Many Herbal Products to Choose From
The mainstream use of herbal medicines is becoming increasingly popular, and there are many herbal products to choose from. With so many choices, it is easy to get confused about which forms of herbs are right for you. One important decision is whether to use whole herbs or standardized herbal extracts. This can be tricky, because even the experts are split on this issue. Therefore, it is best to know the facts about the difference between the two so that you can make an informed decision.
A whole herb is just what it says: the whole herb, usually dried and encapsulated or processed and preserved in alcohol or another solvent. Whole herbs contain all of the constituents of the plant and have been used for hundreds of years by many cultures. In fact, modern medicine originated with the use of whole herbs. The medicinal properties of herbs have been learned through empirical observation and the information has been passed down through successive generations of healers. Although the effects of herbs have not always been formally and scientifically researched, whole herbs have a long track record validating their safety and efficacy.
The chemical makeup of an herb can vary slightly, however, depending on a variety of factors. First, the environment in which the plant has been grown has an effect on the constituents of the herb. The time of year it is harvested, the soil in which it is grown, and the weather all influence the overall quality of the final product. Second, methodology plays a role. For example, the age of the plant at harvest, the exact part of the plant being used, and processing techniques can all make a difference. Finally, each plant or population of plants has its own individual genetics, thus adding another source of end-product variation.
What is a Standardized Herbal Extract?
The simplest standardized extract definition is this: standardized herbal extracts are supplements that provide a specific concentration of one or more chemical compounds.
Scientists and supplement manufacturers use a process that involves pressure, heat and various solvents – like water or alcohol – to extract the targeted compound from the whole herb. The herbal extracts are then blended with different types of excipients (aka fillers and binders) to hold everything together in a capsule or tablet.
As a result, the final supplement includes an exact amount of the chemical compound derived from the herb. This process also ensures that the same amount of the compound is included in every batch of the same herbal extract. In other words, it standardizes the concentrations from batch-to-batch.
The benefits of standardization
“Generally, people are taking herbs in supplement form for a particular health benefit. For example, using garlic as a supplement is often targeting increasing the immune system, reducing blood pressure, or lowering cholesterol,” says Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist and Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Of course, like any nutrient, how much you consume matters. With standardized herbal extracts, you know you’re getting a sufficient amount of the beneficial compound, as determined by scientific evidence.
“Studies are done on animals and humans that try to identify how much of the herb you need to get to achieve the health results and supplement bottles are often standardized to the amount needed to achieve a health outcome so, as a consumer, you want to know that you’re getting what you need, and also not excessive amounts that could create ill effects,” Hultin explains.
The standardization process also offers a sense of control and guidance, which can simply bring peace when you’re first starting to take herbal supplements.
The drawbacks of standardized herbal extracts
While standardized extracts are derived from real, whole plants, they don’t necessarily possess the benefits of the whole plant. Fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs all contain a variety of phytonutrients – the protective compounds plants need to survive. When these phytonutrients remain together, a synergy occurs. This synergy creates a greater effect than any of the compounds can on their own.
Many standardized herbal supplements isolate nutrients to supply a high concentration of that extract. But nature tells us that the health benefits of these herbal extracts may be more powerful when they have the support of the other compounds found in the whole herb.
Whole Herb vs Powder
There is a lot of confusion about the different types of herbal powders available. I am sure you have seen these terms: herb powder, full spectrum herb extract powder and standardized herb extract powder. While these are all herb powders, they are very different. What are they? How are they different?
An herb powder is an herb that is dried and made into a powder. The chemical components are the same as in the whole unprocessed herb. You can ingest more of the herb in this form than in the whole form, but the active chemical components are not concentrated.
Comfrey Leaf PowderFresh comfrey leaves are dried slowly and then powdered
Extract powders are made by creating a decoction of a single herb at a low temperature for a precise amount of time. The liquid is then dehydrated and the solids in the liquid (powder) are collected.
Full Spectrum Herb Extract Powder
A full spectrum herbal extract contains all the chemical components of the herb in the same ratio found in nature, but in a higher concentration. Many people believe that it is the natural occurring ratio of chemical components found in an herb that creates its’ health benefiting effects. The full spectrum extract, gives you a higher percentage of these compounds in each dose.
On a package of full spectrum herbal extract powder you will see a concentration ratio. For Example, it may say it has a 5:1 ratio, This means that 1 gram of the extract powder contains 5 times the active ingredients as 1 gram of regular herb powder.
Standardized Extract Powder
With a standardized extract, one or two of the herbs active chemical components is extracted. It is then added back into the herb powder at a higher concentration. The resulting powder does not contain the same chemical ratio that is found naturally in the herb. Standardized extracts do provided consistent dosages and potency of the active chemical that was extracted. As a result, a standardized powder may react differently than the whole herb.
Often with standardized extracts you will see a percentage on the package. For instance, if it says the powder has been standardized to 3%, it means there is 3% more of the extracted active compound.
Standardized Milk Thistle Powder
Milk Thistle Standardized Extract Powder that has been standardized to contain at least 80% of the active compound silymarin.
An easy way to understand the differences is with oranges. A fresh squeezed glass of orange juice would be like an herb powder. Orange juice concentrate would be the full spectrum herb powder and a vitamin C tablet would be similar to the standardized herb powder.
As you can see, these powders are very different from each other. Their dosages are not interchangeable. Be sure to follow the package directions or your healthcare professionals’ guidance. Each one of these powders offer their own benefits, one is not better than the other. The one you chose to use depends on your body’s needs. It is best to consult with your doctor or acupuncturist.