When shopping for herbal supplements, few people realize the differences from one brand to the next. New evidence provides deep insight into the differences between herbal extracts and naturally dried whole-herb products.
In fact, while extracts have been considered a more concentrated, and therefore more potent, bang for your buck, it has now been shown that dried, unprocessed herbs can be 1000x more potent in ways that are just now being understood.
The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA)1 has standards for total plate counts, or maximum allowable microbes, in both unprocessed herbs and herbal extracts:
- Herbal extracts: up to 10,000 CFU/g (colony-forming units per gram) of natural microbes on each plant.
- Unprocessed herbs dried naturally, ground, and capsulated: up to 10,000,000 CFU/g of microbes.
Unprocessed, dried herbs are allowed to have up to 1000x more microbes than extracts!
Microbes that make up 90% of the human body are the same ones found in the soil. Plant roots attract microbes from the soil for reasons generally mutually beneficial to both plant and microbe. For example, a plant may require a chemical that certain microbes excrete, and microbes may feed on certain chemicals made by the plant. Plants attract unique sets of beneficial microbes that may increase the microbial diversity of whomever eats them.
Microbial diversity means many different strains of beneficial microbes living in the gut. Scientists believe this to be key to a healthy immune system. Sadly, in the West, for reasons such as processed foods, antibiotics, and overly sterile environments, we have lost much of our microbial diversity, and are therefore at risk for a less robust immune response when under pathogenic threat.
Organic, unprocessed, whole, dried, raw herbs and foods can carry thousands of times more microbes than conventional herbs or foods. We all avoid non-organic foods and herbs because of pesticide exposure, but an equally important reason to avoid them may be that many of the beneficial microbes on conventionally processed foods, herbs, and herbal extracts are either dead or missing.
Herbal extracts, the majority of supplements sold online and in health food stores, are made using alcohol as a solvent. Alcohol kills many of the beneficial microbes on the plant, rendering the herbal extract sterile and permanently altered from its natural state.
It’s important to note that much of the herbal intelligence and possibly benefits of herbs may have much to do with microbial content. Remember, each plant seems to attract a certain set of beneficial microbes that works in synergy with the traditionally understood benefits of the plant.
New research out of Stanford has found that the gut microbiome of the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribe changes with the seasons.2 Previous studies found that microbes in the soil are dramatically changing and surging from one season to the next.3
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While chemical constituents of plants have been the focus of scientific investigation, further study may suggest that the microbiology of plants could offer a more subtle, and perhaps more potent, therapeutic signature.
Emerging science now suggests that the microbes that co-exist with the plant kingdom may in fact be conscious: something Ayurveda has called herbal intelligence for thousands of years.4
This research suggests that herbs may not only work in a biochemical fashion, but deliver a homeostatic effect of restoring balance to the body, combining a quantum and biochemical effect.
I have written an article called Extracts: Avoid Dangerous Herbs, which compares herbal extracts and unprocessed herbs. I believe herbal extracts have their place and can be very effective, but I do not suggest them for extended use.
At LifeSpa, our goal is to build self-sufficiency, rather than dependency on herbs. LifeSpa Whole Herbs is our major line of organic, unprocessed herbs; I believe these to be the safest and most effective way to build optimal health without dependency on pills or powders, better microbiology, and self-sufficiency.