Are Standardized Extracts Better?
At Red Moon Herbs, we focus on using the whole plant in making our extracts. Sometimes people ask us why. Here’s an excerpt from an article by Nancy and Michael Phillips to help address that question.
Green Blessings ~ Corinna
Philosophy enters deeply into the debate on standardizing herbal preparations. People oriented towards a scientific point of view feel the need to quantify healing possibilities by knowing the concentration of the chosen active principle (constituent) used to achieve proven results. Others view synergy and spirit as working in ways we may not fully comprehend but have certainly observed with whole plant remedies that embrace healing, often in more ways than one.
Standardization generally refers to chemical extraction of the deemed active constituent. Two assumptions come immediately to the fore. Does one ingredient alone reflect the curative power in a given plant medicine? And does this ingredient become more potent in a concentrated extract than in the whole herb itself?
Few herbs are actually standardized to a relatively pure isolate. A single constituent is usually under 12% in nature. A strong solvent (hexane, methyl-chloride, acetone, benzene) with an affinity for the designated constituent is used to achieve the desired concentration, often in conjunction with a different solvent to precipitate out constituents deemed superfluous. Under such a regime, the complicated, interactive chemistries of such herbs are destroyed. The valid medicinal use remaining accepts both the limits of concentrated isolate and the possibility of side effects. Such phytopharmaceuticals are more akin to allopathic drugs than the original whole plant remedy.
Whole herbs come with life force intact. The subtle constituent balance herbalists have entrusted for millennia is put in arrears in a standardization process that focuses in on a single isolate. Such borderline pharmaceuticals have the potential to give herbs a bad name through misapprehended side effects or just inactivity.
A good example is salycylic acid, chemically extracted from willow bark to make aspirin. This ubiquitous drug has been found to have side effects in some people, including internal bleeding, leaky gut syndrome, and in some instances death. Herbal preparations of willow help reduce pain without this concentrated risk. The wide-ranging benefits that make up the gestalt of the whole herb are lost in a narrow science that ultimately promotes plant medicine as being only guaranteed by laboratory technique.
The marketing hype spread by some companies that standardized extracts are safer and more effective is untrue. “Claims for the clinical superiority of standardized products are unethical commercialism and an attempt to dupe the public in the name of science,” says Northwest herbalist Jonathan Treasure.
Herbal medicine has been called the medicine of the people precisely because the plants and the traditional knowledge of how to use the plants are accessible to rich and poor alike. The assertion that quality lies in a standardized preparation seeks to break the essential link of every person to the plants that heal.
“The starting quality of the herb used in the extraction process is far more relevant to quality of the final product than any laboratory manipulation or ‘correction’ during manufacture. Many companies offering standardized product start with crude herb purchased by third party brokers in the international marketplace, the provenance and quality of which is inevitably beyond their direct control. The old adage-garbage in, garbage out-is pertinent.”
“Herbalism is about holistic healing, about Gaia,” says Mimi Kamp in Arizona. “Squeezing our plants into isolated elements is not herbalism.” “A standardized extract,” chimes in Joyce Wardwell in Michigan, “is a poor substitute for a complex interaction and vitality found in whole herb preparations, especially if a person further empowers themselves by gathering their own medicine. But then I prefer driving a whole car rather than sitting astride a running engine.” Southwest herbalist Michael Moore sums this all up with characteristic clarity, “The active principle is the whole plant.”