When Plants Become Pills
Herb capsules don’t grow on trees–they’re the
result of a process that can produce up to 1,000 capsules a
Supplement makers purchase raw herbs from suppliers around the
world. They monitor suppliers closely, conducting inspections,
checking soil and climate conditions, and watching the harvest.
Some buy whole herbs and grind them into powders at their
factories; others purchase herbs that are already ground. In
either case, they’re shipped in sealed containers and quarantined
at the factory until scientists analyze each shipment to ensure
purity, potency, quality, and identification. Then they inspect the
material by hand and track batches of herbs using a computer to
follow the plant throughout manufacturing.
Ground herbs are funneled into empty capsules by a large machine
that can process up to 1,000 capsules a minute. The machine fills
and closes the capsules, which are inspected again before bottling.
Then they’re packaged, shipped, and ready to go home with you.
In Herbs for Health, you’ll come across
breaking news in herb research. Here are a few terms to help you
put this research in context.
Clinical trials: Experiments performed on
Control: A group of research subjects that
undergoes the same experiment as the study group except for the
procedure being tested.
Crossover: Subjects undergo one treatment then
the other in random order.
Double blind: Neither the subject nor the
researcher knows who receives the real treatment until the study is
In vitro: The test is conducted in a test tube
or another artificial environment.
In vivo: The test is conducted on living
organisms such as rats. Animal tests usually precede tests in
Maintenance dose: A dose that sustains a
medicine’s desired effects. Compare with therapeutic dose.
Placebo: A dummy treatment taken by the control
group. The experimental treatment must produce better results than
the placebo to be considered effective.
Therapeutic dose: A quantity several times
larger than the maintenance dose, generally used when a deficiency
Ginger: A Chinese View
In Western herbalism, gingerroot (Zingiber
officinalis) is commonly used to stimulate digestion and alleviate
motion sickness and nausea, with little concern whether the herb
form is dried or fresh.
Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine, however, use
fresh and dried gingerroot (actually a rhizome) for related but
Fresh ginger, called sheng-jiang, is used to relieve cold
symptoms such as coughing, chills, and sneezing; to treat chronic
bronchial conditions; to encourage sweating; and to detoxify other
herbs in formulas. Dried ginger, called gan-jiang, is used for a
wider range of conditions, including gastrointestinal problems
associated with “internal cold,” dyspepsia, colic, irritable bowel
syndrome, anorexia, motion sickness, vomiting, menstrual problems,
immune system stress, and food poisoning.
Source: Holmes, Peter. Jade Remedies: A Chinese Herbal Reference
for the West. Boulder, Colo.: Snow Lotus Press, 1996.
Herbalism involves more than substituting a
plant for a drug. It also takes into account the patient’s
physique, level of fitness, metabolism, lifestyle and work
This approach–called constitutional herbalism–blends Western
herbalism with ancient Eastern philosophies such as Traditional
Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, which focus on metabolism type.
In these systems, it’s understood that health arises when a
person understands her or his nature and develops habits to support
it. For instance, imagine a sales representative, constantly
driving in heavy traffic and wooing customers. She reaches for
coffee to keep going, then alcohol to calm down. Ayurvedic thought
suggests that she has an easily aroused nervous system and needs
foods and herbs that will foster calmness and steadiness.
Her ideal foods include grains, beans, vegetables, and fish,
with few spicy or sweet foods. To help remove the waste products
produced by stress, she can take herbs that calm and promote sleep,
such as valerian, and herbs that support her adrenal glands, such
as reishi mushroom.
Source: Hobbs, Christopher, and Kathi Keville. Women’s Herbs,
Women’s Health. Loveland, Colo.: Botanica Press, 1998.
Keep It On the Outside
The following herbs are listed in the Botanical
Safety Handbook for external use only, unless under the
supervision of a qualified health-care provider. Do not use these
herbs while nursing, and never apply them to broken or abraded
Alkanet (Alkanna tinctoria): This member of the borage family
contains toxic alkaloids. Historically it has been used externally
to soothe and soften the skin.
Borage (Borago officinalis): The leaf and flowers contain toxic
alkaloids. Borage’s emollient qualities make it useful for sore and
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale): This species has a lower content
of toxins than the other herbs listed here, but there are some
reports of liver damage with chronic internal use. Comfrey
compresses promote the healing of bruises, sprains, fractures, and
broken bones; comfrey oil or ointment is used to treat acne, boils,
Henna (Lawsonia inermis): Although this dye plant has been used
for diarrhea and as a gargle for sore throats, it also has a strong
effect on the female reproductive system, as evidenced by its use
as an abortifacient in Africa.
Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum): Historically used to treat
kidney and urinary problems, this plant contains toxic
Male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas): Canadian regulations forbid
internal use. Traditionally used for treating tapeworms, this herb
is highly toxic and can cause liver damage and blindness.
Russian comfrey (Symphytum asperum, ¥uplandicum): The more toxic
of the comfreys, this herb contains liver-harming alkaloids.
Sources: American Herbal Products Association. Botanical Safety
Handbook. Edited by Michael McGuffin, Christopher Hobbs, Roy Upton,
and Alicia Goldberg. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 1997.
Chevallier, Andrew. The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. New
York: DK Publishing, 1996.