Herbs are some of the most amazing creations under the sun.
They’re full of hundreds of phytochemicals that work synergistically to create powerful medicines and nutrient-rich foods. Plants have always been used medicinally – they have even been found at various archaeological sites (8,000 to 790,000 years ago) – suggesting their use as medicine and food.
It has also been observed that animals eat plants to heal themselves, even if the plants are devoid of nutritional value and could be harmful to healthy individuals. For example, in their natural habitat in Central Africa, chimpanzees infected with intestinal parasites swallow leaves with spiky hair, which the worms catch and remove from the body through their stool. From caterpillars to sheep, ants and chimpanzees, animals have an innate knowledge of what substances they need to ingest in order to create cures for their ailments.
In recent years herbal medicine has grown in popularity, creating a deluge of products on the shelves of very different degrees of quality and effectiveness. Often, but not always, formulations containing many different herbs (more than 5 or 6) do not contain enough of each to be actually therapeutic. This is especially true of formulas that contain vitamins, minerals, and herbs. Tablets often contain binders that make them difficult to digest and make the ingredients difficult to access, especially for people with gastrointestinal problems. If you have digestive issues, I recommend looking for products in tincture (liquid), tea, or powder form.
“Standardized extract” is a term that means that certain chemical compounds have been identified in a plant (like silymarin in milk thistle). The manufacturer then pulls this compound out and makes a product in much higher quantities, apparently a more potent product.
However, when we look at the wisdom of nature, we see that it put hundreds of phytochemicals into every plant, creating a “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” type of scenario. When we simply extract “the active ingredient” we are defying the inherent intelligence that went into making the entire plant. We also expose ourselves to the risk of other side effects. For example, salicylic acid is the main component of aspirin and was originally found and used in plants such as willow bark and poplar. We know that excessive aspirin use can be linked to the development of bleeding and ulcers. But we don’t see these side effects when we use the whole plant. Ancient Ayurvedic texts suggest heating herbs in ghee before preparing the rest of the meal. Modern research suggests that this makes the medicinal properties of herbs like turmeric more bioavailable and more potent than when we take them in capsule or liquid form.
Knowing how to choose the herbal product that is right for you is essential to finding an option that can help you and your health. Consulting with someone who guides you like a naturopathic doctor or herbalist can help get you started.
Nicola Dehlinger is a naturopathic doctor at Pura Vida Natural Healthcare in Durango. She can be reached at 426-1684 or www.puravidahealthcare.com.