Herbal Medicine 101: How to Pick a Good Supplement


IstockphotoI've been reporting on the wild world of alternative medicine since the mid-nineties. I've gone to herbal seminars held in rustic, remote lodges. I've attended lectures at Columbia and Harvard about acupuncture, qigong, Reiki, aromatherapy, healing touch, and even the power of prayer. I've ventured to Cuba, Italy, Costa Rica, and Germany to discover that in countries other than ours, doctors who use "natural" medicine are more the rule than the exception.

I'm not just an observer of alternative medicine, I'm also a user—especially of herbs. When I feel a cold coming on, I reach for echinacea and it usually stops symptoms in their tracks. I've learned not to loathe the musty taste of valerian, an herb proven (scientifically and personally) to help induce sleep. I swear it's also the reason I have such interesting dreams: Last night's featured Clint Eastwood in a supporting role. And I'm about to start dosing with ginkgo: There's scientific evidence it improves circulation to the brain and may buck up my fading memory.

My experience has taught me that everyone reacts differently to herbal medicine. I took black cohosh for a year or so to chill out my menopause symptoms, and was thrilled when it slashed my hot flashes from several a day to one or two. But when I recommended it to my BFF Duston, it gave her terrible headaches. She ended up taking Prozac, which she says worked just fine.

From the weird to the wacky
When I found myself at the Natural Products Expo East—a trade show featuring 2,100 exhibitors offering thousands of herbal supplements—in Boston last weekend, it reminded me yet again how tricky it is to choose a good herbal product. There were herbs in every possible incarnation, including practically handmade medicines from veteran herb companies like Herbalist & Alchemist and Herb Pharm Inc. There were weird and wacky products: herbal detox kits illustrated with disgusting photos of the ropey green gunk you excrete after use, and herbal foot pads that supposedly draw toxins out of your system through the soles of your feet.

So it seems timely to offer some guidance about selecting a good herbal medicine. Here are few tips I've learned after years of consorting with experts.

  1. Do your homework. Know what herb works best for your condition—and which part of the herb is effective (root versus flower versus leaf). For example, the roots and flowers of stinging nettle contain scopoletin, an anti-inflammatory compound, but only the roots contain the steroid-like compounds that herbalists recommend for men with benign prostate problems. In the cases of some rare or expensive herbs, an unscrupulous company will use the non-medicinal parts, usually leaves, instead of the roots. So if the specific plant part isn't listed—or is the wrong part—take a pass on the supplement. Two sources I turn to often are the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and the University of Maryland's Complementary and Alternative Medicine Index.
  2. Read the label. It should have the herb's scientific name, plant part, and an expiration date. It's also nice to see the plant's place of origin and whether it was grown organically or wild-crafted (picked in the wild).
  3. Avoid bargain brands. For the most part, these are sold in drug and discount stores. It's best to stick with brands from reputable health-food stores. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate herbal medicine, and the claims made on a bottle or in an advertisement are not necessarily true—so it's nice to be able to trust the provider as much as possible.
  4. Stick with single herbs. This is a good rule to follow when you're starting out, unless an herbal practitioner recommends a specific formula. Think of the way you experiment with unfamiliar cooking herbs: You use one at a time until you know how it tastes. As you gain experience, you start blending them. Same goes for medicinal herbs: Start off slowly, learn how each herb affects you, and then you can start blending them or using herbal formulas. Just be sure to read the labels to see how much of each herb the formula contains.
  5. Find a pro. Visit the American Herbalists Guild to learn about healers who are qualified to practice herbal medicine. Although there's not a large list of herbalists around the country, the site does provide questions to ask and information about what to look for while doing research in your community.