The Dirty World of Herbs
By Alex Strande, Ph.D
The world of alternative medicine is filled with inflated claims and hyped advertising from thousands of supplement companies. This causes a huge amount of confusion not only for patients, but practitioners as well. It is difficult to discern the quality of specific herbs and supplements.
The United States is wonderful in that we have the freedom to choose our supplements freely. The downside is there is little regulation or quality control of supplements and herbs. False labeling, bad or diluted herbs and worse — tainted herbs, calls for some industry standard. Unfortunately, we don’t have a reliable source to oversee the manufacturing process of herbs and supplements.
Don’t think the FDA would like to have a more positive role in holistic healing. The FDA intrudes where it shouldn’t and neglects major problems. I am all for regulation, but it must be done in a fully-educated manner by an organization that wants to promote, not hinder, alternative healing.
Let’s talk about the dirty world of herbs. The fact of the matter is, if you walk into a health food store or purchase something online, you have no idea where that herb was grown, how it was manufactured, or if the content listed on the label is even in that bottle in the quantity it claims. There are some very scary problems in the growing, cultivation and manufacturing of herbs.
I have heard of horrendous growing practices: herbs can be irradiated, grown with pesticides, poisoned with pharmaceuticals (as seen recently in Asia), grown in countries that use banned pesticides, or have severe environmental problems (Eastern Europe), or herb-active ingredients destroyed in the manufacturing process.
I have heard of plants being grown in drainage ditches that are also sewers. Chernobyl contaminated growing fields. Fields of herbs contaminated with human feces, just to name a few. Remember, this has slowly grown into a billion dollar industry. Not everyone growing or manufacturing products is interested in ethics or quality control when profit could be hindered.
In manufacturing herbs the following procedures are MANDATORY to obtain a quality product:
1. Every batch should be tested by a third party after manufacturing. Many companies guarantee what they put into the initial manufacturing process, but not what the end result is. In other words, many ingredients are unstable and quality is lost or destroyed in the manufacturing process. The only way to compensate is to increase raw product. A step many manufactures won’t take because it decreases profit.
2. Products should be tested for pesticides, heavy metals, microbial and pharmaceutical contamination. This is critical with herbal extracts since they can be infected by various organisms such as yeasts that can make a patient even sicker. Because the roots of many herbs contain concentrated minerals, many herbal products can be tainted with heavy metals such as mercury. The worst part is that some Chinese herbs (and there are many reputable Chinese manufacturers) are tainted with pharmaceutical drugs. It is possible that severe reactions to a product might be from heavy metals or pharmaceutical contamination, not from an herbal product. Some herbs have gotten a bad reputation because they were tainted, not because the herb is dangerous.
3. Products must be absorbable by the body. These tests should adhere to the United States Pharmacopoeia tests for pH and “churning” of the stomach. If the product cannot be absorbed by the body, it is useless.
4. The manufacturer must use the most “bio-available” product. Unfortunately for the consumer, these aren’t always the cheapest options. The most bio-available materials are fully reacted or true amino acid chelates. Look at your labels. A lot of products use calcium carbonate, which is an inorganic material. This not only can cause gastric irritation, but blocks other inorganic materials from absorbing.
5. Make sure the manufacturer uses no fillers or binders. A common practice with cheaper supplements is to coat the pill with shellac. This extends shelf life but can wreak havoc in someone with sensitivities. Many of my patients are severely sick, have auto-immune disorders or other problems that will cause severe sensitivity if they are exposed to binders or coating.
6. Is there a multitude of nutrients in your product? This is something that is flourishing in the supplement industry. You see a multitude of supplements or herbs in a product. The problem with this approach is there a lot of items added, but they are way too low in potency to have any therapeutic effect. Just because a product has a claim, doesn’t mean it is bio-available.
Beware of any company that sells a pre-packaged formula. Many companies sell a “one-size-fits-all” approach to healthcare. Nutrition and holistic healthcare should be prescribed by a qualified professional, not sold with claims of miraculous cures. I have seen many products that may work a little with certain people, but it is important to have a qualified practitioner dispense the correct dosages as well as using quality products. Dosages are critical in alternative healing.
Because the FDA has limited knowledge or understanding of herbal remedies, they severely restrict the labeling for herbs and supplements. Therefore, a label of herbs must use certain dosages that are extremely small. Most herbal labels will say take 2 tablets three times a day, or in the case of a tincture, take 3 or 4 drops 3 times a day when in fact, you need ten times that amount to see any real results.
All herbs I dispense are grown in Australia. I prefer this environment because it is one of the cleanest in the world. The supplier I work with has been doing this for many years and practices the manufacturing process I listed above. All of the herbs cultivated are grown organically. I use 1:1 extracts or 1:2 extracts for optimum results. This means you are getting pure extract, not a tincture or powdered capsule with a weakened or poisoned herb.
I would never even consider treating two people who came in with the same “disease” or symptoms in the same manner. This is a highly individualized procedure that involves a detailed intake and time spent with the patient to come up with an individualized protocol that suits that patient. If you use a quick-fix remedy, you may notice a slight difference in symptoms, but you will never completely eliminate problems. My goal in working with patients is to eliminate problems, not treat them.
Alex Strande, Ph.D. is a Traditional Naturopath and Microbiologist. His office is located in Irvine, CA and he can be contacted for questions and appointments at (949) 553-1882. See www.simplyhealingclinic.com.
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