Podcast 151: How Herbs Are Different From Supplements
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:
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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Our theme music is “Wings” by Nicolai Heidlas.
Hi. I’m Katja.
And I’m Ryn.
And we’re here at the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.
And on the internet everywhere thanks to the power of the podcast. I’m really excited for this episode, actually.
Yeah. This one is going to be fun.
I’m feeling good about it. So for context, 50 episodes ago, episode 101, that was How Herbs are Different from Drugs. And we were talking about the differences between an herb and a pharmaceutical, and how they’re really extremely, quite different. And you want to understand that in order to work with them successfully. So this is going to kind of be the sequel or spiritual successor to that episode.
Sibling. Sibling episodes.
There we go. And we’re going to talk today about how herbs are different from supplements. Now, actually it should be how herbs can be different from supplements, because sometimes they’re actually very similar and pretty close. It depends a lot on how the supplements made. And that’s really most of what we’re going to be trying to make clear for everybody today.
Right. Because if you have a bag of ground milk thistle seeds, or you have a capsule that contains only ground milk thistle seed and nothing else – and that’s the important part there – then that that capsule is actually not a supplement. It is still just ground milk thistle seed that happens to be being delivered in a capsule instead of on a spoon or whatever.
Yeah. It’s a delivery method for that herb.
Right, right, right. Oh my goodness. Yeah, this is going to be fun. But you know what? Before we jump in, we need to say, and we want to say, that we are not doctors. We are herbalists and holistic health educators.
And the ideas discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical advice. No state or federal authority licenses herbalists in the U.S., and these discussions are for educational purposes only. Everyone’s body is different. So the things that we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you, but they will give you some information to think about and some ideas to research further.
We want to remind you that good health is your right and your personal responsibility. So this means that the final decision when you’re considering any course of therapy, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by a physician, is always yours.
Yes. And we also want to make a note here, too, that good health is what you determine it to be. Right. And that good health for each person is going to look different from good health for each other person.
Right. Yeah. As referenced in the previous episode. We still are working on that last sentence there to get it to more accurately reflect what the sentiment is.
So, all right. So today we’re going to talk about a number of different substances. Let’s say that, just to kind of give an overview first, we’re going to talk about herbs as herbs. Then we’re going to talk about various extracts you can make from the herbs. And then we’ll talk about concentrated extracts or concentrates of the plant. Then we’re going to talk about standardization, and what that means, and how that can affect the thing you end up taking or working with. And finally we’ll talk about isolation of herbal constituents and what that means. And how that can be very different from the herb itself that the isolate originated from.
Yeah. And so we’re not necessarily talking about all these things in the context of reading clinical studies. However, we will come back and talk about these things again, in the context of reading clinical studies, because each of those forms is a different item to study. And as we go through this discussion, you can kind of be thinking ahead in your foreshadowing mind, not just about how the differences between all these things impact what you’re putting in your body and what results you may or may not see, but also the form that they choose to include in a clinical study is going to impact the results of that study. It’s not the only thing that will have impact on the results of that study, but it will be one of the things. And so a lot of times we end up with studies that are supposedly done on herbs, but they’re not. They’re done on an isolated constituent. And so the study actually only gives you information about that isolated constituent. It gives you no information about the herb itself. And so just to sort of like be holding that in your mind as we go forward so that you can kind of be thinking in two ways about this material.
Yeah. I think this kind of understanding is important for everybody, because you want to know what it is you’re taking, and know it in terms of category, right? Like, so I say I’ve got here an extract of garlic. Well, that’s great. Is that the same as eating garlic in my meals every day? Is it the same as this other extract of garlic that’s prepared in a different way? Maybe one of them is more appropriate for the kind of problem that I’ve got going on, right? For instance, we could talk about licorice, and we could say that there are some extracts of licorice that are like a whole plant extract and have everything in there. There are others where they do a process to remove a particular constituent called glycyrrhizin. And you end up with a deglycyrrhizinated extract. And so oftentimes those are promoted. Those DGL extracts are promoted as like the better way, because glycyrrhizin is bad. And it will raise your blood pressure, and this and that. You know, and if you’re taking it for heartburn, then maybe that’s the way to go. Because you’re going to want to take a lot of it and take it really consistently. And okay, it’s better to have the glycyrrhizin out in that particular case. Especially if you’re a person with heartburn and high blood pressure, which is not uncommon because those are both hot signs, right? Yeah. But if you’re actually taking licorice, and part of what you want is hepatoprotective activity, liver support. Well, a lot of that activity is coming from the glycyrrhizin. So you would actually want a full plant extract in that case, right? So you want to know what you’re taking.
Herbs as Food: All the Goodness You Can Digest
And as herbal clinicians, because I know we have a lot of those on our pod and just observing us, well you want to know what your clients are taking, right? If they walk in and say, this is my list of supplements, or these are the herbs that I already take. If they said that, then you would want to know how have you been taking it, and what kind of results have you been getting? That’s good information, whether it’s positive, negative, neutral, or something else. You also want to know what they have taken or what they’ve tried before. So when somebody says, well, I’ve tried hawthorn to reduce my blood pressure, and it didn’t work. My next question is, oh, okay. That’s great. But, well, how were you taking it? Was it a cup of tea once a week? Was it a super concentrated extracts three times a day? All of these things are going to be relevant to us when we’re trying to sort out a person’s history of experience with plants. Yeah. So, let’s start at the beginning, and we’ll start with herbs. So if were talking about an herb here, we’re trying to say what would be the methods where you would be getting everything that that herb has to offer? And if you take the herb raw or dried, I guess, is basically the same, and you just eat it. Or maybe you take some roots and you chew on them until they disintegrate and you swallow them. That’s eating it, right?
Actually, there are so many herbs that we just straight out eat, right? Like all of the spices that people cook with, things like parsley and cilantro. Burdock if you include that in your cooking. All these different things, they’re food. We sort of think of them in that food category. But recognizing that when we eat the actual plant itself, we’re getting everything that our bodies can extract. Of course not everything is metabolized, but everything that can be metabolized is metabolized in that case.
Yeah, right? So, it’s all going in, everything that the plant produced is going in into your system. That’s also true when we work with powdered herbs, which is a common way folks are working with spices, putting them on food. Also when people make homemade capsules, you know, those tend to just be powdered herb put into a shell at home. Or if you make an electuary, right? Where you take the honey. You warm it up, you mix in some powder. Stir it, let it cool. And now you have a paste. Well, again, you are ingesting that whole herbal powder. And so you are taking in everything that the herb had to offer.
I’m thinking here also of like mushrooms, medicinal mushrooms, or seaweed. If you put it in broth, and then you consume them when you eat the broth. Then that, you know, you are actually eating that mushroom, or you’re eating the seaweed. Then that counts in this category.
Crude Extracts: Different Representations of What’s in an Herb
Right, right. Okay. Now if you make broth, but you strain the broth, and you only drink it. Then you’re getting a lot of what that herb to offer, but you are actually consuming an extract. And that’s going to be our next big category here is extracts.
It’s fun to think of broth as an extract.
Broth is an herbal extract, and also it’s a bone extract. Like you’re literally extracting minerals from whatever bone it is that you use to make that broth.
Yeah. And I like to start there, right? Start with what are often referred to as crude extracts. And I’m not personally interested in many crude things. But crude extracts, that’s what our whole life is all about, you know? So that’s going to include tea, tincture, infused oils, infused vinegars and honeys. Things where you combine those like an elixir or an oxymel. When folks make a glycerite, that’s an extract as well. When you smoke an herb, you’re actually selectively extracting certain constituents and leaving others behind. That’s the ash. You leave that behind. So, with all of these things, they’re extracting some constituents from the plant. And that process also implies that they’re leaving some things behind.
Tea is such an easy way to see that. If you make tea, maybe you make a long infusion. But then you strain it, and you have the mark. You have that…I always envision that as a little cake, because we so frequently make tea in French presses. And you push it down, and you get the little cake of the leftover herb part at the bottom. And so what you have extracted is all of the parts of the herb that are water soluble, that are going to go into the water, depending on how long it takes to extract them and how long you left them in the water. So if you did a cold extraction, you maybe didn’t get any of the volatile oil components. If you did a short extraction, you maybe didn’t get all of the mineral constituents. So it’s important to have the right length here. But the extraction is everything that’s in the water. And then you compost the remaining herb itself. Sometimes. Sometimes you eat it. If you made goji berry tea. Or even if you were really trying to get every bit of mineral and chlorophyll out of your nettle tea, then maybe you drink the tea and then eat the mark. It’s not super appealing, but it is super effective.
Yeah. Or just start taking your nettle as food instead, you know. Put it in soup and then make sure you eat the leaf bits. And now, again, you’re getting everything. Yeah. So each of these methods is going to be selectively extracting certain constituents from the plant. So if we’re working with water, well, we’re going to get water soluble constituents. If we’re working with alcohol, we get alcohol soluble constituents. And also some water-soluble ones, depending on what your actual alcohol is, right? Because it could be wine, you know, like 14, 15% alcohol, something like that. A bunch of polyphenols and things that help it preserve, but very low alcohol, lots of water in there. Or you could do it in Everclear, like 95% alcohol. A little water is in there, but it’s not going to do a whole lot for it.
It’s not very much. Yeah. And so that ratio affects. Like if you were to extract in wine, you’re getting a little bit of the alcohol soluble constituents, because there’s not a lot of alcohol there. And you’re getting a lot of the water-soluble constituents, because there’s so much more water than anything else in that bottle. And the inverse with the Everclear. You get probably all of the alcohol soluble constituents, and probably almost none of the water soluble constituents.
Right. And of course those categories, you know, alcohol soluble, oil, soluble, water, soluble. Many constituents kind of are free form. They can like cross those boundaries. They’ve got passports. They can go from one place to another. But what I mean is that, like, it’s not a hard and fast line, like you’re only going to get these ones with this menstruum. But yeah, so each of these substances – the oil, the glycerin, the vinegar, whatever it is you work with – is going to give you a different representation of what’s in that original herb. Yeah. And so this is why we’re, we’re trying to be specific about the various ways that we work with a plant for a given purpose as well, right? So, let’s say, if I’m working with St John’s wort, and my primary interest is healing some localized nerve damage, I want to do an oil extraction, and I want to rub that in. It’s going to be more effective than doing a water extraction or like a poultice or rubbing some tincture. And those are going to help, but the oil extraction is a little better when we’re trying to resolve nerve pain problems. So, you know, we’re going to be selective about that. Okay. This would also apply to other kinds of topicals, your poultices, compresses, salves and liniments and that kind of thing. Those are applications where you take an extract and then put that onto the body. So same considerations are going to apply there.
Maybe if you want to be really, really nitty-gritty about it, there will be a somewhat difference in absorption. Because we absorb things transdermally a little bit differently than we absorb things through the digestive tract. So if you make a tincture and you apply that topically, that is absolutely effective. I’m thinking about like a lobelia tincture, for example. It will definitely relax muscles. But you may not absorb every single thing from lobelia that you would absorb if you took that internally. And I’m actually just pulling out lobelia as an example here, because my back hurts. Because I haven’t any particular constituent in mind that is not absorbed well through the skin, but is absorbed well through digestion. But if we think instead about the different types of salicylates – if I want to work with a salicylate-bearing plant topically, then my choice would be one of the ones that contains a methyl salicylate like meadowsweet, as opposed to something like willow. Because if it’s just a straight salicylate, it has to be metabolized through the liver before it really gets its action. Whereas a methyl salicylate is much easier to absorb through the skin or absorb also internally, but absorb sort of directly and start working immediately. Now, both meadowsweet and willow have other actions as well that might play into this. And like, all of it is so complex that it’s almost impossible to isolate just one thing, which is why we’re going to have trouble when we isolate just one constituent. But in this particular case. That’s an example of not just the extraction, but then also the delivery mechanism as well. Like, was it topical, was it internal.
For sure. You know, so those ones we mentioned before, the kind of crude extracts. Those are the oldest forms of herbal medicine or herbal extract that you’re going to encounter. And when folks are working with alcohol, like you can do extractions in mead or in wine, or even in beer, things that you make the alcohol by fermentation. For stronger alcohols, you need distillation. And by the time that humans have developed that technology, they’ve also developed the capacity to make essential oils, because it’s the same process.
It’s the same machinery, not machinery. It’s the same equipment that is required to do that job.
So essential oils are kind of on a different level from these other extracts that we’ve been discussing, in large part, because they’re just a very selective extract of the aromatics or the volatile oils from the plant. And that’s why they can be so incredibly potent, and why they also have much more stringent safety concerns than do our water extracts or things made in alcohol or other substances like that.
Well, when we’re working with essential oils, that is an isolate. It’s like an isolated group of constituents or an isolated category, but still they are isolated and then very highly concentrated. And that’s where the safety concern comes in, because of how very concentrated it is. We don’t have that same safety concern if you just eat some actual thyme. But if you were to eat thyme essential oil, we would now have some concern, because the amount of volatile oil content in that essential oil is so much higher than what you can get from just drinking thyme tea or consuming thyme itself.
Modern Extracts: Pulling Out Some Constituents, Avoiding Others, or Enhancing Availability
Yeah. Okay. So, I also want to talk about more modern extraction methods here briefly, because I’m thinking about what can show up in a supplement. A lot of modern extracts are done with substances that are much more difficult to work with or to handle, or machinery that’s a little more involved, right? So a lot of herbal extracts today might be made with a substance called hexane. Hexane is essentially being used as an extraction medium that will pull out lipophilic constituents. So these are things that you could extract into oil if you were just soaking plant matter in oil and, you know, warming it and everything to get that to happen. Hexane is used here to try to extract those types of constituents. And then supposedly what’s supposed to happen or what’s ideally supposed to happen is that you can boil off or you can evaporate off or take off the hexane and leave behind the extractives, right? So you start with a plant. You saturate it with some hexane. You pull out a selective set of constituents. Keep that over here. And then you take the hexane away, and ideally you’re just left with the purified constituents that you were aiming for.
Hopefully, yeah. There’s been a lot of problems with hexane extracts over the years, with too much hexane being left behind and causing liver damage. And then herbs get blamed for the liver damage. And then that gets into the literature. And you can never really claw it out again. So yeah, another modern example of a method…
Wait. I want to say a thing about that actually. That when you were saying it gets stuck in the literature, that’s actually really damaging. Because the herb in its whole state gets blamed for that, when the hexane is not the thing that’s blamed. And therefore hexane extraction persists. So the herb itself was maybe not dangerous at all. And it was the extraction method that was dangerous. But because we did not identify the actual point of danger, the actual dangerous thing is allowed to continue. And the not dangerous thing is suddenly no longer permitted or is restricted or whatever. So, it really is important to be very specific about thinking where could the problem be coming from here?
Yeah. Especially because even in a case like that, at the very most what you would say is hexane extracts of this plant have some potential hepatotoxicity. You wouldn’t be justified in saying the plant itself in any and all forms is going to kill your liver. Yeah. But usually that kind of nuance is just the first thing to go.
No, usually it is in fact written in the literature the first way you said it. Yeah. The like, oh, this plant will – or the second way, whichever way, the bad way – this plant will break your liver. And you never will see a hexane extract could be damaging, either because of what it extracted or because of the hexane itself. You will never see that. At least not to date.
Not that I’ve seen anyway.
Not to date. Please moving forward, let us do science in this sort of more accurate manner.
There are some kind of like modern extraction methods that I feel much more comfortable with. One of them is called a super critical CO2 extract. And essentially there you’re manipulating pressure and temperature to make carbon dioxide into a liquid, and then using that as the menstruum that you’re going to extract your herbs into. It’s usually like a bubbling or percolation style extraction process. And then later you’ve got that extract and then you kind of bring it back up to normal temperatures and pressures. And now the carbon dioxide just becomes a vapor. And that’s a really clean process. You’ll see a lot of that nowadays with CBD extracts, just because it’s an effective method to pull cannabinoids out of the plant. So. About this process or like these kind of processes, many modern supplements or capsules that you look at are going to be made using an extraction method like that first. And then you have the substance, the extract that was pulled out in that method. And then that’s kind of dried, and then you can make a little like residue with it, like a gummy kind of a substance. And then you can weigh that out and put it in capsules and dispense that. So that would be separate or different from plain powder of the herb in a capsule. You can usually tell just by looking at them. When they have like a transparent shell, you look in and you’re like, okay, there’s powder in there. Great. Or you look in and you’re like, yeah, there’s some kind of goo. And it sort of moves a little bit, but it’s kind of sticky obviously.
Or sometimes it’s kind of like a fluid in a carrier, some sort of a carrier.
Yeah. And there are also a lot of extracts where there is plain powdered herb as kind of a base. And then that extract is kind of mixed into it at a certain proportion or a certain amount. A lot of milk thistle extracts for instance are made that way now, particularly when they’re trying to increase the levels of certain constituents, like silibinin and silymarin, and so on. That’s often done.
Can we all just agree that it should be silly Marin? Like why is there the option to say silly Marin and we don’t do it?
I feel seen on that one. I also want to make a note that sometimes these extraction methods can be employed to remove things. And one example for that that I could give you is that there’s an herb called butterbur. And butterbur is a pretty effective histamine reducing herb, or kind of helping to stabilize histaminic responses that we might get to environmental allergens. However, butterbur is also one of the plants that contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can potentially cause liver damage. So nobody wants that. And so a solution that some companies have come up with is to make a butterbur extract, and then do a process to it. I think it’s something like resin bed ion exchange is what it’s called. But basically this process separates the pyrrolizidine alkaloids from basically everything else in the herb. Or what they care about most is that it separates the PAs from the constituents that help out with your allergic response, right? And so they can do that, and then they can market that and say this is safe for consumption. This doesn’t have any dangerous constituents in it, and you can add it to your allergy formula, right? So that’s sometimes done as well. Another note on extractions and how they might show up in supplements or products you encounter. Sometimes extracts are added to another kind of a product to power it up. And you may have done this yourself if you’ve ever made a salve and then put some essential oils in it. An essential oil is an extract. Your salve is an extract. But you’re taking a kind of powerful extract and adding it to a…I mean, powerful in a different way, but you know.
Well, like a more technology-based extract added to a more crude extract to enhance the power, the strength, the concentration of that.
Yeah. This is also done in commercial formats in a kind of a different way. One example that I’ve enjoyed on occasion. So there’s this company called Ron Teeguarden’s Dragon Herbs. And they make this tea blend called Spring Dragon, which is basically a jiaogulan tea. But what they do is they have five other adaptogen or tonic herbs that they extract. They concentrate into like a paste, and then they mix that paste or they kind of like soak it in to the jiaogulan leaves. And then they put that into your teabag.
So the jiaogulan is like a carrier for this other concentrated extract.
Yeah. And some of the herbs that are in there – I can’t remember all of them and I didn’t keep it in my notes here – but some of the herbs that are in that concentrate wouldn’t really make any sense in a teabag. Because they would be herbs you need to do a decoction or a long cook in order to get what’s medicinal out of them.
I sort of feel like maybe there was reishi involved.
There might’ve been, or ashwagandha or something like that. So, you know if I just saw somebody that said they had a reishi, ashwagandha, jiaogulan teabag, and it was just powdered herbs, I’d be like, no, no, no. Because a five minute steep isn’t going to get you what you want from those plants.
Right. Because the ashwagandha and the reishi both need long cook time to fully extract into the water.
Yeah. So with this kind of process, this is making something that you can prepare as a teabag, but don’t get confused and think that it’s just those herbs in that little cloth packet.
Right. Because it’s really like dehydrated tea that they already made out of a long cook. And so now you’re steeping. And the jiaogulan is going to steep as you would expect it to. But the rest of it is just going to dissolve and like reconstitute itself into tea.
Concentrates: Increasing Potency
Right. So, you know, that process of kind of cooking the other extracts down and then mixing them. This is essentially making a concentrated form of your, of your herbal extract. And so that’s going to be our next kind of big category here is concentrates. So a concentrate could simply mean that you made a tincture and then you evaporated it a bit to concentrate the potency. Right. So if I make a standard tincture at one to four strength, and then I had my finished tincture. And I gently, safely, in a well ventilated area without any open flames around, heat it to cook off just the alcohol, it’s going to leave behind the other constituents. And so if I cook it down to a quarter of my original one to four strength tincture volume, than what I’m left with is a one-to-one strength preparation.
And then the purpose of doing that is if you take one dropper full of a one-to-one tincture, you’re getting a lot more potency, a lot more action, a lot more actual herb than if you took one dropper full of a one-to-four tincture., Because that one-to-four tincture is more dilute.
Right. So, I mean, it’s four times as strong, right? You know, so whatever the math is for your herb and what the things you’re comparing.. You know, eleuthero tinctures are commonly made this way, the ones that you buy in the supermarket anyway. And sometimes folks will make an eleuthero tincture, standard strength, like one-to-five, one-to-six-ish at home, and then say like, oh, this doesn’t work the way the one I was buying from Herb Pharm or from Gaia does. And it’s because those companies, they’ll concentrate it down to one-to-one or even like a two-to-one. So it’s substantially stronger than what you were making at home. So that can be just worth being aware of. You can do it at home if you’re super careful. But you would need to understand that in order to realize that that was necessary. Yeah. A couple of concentrates that I want to talk about from the herbal traditions of the world. So here in America, in the 1800s there was a school of medicine called the eclectics. And they were essentially like herbalist doctors. They had what was considered top of the line medical training, and anatomy and physiology, and diagnostics and all of that. But their medicines were herbs.
I mean, I think maybe I would refer to them as like non-denominational, right? Because I think that eclectics also did use some things that physiomedicalists would not have worked with. Physiomedicalists also were very highly trained, but they really stuck to plant medicine. Whereas the eclectics were very highly trained, and they were like I will use whatever I think works best.
Yeah. And the eclectics we’re also interested in potentize-ing their medicines as much as possible.
They were like the first nutraceuticals.
Yeah, they totally were. And one of the preparations they really liked they referred to as fluid extract. Sometimes that’s all one word fluidextract. Okay.
Oh, and that’s so confusing these days. Because you might be reading an old text and you see fluid extract. And you think, oh, they must be referring to a tincture, and that’s not what they’re talking about.
Right. Yeah. So the fluid extract process, there’s detail to it. I’m not going to get into all of it. But essentially you set up a percolation. You let most of it go through, and you separate that. And then in your perc cone, you’ve still got some that’s dripping through. But you pour in some boiling water and let it all flush out. And then you take that liquid, you cook it down and then you combine it with the original percolate that you made. And, you know, you’re doing math and stuff in all these steps. But essentially what you end up with is a one-to-one strength extract of the plant.
Except that not only is it a one-to-one extract in terms of the math with the mass and the fluid, but you have now extracted with two different types of fluids. So they did it once with a high potency alcohol, and then once with the water, so that you’re getting both types of soluble constituents there. It gives you a broader spectrum of availability.
Right. Yeah. And so the eclectics were very interested in that kind of remedy. They also later on developed what they called Specific Medicines, again, which is a term that can be kind of confusing when you read that and you’re like specific medicine of comfrey. Okay. What? How specific should I be? You know, like I’m very certain. Okay, whatever. But so Specific Medicines, that actually involved John Yuri Lloyd from Lloyd & Co, which I think is also one of the originators of certain pharmaceutical companies that still exist. But in any case the Specific Medicines was basically like an enormous compendium. And for each individual herb that they worked with, they said this is the maximally powerful extraction process. And many of them did involve steps of cooking things down or using kind of multi fractional extracts, and then combining them to try to make them stronger. You know, that was the goal. All right.
It’s worth noting, I suppose, that the eclectics were pretty much men. I don’t know of any women who were eclectics.
Right. Yeah. And I mean, look. When I say stronger, I should probably be clear. Like a lot of their processes were like, we want to get those powerful alkaloids out of that substance, and we’re going to leave some other stuff behind. Yeah. So they were like edging in towards isolation, which we’ll come to.
I mean, they were the beginning of isolation. They were as isolated as was possible with the technology of the time, and they were pushing that forward. And I only bring out the gender difference there to, sort of using gender very broadly here, but to emphasize that what they were really getting at was super heroic interventionary type of like chemical intervention, as opposed to all the other ways that you can have an intervention.
Well also not even just chemical, but forceful, right? The thing that they loved about alkaloids was that you would know they’re working right away. They have strong impacts on your nerves and system. And you’re like, I see it happen right now. So the eclectics, you were contrasting with physiomedicalists, right? Eclectics, we’re much interested in like, whatever I can get to make it happen. Physiomedicalists were like, it’s wiser to nourish slowly and allow things… So we’re clearly in that tradition ourselves. And we have our biases, right?
Right. And also to be clear that most of the physiomedicalists that we have the names of were also men. So really gender is not the appropriate… It was like a sloppy way to make that comparison. But one other thing that I want to point out here having this morning just read this thread about the ways in which opiate painkillers have been being used so that people who can’t afford really good healthcare can be kept on the job. And this particular thread had been written by a man who had lost his father recently. And his father had been a builder and a very skilled and talented builder and wanted to work. And so when he experienced a lot of work-related pain, and there was in fact a surgical intervention that had a high success rate that could have had a good outcome for him. But he didn’t have insurance that would permit that and that would pay for that. And so he was simply prescribed a lot of Oxycontin so that he could get back to work. And looking at that trend, not that no one should ever work with painkillers, but that trend of we need something powerful to account for the fact that we are not willing to pay for people to be well. And whether we’re doing that in sort of the eclectic versus the physiomedicalists, where I just want something powerful so that people will know it’s working versus I want to take the time to nourish and care and rebuild this whole person. And yet it takes a tremendous amount of privilege and resources to allow yourself the time to be cared for and to rebuild yourself. And that is actually the end of my thought. But as we were thinking about that, and as I am sort of vilifying the eclectics just a little bit here, I wanted to point out the ways in which that is still happening today.
Yeah, yeah. For sure. You know, not all concentration is that involved.
And it’s not always bad.
It’s not always bad. For convenience sake, for one thing that can be helpful. In traditional Chinese medicine there’s this whole class of things called patent medicines or patent medicines. And those serve a role even up till today in China and a lot of countries touched by this style, that is kind of like over the counter medications in the U.S. And so there are certain traditional formulas and things that people are familiar with. And you talk to somebody and you’re like, okay, you’ve got a cold. Get you some Jade Windscreen and like all of that kind of thing. And so many times what you get when you get one of those is what’s called a teapill. And with a teapill you basically make a tea, or you do like a water and alcohol extract. And you cook it down and you get this kind of like concentrated fluidy, sludgy kind of a substance
Pasty kind of syrupy thing.
And then you take that and you mix it with some herbal powder. And you mix it into a dough and you get these little balls, right? Little pills. So that is a concentrate, and it’s a very, very old method of making one.
I actually think teapills are very cool.
Yeah, they are pretty neat.
I mean, just to be clear that I don’t think that all forms of concentrations are bad. And also even if I did, that doesn’t mean you have to. I’m just a girl who likes plants. But I do think that I should clarify that not every form of concentration is bad. And actually all forms of concentration can have an appropriate application, maybe not hexane, but…
Standardization: Guaranteeing a Specific Level of Constituent
Yeah. So I mean modern concentrated supplements, a lot of them use similar techniques, you know, whether it’s with ethanol or with water to do your first extraction and then cook it down. Like I said, those substances get put into a capsule. So, you know, that can happen. They also might involve an isolate, like an isolated compound, combined with a crude extract of a plant. Sometimes that’s the way that these are put together. And that’s often part of the process of what’s called standardization. So let’s talk about that next standardizing basically means that we are going to guarantee a defined level of concentration for a particular constituent.
A constituent that we have decided must be the most important one.
The active ingredient in the herb. And that could be like by a particular milligram amount, or the percentage of that constituent that’s in the supplement by weight. We guarantee this supplement of ginkgo is 24% ginkgo flavone glycosides. Something like that, right?
So this number is not representative of nature, right? This is not a concentration that would exist in nature. It can only exist because of concentration techniques that are used to isolate that. First isolation techniques to get that one constituent, and then concentration techniques to add it in so that you get more. Kind of like pizza dough, where they put extra gluten into the pizza dough.
Yes, it’s exactly like that.
It is exactly like that. And the purpose for doing it is because some study has been done, and the study identified a particular isolated constituent as the active ingredient. And then in order to say that you can get the same results that you got in the study, we need to standardize to whatever percentage that isolated chemical was present in the study. So again, this is also not always negative. I’m thinking about the way that ginkgo can be worked with for dementia and Alzheimer’s. Those studies were all done on concentrated, standardized extracts. And you would not necessarily be able to get the same results in the same situation without it.
Right. If we’re talking about starting 30 years earlier and getting some ginkgo tea on a consistent basis, that’s a different story. But yeah, for places where it’s more advanced it may be relevant or even necessary for the effect you’re looking for. But like you said, this can create a product that has, you know, 10 times as much or more of the amount of that constituent that you would find naturally occurring in the plant. Just as an example, St. John’s wort products are almost always now standardized to be 300 milligrams per capsule and 3% hypericin. Hypericin is this constituent in the herb that for a long time was considered the active ingredient and the antidepressant agent.
You know, and even though that’s been really thoroughly debunked, we’re still standardizing on it.
Yeah. So, you know, in the plant ranges are going to vary of course. But if we take the whole plant, like all of the aerial parts, you might get half a percent or 0.7% of hypericin occurring in that herb. So 3% is at least six times as much as would naturally be occurring. And again, it does reflect a difference. So standardization, again, isn’t necessarily always bad. Sometimes it’s done because of this idea that this is the active constituent, and we want to bump that up above naturally occurring levels to get more of that effect into our lives. And you know, that can be problematic. But sometimes standardization is kind of a way to assert or to prove that we’re making a proper extract of the plant. And there you can consider that in a couple of different ways, right? So for one thing, when we talk about the naturally occurring plant and the weight of the substance that’s in there, remember that would include things like fiber and just like structural proteins that are in the herb that we’re not really interested in. We might be better off.
We think we’re not interested in them.
Well right. Certain fibers are totally medicinal. If we’re talking about burdock and inulin and prebiotic effects and that. But let’s just say that if you take certain herbs and you extract them badly, you won’t get the constituents that you really want. Or even like categories of constituents might be left behind and then weaken the medicine or make it so it doesn’t do the jobs that we’re looking for. So, sometimes the declaration of we guarantee we have X percent of this constituent is just a way to show, like, all right, we can prove to you that our extraction process is giving the ones that you’re actually looking for. So I want to make some space for that situation too.
I think that more commonly today it is the former. It is the concentration. But you will know by reading the label. And then if you read the label and it’s a certain percent, whatever, and then you could think like, well, gee, what is that percentage in nature? And so you can Google the plant in question and the constituent and then a percentage of the plant or something like that. And usually that information will come up fairly close to the top, because that stuff has been studied well.
Right. If it’s a constituent being highlighted on a supplement bottle, there’s some study out there that was done to show the amount of that occurring in a natural plant or the effectiveness of particular extraction methods and so on. So it might be some kind of dense reading, but usually you can get there. Yeah. So, like you said, this is often based on isolating a particular constituent, and then maybe mixing that back in with a crude extract. That can happen.
Yeah. Again, this is like one step further towards pharmaceuticalization of plants.
Isolates: Removing Just One Constituent
Right. And you may see a supplement products in the shelves or on Amazon or whatever that just is the isolate, right? It’s just that one constituent itself separate from all of the others that are in that plant. Yeah.
I’m thinking of resveratrol, pops right to mind. Like there are a gillion resveratrol supplements, and there’s a lot of different plants that they could be getting that from.
Yeah, grape skins, Japanese knotweed.
Yep. Although interestingly I also recently saw that like every other antioxidant that they’ve studied this on so far, resveratrol taken in isolation actually becomes harmful. It actually becomes pro-inflammatory instead of anti-inflammatory. And they discovered this about vitamin E, and they discovered it about vitamin C, and they discovered it about… And I’m like, why do we need to wait for every single one of these to be studied? Can we just, at this point, extrapolate that probably isolation is not the best way to do this.
Yeah. And with many of those cases it’s that there is a naturally occurring cluster variability. And then when you just pick one group, one member out of that group and flood your system with it, then you get problems, right? So vitamin E, if you only take alpha tocopherol then that can cause this invert effect of producing more inflammation. If you get like a mix of tocopherols, then that’s a little bit better. If you eat foods that have vitamin E in it, that’s the best thing, right? It’s the synergy of all the other constituents coming together and helping out.
The same thing happened with vitamin C. That first it was just the ascorbic acid. And then now you start to see it being marketed as, when they figured out, oh, that causes ulcers. You’ll see it marketed now as, in the small letters underneath vitamin C, it’ll be with a bioflavonoid complex or something like that. It’s like or rose hips.
Yeah. So, that’s kind of our point here is that isolates, isolated constituents, one chemical out of an herb, expect it to behave very differently from the whole herb. So there’s this phrase that’s attributed to the herbalist, Michael Moore. The active ingredient in St. John’s wort is St. John’s wort. And you can fill in any other herb name you like there. Let me take a moment and read a little bit from Lisa Ganora’s book, Herbal Constituents, on that topic. St. John’s wort is known to contain at least five different constituents that contribute to its activity as antidepressant. The first to be identified were hypericin and pseudohypericin, both from the same class. Subsequent research found that a completely different kind of chemical, hyperforin, worked synergistically with the hypericin. And then later studies identified norathyriol and hyperin as other synergists. And then there are some other compounds in there as well that could also have a synergistic effect to help out with depression. So when people are doing that search and saying we want that active ingredient, that most powerful constituent, they’re neglecting the importance of synergy. And as herbalists, that’s something that’s close to our hearts. That’s close to all of our organs honestly – getting synergy between them.
Yeah, it’s super important to us. And it’s also worth saying that hypericin, that so-called active antidepressant in there, is also an ingredient that can cause photo-sensitivity. And that’s definitely more likely to happen if you only take hypericin alone, or if you take a substance that has hypericin bumped up to many levels beyond what it would occur in the plant and in its natural synergy. So as an herbalist, I have known people who’ve had photosensitivity reactions to St. John’s wort products, but not to people who were drinking St. John’s wort tea or taking tincture. So that’s just my experience, but yeah. Similarly, if we look at the case of kava or the case of ephedra, both of these are herbs that are very safe and have really long histories of people working with them and having no kind of adverse reactions to them. But they’ve both had isolates of some of their constituents be marketed as a supplement and then lead to problems. So in kava, you know, it’s these things called kavalactones. And, again, they were thought of as like the powerful thing in kava that reduces anxiety.
And if a little bit of power is good then because whatever, a lot of power is better. Arrrrgh.
Yeah. And then that also led to like, oh, well, we can get more kavalactones from the leaves and the aerial parts. And either didn’t have or didn’t care at the time that the types of kavalactones – because it’s a group – the ones in the roots and the rhizomes are really different from the ones that are in the leaves and the stems. And the ones in the leaves and stems can actually cause that liver damage. So we don’t want to take those. It’s not traditional work with the plant either to work with leaves and stems.
It’s also not traditional to unnaturally concentrate one particular, but whatever.
By the way with a hexane extract. So, I mean, yeah.
Right. And now we’re talking about liver damage, which even if you were to just tincture, like make a crude tincture of the aerial parts of kava, that also is going to be quite damaging. So like it isn’t only the hexane that is causing the problem here. And it isn’t only the isolation or the concentration that is causing the problem either. But when we’re doing all of those together, we can now have a big problem really fast, instead of a small problem that we could catch and do something about.
And you know, this is one of the many, many, many reasons why it’s important to look to traditional folk indigenous work with herbs, and to pay really close attention to it. In the case of kava there’s all these issues about working with the right part of the plant. And that would have been something you could glean from traditional use. But you could also know that the indigenous folks understand a difference between noble kava types and what they call tudei kava types. The tudei ones are more likely to cause adverse effects, headaches and liver aches and other things. They have more of the liver danger kind of compounds in them. And these differences are not at the species level. So your kind of genetic botanist might not necessarily be able to just look at them and be able to tell them apart. But people who know this plant, live with it, and have for generations, they can see that kind of thing. You get something similar with bitter grass actually. It’s a dream enhancing herb from Mesoamerica. And there too indigenous healers would understand that there’s the ones that you really want. And then there’s others that you leave alone. You know?
That reminds me of that, study isn’t quite right, but project, something like that, where they took a team of some of the most highly educated people in different types of fields like botany and animal studies and whatever for a particular South American region that I can’t remember which one. And then they went and partnered with an indigenous group of people to see like, oh, well now we’re going to go and identify animals by the sounds they make. And, you know, the most highly educated world-renowned recognized person who could do that was like maybe equivalent to the children in the group that they were partnering with. And the same for the botanists and the same for whatever. In the white world, like whatever we want to call it, thinking that, oh, this is the pinnacle of education. But then we go and compare that pinnacle to people who are still deeply connected to the land and who are living with the plants every day and the animals every day. And it turns out that our pinnacle is basically their children. So I think that’s always really good to keep in mind, because there are so many types of education in so many types of learning. And I’m not saying that it isn’t valuable to go to university and study like crazy at microscopes and all of that.
Who else is going to discover PAs for us.
Right? But to just recognize that that is not the only kind of learning, and it is not the only way to be an expert. You’re only an expert in what you’re an expert in. You’re not an expert in everything that has to do with the thing that you study.
Yeah. It’s all about where you spend your time. Yeah. So I brought up the thing about ephedra as well. So ephedra is an herb that has a long history, specifically in Chinese medicine, to be taken for tight constricted lungs, asthma, you know, stuff like that. Because it’s a bronchodilator, helps you take good deep breaths. So it’s a great plant. Very safe in tea form, in tincture form. But it has this compound in it called ephedrine, which is an alkaloid and a very powerful substance. And that’s got a stimulating effect on the central nervous system. So like other compounds that do that, it can be to keep you awake, to have you better at physical or athletic performance. And also these are often promoted as weight loss aids. And so that happened with ephedrine. And it was put into a bunch of combo products and weight loss things and athletic enhancers and so on. And combined with caffeine, and the two of them don’t just have, like, you take the stimulus of ephedrine and the stimulus of caffeine and stack them on each other. They multiply. And so the effect of those products was overwhelming for some people, and led to strokes and heart attacks and things.
And like actual death. But again, it wasn’t the plant that did that. It was the isolated chemical. And then ultimately they figured out how to make that chemical without the plant at all. They can make it in a laboratory. But you can’t drink enough ephedra tea to get that effect. You can drink ephedra tea and…
You can get overstimulated. Sure.
Yeah. Very much like coffee. But you can’t kill yourself with ephedra tea. And you can kill yourself with isolated ephedrine, especially when you mix it with isolated caffeine.
Yeah. Right, right. So, again, the key there is that isolated compounds can, and in most cases will, behave really differently from the herb, sometimes in terms of its effect on your system overall, sometimes in terms of its safety profile, its propensity for interactions with drugs or other substances. So yeah, really big difference there. I also want to draw out that two different isolated compounds from one plant can behave very differently from what that plant normally does and also from each other. A simple example is green tea. So, you know, green tea, right? You can drink it and kind of like get focused and get some work done. And that’s great. Well, in green tea you have a number of things, a lot of things okay. A bunch of anti-inflammatory compounds and this and that. But let’s just look at caffeine and theanine. So these are two compounds that are structurally, they’re in the same general category. They’re kind of related. But caffeine has that stimulating, activating effect, maintaining wakefulness. We’re all familiar with that. And then theanine is actually a calming, soothing, or anxiolytic kind of a substance. And you can even go into the store and you can buy theanine capsules and take them. They help you to be less anxious, be less distractible, and just kind of focus. So, if you go to the store and you get like a green tea caffeine extract and a green tea theanine extract, they’re like polar opposites from each other.
And to be clear, it isn’t necessarily bad. It is a kind of pharmaceutical. In fact many actual pharmaceuticals are exactly this. So it is not necessarily bad, but it is important to recognize that it is also not an herb. And that it is pretty much guaranteed to have side effects. Now the side effects may be better or worse than whatever it is that you’re living with that cause you to take this. So that is always, that’s the part where…
It’s another calculus, right?
Yeah. Right. But that’s the part where it’s up to you. It’s up to you to decide what is healthy for you. It is up to you to decide what recommendations you’re going to accept. Because you’re the only one who knows the situation in your body. But yeah, just to be clear, like this is intense. Isolating individual constituents is intense. It is not necessarily that there is never a cause for it or never a place for it. It’s just that it is very intense. And it is maybe not something that is appropriate for every day application.
Yeah. We think of it as less herbalism at that point, not necessarily herbalism anymore. It’s like nutraceuticals, like the naturopaths are recommending all the time.
Yeah. Or even it is pharmaceutical. Sometimes it actually is outright.
Yeah. And what they call like drug bioprospecting, which kind of makes me feel…I don’t know.
I mean it should. It should.
Right. But that is like a major goal of a lot of research is to go to the forests across the world. And see what medicines the people there are making from their local herbs. And then take those herbs and look for compounds that are kind of familiar or in classes that are usually potent like alkaloids, you know. And to say, all right. What can we extract from this? And that’s been done with a lot of fairly common medicinals actually, or common, common medications actually. So, you know, artemisinin is extracted from mugwort and relatives, and that’s taken as an anti-malarial aid or anti-malarial drug. Berberine, you know, coming out of barberry or goldenseal or other herbs like that. That’s becoming more and more popular, I think, as an approach for diabetes. So berberine from those plants, you’re not going to get so much of it that you’re going to start to manipulate blood sugar. You do need an isolate to take enough berberine to start to have an effect from it on blood sugar levels. So that’s being done. Or from snowdrop there’s this compound called galantamine that’s helpful in in some cases of Alzheimer’s. Or if you think of like from foxglove, you know, digitoxin, right? These things…
Honestly it’s safer. If you need that kind of effect, it is so much safer to work with the digitoxin at a prescribed amount than it is to work with a plant, because the plant is going to be variable. And it’s actually quite dangerous to do that work. Whereas the pharmaceutical version of it can be very closely controlled to get a dose that will help you and not kill you. So, yeah. So there are times when this is appropriate.
Yeah. Right on.
Matching What Herbs Can Do to Their Format
I think most importantly here is just that to kind of bring it back to the clinical practice, whether you are a clinical herbalist working with other people, or just the practice for yourself, that all of these things are available. And when you are learning what herbs can do, then you have to match it up to the format that they can do it in. And so if what you read was a study about ginkgo for Alzheimer’s, and the study was specifically on a standardized extract with a certain amount of, of certain constituents. Well then if you just drink some ginkgo tea, you may not get that effect. Whereas if you are working with heartburn, and you learned that marshmallow root can help with heartburn, what you really need is a cold infusion to soothe the lining of the esophagus. And so when we’re seeing a client and they say, oh, I’m taking St John’s wort. That’s just not enough information. We need to know…St. John’s wort falls into all of these categories. Are you drinking some tea once in a while? Do you drink St. John’s wort tea when you eat a piece of cake to help you metabolize the sugar a little bit better? Or are you taking a standardized extract, standardized on an isolated hypericin percentage three or four times a day, because you think that that will help you with your depression or you experienced that it has helped you with your depression. Either one of those could be true. You think it is, and then it’s not, and you don’t understand why it isn’t. Or you tried it and it is, but then maybe the tea isn’t going to do the job. We don’t know. But we need to know what is or isn’t working, so that we know what the next step is.
Yeah, for sure. So it’s basically know what it is you’ve got. And treat the various formats as different substances is really how I would talk about it. And just kind of mentally put them in separate, occasionally overlapping categories. And just be really clear about what the strengths and weaknesses are for each one. You know, that’s the idea. All right. So thanks for listening in. We’ll have some more Holistic Herbalism podcast for you next week. For our podcast listeners, this was slightly more advanced material. If some of the things we talked about were a little over your head, then don’t worry. We’ve got some great courses that can help out. First of all, I talk about the medicine making course. Because we do spend a lot of time in there discussing about when each particular method is appropriate and for what kinds of problems. And what kind of things you can or can’t get out of your various herbs with that. And then the phytochemistry course is another one that has a lot of material related to this topic, where we’re discussing like, okay, what are the classes of compounds that you really can get in high proof alcohol. and which ones would be left behind and things like that.
And if you’ve ever been intimidated by the word phytochemistry, and you think, oh, no, I remember chemistry classes in high school, and that was a bad scene. And I feel a little traumatized. It is highly accessible. It is as untraumatizing as possible.
That was the goal, yeah. All right. Well, again, thanks for listening. We’ll see you again next week. Until then take care of yourselves. Take care of each other.
Drink some tea.
And if you want to, take some supplements, that’s fine. See you later.
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