The debate on whether using fresh plants as starting material for herbal medicines has gone on for many years now. On the one hand, herbalists such as Alfred Vogel, who pioneered the concept, insisted that fresh herbs produce the most effective remedies and should be used whenever possible. On the other hand, others argue that with good quality control standards, it is not necessary to go to the trouble of using freshly harvested herbs.
Why don’t all herbal manufacturers use fresh herbs?
Using fresh herbs to make herbal remedies seems logical and intuitively correct. After all, what would you prefer – a nice juicy freshly picked apple or one that has been sitting around for weeks? So why is the method of fresh herb manufacturing not more widespread?
The basic answer is that fresh herb extracts are more difficult to produce. There are many reasons for this:
- Timing and organisation. You will understand this if you have tried your hand at growing organic vegetables. For much of the year, there is little to harvest and then bingo – you have 50 heads of lettuce for your dinner table. Multiply this problem by say 30 or 50 herbal actives and you get a picture of chaos – unless you have the right facilities and an efficient organisation
- Logistics. Then, of course, there is the simple matter of having your factory close to or at the same place as where you grow your herbs. Ideally, the site will be out in the country where you can grow herbs organically, rather than in the middle of a gigantic industrial estate. This arrangement is not easy to achieve unless you start off with the intention of manufacturing fresh herb remedies in the first place.
The simple truth is that with the modern day mantra of cost savings and efficiency, it is far easier (and cheaper) to use dried herbs when manufacturing herbal remedies:
- You won’t need to grow your own herbs – dried plant material is available from herb brokers and from many parts of the world. These can be stored conveniently in a warehouse, with manufacturing slots scheduled at leisure
- You will have a choice of dried herb suppliers competing for your business.
What does research tell us?
So, if it is more difficult and more expensive to manufacture herbal products from fresh plant material, why do some herbal brands such as A.Vogel still insist on choosing this method? Well, research has confirmed intuition and has clearly shown that extracts produced from fresh plant material are indeed more beneficial as they contain more active substances.
For instance, we know that alkylamides in echinacea are important as they are responsible for modulating the body’s immune system(1). It is clear that alkylamides are not the only active substance in the herb, but echinacea extracts void of alkylamides do not work as well, or do not work at all.
It has also been shown that fresh echinacea extracts contain almost 3 times more alkylamides than those made from equivalent amounts of dried herb(2). The reason is easy to understand – alkylamides are volatile and evaporate easily, especially if heat is applied in the drying process or when the dried herb is stored prior to processing. To find out more information about fresh echinacea visit: avogel.co.uk/herbal-remedies/echinacea-echinaforce/.
The active component of herbs is not always clear
For herbs such as senna, it is clear that the anthraquinones are the main active ingredient. For echinacea, we know that alkylamides are important, but it is also clear that these are not responsible for ALL the physiological and clinical activity seen.
The truth is, for most of the herbs commonly used in the west, we have only an approximate idea of the active ingredients. For instance, valerian must be one of our most researched herbs and we know that it contains, amongst other substances, valerenic acids, valepotriates and essential oils. Research however shows us clearly that the full activity of valerian cannot be attributed to any one of these phytochemical compounds, but to a combination of all of them – ie. the whole extract(3). You can learn more about this herb by visiting: avogel.co.uk/herbal-remedies/valerian-hops-dormeasan/.
In truth, the action of a herb is more than the sum of the individual phytochemicals present, but the result of synergistic action. This, incidentally, is the reason we choose to work in the field of herbal medicine rather than with synthetic medicines.
The concept of synergy is very important if one is debating the merits of fresh plants. It suggests that the activity of the whole plant is not proportionate to the levels of the most obvious component – or to put it differently, a phytochemical present at a relatively low concentration may have a disproportionate responsibility for the activity of the whole plant extract(4).
A good example of this is rutin found in St. John’swort. Rutin is a common phytochemical and may be found in small amounts in many plant extracts. Research shows that extracts of St. John’swort which do not contain rutin are not as effective as those that do(5). This is true synergy at work.
This then brings us to the discussion of standardisation. Advocates of dried herb manufacture suggest that if you standardise or control for the concentration of certain markers in your extract, you will get a good quality and active extract. You will not need to worry about the concentration of the rest of the phytochemicals present.
This argument presumes that we know which phytochemical marker to standardise for. As we have seen, we are only confident of identifying the active components of only a precious few herbs. For example, we once thought that hypericins were the active component of St. John’swort(6) and the result was that the market was flooded with products containing ever higher concentrations of hypericin.
This ‘size matters’ approach gave us the now famous herb-drug interactions of St. John’s wort by inducing the production of liver enzymes(7), and is a clear example of how herbal medicines took a wrong turn in its history.
What does St. John’s wort have in common with grapefruit?
As we all know, the liver exists to ‘detoxify’ our blood and lymphatic system and this is done by a group of liver enzymes known as the cytochrome P450 (CYP) system. When faced with high doses of a substance it is not familiar with, the liver produces more of the enzymes needed for its removal. This is known as induction and is what the liver does naturally. Hypericum induces liver enzymes and so do certain foods, such as grapefruit(8,9).
The problem is that these same liver enzymes also remove other unfamiliar substances we ingest. For instance, they reduce serum concentrations of prescribed medicines, making them less effective. This is the reason why a woman on the oral contraceptive pill should not use a high dosed Hypericum product, or have grapefruit for breakfast every morning.
Fresh herbs make better remedies
A product made from dried herb typically contains fewer classes of phytochemicals and although it may get through quality control testing by meeting a specified amount of a chosen marker substance, levels of the other phytochemicals may be very low or non-existent.
Fresh herb extracts and tinctures typically contain many more types and classes of phytochemicals than dried herbs. Although these are standardised, they are done in a holistic way – typically, markers used confirm the amounts of groups of phytochemicals, rather than single substances. As they contain a wider range of phytochemicals, fresh extracts take full advantage of the innate synergistic activity of phytochemical compounds present in each herb.
Alfred Vogel once described fresh herb extracts as having ‘a deeper and wider range of action’. These words were not fully understood in the 1960s – but today, with research giving us more and more information on how herbs work, we no longer have any excuses.
To find out more about Alfred Vogel visit A.Vogel Herbal Remedies
(1) Gertsch J, et al. Echiancea alkylamides modulate TNF-al gene expression via cannabinoid receptor CB2 and multiple signal transduction pathways. FEBS Letters 2004;577:563-569.
(2) Tobler M, et al. Characteristics of whole fresh plant extracts. Ganzheits Medizin 1994;6:257-266.
(3) Barnes J, et al. Valerian. In: Herbal Medicines, 3rd ed.Great Britain; Pharmaceutical Press 2007:580-590.
(4) Gertsch J. Botanical Drugs, synergy, and network pharmacology:Forthand back to intelligent mixtures. Planta Medica 2011;doi 10.1055/s-0030-1270904.
(5) Nöldner M, Schötz K. Rutin is essential for the antidepressant activity of Hypericum perforatum extracts in the forced swimming test. Planta Medica 2002;7(68):577-666.
(6) Nahrstedt A, Butterweck V. Biologically active and other chemical constituents of the herb of Hypericum perforatum L. Pharmacopsychiatry 1997;30(Suppl.):129-134.
(7) Mannel M. Drug interaction siwhtSt John’swort. Drug Saf 2004;27(11)773-797.
(8) Huang et al. Drug interactions with herbal products and grapefruit juice: A conference report. Clinical Pharmacology Therapeutics 2004;75(1):112.
(9) Fujita KI. Food-drug interactions via human cytochrome P450 3A (CYP3A). Drug Metabol Drug Interact 2004;20(4):195-217.