Over the past several decades, the demand for medicinal herbal products has grown by leaps and bounds—as a result, the marketplace is flooded with thousands of herbal offerings, with more appearing every day. Not too long ago, if you wanted herbs, you pretty much had to grow or wild craft them yourself. But today, herbs and herbal formulations are dispensed by holistic healthcare providers, or can be self-prescribed by perusing the offerings at health food stores, pharmacies, “big box” stores, or on-line. Even the local gas station convenience store carries an assortment of caffeine-laced herbal energy drinks. The positive side of the flourishing herbal products industry is that people are recognizing the healing potential of medicinal plants, and are seeking an alternative to pharmaceutical drugs. At the same time, I have significant questions and concerns that I believe need to be addressed.
First and foremost, how do you know that you can trust the companies and the products that they are producing? What are the source and quality of the raw materials—the herbs, herbal compounds, and nutrients? Does the product actually contain important active ingredients, and how are these measured? What is the concentration of the active ingredients? Do the products contain chemical or metal elements, or unwanted fillers and binders? Where were the herbs cultivated, and by whom? What processes were used to make them into medicine—were the raw ingredients pressed, extracted, or double extracted? Are the preparations stable, or are they prone to oxidation and rancidity?
Much of the information that the public receives about herbs is primarily anecdotal. Perhaps you see an advertisement for an herb, or read a snippet in a consumer magazine or on the Internet, or hear from a friend that an herb might offer specific health benefits. It’s easy to go to your local store or search the web for herbal products, but all too often, choices are made for the wrong reasons, which can result in poor outcomes. For instance, choosing a product on the basis of price alone generally means that quality has been sacrificed, and the product may contain little or no active ingredients. Another issue is relying on the recommendations of store staff. This can be problematic if the store steers customers to products that are the most profitable, which are not necessarily the most effective.
A good example is the secondary adaptogen and king of medicinal mushrooms, reishi (Ganoderma lucidum). Reishi extract is widely recommended as an immune-enhancing herb, and is used by cancer patients to aid in immune restoration, to protect the body during chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and to help reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. Reishi is rich in triterpenes (over one hundred) called ganoderic acids—it is this class of compounds that gives the herb its bitter taste and is believed to confer various health benefits, such as lipid-lowering, cancer suppressing, and antioxidant effects, while polysaccharides are the main immune enhancing compounds.
But not all reishi extracts are created equal. In one recent study, eleven commercial reishi extract products were tested for bioactive compounds, including polysaccharides and triterpenes. None of them contained even one-half the level of triterpenes that correlate with the mushroom extract used in clinical trials (>4% tripterpenes), and only a few contained sufficient polysaccharides (>10% polysaccharides). [i]
There is another significant issue pertaining to commercial adaptogenic herbs (and herbal products in general). In the wild, medicinal plants grow in a particular soil and climate, with a host of environmental factors (such as cold, heat, drought, insects, and viruses) to which they must adapt. Because of these stressors, plants produce many important secondary compounds (metabolites) that enable them to adapt and thrive. A wide variety of secondary metabolites allow plants to interact with their specific environments, increasing their ability to overcome local challenges and survive. These secondary compounds play a host of general, protective roles including antioxidant, UV light-absorbing, and anti-proliferative agents, and also defend the plant against microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. They can even defend the plant’s growing space against competitor plants. [ii]
The evolutionary development of plants and their creation of protective secondary metabolites are of great benefit to us, as well. Ancient peoples knew, and science is verifying, that when we ingest these plants and plant extracts, our ability to withstand stressors is enhanced through the mechanisms of protection, adaptation, improved immune response, and epigenetic repair. In essence, the plant transfers its healing and protective benefits to us.
This raises another issue in the making of herbal products. The majority of medicinal herbs are farmed today like vegetables, and although they might look the same as wild-grown plants, they are not necessarily the same. Some plants still yield active compounds even when farmed and cultivation is not an issue, but for other plants, it is a major problem. For example, ginseng does not farm well, yet if it is seeded in the forest—the native environment for the plant—it’s possible to produce a good ginseng plant rich in ginsenosides (the recognized active compounds). However, most commercial American ginseng does not contain ginsenosides. In fact, most commercial ginseng products contain little to no ginsenosides. In studies of the purity and potency of ginseng products, researchers have found that quality varies immensely. In the June issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers reported an analysis of twenty-five commercial ginseng preparations found in a health food store. The actual concentration of active compounds differed significantly from the amounts listed on labels. Furthermore, the concentrations of active ingredients varied 15- to 200-fold in capsule and liquid products. Of the 25 samples, only 11 (44%) were labeled as containing a specific concentration of ginsenosides. Of these, five (45%) contained more than the labeled amount and six (55%) contained less than the specified amount.[iii]
The same is true for the adaptogens Asian ginseng, schisandra and rhodiola. None of these plants, when commercially farmed, contain significant amounts of active compounds. To further complicate matters, medicinal plants need to be the correct species and harvested at just the right time to yield their active compounds. They need to be handled properly and processed correctly to create potent and effective herbal preparations that will provide health benefits.
When it comes to quality, purity and potency of herbal adaptogens and other herbs, those of us who make herbal products must be meticulous to guarantee that our products are of the highest quality. To ensure the best results, I obtain my herbs from the highest-quality sources available worldwide, and then have them tested to confirm potency and purity. I have extracts prepared specifically to the concentration that is most effective. Even from our excellent sources, we occasionally have to reject an herbal extract because it does not meet my stringent specifications. I believe in the healing power of herbal medicine, and I want people to experience the success that comes from using quality herbal products. Therefore, we must always be vigilant.
I am often asked how to judge the quality and potency of herbal products. Unfortunately, you can’t judge the potency of herbal products simply by looking at them or tasting them. There are however, ways to evaluate the practices of a company, and thus, the quality of the products that they produce:
- The manufacturer should follow the Good Manufacturing Practices for Dietary Supplements established by the FDA.
- The manufacturer should be able to provide a lot-specific certificate of analysis for every ingredient.
- The manufacturer should directly source and keep records of all herbal materials, whether grown by the manufacturer, purchased from other farms, or purchased through distributors.
- The manufacturer should submit products to a qualified laboratory for validation of ingredients and potency, and make those results available for review.
My best advice is to buy and consume herbal adaptogenic products (and any herb or supplement, for that matter) only from someone you trust completely, and preferably on the recommendation of someone who is a medical herbalist and expert in herbal medicine.
[i] (S. Wachtel-Galor, J. Yuen, John A. Buswell, I. F. F. Benzie; IFF Benzie and S. Wachtel-Galor, editors. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. Chapter 9 Ganoderma lucidum (Lingzhi or Reishi) A Medicinal Mushroom 2nd edition. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press; 2011.)
[ii] D. O. Kennedy, E. O. Wightman, Herbal Extracts and Phytochemicals: Plant Secondary Metabolites and the Enhancement of Human Brain Function, Plant secondary metabolites and brain function, Downloaded from advances.nutrition.org on January 20, 2011
[iii] M. R. Harkey, G. L. Henderson, M. E. Gershwin, J. S. Stern, R. M. Hackman, Variability in commercial ginseng products: an analysis of 25 preparations. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2001; 73(6): 1101-1106.