As I walk down the aisles of the healthfood store or search the internet, I see standardized extracts growing more and more in availability. As an herbalist, I would like to offer you my viewpoints on these for consideration.
In my studies of herbalism and the traditional use of plants, I find no mention of standardization. This is a modern phenomenon that has been publicly endorsed in the past several years. In my opinion, this newer way of taking herbs stems from an influence of allopathic (modern) medicine. Physicians, nurses, and researchers are trained to expect certain measurable outcomes from chemicals. The key word here is measurable. It follows the belief that if you can measure a substance and it illicits a certain response from the body, then, in order to continue to obtain that response, the chemical must be predictable. This is the basis for the creation of drugs and their use. Pharmaceuticals/drugs are standardized natural plant compounds or synthetic substances. Every year, pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars in testing chemicals on animals and humans in hopes of obtaining a consistent, reproducible response.
Since plants are made up of hundreds (if not thousands) of chemicals, studies are done to isolate a particular chemical, or chemicals, which research deems to be the most "active" component of the plant. It may then be tested in vitro (occuring in laboratory apparatus, ie: petri dish). That chemical then may be tested time and time again in vivo (occuring in a living organism) to ascertain its effects on the human/animal body or particular cells. Modern science bases its acceptance (or not) on predictability, that is, predictable outcomes. This is what clinical trials are used for!
In light of a few herbs being introduced onto the market in the past which were contaminated with other substances, contained different plant materials, or just the whole plant being wrongly identified and mislabeled, it can be a way of checking to be sure that the substances are not adulterated. Although this happens infrequently, it is still a possibility. If you are testing for a certain chemical and it is absent, it is a good sign the wrong plant is being used. Let's now explore some of the ideas as to why I disagree with standardization of herbal products.
Science has identified many phytochemicals (phyto=plant). There are possibly thousands that are yet unknown to science. We can only test for that which we can identify! Just as humans are complex living organisms, so are plants. Let me begin with one of my favorites to pick on, St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum). It is commonly used by those dealing with mild to moderate depression. It exhibits similar properties and actions with the class of drugs called MAOI's (Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors), although less potent. Hypericum is one of the few herbs which only exhibits its most potent actions when used or preserved in the fresh state. (Fresh is always best, since some properties will be greatly reduced, almost nonexistent, in some dried forms of plants. Most supplements are made using the dried form, almost useless with this plant in my opinion!) The most "active" chemical in St. John's Wort was determined to be hypericin. When a standardized extract is made, it is measured to contain a certain percentage of hypericin. This can be manipulated by extracting only that chemical and adding it to the product.
According to a monograph on this plant provided by the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, "Hypericum contains numerous compounds with documented biological activity. Most researchers consider it's effects to be due to a variety of constituents rather than any single component. Constituents that have stimulated the most interest include the naphthodianthrones hypericin and pseudohypericin, a broad range of flavonoids, including quercetin, quercitrin, amentoflavone and hyperin, the phloroglucinols hyperforin and adyperforin, the essential oil; and xanthones." All of these chemicals—plus others known and not known—play a role in the plant's actions. There is a careful balance of phytochemicals inherent in each plant.
At the exclusion of other known chemicals, hypericin is singled out. What role do the other chemicals play in the effectiveness of Hypericum? Depending on the method used to preserve the plant, certain chemicals will also be lost or reduced. This is a concern no matter how the product is prepared, standardized or not. So, we know from looking at the bottle that each tablet or capsule contains a consistent amount of hypericin. This is in conflict with Nature.
A look at Nature gives us some interesting thoughts to ponder. Depending on what type the soil is, the nutrients available to the plant in the soil, the water content, environmental pollution, weather conditions, etc, we find a variation between plants grown in different places, even growing side by side. What if this stand of plants over here contains a high amount of iron, while the one miles away contains little. Each plant is different. So are we! I do not contain 'standardized' amounts of anything in my body.
I conducted a little "experiment." Hoping to prove myself wrong, I tried some standardized extracts. First, I tested St. John's Wort. I took the suggested dosage of the supplement for 3 months. Nothing. I then switched back to a tincture I had made out of the freshly harvested flower tops. Within a week, my symptoms improved. Thinking I may have mentally sabotaged my little test, I tried it again—this time with Gingko biloba. I purchased the standardized extract, giving some to myself and some to my son. I didn't tell him I was conducting a "test" of any kind. We both developed rashes within 24 hours. I then tried using leaves I had dried and powdered, placing them in capsules. No rash.
Not to be discouraged, I tried one last test. I had taken aspirin off and on for years, always suffering an upset stomach afterward. I switched to White Willow bark. No upset stomach. This is an extremely limited "test group," but the results were apparent to me in my experience. I've had clients complain to me that they took St. John's Wort and found it to be totally useless. Upon questioning, they told me they had been taking the standardized extract or dried capsule form. I asked them to try the fresh plant tincture. They all reported back that they had found their depression lifting. Before I go further, let me say this: St. John's Wort will not work for all types of depression, nor in every person suffering depression. Just as one pharmaceutical antidepressant does not work for all, neither does any one plant.
In order to find justification and acceptance for herbal use, some medical professionals feel that they must have "proof" of a plant's effectiveness through trials, testing, studies, and predictability, just as is done with drugs. Many of the studies done have validated the historical uses of some plants. A chemical is found and identified which produces a certain physiological response. This coincides, many times, with the anectdotal and historical uses of the plant for that purpose. In my readings though, I have noticed that the greater part of the "herbal" trials are done using standardized preparations. In the summary statements, it may say that the plant was found ineffective or unproven. Remember, this was using a manipulated preparation, not the historical application of intact/whole plant part(s). Even if the study validated the historical use, we are using two different preparations—standardized as a means to prove/disprove non-standardized, traditional (historical) uses. Comparing apples and oranges maybe?
An area of major personal concern to me are the studies lacking on the essiac tea. Some of the agencies I have researched do not appear to want to conduct any trials or investigation into this blend's validity without standardizing the blend. Since this blend appears to have rather "tonic" qualities, which chemicals do you choose to standardize!? How would that change the actions of the blend? I do not think essiac is a single "cure" for cancer, or any disease for that matter. I have heard enough anecdotal evidence from clients, though, to tell me that it is a wonderful adjunct to people's overall regimens, enough to deserve closer scrutiny. So shall we toss the baby out with the bathwater because essiac has not been standardized?
Another point to ponder: Pharmaceuticals are primarily (but not always) designed to suppress, or override, a function or response in the body. Many herbs are seen to facilitate the body back to balance, to help alleviate stress on organs or organ systems, replace nutrients lacking in the body, assist with digestion, encourage the elimination of toxins, etc. The actions are very different in many instances than those of drugs. I have yet to see the list of adverse side effects given for most herbs as are included in reference materials for drugs! (They exist, but seem to not be as prounounced. Okay, as always, there are exceptions!) In my opinion, successful use of herbs is in finding the correct combination for that individual, with a goal of working with the body to balance itself.
To label extracts as being "natural" is a gross misrepresentation. Those plant materials have purposely been manipulated chemically! Period! The inherent balance no longer exists. Plant circulation so closely resembles that of a human, it seems that our bodies tend to assimilate these nutrients and chemicals more efficiently. Over much time, we have come to adapt to them.
Yes, we need drugs, but are they the whole answer? Is manipulating nature always in our best interest? Critics site that plants are too variable in constituents to test. Yes, and that can be a positive thing if you use it wisely. I prefer to look at pharmaceuticals with a degree of respect for their actions, knowledge of the side effects, and appreciation of intended goals. I also take into consideration thousands of years of experience from those who have worked with plants and have witnessed firsthand the responses in the human body to the plants given in certain conditions. Both modalities are valid.
This information is provided for educational purposes and to promote discussion only. It is not intended to diagnose, treat or claim cure for any disease or imbalance in the body.