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Choosing Herbal Products

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? How fresh is the herbal product you are about to purchase or ingest? What is the shelf life of the herb? Has the herb been processed in 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 you are trying to solve? Of all the available forms of herbal products, liquid herbal extracts address (in a positive way)  most of these factors. This is one of the primary reasons American herbalists recommend liquid herbal extracts 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 are suspended in a liquid medium, usually alcohol and water. When the alcohol is left in the liquid extract, an alcohol-containing extract is the result. However, once the constituents have been extracted, the alcohol in the extract may be removed using a heat-free process to produce non-alcohol herbal extracts. Once the alcohol has been removed from the herbal extract the resulting liquid is suspended in glycerin to make a non-alcohol extract or suspended in olive oil to create a liquid herbal concentrated extract encapsulated as softgels.

Q: Why are herbs in liquid herbal extract form preferable over dried herbs found in capsule or tablet form?
A: The success of herbal medicines as healing agents is dependent upon how active their constituents (ingredients) are when you ingest them. For maximum therapeutic benefits it is important to take herbs in the form that best captures and preserves their active constituents. Liquid herbal extracts achieve these goals. This is why they are one of the most therapeutically beneficial form of herbs available on the market today.

The herbs found in tablet or capsule form are ground months prior to appearing on store shelves. These products 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 the 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 person is not digesting and assimilating well, the potential therapeutic benefits of herbs in tablet and capsule form diminishes because it is the digestive system’s role to free the active constituents from the fiber and cellulose. Additionally, the herbs in capsule and tablet form 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. The plant fibers and cellulose do not have 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 the full therapeutic benefits of liquid herbal extracts.

Q: Most herbalists recommend liquid herbal extracts over other forms of herbs. Can you explain why?
A: Most herbalists prefer liquid herbal extracts over other forms of herbs for four main reasons: freshness, potency, absorption and formulation.
Freshness: As detailed in the previous answer, herbs in liquid herbal extract form retain their freshness and potency over a longer period of time than ground herbs in capsule or tablet form. Also, in many instances, using fresh [undried] herbs is a unique way to deliver the specific properties and herbal constituents necessary for healing. Liquid herbal extracts are the only type of products that may start with fresh [undried] herbs that are picked and processed the same day to protect and preserve specific active constituents only found in fresh herbs.  On the other hand, herbs found in capsules, tablets, teas, and loose herbs, must first be dried before being used. This process saps them of distinct fresh active constituents necessary for healing. Freshness is also dependent on when and 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 other active substances.

Potency: Herbalists have long recognized that potency is not about isolating a single "active constituent". Potency is the result of the interaction of many constituents within each herb. Herbal products must contain a full spectrum of bioavailable constituents to promote the maintenance of health and support the body’s own healing process. Liquid herbal extracts deliver more bioavailable constituents than any other herbal supplements.

Absorption: Liquid herbal extracts bypass the digestive process and enter the bloodstream rapidly. This makes them the most effective way for the body to absorb the medicinal principles from herbs. Once assimilated, the herbal constituents start working in your body within minutes.

Formulation: Liquid herbal extracts can effectively deliver the healing power of several herbs at once. Years of clinical experience has shown that herbal formulas, comprised 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 the other herbs, and the systems they support. Well-designed, time-tested formulations support the body's healing needs.

Q: What are the different forms of liquid herbal extracts and how are they made?
A: Liquid herbal extracts are available in alcohol-containing extracts, non-alcohol extracts, and liquid herbal softgels.
The most potent and effective extracts, whether they are in alcohol-containing, non-alcohol, or softgel form, should share three important commonalities. First, to ensure potency, they should all start as alcohol-containing extracts. Second, heat should not be used during the manufacturing processes, as heat is detrimental to the potency and activity of liquid herbal extracts. Third, all liquid herbal extracts should be produced in such a way as to ensure that the resulting liquid 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 from those herbs. Two methods have been shown to deliver the most potent herbal extracts. Fresh, [undried] herbs are best extracted using a “kinetic maceration” method. Using this method, fresh, [undried] herbs are first ground immediately in an alcohol and water solution before being agitated continuously for 8 hours. Then the herbs are 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. As the liquid solution “percolates” through the herbs, the active constituents are extracted from the plant fibers into the alcohol and water solution. Note that, in both methods, no heat is used since heat is damaging to the potency of the herbs' active ingredients.

The most effective non-alcohol 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 heat negatively affects the potency of the extract. Next, glycerin is added to bring the extract back to its original volume. Finally citric acid, a natural preservative found in citrus fruits, is added to the non-alcohol extract to prevent the growth of microorganisms.

To deliver effective potency, liquid herbal softgels also begin as alcohol-containing extracts as explained above. Then, using the same heat-free vacuum process, the alcohol is removed. Certified organic,  extra virgin olive oil is added to this liquid concentrate to permit the encapsulation of the concentrated extract into a softgel. As an example, a softgel is what normally encapsulates vitamin E or fish oils. Each softgel contains the equivalent of a dropperful of a liquid herbal extract.

Q: Is it better to buy liquid herbal extracts made from fresh herbs or dried herbs?
A: There is no simple answer to this question. It all depends on the health issue you are addressing. Stinging Nettle herb, for example, can be used either 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 herb offers optimum hay fever relief. Once fresh Stinging Nettle herb is dried, its hay fever-alleviating properties disappear. Certain herbs such as Blue Cohosh, Dong Quai, Goldenseal, and Milk Thistle, are better used 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 extracted while fresh in order to preserve their fragile constituents and delicate volatile oils.

These examples illustrate 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 are made from fresh herbs and others are made from dried herbs. In some formulas, fresh and dried herbal extracts are blended together to provide the best form of each herb in the formula for the specific health needs 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 the best 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 constituents from the herbs. Goldenseal best illustrates this principle. Boiling Goldenseal roots for hours in water will extract most of its water-soluble properties but will fail to extract hydrastine, Goldenseal’s root main anti-inflammatory constituent. Only alcohol will extract this valuable constituent properly. The alcohol content in different extracts ranges from as little as 20 percent to as high as 95 percent. The varying amounts of alcohol and water needed for maximum extraction are determined by the properties of the herbs. Note that vinegar and glycerin cannot replace alcohol and water 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 extract mixture in the bottle contains herbs. To use an analogy, let's say you stir one ounce of sugar into four ounces of water. Interestingly, you still have four ounces of water, but the water is sweet. The water is now permeated with sugar, the sugar 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 constituents,  both the 70 percent alcohol and the 30 percent water are saturated with herbs. The alcohol and water solution hold the herbal constituents 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 that contains 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. Additionally, 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 of a liquid herbal extract is only a banana's worth of alcohol, this small amount of alcohol should not pose a significant threat to most people. However, if you must abstain from alcohol for religious, health, or addiction reasons consider softgel formulations as an effective alternative.

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 you want in a hot drink. Do not attempt to 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 is recommended per dosage to a cup of boiling water or to an herbal tea that is naturally caffeine-free. Let the mixture sit for 5-10 minutes. A significant amount of the alcohol will evaporate during that time. In an extract containing 70 percent alcohol, the remaining alcohol will be about the equivalent of a third of a ripe banana. Evaporating the alcohol in this manner does not affect the effectiveness and potency of the herbs in an alcohol-containing extract. Or, avoid alcohol entirely by taking a non-alcohol extract or a liquid herbal softgel.

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 manipulated to be present in the final product at a specific level. In the last few decades 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 brought to herbs by patients who are increasingly uncomfortable with synthetic drugs. Patients are requesting remedies with fewer side effects. 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, herbal companies are developing such products.

Q: Is the standardization of herbs a good thing? 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 specific fractions of herbs. In support of this point of view, let’s examine some of 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. Which one of an herb's numerous constituents should be chosen as being the effective one? The truth is that we still don’t know what the active constituents are in 98 percent of the herbs currently used.

Research on Echinacea illustrates why the question of "Which one of the many constituents in an herb 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, many European companies standardized their Echinacea products to achieve a specific amount of polysaccharides (usually labeled as echinacosides). Subsequent research revealed that specific alcohol soluble constituents (isobutyl amides) were even more effective in supporting the immune system than the polysaccharides then, other manufacturers standardized their Echinacea products to achieve specific amounts of isobutyl amides. And it doesn’t stop here. Year by year, new Echinacea compounds are being 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. However when Valerian essential oils alone were administered to people, only partial therapeutic results were achieved. Then it was thought that valepotriates were the active ingredients until clinical trials revealed only partial results again. Still later, valerenic acid was thought to be the active ingredient. More trials, same results. The irony is that each study actually supports the fact that whole Valerian extract 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 successful standardization of a few products has been assumed to be possible for all herbs. It is true that there have been a handful of standardized herbal products shown to be effective in specific situations. For instance, Milk Thistle with standardized silymarin levels has been to shown to be effective in serious liver diseases. However, if a person is using Milk Thistle as a liver protectant,  the 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 extract 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, Gugul lipids, Milk Thistle, and Turmeric) is simply not applicable to all herbs. Remember that for over 98 percent of herbs, we simply do not know what the active constituents are. Key questions that have emerged out of those research projects include: "To which active constituent should an herb be standardized?" and "Does standardizing certain constituents in herbs make them better products?"

 

Q: How long do herbs in different forms retain their effectiveness?

Form

Powdered Herbs
Tea Bags
Herbal Capsules
Whole dried Leaves
Herbal Tablets
Whole dried Root
Liquid Herbal Extract Softgels
Alcohol-free Liquid Extracts
Alcohol-containing Liquid Extracts

Shelf Life

1-6 months
1-6 months
1-12 months
2-12 months
2-24 months
1-3 years
5 years
5 years
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 most 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 the 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-containing extracts or non-alcohol 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 especially softgels. Third, keep bottle caps or droppers firmly closed.
Alcohol-containing extracts, opened or unopened, have a shelf life of at least five years when 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, they will keep for years when stored properly. With non-alcohol liquid herbal extracts, the product should contain a natural preservative such as citric acid. If a non-alcohol product does 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.

Q: Does it matter if the herbs I take are organic or wild-harvested?
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 from the wild. For example, Echinacea and Goldenseal, among other herbs, are facing increasing pressures in the wild unless we cultivate these plants. Second, certified organic farmers ensure they have sustainable crops year after year by not compromising their land for short-term gain. Therefore, by buying organic, you support the continuous stewardship of the land. Third, certified organic farmers are inspected by a third-party certifying agencies 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.  In many cases, some herbs are only available from the wild. Conscientious manufacturers purchase wildcrafted herbs from pickers that practice plant stewardship. They ensure that the methods and quantity of plants are harvested in a sustainable way.

Q: What should I look for when I buy liquid herbal extracts or softgels?
A: 1.) Look for liquid herbal extracts that have sufficient alcohol amount and that are cold processed.  Choose alcohol-containing extracts that have a minimum of 20 percent alcohol. Not only does the alcohol extract the active constituents from the herb but the alcohol also acts as a preservative and prevents contamination 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 alcohol while herbs like Peppermint and Chamomile require a much lower alcohol levels. When extracts are made from whole herbs ground cryogenically (cold grinding) minutes prior to the extraction process, no constituents are destroyed by friction-induced heat during the grinding process. Cold process kinetic maceration of fresh herbs or cold process percolation of dried herbs yields more active ingredients in the finished extracts than in herbs processed by using other methods.

When purchasing non-alcohol extracts or softgels, make sure that the extract was originally extracted with alcohol, and that the alcohol was removed using a low heat method. Citric acid should also be added to non-alcohol extracts as a natural preservative.

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 a product that contains wild harvested herbs picked in regions that are not exposed to pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers.

3.) Choose liquid herbal extracts in formulas.  As stated above, herbal formulas deliver the healing power of several herbal at once.  Listed on this website many formulas are available in alcohol-containing extracts, non-alcohol extracts and liquid herbal softgels. These products have been formulated, tested, and are approved by Medical Herbalist, Daniel Gagnon.

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