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Plant Medicine: Herbal Extraction Methods

Varied methods for producing herbal salves and herbal tinctures

| September/October 1998

  • Kristen Myers, lab manager for Turtle ­Island Herbs in Boulder, Colorado, pours an oil solvent, called a men­struum, onto fresh arnica. The oil and herb will be mixed, then left to soak.
  • Finished extracts sit in dark bottles in Turtle Island’s Boulder laboratory.
  • Herbs and solvent are blended in a huge vat at Nature’s ­Apothecary.
  • A chemical analyst at Hauser, Inc., takes a ­computer reading to check the medicinal content of an herbal extract.

In the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, three herbal product manufacturers are hard at work drawing medicinal compounds from plants. Two of these companies are less than a mile apart in Boulder, Colorado, and a third is in nearby Louisville. But the roots of their methods and philosophies are very different.

Each manufacturer has its own method of extracting plant medicine, which is then used to make salves and tinctures that are sold nationwide. While the method may not make a difference to consumers, it should, each manufacturer says—with all due respect for the others.

Different extraction methods illustrate the contrasting philosophies pulling at the ends of contemporary herbal medicine. One supports the highly scientific method of standardization, which involves measuring and extracting specific compounds believed to be responsible for the herbs’ medicinal effects. The other is the traditional “whole herb” school of thought, which asserts that all of a plant’s compounds contribute to its ability to heal and protect health, and plucking out one or a few compounds means losing that synergy.

“Just because something is standardized or has scientific testing behind it does not mean that it is high standard—scientific validation is no guarantee of quality,” says Feather Jones, founder of Turtle Island Herbs in Boulder and director of the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies. “Plants are like people. You can’t standardize them.”

Rod Lenoble, scientific affairs manager at Hauser, Inc., has another view. “We’re generally conservative,” Lenoble says. “But we’re looking at the totality of scientific data and preparing extracts using ­ratios that were proven to be effective in the studies.”

Hauser supplies companies such as Rexall with herbal extracts. Hauser’s extraction process is a trade secret, but Lenoble says it “emulates a tea cup”—plant material is put into a big vat with a solvent of ethanol and water, known as a menstruum, to draw out the plant’s constituents; Lenoble says their low-heat process combined with the watered-down ethanol makes for a gentler solvent. The process also entails computers, analytical chemistry, and pharmaceutical testing, all required to ensure that the final extract contains specific compounds in set ratios.

11/24/2015 6:04:04 AM

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David Gbongbor
1/6/2013 11:56:03 PM

I have worked with different African medicinal plants and have found this site very educational to my interest. I would like to be involved in discussions and to find out more how to connect my previous knowledge to medicinal plants in North America.

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