Herbal Supplements 101

May 30, 2009


Let’s face it. All this talk about herbal medicine and herbal remedies has been a huge topic of conversation for quite a few years. But, with everything from scientific names and standardization to labeling and quality control, all the technical stuff can get a little bit confusing. So we’ve decided to take it back to the basics for a quick look at some must-know info about herbs. Here are 6 facts about the herb industry, that will make you the most herb-savvy person at the water cooler.

1. Tomato, Tom-ah-to.
All herbs have a scientific name, but popular herbs also have a common name. For example, the chamomile tea you drink every night before bed is also referred to by its scientific name: Matricaria recutita. Nowadays, most herb manufacturers print both names on the labels to help customers understand, but the common name is what you’d most likely be looking for in the store.

Sure, it can get confusing. Thankfully, there are lots of resources online and in your local bookstore to clarify any mix-ups or questions you might have. Try Herbs of Commerce, a guide published by American Herbal Products Association (AHPA).

2. It’s all Good (Manufacturing Processes, that is).
Like many other industries, herb manufacturers follow a set of guidelines to make sure you get the best, highest-quality product.  As a whole, these are referred to as Good Manufacturing Practices. What does that mean for you? Well, to put it simply, it means they make sure that by the time herbs get to you, there’s no stuff that doesn’t belong.

3. Nobody’s perfect. (But hey, they’re close.)
Just like in food products, imperfections happen. But herb manufacturers, with the help of GMPs (see number 2), make sure that imperfections are few and far between. As a matter of fact, most companies follow pharmaceutical guidelines, which are much more stringent than the guidelines used for the food we eat.

4. Garbling is the new thing.
Herbs come from nature. But, we all know they’re not the only things in nature. From stick and twigs to little bugs, herb shipments can contain all sorts of non-herb contents. That’s okay! In fact, it ensures that your product is coming straight from Mother Nature herself. How do manufacturers get rid of these? By garbling, of course—a process where they spread out shipments and go through by hand to get rid of all the stuff that doesn’t belong.

5. Everyone needs a label!
When it comes to herbs, labeling is everything. We already mentioned that every herb has two names, but how can someone be sure what they’re buying is really what it’s supposed to be? Herb manufacturers take extensive measures—everything from physically checking the plant against archived samples or even comparing it under a microscope—to make sure your herbs are exactly what they say they are. They even make sure that each batch is stored separately to eliminate any confusion while the labels are being applied.

6. It’s all about having standards…

Standardization. This is where things can sometimes get all scientific and confusing, but here’s the bottom line: since herbs inherently come from nature, unlike man-made pharmaceuticals, it’s hard to make sure each sample is exactly the same. But just like in pharmaceuticals, consistency is important with herbs. As a health care professional, I like to use standardized herbal extracts for  patients that do not respond  to regular herbal preparations. Standardization provides a guarantee of a certain level of active compounds. For example, patients with chronic liver disease may use herb milk  thistle to stimulate regeneration of damaged liver cells. Standardized milk thistle extract should contain about 70% of silymarin (active compound known to restore liver cells).The daily recommended dose of silymarin is about 420 mgs. If you are confused or unsure which herbs are approriate for you, please contact a health care professional who can help you to make the right choice.

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