Have you ever tried an herbal remedy and wondered why it failed? Here are five common mistakes, with suggestions for getting off to a better start with therapeutic herbs.
The most obvious reason a botanical remedy doesn’t work is that you’ve got the wrong herb for the job. Once upon a time, backyard kitchen gardens were common, and many people within a community knew how to use simple herbal remedies. Not anymore. Misunderstandings abound, and enthusiasm eclipses patient learning. Calendula is a lovely flower with an equally lovely reputation for wound healing. But it isn’t going to cure a dental abscess or eliminate an infection caused by MRSA. Use it to soothe a diaper rash or a minor scrape.
Any supplement that is mislabeled or adulterated is, by definition, the wrong herb. This is a real problem as scores of commercial products flood the market. Always buying the cheapest brand, or the one with the most dramatic claims, is a pretty sure way to get garbage. You may have to pay more to get a high quality product that is what it says it is. Price is no guarantee of quality, though. Here are some questions to consider before you purchase a commercial supplement:
- Where does the source material come from? Is it organically cultivated or ethically wildcrafted? Can the supplement manufacturer verify this information?
- How is the identity, purity, and quality of raw material verified by the manufacturer if the material is purchased from other suppliers?
- Are there fillers or additives, and what is their purpose?
- Are there clinical studies on this preparation? Does this herb need to be standardized for best results, or does it perform better in whole herb form?
The herb as prepared should be fit for its purpose. If the root contains the desired active principles of the plant, like black cohosh, you don’t want the other parts. If a combination of parts is superior to an isolated part, like hawthorn, you want all of those parts. If the herb should be fresh, like chickweed, the dried form may not work. Experience informs the use of traditional herbs, like lavender and chamomile, but there are also numerous scientific studies to support their use. Other herbs have little or no published research to guide their use, but may be effective and safe if used in the right form and context. For example, in Ayurvedic medicine, herbs are often consumed as powders or pastes or mixed with particular foods. Temperature, moisture, and timing are important. The benefits of Ayurvedic herbs may not translate well to other forms or when taken without regard to diet and dosha.
In contrast, traditional Western herbal remedies are often prepared in tincture form, as alcohol extracts of plant material. Unfortunately, the volume of tincture needed to produce a therapeutic effect may be quite high in relation the volume sold in a health food store. A one ounce bottle might last just a few days. Continued use is costly. On the other hand, tinctures are portable, stable, and discreet. They are well suited for occasional, targeted use. Tinctures that need to be taken for longer periods of time can be prepared in larger quantities at home with the right plant material and extraction agent.
Herbal infusions, which are hot water extracts of loose herb, are a good format for gentle and pleasant tasting herbs. These include many of the herbs in the Mint and Rose Families, chamomile, fennel, and anise. Fungi that contain immune-stimulating polysaccharides, like reishi and other therapeutic mushrooms, are best prepared as hot water extracts, eaten, or consumed as powders. Alcohol doesn’t extract these polysaccharides very well, which doesn’t prevent plenty of companies from selling mushroom tinctures! Sometimes the hype surrounding a remedy overrides traditional experience and the available science.
Wrong Dose and Timing
Herbs are not drugs, as defined by U.S. law. An herb is much more complex than a single pharmaceutical drug. It may contain dozens or even hundreds of active molecules. Many herbal remedies work best when the active constituents are left within the whole plant matrix, rather than isolated.
Herbs share features with food, and can be consumed as foods with therapeutic benefits. Imagine a continuum between herbs as food and herbs as drugs. Every herb falls somewhere on the continuum. Herbs that are defined mainly by their drug-like constituents are more readily toxic. Food-like herbs are milder, safer, and usually less potent. They are best taken regularly and frequently over long periods of time, just like healthy foods. A few examples are nettles, raspberry leaf, burdock, and wild oats. The herbs in the middle of the continuum are taken for specific, short-term needs because they are less “nutritional” and more “medicinal.” Some examples are uva-ursi, goldenseal, and valerian. Trying a small dose of an herb for a short period of time and expecting it to work like a drug is a common mistake. Which leads to number 4.
This may be the leading reason that beginners give up on herbs. Herbs should be part of a holistic approach that nourishes and supports the entire body-mind-spirit. Dietary supplements cannot compensate for terrible diet, lack of sleep, or overwhelming life events. There is no easy herbal solution for life-gone-mad. Sometimes we use herbs as tools of abuse as we look for ways to prolong the unsustainable. Adaptogens (like rhodiola, ginseng, eleuthero, and ashwagandha) are a popular group of herbs that help us withstand the effects of stress. But they don’t work like an anti-anxiety pill. Effects are measured over weeks and months, not minutes. Each herb and herbal preparation has its own unique profile and best fit for an individual person and situation. A lifetime can be spent perfecting the art of herbal formulation. Using herbs as an extension of a healthy, plant-rich diet is the simplest way to enjoy their benefits. When herbs are selected for a targeted therapeutic use, a higher level of knowledge and care is required.
The mind is powerful. Most of us understand the placebo effect: an inactive treatment is believed to be active, and results in real effects, or the perception of effects. When we believe in something strongly enough, it seems to become real. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as the placebo causes no harm and does not delay actual treatment. Sometimes herbs work because we want them to. But the opposite is also true. When we do not believe in the possibility of effect, or are prejudiced against a treatment, we can prevent the treatment’s benefits. The use of herbs should be approached with an open mind and heart, or not at all. Otherwise, we become the ugly stepsister with the beautiful glass slipper. What a waste.
Here are 5 ways to use herbs in your daily life more successfully.
- Begin by learning the therapeutic uses of kitchen cabinet herbs. Thyme is a natural cough suppressant, sage can dry things up (including night sweats!), ginger is a topical pain reliever, and so on. Using a single herb for a particular purpose is called simpling.
- Grow your own. Start an herb garden from organic seed and carefully learn one herb at a time through the use of your own five senses. There is no substitute for learning herbs experientially.
- Buy from a local organic farmer or herbalist. You’ll get a firsthand chance to learn about how these plants are grown and harvested.
- Eat a plant-based diet. Include a wider variety of wild herbs you can easily forage, like violet leaves, purslane, lamb’s quarters, pigweed, garlic mustard, and dandelion. The nutritional value of these abundant wild herbs rivals anything you can buy at any market, anywhere, period. Check out Steve Brill’s resources for help getting started at www.wildmanstevebrill.com.
- When you need specific guidance in purchasing herbal supplements, consult a practitioner experienced in the clinical use of herbs for recommendations on sources, brands, and proper use. A supplement company, direct salesperson, or health food store employee is usually not a qualified practitioner. If you have a complex health need, be sure to share information with all members of your health team. Keep a complete, updated list of the drugs, supplements, and herbal remedies you are using.
April Ward, MSN, CNM is an integrative women’s health specialist in Skaneateles, NY. To learn more, call 315-200-2349.