Herbal Medicines: Form and Function
“Good herbal medicine treats people, not diseases,” write Merrily A. Kuhn, PhD, ND, and David Winston, RH (AHG) in Herbal Therapy and Supplements.
The teaming of traditional knowledge with modern technology has led to a wide variety of products for plant-based healing. Here’s a brief overview of some herbal forms, each with its own unique properties and use. It’s always wise to seek the guidance of a healthcare practitioner trained in botanical medicine, especially before using herbs that are part of a holistic system such as traditional Chinese medicine.
Capsules may contain ground, dried herbs or spray-dried extracts (a process that involves spraying liquid herbal extract onto a powdered carrier, such as cellulose). Dr. Kuhn and Winston suggest that the ground, dried, and encapsulated form is most effective for taking mineral-rich herbs. Spray-dried extracts are often similar in activity to the whole herb. Capsules are best for adults with healthy digestive function. They may be made with animal, fish, or vegetable ingredients—read labels carefully.
Although tablets can be difficult to break down, they contain a greater amount of the herb or herbal extract than similar-sized capsules. Uncoated tablets are easiest for the body to absorb. Tablets may contain proprietary herbal formulas or isolates; they may also contain a standardized level of an herb’s “active” component. Some experts advocate for standardization of herbs to ensure product quality and a consistent, measurable health effect. Others question the belief that each herb has a single important constituent and prefer to use the whole herb.
Made by soaking an herb in a water and alcohol solution, tinctures concentrate and preserve an herb. They’re sold as liquids and may be taken with a dropper or added to beverages. (An example of their use is as a bitter tonic; gentian and other bitter herbs best support digestion when they’re tasted rather than simply swallowed.) Because this form is well-absorbed, the required dosage is relatively small. Some herbs are available in glycerin solutions, an alcohol-free alternative.
Perhaps the most familiar and comforting way to take medicinal herbs, teas are made by steeping fresh or dried botanicals in hot water. These infusions can be enjoyed hot or cold; herbs such as green tea and slippery elm are ideal candidates. Some roots, bark, and berries require a longer period of time simmering in boiling water; these drinks are called decoctions. (Follow package instructions.) Both forms of herbal tea are often highly absorbable, making them useful for anyone with impaired digestion. However, not every herb is water soluble (ginkgo and milk thistle, for example) or tasty enough to sip by the cupful.
Easy-to-swallow gel caps offer convenient ways to take botanical oils like borage seed or evening primrose. Be aware, however, that high-heat processing can impair oil quality. Cold-pressed products may also be available; some require refrigeration. Concentrated plant oils differ significantly from their fresh herbal counterparts, an indication of the relationship between a botanical’s preparation and its strength and safety. For example, peppermint tea is beneficial for almost everyone, but taking large doses of peppermint oil can be toxic. (Enteric-coated peppermint oil supplements deliver a safe dosage directly to the intestines.)
“Botanical Dietary Supplements,” NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, http://ods.od.nih.gov, 7/9/09
The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety by Simon Mills and Kerry Bone ($73.95, Elsevier, 2005)
Herbal Therapy & Supplements by Merrily A. Kuhn, RN, PhD, ND; and David Winston RH (AHG) ($46.95,Wolters Kluwer, 2008)
“Herbs at a Glance,” National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, http://nccam.nih.gov
“Peppermint,” www.umm.edu, 3/19/09
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