When to Use Whole Herbs vs. Extracts

When to Use Whole Herbs vs. Extracts

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Herbal Supplements

When shopping for herbal supplements, few people realize the differences that exist from one brand to the next. There is new evidence that provides deep insight into the differences between herbal extracts and an unprocessed, naturally dried product.

While extracts have been considered to be a more concentrated, therefore more potent, bang for your buck, studies now show that dried, unprocessed herbs can be 1000 times more potent in ways that are just now being understood. (3)

The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) has set standards for the total plate counts, or maximum allowable microbes, in both unprocessed herbs and herbal extracts.

  • Herbal extracts are allowed up to 104 or 10,000 CFU/g (colony-forming units per gram) natural microbes to exist on each plant. (3)
  • Alternately, unprocessed herbs that have been dried naturally, ground and capsulated are allowed to have up to 107or 10,000,000 CFU/g microbes on them. (3)

Unprocessed, dried herbs are allowed to have up to 1000 times more microbes than extracts, according to the AHPA. Herbal extracts are mostly sterile – carrying NO beneficial microbes.

Microbial Diversity and Herbal Intelligence

The same microbes that make up the 90% of the nucleated cells in the human body are the same ones found in soil. Plants attract these microbes from the dirt for reasons that are generally mutually beneficial to both the plant and microbe. For example, a plant may require a chemical that certain microbes excrete, and the microbes may feed on certain chemicals made by the plant. In such cases, plants may attract unique sets of beneficial microbes that may increase “microbial diversity” to whomever eats them.

Microbial diversity means that there are many different strains of beneficial microbes living in the gut. Many scientists believe this to be the key to a healthy immune system. Sadly, in the West, for reasons such as processed foods, antibiotics and an overly sterile environment, we have lost much of our microbial diversity and are, therefore, at risk for weak digestion and a potentially less robust immune response when under pathogenic threat.

Organic, unprocessed, whole, dried, raw herbs and foods can carry thousands of times more microbes on them than conventional herbs or foods. We all avoid non-organic or conventional foods and herbs because of the pesticide exposure that kills the beneficial microbes, but an equally important reason to avoid them may be that many of the beneficial microbes on conventionally processed foods and herbs, and herbal extracts are either dead or missing.

Herbal extracts, which make up the majority of supplements sold online and in health food stores, are usually made using alcohol as a solvent. Alcohol kills the beneficial microbes on the plant, rendering them permanently altered from their natural state. In fact, most extracted herbs have been sterilized.

It is important to note that much of the herbal intelligence, and possibly the benefits delivered by an herb, may have much to do with the microbial content. Remember, each plant seems to attract a certain set of beneficial microbes that work in synergy with the traditionally understood benefits of the plant.

While the chemical constituents of plants have been the focus of the scientific investigation of herbal medicines, in-depth research may suggest that the microbiology of the plants could offer a more subtle, and perhaps more potent, therapeutic signature.

At LifeSpa, our goal is to build self-sufficiency rather than a dependency on herbs. LifeSpa Organics is our major line of organic, unprocessed herbs. I believe these to be the safest and most effective way to build optimal health, better microbiology and self-sufficiency.

The Dangers of Herbal Extracts

Most people assume that the herbs sold on a health food store shelf or online are basically safe. Unfortunately, this is not always true – especially if you have a sensitive system!

Some herbal manufacturing techniques have turned herbs that are totally safe in their natural state into overly potent and potentially dangerous substances.

Let me share with you what has happened in this industry and how, despite these manufacturing techniques, you can choose the safest and most effective herbs available.

Recently, I heard a radio advertisement for a new super-concentrated prostate formula that claimed to be 1000 times more potent than what you might purchase at a natural foods store. I imagine the marketing company assumed that listeners would think, “Wow, if it is 1000 times stronger, it must be 1000 times better!” and that everyone would buy it.

Personally, when I heard this ad I was frightened! I said to myself, “This is not an herbal supplement, it is a drug.” A thousand times stronger isn’t necessarily better – it could be downright dangerous!

Standardized Extracts

In the 1970s, the standardized herbal extract was born in Europe in an attempt to standardize each dose of the same herb, no matter what the crop or manufacturer. Standardized extracts would always deliver a consistent dose. In nature, this just doesn’t happen. Every crop is unique based on rainfall, soil, and location.

While I applaud the intention of a standardized extract, many manufacturers use standardized extracts to concentrate, increase potency, make patentable, and mimic the effectiveness of whole herbs.

A standardized extract is a process by which one active constituent is extracted from the original herb. This concentrate, which is standardized into one active ingredient, is then spiked, or loaded, back into an herbal base of that product.

This is a phytopharmaceutical process that is a topic of heated debate among herbalists.

Some extracts are known to carry toxic residues from the extraction solvents, and have significantly more adverse reactions.

While they may initially offer increased potency, the body can build up a tolerance to an extract and require higher and higher dosages. In addition, side effects can ensue – something that rarely happens with a whole herb product.

In Europe, herbal manufacturers are limited by law to standardizing or concentrating an herb only to the potency of the plant itself. In other words, making an extract 1000 times stronger than the plant is illegal. In the US, the practice of creating super-potent extracts is legal so, as consumers, we have to be careful!

Untold Side Effects

The FDA prohibits herb and supplement manufacturers from making disease claims, even though some manufacturers concentrate herbs to the point where they can potentially match the potencies of a drug. These super-potent extracts carry the risk of potential side effects and interactions with other drugs or supplements.

The good news is that most reputable manufacturers in the US follow the European standards and attempt to match and replicate the original plant blueprint, rather than super-concentrating one active ingredient.

In my opinion, extracts can be safely used by qualified herbalists or healthcare providers who understand the herbs, their extracts, and the potential interactions with other herbs or drugs.

At LifeSpa, we have a HP (High Potency) line of supplements. Some of these contain extracts that I suggest be used for a short time to restore balance to the body.

Generally, I use whole herbs rather than extracts because they work with the body, with minimal risk. Also, whole herbs are, plain and simple, unprocessed!

Nature’s Extracts

While the best herbal companies try to match the blueprint of Mother Nature, this is a tough task. Generally, nature only puts a small amount of the so-called “most active” chemical in a plant, along with a cast of supportive constituents. This creates something quite different than the western approach of standardizing herbal extracts based on one active chemical.

Here’s an example of a standardized extract label list:

Turmeric dried extract (root)
95% curcuminoids

This label means that 450mg of this product contains 95% of the one active ingredient, called curcuminoids.

Traditional medicinal systems, like Ayurveda, mix herbs, plants, and spices in specific combinations to naturally boost the effectiveness of an herb or herbal formula.

For example, when turmeric root is mixed with black pepper, studies have shown that this simple blend increases the absorption of the turmeric by 2000 %, (3,4)

In addition, there are over 300 natural constituents in turmeric root, and only one of those are the curcuminoids. In many studies, the whole plant of turmeric has outperformed curcumin (turmeric extract), suggesting that when we start altering nature’s intelligence, we lose many of the plant’s benefits and some of the bio-chemical synergy that humans may have evolved to safely digest over millions of years. (6)

Though the extract of turmeric may be one of the herbal extracts that are considered safe, traditional dishes like Indian curry combine turmeric with other spices in such a way that its efficacy matches and even outperforms some of the western world’s most potent turmeric extracts.

One of my Ayurvedic teachers in Varanasi, India, Dr. Hari Narayana Singh, was well into his nineties when he accepted me as a student. One night, I asked him why he doesn’t hire someone to stir the herbal formulas for him. He replied, “This formula requires 1008 strokes. How will I know they did all 1008 strokes?” I never asked that question again.

Another example: Amalaki, one of my favorite Ayurvedic herbs, is a citrus fruit that has about 10 times more vitamin C than an orange and is heralded as one of the highest food sources of vitamin C in the world. (8) It acts completely differently than the extracted or synthetic version of vitamin C. Most people have experienced the side effect of loose bowel movements from taking too much vitamin C, because it acts as a bowel irritant at higher doses.

Amalaki, with its content of full-spectrum vitamin C, is actually used to support occasional loose bowel function and balance the intestinal mucosa. (7) Even at extremely high doses, amalaki exhibits no known side effects. (7)

Once the vitamin C is extracted or synthetically copied, the potency may be enhanced, but it is often not tolerated well by the human body. The body and whole herbs have an innate intelligence.

Messing With Mother Nature

In one report, a small herbal company ran low on the herb, Cascara sagrada, commonly found in bowel-moving formulas. The company replaced the whole herb, which originally made up 25% of the formula, with the same amount of Cascara sagrada extract.

The active ingredient in the Cascara sagrada, called cascarols, went from 2% of the formula to 25% – making it 1000 times more potent.

Within 3.5 weeks, the company posted a total product recall because the side effects were so frequent and severe. (1)

Remember Kava Kava?

Kava Kava in its whole herb form has been safely used for mood support for thousands of years in Oceania.

In search of the next best-selling, mood-boosting herb, western companies extracted the active chemical of Kava Kava, called kavalactones. These kavalactones represent only a small part of this herb’s blueprint. They are toxic to the liver in high isolated dosages without the other buffering constituents in that plant.

Kava Kava extract became a big-time, best-selling, mood-boosting herb. Shortly thereafter, Kava Kava itself was flagged by the FDA for liver toxicity, even though the problems were caused by the extract, not the whole herb. Falsely accused, this herb that is incredibly safe when taken as a whole herb, has now been given a life sentence.

Remember Ephedra?

The extract of Ephedra, called ephedrine, was originally used in many allergy remedies and became a popular weight loss herb because of its stimulating properties.

Companies made super-potent standardized extracts for maximal weight loss and, shortly thereafter, the FDA stacked up 1400 consumer complaints from adverse reactions to these standardized extracts. (1,2)

As a result, Ephedra was pulled off the market. Interestingly, not one of the 1400 complaints was caused by the whole herb. They were all caused by the super-potent and misused extract, ephedrine. (2)

The Biggest Oops of Extracts

In recent years, certain plants like St. John’s Wort, Ashwagandha, Echinacea, Kava Kava, and Ginseng, have been standardized using only the most active constituent of the herb.

In certain cases, the “most active” constituent turned out to not be the most active after all, which may be the case with turmeric, coffee and others.

St. John’s Wort, for example, has typically been standardized to a certain amount of hypericin, but it is now believed that hyperiform is actually the most active constituent in the herb. (9) Oops – they were concentrating the wrong chemical!

Extracts Are Not Always Safe

Drugs have side effects that must be disclosed. We have all seen and heard the big pharma TV ads that list the horrendous litany of side effects of the drug, all while showing a gorgeous couple kiss and ride off into the sunset.

Although herbal supplements are regulated by the FDA, it is the responsibility of the individual company to report any serious adverse events, leaving the safety of the consumer to the conscience of the retailer.

It becomes the consumer’s responsibility to know what potency of the standardized extract is safe.

Valerian root naturally has a very low concentration of valerenic acid, which can be toxic to the liver at high dosages. The standardization process can concentrate a formula to any percentage of the valerenic acid, because the percentage contained in an herbal extract is up to the discretion of that company.

There is no American regulation of this and no overwhelming consensus to date on what would be most appropriate and safe.

That said, raw herbs have their limitations. When an herb is dried, it may lose some of the volatile aromatic constituents, whereas extracts try to capture those as well.

Buyer Beware!

cure all pills

While most natural food store brands are reliable and safe, it is challenging to know for sure. Beware of products that make big claims of a cure.

I don’t use stimulants, sedatives, or laxatives in my practice because they tend to eradicate symptoms by overruling the body’s intelligence. I prefer to understand and treat the cause of the imbalance without creating a dependency on the herbal product. While this is more challenging, it is where the joy of working with herbs resides.

Whole herbs work with the body, making it easier to restore balance and normal function without the need for continued herbal support.

What to Avoid

  • Products that claim a cure or super potencies.
  • Laxatives like Senna and Cascara sagrada, which are bowel irritants. Instead, I use herbs that lubricate and support digestion so you can have naturally healthy bowel movements, rather than forcing an irritating stimulant through the gut.
  • If you are sensitive to herbs or medications, consider only taking whole herb products. Standardized extracts will carry residue from extraction solvents, so beware if you are sensitive to chemicals.
  • Extracts can be safe if they are whole herb or full-spectrum concentrates, rather than the standardized extracts. But they will be more potent!
  • For 100% safety, use standardized extracts only if you are familiar with the manufacturer, the herb used, and its safety history. If you are unsure of where to start, non-profit organizations like the Natural Products Association and the American Herbal Products Association are good resources to contact for advice about a particular product before buying.


While there are many safe standardized extracts, I still believe in using the whole raw herb as if it were a food harvested from your garden whenever possible.

I use organic, whole herbs almost exclusively at LifeSpa because they carry the original intelligence and full-spectrum synergy of the plant. This means the whole plant is dried and ground – that’s it. Most of the herbs we use have been eaten as foods or spices for thousands of years.

Each part of the herb is considered as valuable as the next. I believe that the plant’s intelligence and effectiveness cannot be improved upon and, moreover, will likely never be fully understood.

Don’t mess with Mother Nature!


  1. LoR. Caarl (L. Carl) Robinson, Clinical & Formulary Herbalist, Sept. 2007 3,4. AAPS J. 2006;8(3):E443-9.
  2. Ibid.
  3. http://www.ahpa.org/Portals/0/pdfs/14_0206_AHPA_micro_limits_comparisons.pdf
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3917507
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9619120/
  6. http://scialert.net/fulltext/?doi=ijp.2009.333.345
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20506691
  8. https://lifespa.com/amalaki-the-best-vitamin-c-berry/
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17704987

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Dr. John

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