How Herbs Are Different From Supplements


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When you go to the store and buy an herbal supplement, what are you getting? It might be a capsule of powdered herb, but this is less and less common nowadays. An herbal supplement is usually some type of extract from the plant – and we herbalists make lots of extracts ourselves, like teas, tinctures, salves, etc. The difference is in the methods and materials used to make the extract, which can be quite enormous.

These extracts may also be concentrated in a variety of ways. Again, this is something herbalists can do at home: cooking down a decoction or evaporating some alcohol off of a tincture are both forms of concentration. Many commercial extracts are also standardized to deliver a defined amount of a particular constituent (or group). And on the far end, some herbal supplements are actually isolated constituents, single chemicals which originated in the plant but are now being taken on their own. This is closer to pharmaceutical medicine than herbalism, if you ask us!

Each of these types of preparation will give us a different finished product, and for many herbs the differences between preparations are quite vast. You need to know more than “what herb is in that supplement” to know what you’re actually taking! And for clinical herbalists, this nuance is also very important to keep in mind if a client says something like “oh, I’ve tried hawthorn for my blood pressure, it didn’t help…”

Bottom line: an herbal supplement is not equivalent to the whole herb, and each of the various types of supplement made from an herb may be very different from one another. We need to train ourselves to treat them as different substances, and assess each for strengths & weaknesses.
Mentioned in this episode:

Herbs discussed include: cannabis, milk thistle, butterbur, jiaogulan, eleuthero, st john’s wort, kava, ephedra.

As you may have noticed, chemistry came up quite a bit in this episode! If that subject makes you a little nervous, don’t worry! Our Basic Phytochemistry course for herbalists is a low-pressure introduction to the practical aspects of plant chemistry, the ones which are most relevant to the practice of herbalism.

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