herbs or dried herbs?
A: There is no simple answer to this question. It depends on why you are taking the herbs that you are taking. Stinging Nettle, for example, can be used fresh or dried. If you need an herb to increase mineral absorption in your body, dried Stinging Nettle offers the most benefits. On the other hand, fresh Stinging Nettle offers you optimum hayfever relief because once this herb is dried, its hayfever-alleviating properties disappear. Certain herbs such as Blue Cohosh, Dong Quai, Goldenseal, and Milk Thistle, are better dried because the drying process modifies and enhances their medicinal action. Other herbs, such as Chamomile, Oat seed, Peppermint and Shepherd's Purse should be processed while fresh in order to preserve their delicate volatile oils and other fragile constituents.
These examples show that whether you choose fresh herbs or dried herbs depends on each herb's specific constituents and the therapeutic goal you are trying to achieve. Therefore, some liquid herbal extracts and softgels are made from fresh herbs and others are made from dried herbs. In some formulas, fresh and dried forms are blended together so that you get the best form of each herb for the specific problems you are addressing. This is where an herbalist's expertise in creating the most effective formulation is needed.
Q: Why are alcohol and water used to make quality liquid herbal extracts?
A: Alcohol and water are used because both of these substances are necessary to ensure full extraction of all the active ingredients of the herbs. Goldenseal best illustrates this principle. Boiling this root for hours in water will extract its water-soluble properties but will fail to extract hydrastine, its main anti-inflammatory constituent. Only alcohol will extract this valuable constituent. The alcohol content in different extracts ranges from as little as 20 percent to as high as 95 percent. The varying amounts of alcohol that are needed for maximum extraction are determined by the properties of the herbs. Vinegar and glycerin cannot replace alcohol as efficient extractive agents.
Q: When the label says an extract has 70 percent alcohol in it, does that mean the remaining 30 percent is herbs and water?
A: No, it doesn't. One hundred percent of the mixture in the bottle contains herbs. To use an analogy, let's say you stir in one ounce of sugar into four ounces of water. You still have four ounces of water, but it is now sweet. The water is now permeated with sugar, which is no longer visible as a separate ingredient. This analogy holds with herbal formulations. If a particular extract uses 70 percent alcohol and 30 percent water to extract and preserve the herbs, both the 70 percent alcohol and the 30 percent water are imbued with herbs. They hold the herbs just as the water in this example holds the sugar.
Q: I'm alcohol sensitive. How much alcohol will I ingest in an average dose of a liquid herbal extract containing alcohol?
A: Although some people may be concerned about the amount of alcohol in alcohol-containing liquid herbal extracts, there is little cause for worry. On average, 30 drops of an extract containing 70 percent alcohol (see the label on the bottle for the percentage of alcohol) has the same amount of alcohol as one ripe banana. When we eat fruit, our bodies naturally produce alcohol via the fermentation process in our stomachs. The point I am making here is that most alcohol sensitive people do not quit eating fruit. So if one dosage is only a banana's worth of alcohol, that should not pose a threat to most people.
Q: I still feel that a ripe banana's worth of alcohol is still too much for me. Is there any way I can get the maximum benefits of a liquid herbal extract AND avoid the alcohol?
A: Evaporating the alcohol out of an alcohol-containing liquid herbal extract is best done on a dose-by-dose basis by putting the dose in a hot drink. Do not heat up an entire bottle of herbs, as that would damage the herbs in the extract. Instead, add as many drops of the extract as are recommended per dosage to a cup of boiling water, or, if you wish, to an herbal tea that is naturally caffeine-free. Let the mixture sit for 5-10 minutes. Forty to 60 percent of the alcohol will evaporate during that time. In an extract containing 70 percent alcohol, the remaining alcohol will be about the same as you would find in a third of a ripe banana. Evaporating the alcohol in this manner does not in any way diminish the effectiveness of the herbs in an alcohol-containing extract. Or, you can avoid all alcohol by taking an alcohol-free extract, or an alcohol-free liquid herbal softgel.
Q: Are alcohol-free extracts as potent as alcohol-containing extracts?
A: As the market stands right now, most alcohol-based extracts are much stronger than alcohol-free extracts. The fact is that most alcohol free extracts only contain a few active constituents and, as such, they are not a good value for the money.
Generally, herbs in liquid herbal extracts made with alcohol are stronger because they have more active constituents available to the user, and they have a longer shelf life as well. One study that I was involved in compared alcohol-free extracts of Goldenseal to alcohol-containing extracts of Goldenseal by measuring the levels of two major active alkaloids in each form of extract. The study verified that there was a direct correlation between the alcohol percentage and the level of alkaloids present. The results showed that the lower the percentage of alcohol equated lower levels of healing alkaloids in the extracts. In fact, the alcohol-free extracts tested were so low in potency that they were practically useless. According to the study's ratings, you would need ten bottles of an alcohol-free extract rated "Best" and up to 256 bottles of an alcohol-free extract rated "Worst" to equal one good bottle of alcohol-based extract.
Q: Does this mean there are no potent alcohol-free extracts on the market then?
A: No, the good news is that one manufacturer, Herbs, Etc., Inc., has found a way to produce strong alcohol-free extracts. Two main factors determine if an alcohol-free extract is potent: first, how are the active constituents of the herbs extracted, and second, is heat used in the alcohol-removing process. When it comes to making alcohol-free extracts, manufacturers are faced with the question of how to effectively extract the active constituents of herbs and make a potent alcohol-free extract at the same time. Most manufacturers, therefore, choose glycerin over alcohol in their extraction processes. The problem is that glycerin does not effectively extract the active constituents, as the study cited in the last question verifies. Capitalizing on these findings, Herbs, Etc., Inc. uses alcohol in the extraction of herbs for its alcohol-free extracts. A second problem arises if heat is used in the removal of alcohol to produce alcohol-free herbal extracts as heat destroys the active constituents. Herbs, Etc., Inc. has found a way around these two issues using alcohol, not glycerin, and then removing the alcohol by a vacuum extraction, (not hot) process.
A recent study conducted by a renowned Canadian university specializing in Echinacea analysis confirms the effectiveness of Herbs, Etc., Inc.'s manufacturing process. In the study, Echinacea angustifolia in several alcohol-free extracts were analyzed both for water-soluble constituents (caffeic acid derivatives) and alcohol-soluble constituents (isobutylamides). The results showed that the extract made by Herbs, Etc., Inc. was three to 20 times stronger than any other leading alcohol-free extracts.
A second finding indicated that this new alcohol-free extract had the same amounts per volume of water-soluble and alcohol-soluble constituents as the best alcohol-containing extract.
Q: I have read about herbs that are "standardized". What is standardization?
A: Standardization of herbal products occurs when a specific amount of one "active constituent" in an herb is artificially manipulated to be at a certain level. In the last few years there has been an ongoing trend in the herbal industry to "standardize" herbal products. This phenomenon is occurring principally because of two strong influences. First, medical doctors are being drawn to herbs by patients who are growing uncomfortable with synthetic drugs. Patients are requesting products with fewer side effects but with equally effective natural properties. Coming from an orthodox, pharmaceutically-driven framework, doctors feel more comfortable when they can recommend products that have "active constituents" in measurable and consistent amounts. Thus, they are encouraging the standardization of herbs. Second, in response to pressure from medical doctors to bring herbs in line with how drugs are standardized, some herb companies are developing such products.
Q: Is the standardization of herbs valid in your opinion? Does it increase the healing potential of herbs?
A: In my opinion, standardization runs counter to the holistic view that each herb is an ecosystem that combines all of its parts to heal and balance our bodies. I strongly believe that, in most instances, using whole herbs is superior to standardizing fragments of herbs. In support of this point of view, I point to the issues that are outstanding in the debate over this topic. The biggest problem with standardizing herbal products becomes apparent when one looks at all the constituents found in any given herb. Just which one of an herb's numerous constituents should be chosen as being the effective one? The truth is we do not know what the active constituents are in 98 percent of the herbs that are available on the market.
Research on Echinacea illustrates why the question of "Which one of the many constituents is the active constituent?" is still unanswered. In the late 1970s and the early 1980s, researchers concluded that the polysaccharides in Echinacea had many immunostimulating activities. Based on this research, European companies standardized their Echinacea products to achieve a specific amount of polysaccharides (usually labeled as echinacosides). Subsequent research revealed that alcohol soluble constituents were even more effective in supporting the immune system than the polysaccharides. It doesn’t stop there. Year by year, new Echinacea compounds have been isolated and identified.
An overview of the process of trying to standardize Valerian also provides another case in point. First, it was thought that the essential oils were the active constituents of Valerian. But when essential oils alone were administered to people, only partial therapeutic results were achieved. Then it was thought that valepotriates were the active ingredients until studies revealed only partial results again. Still later, valerenic acid was thought to be the active ingredient. More studies, same results. The irony is that each testing process actually supports the fact that the whole herb gives better results than any fraction of the herb.
The second issue that comes up as to whether standardized herbs are the way to go is that the standardization of a few effective products has been assumed to be possible for all herbs. Yes, there have been a handful of standardized herbal products that have been shown to be effective in certain situations. For instance, Milk Thistle with standardized silymarin levels is effective for serious liver diseases. However, if one is using Milk Thistle as a liver protectant, a whole seed liquid extract protects the liver just as well as a standardized extract—at a fraction of the cost of a standardized extract. In addition, the whole seed contains many other innate substances not present in the standardized product that help support the healing of the liver.
The successful standardization of about a half dozen herbs (Bilberry, Ginkgo, Grape Seed extract, Gugulipid and Milk Thistle) is simply not applicable to all herbs, or applicable for all their uses. Remember that in over 98 percent of herbs, we simply do not know what the active constituents are. Key questions that emerge out of all these research projects include: "To which active constituent should an herb be standardized?" and "Does standardizing certain constituents in herbs make them better products?" The answers are still inconclusive.
Q: How long do herbs in different forms retain their effectiveness?
Form Shelf Life
Whole dried Leaves
Whole dried Root
Liquid Herbal Extract Softgels
Alcohol-free Liquid Extracts
Alcohol-containing Liquid Extracts
at least 7 years
This chart points out that the more an herb is ground or reduced in size, the more rapidly it will lose its beneficial properties. In general, whole herbs tend to retain their medicinal properties or "shelf life" longer than other forms of herbs. This chart also shows that liquid herbal extracts maintain a longer shelf life than other forms of herbs. Once the herbs are extracted in a liquid medium, very little evaporation, oxidation or degradation of active constituents occurs.
Q: How should I care for my liquid herbal extracts or softgels to keep them fresh?
A: For optimum shelf life of alcohol-free or alcohol-containing extracts, including softgels, I suggest a three point approach. First, keep your liquid herbal extracts away from sunlight/windows. Second, keep your extracts away from hot temperatures, such as storing them in the glove compartment of your car in the summertime. Especially softgels, as they will dissolve. Third, keep bottle caps firmly closed. Unopened bottles of alcohol-free liquid herbal extracts have a five-year shelf life. Once opened, it is recommended that alcohol-free extracts be used or discarded within six months. This precaution is necessary to prevent bacterial contamination. This six-month shelf life for an opened bottle of alcohol-free extract can be extended by another six months if you refrigerate the extract.
Alcohol-containing extracts, opened or unopened, have a shelf life of at least seven years if the recommendations made above are followed. Refrigeration is not necessary. Softgels will last five years, opened or unopened. No refrigeration is necessary.
Q: How can I tell if a liquid herbal extract has gone "bad"?
A: In my experience with alcohol-containing liquid herbal extracts, it is rare for extracts not to last for years when they are stored properly. With alcohol-free liquid herbal extracts, the product should contain citric acid, a natural preservative. Should the product not contain a preservative such as citric acid, smell the product. If the product has a musty odor or seems to have any growth, immediately discard the product. Even with a citric acid containing alcohol-free product, discard the product within six months of opening it or after one year if the product has been refrigerated.
Q: Does it matter if the herbs I take are organic?
A: As an herbalist concerned about our environment, I strongly recommend that herbal consumers choose certified organically grown herbs.
First, choosing organically cultivated herbs helps lessen over-harvesting of herbs in the wild. For example, Echinacea and Goldenseal, among other herbs, are facing extinction unless we start cultivating these plants. Second, certified organic farmers make sure they have crops year after year by not compromising their land for short-term gain. Therefore, by buying organic, you support renewing the land. Third, certified organic farmers are inspected by a third-party certifying agency, insuring that the farmers utilize sustainable, chemical-free and pesticide-free farming techniques. This means that organic herbs truly support your healing as well as help preserve the health of our planet.
Q: What should I look for when I buy liquid herbal extracts or softgels?
A: 1.) Look for sufficient alcohol amount and cold processing. Be aware of the production process that the herbs have gone through. Choose alcohol-containing extracts with a minimum of 20 percent alcohol. The alcohol acts as a preservative and prevents contamination of the herbs by fungus, bacteria and viruses. Alcohol levels higher than 20 percent are needed to extract many different herbs. For example, Milk Thistle and Cayenne need at least 95 percent alcohol in order to extract the active constituents. Echinacea and Goldenseal require 70 percent while herbs like Peppermint and Chamomile require a much lower alcohol percentage. When extracts are made from whole herbs ground cryogenically (cold grinding) minutes prior to extraction, no constituents are destroyed by friction-induced heat during the grinding process. Cold process kinetic maceration for fresh herbs or cold process percolation for dried herbs yields more active ingredients in finished extracts than in herbs processed by using other methods.
In alcohol-free extracts or softgels, make sure that the extract was originally extracted with alcohol, then the alcohol was removed with the use of low heat. Citric acid should be added as a natural preservative. When choosing softgels, ensure that the extraction was done using alcohol and that the alcohol was then removed.
2.) Buy organically grown herbs. Choose herbal extracts made from certified organically grown herbs when possible. When certified organically grown herbs are not available, choose wild harvested herbs picked in regions that are not exposed to pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers.
3.) Choose liquid herbal extracts in formulas. The formulas listed on this web site are available in alcohol-containing extracts, alcohol-free extracts and liquid herbal softgels, and have been blended, tested and approved by Medical Herbalist, Daniel Gagnon.