If Herbs Are Great, Aren't the Extracted Constituent Supplements Better?

I have been using plant medicine, in some form or other, for almost a decade. It started with essential oils and capsules....and moved to specifically formulated teas and tinctures.

Two things I see a lot, and I mean A LOT, when people are starting out in using plant medicine are 1) using capsules and 2) using supplements where plant constituents are extracted and concentrated.

While I appreciate these forms of plant medicine, they really aren't as effective as they can be and I feel, will leave people disappointed with plant medicine in general.

Lets break down both of these preparations and talk about the issues with them.

1) Capsules

These are what so many people are used to, because they are most like modern allopathic medicine. They are readily available in big box stores like Walmart and the bottles usually give you an idea for what to use them for. They make taking not so palatable herbs a little easier (taking a clove of garlic has a lot of flavor versus the odorless, tasteless garlic powder in a capsule) and are already in dose form.

However;

Powdered herbs have a short self life. 6 months is the usual recommendation. While someone buying them might go through them faster than 6 months...think about the time frame of manufacturing those capsules. The more plant surface exposed to oxygen (which is quite a bit in powdered form), the faster the plant matter degrades. Its not dangerous but its not potent. Even capsules that aren't full powdered, the herb is still cut into small pieces to fit, therefore exposing more of the surface.

Many of the constituents in herbs aren't extracted when used in capsule form. Some need hot water infusions or decoctions to be extracted, some need to be extracted in alcohol (and within that category, different % of alcohol). At this point, capules are basically food...which has its benefits but not for the therapeutic benefits people are taking them for.

Additionally, TASTE is a huge factor in how our body recognizes the herbs and prepares to use them. Bitters, for example....when they hit the tongue (even our sense of smell), can start the process of salivation and production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach. These processes are a big part of why bitters are suggested and successful.

For diaphorectic herbs, like Yarrow and Elderflower, the heat of a tea (how they are best used for a fever), is part of the process of dilating the capillaries...allowing heat to leave the body.

2) Extracted Constituent Supplements

While "extracted constituent supplements' are not what they are called on the label, I am choosing to use this vocabulary to show what they actually are. Notice, however, that constituent is singular. 

While many supplements will contain multiple constituents (plural), they are usually singularly extracted and compounded. This is greatly different than the natural synergistic dance of whole plant medicine. 

In plants, there is a natural checks and balance system. Tannins, for example, bind with alkaloids. In a plant, there might be an alkaloid present that can be quite strong but there might also be tannins present to keep their actions in check. When we extract single constituents, we take away this natural balance. In fact, there are so many constituents in plants, that we still don't know all of them. Don't let that freak you out, of course, herbs have been tested...both clinically and through thousands of years of use....whereas extracted constituent supplements are not even 200 years old. Take a look at this profile of Trifolium pratense from Dr James Duke's Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Database.

red clover database screen shot.png

Note that it lists 202 chemicals with activities. Those are phytochemicals not petrochemical or petrochemically derived. Then there are an additional 209 phytochemicals. Phyto meaning "of plant"

These checks and balances are also why they whole plant remedies work as well as they do. Take Yarrow...containing coumarins (the precursor to modern anticoagulants), flavonoids (which offer anti-inflammatory effects), tannins (which are astringent), and volatile oils. This is, of course, a BRIEF overview of the groups of phytochemicals and they can be broken down into further specifics. All of these lead to Yarrow's diaphorectic effects on fever and lowering blood pressure. Many of those are lost when we extract just 1 constituent. 

Does this mean that all extracted constituent supplements are crap? No, they can still be beneficial.

However;

If you are going to be spending money on plant medicine, lets make sure it works correctly and effectively.


All of this is a big reason why having an herbalist for your family is important. An herbalist's first job is to listen and our second job is to educate. Because we aren't doctors, we can't prescribe or treat....but we can teach YOU how to do that. We can teach YOU what sort of preparation is best for certain herbs and certain imbalances. We can teach YOU how to make these preparations. We can teach YOU about the herbs so that you feel confident is using them. 

When I first started learning plant medicine, it was confusing...overwhelming...and frustrating at times. Now it all makes sense, feels natural (because it is), and works beautifully every time we need it. I would love to help you get that way. Be sure to check out my "Holistic Services" page to see what kind of consults I offer.

How do you take your herbs?