Herb Basics: A Beginner's Guide to Herbs

From seeing an herbalist to understanding standardized extracts, we've got you covered.


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Even though homeopathic products are often found right next to herbal products on store shelves, homeopathy is a healing system entirely different from herbal medicine.

On homeopathic product labels, a product’s strength is expressed as a combination of a number and a letter, such as 1x or 1c. The strength refers to the dilution of the original substance in water or ethyl alcohol. For example, if 1 part of the original substance is added to 9 parts of water or ethyl alcohol, this is called a 1x (decimal) dilution, or 1 part in 10. Dilutions are also made on a centesimal scale, or 1 part in 100, yielding 1c, 2c, and so on.

Both forms of dilutions, also known as potencies, can be repeated many times. The higher the number on the bottle, the stronger the homeopathic product. Low potencies (1x to 30x, or 1c to 15c) are sufficient for most ailments.

Herbalists prescribe therapeutic doses of herbs to stimulate healing, somewhat like taking an aspirin for a headache. Homeopathy is based on the idea of “like cures like,” the belief that minute amounts of a substance can eliminate the symptoms that large amounts of the substance create.


Seeing an herbalist is a lot like seeing a doctor—a doctor fifty years ago, that is.

Many herbalists liken their approach to that of physicians of the past: Herbalists listen patiently and try to determine symptoms, and they use time-honored diagnostic techniques such as checking reflexes, ­palpating the ­abdomen, feeling the pulse, and looking at the tongue.

Herbalists also review their patient’s ­medical history and determine any potentially problematic herb-drug interactions. If a patient wishes to replace a pharmaceutical drug with herbs, the herbalist can help devise a safe ­program to phase out the drug, preferably in co-operation with the ­patient’s doctor.

The first consultation with an herbalist takes at least an hour; follow-up visits take about twenty ­minutes. Generally, herbalists will want to see a ­patient soon after the first visit to check on progress, and then every four to six weeks for about three months. If the patient has a more chronic condition, such as lupus or chronic fatigue syndrome, the treatment will continue longer.

Source: Ody, Penelope. The Complete Medicinal Herbal.
New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1993.


You’ll find a wide array of products containing herbs at health-food stores today. Everything from sodas to cereals to nutrition bars is touted as “memory promoting” or “stress reducing.” But how much of the herbs are actually in these products? How many bowls of ginseng cereal would you need to eat to get the amount of ginseng that’s in one capsule? Here are some tips to keep in mind.

Know your doses. In one brand of ginseng-enriched cereal, a serving contained only 60 mg of ginseng; an average dose of the herb is up to four 500 to 600 mg capsules per day. In other words, you’d need to eat at least eighteen bowls of cereal to get a mid-range therapeutic dose of ginseng.

Read the labels. In many products containing herbs, the herb’s dose is not given on the label—and often the herb is the last ingredient listed.

Compare prices. In some herb-infused salad dressings and nutritional bars, the herbal products cost the same as the nonherbals made by the same companies. In some products, such as juices, the herbal versions cost at least 50 cents more than their nonherbal counterparts. It’s likely—although not guaranteed—that the additional cost means you’re getting more herbs.

Seeing an herbalist is a lot like seeing an old-time doctor


If you’re uncertain about using herbs or not sure what’s safe to combine with prescription drugs, consider trying one of the following teas. Herbs for Health editorial adviser Christopher Hobbs says these herbs are almost always risk free when consumed moderately. Of course, individuals may have allergies that could be problematic, but Hobbs says these herbs have the least incidence of side effects.

Peppermint leaf settles the stomach and relieves gas.
Cinnamon bark speeds healing when you have a cold.
Chamomile flower relaxes and promotes sleep.
Red raspberry leaf gently tones a woman’s reproductive organs. It also relaxes the stomach and bowels.
To make your own tea from any of these herbs, simply steep 1 teaspoon of dried herb in a cup of hot water for 15 minutes. Strain and drink.

Source: Hobbs, Christopher. Herbal Remedies for Dummies. Foster City, California: IDG Books Worldwide, 1998.


Perusing the shelves of your local health-food or grocery store, you’ve probably noticed unusual language on the labels of herbal supplements. The terms standardized extract and active constituents have to do with the way an herbal product has been prepared. Use the information below to decide which products are right for you.

• Standardized extract. A product with this label contains a certain level of the herbal component believed to be most medicinally active. The material of each plant has been studied and analyzed to ensure that you’ll receive a specified dose of what is considered the most active part of the plant. There are two main types of standardized extracts: active constituent extracts and marker extracts.

• Active constituent extracts. These extracts isolate the compound that’s believed to have medicinal effects, then they concentrate that compound to stronger levels than those found naturally in the plant. Examples of active constituent extracts: ginkgo (24 percent flavoglycosides), bilberry (25 percent anthocyanosides), and milk thistle (80 percent silymarin).

• Marker extracts. With these extracts, the plant’s active properties are unknown, so a compound that’s characteristic to the plant is used as a “marker.” A marker compound helps in identifying an herb, but these products aren’t necessarily more or less effective. Because there is no widely accepted, universal method for manufacturing standardized extracts, different companies’ extracts may not even be standardized to the same marker. Examples of marker extracts: ginseng (5 to 9 percent ginsenosides) and green tea (20 to 50 percent polyphenols).

• Whole plant extracts. Some herbalists disagree with using standardized extracts because they believe that removing extracts from a plant dilutes the synergy of all the plant’s phytochemicals combined. They believe that refining plants by standardization is comparable to the process of refining pharmaceutical drugs.

A Glossary

Words to know from stories in this issue:

Allergic rhinitis: Also known as hay fever, a condition in which the immune system overreacts to common substances floating in the atmosphere such as foods, dust, and animal dander (see "Treat Your Allergies at the Source").

Cleansing: Modifying the diet for a short period of time, up to a week or two, to give the body a break from the constant job of digesting food, using it, then eliminating it (see "Everyday Cleansing Recipes").

Hepatitis C: The most common blood-borne disease in the United States, it primarily causes inflammation and damage to the cells of the liver. Herbs such as milk thistle can help manage the disease (see "Fight Hepatitis C with Holistic Herbs").

Stress: A common condition that mobilizes the body’s fight-or-flight reflex, which prepares us to cope with emergencies. The reflex triggers the release of stress hormones that increase respiration and heart rate and elevate blood pressure, effects that prepare the muscles for self-defense or escape (see "Natural Stress Relief").