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Healthy Living

Tips for buying herbs

by Andrew Weil, M.D.

herbs

Growing interest in herbal medicine has stimulated the proliferation of both high-quality herbal suppliers and marginal ones. Overall, I think standardized extracts are your best bet. The next best are probably tinctures, and then freeze-dried preparations of particular plants, such as stinging nettles. Whether you buy these in a grocery store or a health food store or an herb shop doesn't really matter -- as long as they're as fresh as possible.

Let me explain. Herbal products are made from plants that have medicinal properties. Light, air and moisture all speed the deterioration of dried plants and rob them of their usefulness. The most destructive process is oxidation -- that is, reactions with oxygen that change the plants' chemistry.

herbs

A standardized extract is one that has been assayed to determine the content of one or several key constituents. The label will give a percentage content of these compounds. Standardization is the best assurance that a product contains what it's supposed to contain in amounts sufficient to produce a desired effect. Standardized extracts may be liquids or solids.

Tinctures are liquid extracts of fresh or dried plants in alcohol. The alcohol content is high enough to preserve the plant material. Tinctures are stable and convenient, but their quality is only as good as that of the herbs that went into them. Tinctures should be shaken before use and diluted in warm water before being consumed; a typical dose is one dropperful in one quarter cup of water, taken three to four times a day with food.

If you don't want the alcohol, you can look for other liquid extracts of herbs in vinegar or glycerin, but these are not as good as alcohol-based products.

Or you can buy your herbs freeze-dried. Freeze-drying is a process that uses chemical solvents to extract the plants, then flash-evaporates the extracts at low temperature in a partial vacuum. This process removes the solvents. The solid residue is then packed into capsules. Freeze-dried extracts are far superior to air-dried whole herbs.

Loose herbs sold in bulk are probably not going to be much more useful to your body than grass clippings on a compost heap. If they're finely chopped and sitting in a bin, they're likely to have lost all of their medicinal properties through exposure to the elements. This is especially true of leaves and flowers. Roots and bark deteriorate more slowly.

Powdered herbs in capsules are probably just as bad. Because they've been ground up, they oxidize much faster, since there is much more surface area exposed to air.

In some cases, you can use bulk herbs to prepare teas -- for example, ephedra stems for asthma, blueberry-leaf tea to regulate blood sugar, cornsilk tea as a diuretic or raspberry-leaf tea for menstrual cramps. Again, make sure they're packaged well to prevent deterioration. You can check for freshness by smelling them -- if they smell stale, they probably are not much good.

herbs

Another concern is contamination. Herbs may have been grown using pesticides; they might have been fumigated in shipment; and they might contain foreign material. Herbal preparations that have been harvested from the wild ("wildcrafted") or cultivated organically are better choices. It makes sense to buy brands that advertise the purity of their products. In my book "Natural Health, Natural Medicine," (Houghton Mifflin, 1998) I mention "herbal" remedies from Hong Kong that turned out to contain powerful -- and potentially toxic -- pharmaceutical drugs. Look for a list of ingredients on the package and buy from reputable sources.

For more information on Complementary and Alternative Medicine, see Ask Dr. Weil

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