Quality Herbal Remedies

By Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, DN-C, RH, CAP

K. P. Khalsa

Herbal remedies work far better than you might think. They can be dramatic, rapid, dynamic and certainly effective. But — and it’s a big but — you must choose the right herb, in the right preparation, and in the right dose, and, perhaps most importantly, use a good quality product.

Herbs are dietary supplements, and, as such, despite what you may have heard, are strictly regulated by the FDA, which determines good manufacturing practices, safety, labeling and package instructions. More like food, though, the government does not dictate the actual quality of the ingredients, which, like food, can vary. Do you really know how much vitamin A is in that carrot from Safeway? Is it the same dose per carrot as last week’s batch? With drugs, this is not an issue, because each pill contains only one chemical—the drug—and the dose is identical from batch to batch.

And, like food, the quality of any given herbal product will depend on many factors, including the plant variety, growing conditions, soil composition, climate, harvesting and manufacture of the final product. Experienced professionals in the herb industry are well educated about these factors, and use everything from smell and taste to complex laboratory testing to assess quality. Since this is such a complicated matter, you’ll probably prefer to find your high-quality herbal remedies at an herb pharmacy. More about that in a moment…

Which preparation is best?

The Right Preparation

There are a number of forms in which herbs can be used, and several common ways to prepare them. There is no one best way — the “ideal” form and preparation varies from herb to herb, as well as from person to person.

Some herbs are almost equally effective and beneficial in a variety of forms; others have one recognized best preparation, and others are adequate but not nearly as good. Still others may have one and only one way they can be effectively used.

“Best” is usually defined as the way to get the most active ingredient out of the herb. However, in some cases the “best” preparation or form may be the only way to safely use the herb. For example, stinging nettles are only used dried, so that they no longer sting. Some active ingredients are more soluble in alcohol than water, and these herbs are best taken as a tincture. Some herbs are more soluble in water, milk or oil. Some are not soluble in liquid at all and must be dried and powdered.

Bulk, dried, chopped herbs for tea should look vibrant, have deep color and a noticeable strong smell. Ask the vendor to show you good-quality product and become educated.

Standardized extracts

Standardized extracts?

It is important to make a distinction between standardized extracts and traditional whole herb preparations that have been validated by use for centuries. A traditional preparation, such as tincture, tea or powder, contains all or most of the whole herb’s active constituents in proven proportions. It’s a way to get everything the whole herb has to offer in a convenient form. The standardized extract, on the other hand, may contain only one or a few of what are presumed to be the herb’s “active” ingredients, with supposedly “inert” ingredients removed.

Standardization guarantees one aspect of consistency, but overall does very little to solve the problem of supposed ups-and-downs in batch quality. It’s solving a problem that does not need solving. In a few rare cases, such as ginkgo, where the actives are well established, there might be an advantage to standardizing.

Use an Herb Pharmacy

Herb pharmacies are like the apothecaries that were everywhere at the turn of the century, since they were the pharmacies which dispensed an enormous range of herbal medicines in every possible form. Now herb pharmacies are making a bit of a comeback, although they are still unfortunately rare. Many now sell online.

Herb pharmacies make a much higher grade of herb available to the consumer. Herbs are graded after harvesting, and the top quality, a small percentage, goes to professional herbalists and herb pharmacies. Using mediocre herbs may mean taking more to get the same effect, which is costlier in the long run. In the short run, herbs from an herb pharmacy will cost you a little more, but you likely will get significantly more active ingredient in the herb, due to much higher quality. Remember, though, that price does not guarantee quality.

Oftentimes that premium price covers fancy labels and over-the-top marketing campaigns.

Another advantage of herb pharmacies is that they are generally run, owned and staffed by professional herbalists. They are better able to educate you and answer your questions. These shops generally sell only herbs, so you know they are specialists and that all of their attention is focused on the herbs.

Herbal professionals can help educate you, so seek them out. And just where do we find these professionals? Look for credentials from the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA), the American Herbalists Guild (AHG), and the National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP).

Ask and Learn

Since you, the customer, are not an expert in herb farming, wildcrafting or dietary supplement manufacturing, you need to become at least an educated consumer. Read information about herb quality written by herbalists who are widely recognized experts in their field. Inquire with NAMA and AHG about where to find reliable quality information. Then ask the manufacturer how they guarantee the effectiveness of their products. Press on until you dig through the marketing hype and you hear the right answers to your questions about harvesting methods, product freshness, and factory material handling.

Since you will only get the results you expect — and have a right to demand — from herbal remedies if you use sterling quality products, spend time as you would buying a car or a kitchen appliance before you slap your money down. Remember, that herb is in the bottle today, but will be part of your body tomorrow!

Karta Purkh ("K.P.") is one of the country’s foremost natural healing experts, the recent President Emeritus of the American Herbalists Guild, and director for the National Ayurvedic Medical Association. He mentored in Ayurveda with Yogi Bhajan for 32 years. K.P. has presented over 200 times at professional conferences, has written over 3,000 articles on health topics and is the author or editor of 30 books on health, including his latest, The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs. He teaches Ayurveda, herbalism and nutrition at two naturopathic medicine Universities. K.P, who worked as the senior research scientist and herbalist for Yogi Tea for 30 years, is the only American to hold the title Yogaraj in Ayurveda. K.P. is also the first person to be dual-credentialed in herbalism (RH) and Ayurveda (CAP). Visit K.P.’s website by clicking here.

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This article appears in: 2017 Catalyst, Issue 6: Plant Medicine