October 5, 2012

Are Herbal Supplements Safe?

Photo: lifespa.com

Most people assume that the herbs sold on a health food store shelf or online are basically safe.

Unfortunately, this is not always true–especially if you have a sensitive system!

Some herbal manufacturing techniques have turned herbs that are totally safe in their natural state into overly potent and potentially dangerous drug-like substances.

Let me share with you what has happened in this industry and how, despite these manufacturing techniques, you can choose the safest and most effective herbs available.

Recently, I heard a radio advertisement for a new super-concentrated prostate formula that claimed to be 1,000 times more potent than what you might purchase at a natural foods store. I imagine the marketing company assumed that listeners would think, “If it is 1,000 times stronger, it must be 1,000 times better,” and that everyone would buy it.

Personally, when I heard this ad I was frightened. I said to myself, “This is not an herbal supplement, it is a drug. A thousand times stronger isn’t necessarily better, it could be downright dangerous!”

The Dangers of Some Herbal Extracts

In the 1970s, the standardized herbal extract was born in Europe in an attempt to standardize each dose of the same herb no matter what the crop or manufacturer. Standardized extracts would always deliver a consistent dose. In nature, this just doesn’t happen. Every crop is unique based on rainfall, soil and location.

While I applaud the intention of a standardized extract, many manufacturers use standardized extracts to concentrate, increase potency, make patentable, and mimic the drug-like effectiveness of whole herbs.

A standardized extract is a process by which one active constituent is extracted from the original herb. This concentrate, which is standardized into one active ingredient, is then “spiked,” or “loaded,” back into an herbal base of that product. This is a phytopharmaceutical process that is a topic of heated debate among herbalists.

Some extracts are known to act more like drugs, carry toxic residues from the extraction solvents, and have significantly more adverse reactions.

While they may initially offer increased potency, the body can build up a tolerance to an extract and require higher and higher dosages—much like a drug. In addition, side effects can ensue, which rarely happens with a “whole herb” product.*

In Europe, herbal manufacturers are limited by law to standardizing or concentrating an herb only to the potency of the plant itself. In other words, making an extract 1,000 times stronger than the plant is illegal. In the U.S., the practice of creating super-potent extracts is legal so, as consumers, we have to be careful.

Untold Side Effects

The FDA prohibits herb and supplement manufacturers from making disease claims, even though some manufacturers concentrate herbs to the point where they can match the potencies of a drug. These super-potent extracts carry the risk of potential side effects and interactions with other drugs or supplements.

The good news is that most reputable manufacturers in the U.S. follow the European standards and attempt to match and replicate the original plant blueprint, rather than super-concentrating one active ingredient.

In my opinion, extracts can be safely used by qualified herbalists or health care providers who understand the herbs, their extracts and the potential interactions with other herbs or drugs.

In fact, I recently launched LifeSpa’s HP (High Potency) line of supplements. Some of these have extracts that I suggest be used to restore balanced function.

Extracts make great medicines. But once you’re feeling better, it’s time to get off the medicine.

Generally, I use whole herbs rather than extracts because they work with the body, with minimal risk. Also, whole herbs are plain and simply unprocessed.

Nature’s Extracts

While the best herbal companies try to match the blueprint of Mother Nature, this is a tough task. Generally, nature only puts a small amount of the so-called “most active” chemical in a plant, along with a cast of supportive constituents. This creates something quite different than the Western approach of standardizing herbal extracts based on one active chemical.

Example of standardized extract label:

Turmeric dried extract (root)
95 percent curcuminoids
450 mg

This label means that 450 mg of this product is 95 percent of the one active ingredient, called “curcuminoids.”

Traditional medicinal systems like Ayurveda mix herbs, plants and spices in specific combinations to naturally boost the effectiveness of an herb or herbal formula.

For example, when whole turmeric root is mixed with black pepper, studies have shown that this simple, natural and traditional blend increases the absorption of turmeric by 2,000 percent (5).

Though the extract of turmeric may be one of the herbal extracts that are considered safe, traditional dishes like Indian curry combine turmeric with other spices in such a way that its efficacy matches—and even out-performs—some of the Western world’s most potent turmeric extracts.

One of my Ayurvedic teachers in Varanasi, India, Dr. Hari Narayana Singh, was well into his 90s when he accepted me as a student. One night I asked him why he doesn’t hire someone to stir the herbal formulas for him.

He replied, “This formula takes 1,008 strokes. How will I know they did all 1,008 strokes?” I never asked that question again!

Another example: Amalaki, one of my favorite Ayurvedic herbs, is a citrus fruit that has about 3,500 mg of natural full-spectrum vitamin C per fruit and is heralded as the highest source of vitamin C in the world. It acts completely differently than the extracted or synthetic version of vitamin C.* Most people have experienced the side effect of loose bowel movements from taking too much vitamin C because it acts as a bowel irritant at higher doses.*

Amalaki, with its content of full-spectrum vitamin C, is actually used to support loose bowel function, and support damaged and irritated intestinal mucosa.* Even at extremely high doses, Amalaki exhibits no known side effects.*

Once the vitamin C is extracted or synthetically copied, the potency may be enhanced but it is often not tolerated well by the human body. The body and whole herbs have an innate intelligence.

Messing with Mother Nature

In one report, a small herbal company ran low on an herb called Cascara sagrada, commonly found in bowel moving formulas. The company replaced the whole herb— which originally made up 25 percent of the formula—with the same amount of Cascara sagrada extract.

The active ingredient in the Cascara sagrada, called cascarols, went from 2 percent of the formula to 25 percent, making it 1,000 times more potent.

Within three and a half weeks, the company posted a total product recall because the side effects were so frequent and severe (1).

Is a Better Mood Worth a Toxic Liver?

Kava kava in its whole herb form has been safely used for mood support for thousands of years in Oceania.

In search of the next best-selling anti-depression herb, Western companies extracted the active chemical of kava kava, called kavalactones. These kavalactones represent only a small part of this herb’s blueprint because they are toxic to the liver in high isolated dosages without the other buffering constituents in that plant.

Kava kava extracts became a best-selling antidepressant herb. Shortly thereafter, kava kava itself was tagged by the FDA for liver toxicity, even though the problems were caused by the extract, not the whole herb. Falsely accused, this herb that is incredibly safe when taken as a whole herb, has now been given a life sentence.

Keep our herbs out of “prison” by using whole herbs. Side effects of some standardized extracts can cause consumer complaints lead to a FDA life sentence. Buy from trusted manufacturers.

Remember Ephedra?

The extract of Ephedra, called ephedrine, is very common in many allergy remedies and became a popular weight loss herb because of its stimulating properties.

Companies made super-potent standardized extracts for maximal weight loss and, shortly thereafter, the FDA stacked up 1,400 consumer complaints from adverse reactions to these standardized extracts.

As a result, Ephedra, which is totally safe as a whole herb, was pulled off the market.

Interestingly, not one of the 1,400 complaints was caused by the whole herb. They were all caused by the super potent and misused extract, ephedrine (2).

The Biggest Oops of Extracts

In recent years, certain plants like St. John’s Wort, Ashwagandha (also spelled Ashwaganda), Echinacea, kava kava, and ginseng, have been standardized into just one “most active constituent.”

In certain cases, the so-called “most active” constituent turned out to not be the most active after all.

St. Johns Wort, for example, has typically been standardized to a certain amount of hypericin, but it is now believed that hyperiform is actually the most active constituent in the herb.

Oops, they were concentrating the wrong chemical!

Extracts Are Not Regulated

Drugs have side effects that must be disclosed. We have all heard the voice-over on a TV drug ad that lists the horrendous litany of side effects while watching a gorgeous couple ride into the sunset.

Herbal supplements are not regulated by the FDA as drugs are, and therefore, do not have to disclose side effects, even if they exist.

It thus becomes the consumer’s responsibility to know what potency of the standardized extract is safe.

Valerian root naturally has a very low concentration of valerenic acid because it can be toxic to the liver at high dosages. The standardization process can concentrate a formula to any percentage of the valerenic acid, because the amount we see in an herbal extract is up to the discretion of that company.

There is no regulation of this and no real consensus to date on what would be most appropriate and safe.

That said, raw herbs have their limitations. When an herb is dried, it may lose some of the volatile aromatic constituents, whereas extracts try to capture those as well.

Buyer Beware!

While most natural food store brands are reliable and safe, it is challenging to know for sure. Beware of products that make big claims of a cure.

I don’t use stimulants, sedatives or laxatives in my practice because they tend to eradicate symptoms by overruling the body’s intelligence. I prefer to understand and treat the cause of the problem without creating a dependency on the herbal product. While this is more challenging, it is where the joy of working with herbs resides.

Whole herbs work with the body, therefore making it easier to restore balance and normal function without the need for continued herbal support.

What to Avoid:

  • >> Products that claim a cure or super potencies.
  • >> Laxatives like Senna and Cascara sagrada, which are bowel irritants. Instead, I use herbs that lubricate and support digestion so you can have naturally healthy bowel movements, rather than forcing an irritating stimulant through the gut.
  • >> If you are sensitive to herbs or medications, then consider only taking whole herb products. Standardized extracts will carry residue from extraction solvents, so beware if you are sensitive to chemicals.
  • >> Extracts can be extremely safe if they are whole herb or full-spectrum concentrates, rather than the standardized extracts. But they will be more potent!
  • >> For 100 percent safety, use standardized extracts only if you are familiar with the manufacturer, the herb used, and its safety history. Consult your natural food representative for advice about a particular product before buying.


While there are many safe standardized extracts, I still believe in using the whole raw herb as if it were a food harvested from your garden.

I use organic whole herbs almost exclusively at LifeSpa because they carry the original intelligence and full-spectrum synergy of the plant. This means the whole plant is dried and ground—that’s it. Most of the herbs we use have been eaten as foods or spices for thousands of years.

Each part of the herb is considered as valuable as the next. I believe that the plant’s intelligence and effectiveness cannot be improved on and, moreover, will likely never be fully understood. Don’t mess with Mother Nature!

1. 2. LoR. Caarl (L. Carl) Robinson, Clinical & Formulary Herbalist, Sept. 2007
3. 4. AAPS J. 2006;8(3):E443-9



Editor: Brianna Bemel


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