Herbs & Botanicals

Many use herbs and botanicals for a variety of medical conditions, as well as for overall health and well-being. Evidence about herbal supplement benefits is growing.

Herbs and Botanicals

nature’s gift to human being

What is a botanical?

Botanical dietary supplements, also known as botanicals or herbal supplements, are plants, parts of plants, or plant extracts that are valued for some medicinal or therapeutic property. To be classified as a dietary supplement, a botanical must meet the criteria as defined by Congress in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which became law in 1994,. A dietary supplement is a product (other than tobacco) that

  • is intended to supplement the diet;
  • contains one or more dietary ingredients (including vitamins; minerals; herbs or other botanicals; amino acids; and other substances) or their constituents;
  • is intended to be taken by mouth as a pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid; and
  • is labeled on the front panel as being a dietary supplement.
How are herbal supplements commonly sold and prepared?
 
Forms

Herbal supplements are sold in many forms: as fresh or dried products; liquid or solid extracts; tablets, capsules, powders; tea bags; and other forms. For example, fresh ginger root is often found in the produce section of food stores; dried ginger root is sold packaged in tea bags, capsules, or tablets; and liquid preparations made from ginger root are also sold. A particular group of chemicals or a single chemical may be isolated from a botanical and sold as a dietary supplement, usually in tablet or capsule form. An example is phytoestrogens from soy products.

Preparation

Common preparations include teas, decoctions, tinctures, and extracts:

  • A tea, also known as an infusion, is made by adding boiling water to fresh or dried botanicals and steeping them. The tea may be drunk either hot or cold.
  • Some roots, bark, and berries require more forceful treatment to extract their desired ingredients. They are simmered in boiling water for longer periods than teas, making a decoction, which also may be drunk hot or cold.
  • A tincture is made by soaking a botanical in a solution of alcohol and water. Tinctures are sold as liquids and are used for concentrating and preserving a botanical. They are made in different strengths that are expressed as botanical-to-extract ratios (i.e., ratios of the weight of the dried botanical to the volume or weight of the finished product).
  • An extract is made by soaking the botanical in a liquid that removes specific types of chemicals. The liquid can be used as is or evaporated to make a dry extract for use in capsules or tablets.
Why take botanical and herbal supplements?

Many consider herbs and botanicals to be natural and therefore healthier and gentler than conventional drugs, even though 30% of all prescription drugs are of herbal origin. Many use herbs and botanicals for a variety of medical conditions, as well as for overall health and well-being. For others, herbal use is grounded in traditions passed down from generation to generation or recommended by folk healers. There is enough evidence to support the limited use of herbal supplements under the guidance of a medical professional. The body of well-controlled research is growing, but the short-term and long-term benefits and risks, as well as active or beneficial ingredients are still largely unknown. See right side for top ten most commonly used herbal supplements.

Are botanical dietary supplements standardized?

Standardization is a process that manufacturers may use to ensure batch-to-batch consistency of their products. In some cases, standardization involves identifying specific chemicals (also known as markers) that can be used to manufacture a consistent product. The standardization process can also provide a measure of quality control. Dietary supplements are not required to be standardized in the United States.

Are herbal supplements safe?

Many people believe that products labeled “natural” are safe and good for them. This is not necessarily true because the safety of a botanical depends on many things, such as its chemical makeup, how it works in the body, how it is prepared, and the dose used.

The action of botanicals or herbal supplements range from mild to powerful (potent). A botanical with mild action may have subtle effects. For example, chamomile and peppermint, both mild botanicals, are usually taken as teas to aid digestion and are generally considered safe for self-administration. Some mild botanicals may have to be taken for weeks or months before their full effects are achieved. Here is an example: valerian may be effective as a sleep aid after 14 days of use but it is rarely effective after just one dose. In contrast,  a powerful botanical produces a fast result. Kava, as one example, is reported to have an immediate and powerful action affecting anxiety and muscle relaxation.

The dose and form of a botanical preparation also play important roles in its safety. Teas, tinctures, and extracts have different strengths. The same amount of a botanical may be contained in a cup of tea, a few teaspoons of tincture, or an even smaller quantity of an extract. Also, different preparations vary in the relative amounts and concentrations of chemical removed from the whole botanical. For example, peppermint tea is generally considered safe to drink but peppermint oil is much more concentrated and can be toxic if used incorrectly. Therefore, it is important to follow the manufacturer’s suggested directions for using a botanical and not exceed the recommended dose without the advice of a healthcare provider.

What methods are used to evaluate the health benefits and safety of an herbal supplement?

Like other dietary supplements, botanicals are not required by federal law to be tested for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed, so the amount of scientific evidence available for various botanical ingredients varies widely. Some botanicals have been evaluated in scientific studies. For example, research shows that St. John’s wort may be useful for short-term treatment of mild to moderate depression. Other botanical dietary supplements need more study to determine their value.

Scientists can use several approaches to evaluate botanical dietary supplements for their potential health benefits and risks. They may investigate history of use, conduct laboratory studies using cell or tissue cultures, and experiment with animals. National Institute of Health provides a Herbs At A Glance.  Generally speaking, studies on people (e.g., individual case reports, observational studies, and clinical trials) provide the most direct evidence of an herbal supplement’s effects on health and patterns of use.

Did you know?

In today’s TCM practice, herbs are usually given in the form of manufactured or processed pills, extracts, capsules, tinctures, or powders. This contrasts with the raw and dried form used in the more informal and older forms of practice. There are more than 2,000 different kinds of herbs of which about 400 are commonly used. TCM has herbal regimens for use with major illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease.

Garlic contains a powerful compound called allicin. Lab studies have shown that it may lower your chances of getting heart disease. And other research shows that eating garlic regularly may help with high cholesterol and high blood pressure. To get the benefits, you have to chop or crush the clove: Allicin is formed only after the cells in the garlic have been cut or crushed. 

Curcumin is a bright yellow chemical produced by some plants. It is the principal curcuminoid of turmeric, a member of the ginger family. It helps reduce inflammation. Several studies suggest that it might ease symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, like pain and inflammation. Other compounds in turmeric might also be medicinal. In lab tests, curcumin seems to block the growth of certain kinds of tumors. One study showed that turmeric extract containing curcumin could — in some cases — stabilize colorectal cancer that wasn’t helped by other treatments.

10 Most Used Herbs

There are nine known species of echinacea, all of which are native to North America. Echinacea is used as a dietary supplement for the common cold and other infections, based on the idea that it might stimulate the immune system to more effectively fight infection. Echinacea preparations have been used topically (applied to the skin) for wounds and skin problems.

Evening primrose oil (EPO) is made from the seeds of the flowers of a plant native to North America. The plant has traditionally been used to treat bruises, hemorrhoids, digestive problems, and sore throats. Its healing benefits may be due to its gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) content. GLA is an omega-6 fatty acid found in plant oils.

Feverfew or bachelor’s buttons, is a flowering plant in the daisy family Asteraceae. It is a traditional medicinal herb which is commonly used to prevent migraine headaches, and is also occasionally grown for ornament.

Allicin from Garlic

Garlic is a plant in the onion family that’s grown for its distinctive taste and health benefits. It produces a sulfur compound called allicin. Actually, this is what seems to make garlic work for certain conditions. Garlic is low in calories and rich in vitamin C, vitamin B6 and manganese.  Today garlic is a widely recognized health enhancing supplement. Garlic promotes the well-being of the heart and immune systems with antioxidant properties and helps maintain healthy blood circulation.

Ginger is a flowering plant whose rhizome, ginger root or ginger, is widely used as a spice and a folk medicine. It is high in gingerol, a substance with powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Ginger is commonly used for various types of “stomach problems,” including motion sickness, morning sickness, colic, upset stomach, gas, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), nausea. Other uses include pain relief from rheumatoid arthritis (RA), osteoarthritis, menstrual pain, and other conditions.

A Living fossil: Ginkgo 

Ginkgo is a large tree with fan-shaped leaves, native to China. Its seeds contain substances that might kill the bacteria and fungi that cause infections in the body. Ginkgo seems to improve blood circulation, which might help the brain, eyes, ears, and legs function better. It may act as an antioxidant to slow down Alzheimer’s disease and interfere with changes in the brain that might cause problems with thinking.

Ginseng refers to eleven different varieties of a short, slow-growing plant with fleshy roots. It is one of the most popular herbal remedies. Both American ginseng and Asian ginseng are believed to boost energy, lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reduce stress, promote relaxation, treat diabetes, and manage sexual dysfunction in men.

The Healthiest Beverage

Green tea is probably the healthiest beverage on the planet. It is about 30 percent polyphenols by weight, including large amounts of a catechin called EGCG. Catechins are natural antioxidants that help prevent cell damage and provide other benefits. Green tea is loaded with antioxidants and nutrients that have powerful effects on the body. These include improved brain function, fat loss, a lower risk of cancer and many other impressive benefits. 

St. John’s wort is a plant with yellow flowers. Currently, it is most often used as a dietary supplement for depression. However, the results of studies on the effectiveness of St. John’s wort for depression are mixed.  Be cautious that St. John’s wort can weaken the effects of many medicines, including crucially important medicines.

Saw palmetto is a small palm tree native to the southeastern US. Extracts of the fruit of saw palmetto are used in tablets or capsules as a dietary supplement for urinary symptoms associated with an enlarged prostate gland as well as for chronic pelvic pain, decreased sex drive, migraine, hair loss, and other conditions.

Scroll to Top