Your Options Explained
The range of choices faced when you decide to use herbal medicine can be intimidating. We have tried to explain some of the choices below.
The two main choices you will need to make are:
- Will you consult a medical herbalist or will treating yourself be sufficient?
- Will you use herbs only or alongside other therapies?
Choose to treat yourself or to see a medical herbalist
The use of herbs for self-limiting problems is common, and many people will decide to treat themselves. For instance many people buy echinacea during the winter for immune support. The advantage of treating yourself with over the counter remedies is that it is quick and the herbal products are widely available.
It is also possible to have a consultation with a medical herbalist, who has trained for several years in the use of herbs. This is especially important if the health problem is long standing or if you are on any other medication. Treatment through a medical herbalist is appropriate when an ailment is more complex, longer standing or you have other complaints or other medications you are using.
Choose to use herbal medicine in addition to other forms of medicine.
Herbs can be useful for a wide range of health problems and some people will use a herb to treat a problem before trying other forms of medicine. Herbal medicine is not exclusive though, it can be used in conjunction with other forms of medicine from orthodox/conventional medicine, to acupuncture or massage.
It is important to remember that while the use of many herbs are safe, there are possibilities of interactions with other forms of medicines.
If you are combining two forms of medicine always inform the health practitioner of what you are doing, this will enable your health practitioner to make informed decisions about your healthcare and give you the best treatment possible.
You will also need to decide on what form of herb to use:
Choose the form of herb to use
The decision to take a herbal medicine either as a positive step to manage your own health and well being, or as a remedy to an existing ailment, opens up a range of choices. There are a plethora of choices including internal/external medicines, teas, tinctures, creams, tablets and juices. There is a lot of information available and it can often be frustrating trying to find what is right for you. We hope to help you understand the choices available through this section of our website.
Internal – Solids
Tablets v Capsules
For dried products the choice between capsules and tablet is often reflected by personal preference and availability. However capsules tend to be preferred by many, now that non-gelatin capsules are widely available.
Tablets – Compressed powders or extracts, often with no additional preservatives and only natural binders. They may be coated to increase their storage life, using maize protein or vegetable cellulose.
Capsules – Can be used to take powders and oils, and are often used to mask the smell or taste of less pleasant herbs. Capsules may be made of gelatine (animal by-product) but are also available from non-animal sources (e.g. Vegicaps).
Internal – Liquids
Juices – The liquid portion of a herb or other plant, extracted from fresh plants, often by pressure. They do not normally have additional preservatives and so should be refrigerated and drunk within the time stated on the bottle.
Oils – Essential fatty acids can be taken in the form of capsules or used directly. Cold pressed oils are often kept refrigerated to extend their shelf life.
Floral Waters– These are the residue from the production of the essential oil by distillation. They may also have the essential oil added.
Cheaper floral waters only consist of water with drops of essential oil and are not generally recommended for internal use.
Tinctures – These are the extract of the herb in alcohol. The alcohol is able to extract non-water soluble constituents of the plant, at lower alcohol concentrations water soluble constituents are also extracted so the alcohol percentage effects the ratio of active constituents. The alcohol also acts as a preservative.
Teas – Herbal teas may be made either as an infusion or a decoction and usually will only contain the water soluble compounds from the plant. An infusion is made by steeping the herb in hot water, similar to making a cup of tea. A decoction normally requires the herb to be simmered for ten to fifteen minutes and is most often used on tougher woody plants and roots.
External – Skin Preparations
Creams v Ointments v Lotions v Liniments
The choice between this range of products depends on personal preference, the use the product is being put to and their availability.
Oils – Carrier oils, also known as fixed oils, are pressed from plant material (usually nuts or seeds) and contain fatty acids. They are generally extremely nourishing and may be applied directly to the skin, or used to make other preparations. Oils can also be infused with various herbs to add some beneficial properties.
Ointments – Ointments are oil based, with no water added. They are solid at room temperature. Ointments are normally greasier than creams and can be used for very dry skin. They keep heat and moisture in.
Creams – Creams are a mix of water and oil. Creams are lighter than ointments and have a cooling effect.
Lotions – A lotion is a term used to describe a cream which has a high water content. They tend to absorb more quickly and feel lighter on the skin.
Liniment – A liniment is usually a mixture of an oil and an alcohol based tincture and is most often used in applications relating to aches and pains.
Essential Oils – Essential oils are volatile compounds extracted from plants (often by distillation) and are responsible for the smell of the plant. They do not contain fatty acids and are highly concentrated. They should be diluted before external use in a suitable carrier oil, cream, lotion etc.
Even once you have decided how you are going to take a herbal remedy there are yet more choices to make.
Organic v Non-Organic
Organic herbs are grown without the use of artificial fertilisers or pesticides and are GMO (genetically modified organism) free. The grower uses other farming techniques to protect his crop. Not all organically grown herbs are certified as such as it is quiet a costly endeavor however it is important that non certified herbs are acquired from a trusted source if intended for medicinal use.
Standardised v Non-Standardised v Extracts
Each herb is made up of hundreds of chemical constituents (phytochemicals). Scientific research often indicates the medical activity of one or two of these constituents. Plants may have varying amounts of these chemical depending on the growing season, area grown and so on, therefore some manufacturers standardise their herbal products to contain a specified amount of these medically active constituents. These are standardised products.
Products that do not have these constituent quantities controlled are non-standardised (the levels may be above or below the standardised product as naturally found in the plant). Many herbalists prefer this ‘unadulterated’ form of herb, because they believe that all of the chemical constituents in a herb work synergistically and that standardisation may upset the balance of this delicate relationship. In addition, standardisation requires further processing of the herb.
Other manufacturers make extracts which only contain the one or two researched and identified medically active constituents. These extracts may represent only a small fraction of the active constituents of a herb.
The old adage “you get what you pay for” is often overused, but in the case of herbal medicine we believe we have chosen our suppliers carefully to ensure that our customers have a choice of price ranges. Often the reason for a product being perceived as very good value is written in the small print, or even the large print.
- Always look at the strength of the product you are buying. A 200mg vitamin C per tablet may be cheaper than a 1,000mg tablet, but if you have been recommended 1,000mg of vitamin C a day then 5 tablets will be needed to reach the same strength as a “more expensive” 1,000mg tablet. Similarly, a standardised extract of Xmg of hypericin (a St Johns Wort extract) may be cheaper than a standardised herbal capsule containing Xmg St Johns Wort. That is because the extract contains only one ingredient whereas the tablet contains all the other ingredients as well!.
- Herbs are grown by different methods; farms and farmers have different resources and standards. This may affect the concentration and constituents of the plant. Some of the suppliers set and maintain the standards of their producers (or produce their own) and therefore their products should be higher quality.
- Aloe vera products may claim to have “100% aloe vera” however this is often misleading as aloe vera products do not need to state how much water is in the product. So 100% aloe Vera may actually consist of 95% water and 5% aloe vera! If an aloe vera product is very cheap then ask about its constituents.
- Oils (such as the essential fatty acids) can be extracted quickly and cheaply using heat, however this degrades the product. Essential fatty acids should always be extracted using cold pressed methods and stored away from sunlight. This may explain the price difference between two “identical” products.
- Some companies invest in research and education. They are developing products for all of us, and increasing the knowledge and therefore potential safe use of supplements for all. For example, Solgar provide training for retailers to ensure good advice is given; they provide information and education leaflets for consumers; they research and develop products; as well as ensuring high quality processes and checks are in place. So although their products may appear slightly more expensive, they are delivering a far better service for the customer.