Herbal Alteratives, Depuratives and Blood Purifiers: The Balanced Detoxifiers

lymph-systemAlteratives and depuratives, which are known in traditional folk medicine as blood purifiers, are a very important class of herbs in botanical medicine. These herbs generally act through the lymphatic, glandular and mucous membrane systems, and to a lesser degree through the skin. Their primary action is to favorably alter disordered metabolic and catabolic processes, especially those associated with the breakdown and elimination of metabolic waste. Their related secondary action is to enhance better overall absorption and assimilation of nutrients. Collectively these metabolic and catabolic activities serve to balance and normalize overall physiological chemistry and thereby restore vital health.

Here I will detail a few of my favorite alterative/depurative herbs, which are Echinacea, Burdock, Wild Indigo, Dandelion and Turmeric, and I will list others for further study.

Alteratives and depuratives are indicated in cases of retrograde metabolism, which are constitutional disorders associated with tardy breakdown and excretion of metabolic waste, deterioration of normally healthy tissues and slow reconstruction of new tissues. These indications are sometimes associated with loss of vitality and strength, loss of appetite, weight loss and general debility. Alteratives and depuratives are also indicated in a similar condition, which was traditionally described as a depraved state of the humors and a morbid condition, especially one that involves imbalance of component elements.

Although Echinacea is stereotyped as an “immune system herb,” it is also an excellent alterative and depurative and is especially associated with lymphatic glands and what traditional folk medicine refers to as “bad blood.”

Another great herb in this category is Burdock, of which I use a 50/50 combination of the root and the seed. Burdock is an excellent restorative cleanser/ detoxifier for the liver and kidneys. Burdock also soothes and cleanses the lymphatic vessels, serous membranes, and mucous membranes

Wild Indigo fresh root is another great alterative/depurative, but it must be used with caution and in moderation because of its strong action. Wild Indigo is useful in treating deep-seated, chronic and sub-acute issues. Wild Indigo is best taken in smaller doses and along with doses of Echinacea and plenty of water.

One of my all time favorite alterative/depurative herbs is Dandelion, of which I prefer using the whole fresh plant with its root, leaves and flowers. Dandelion is an effective but gentle-acting detoxifier of the liver and kidneys, and thereby is also useful in the treatment of various conditions of the skin. Dandelion is also a mild stimulant of bowel elimination and is especially indicated in constipation of the elderly.

Turmeric rhizome, the spice that gives mustard and curry powders their bright yellow color, is also an excellent liver alterative/depurative, which stimulates the production and flow of liver bile. However, Turmeric tends to act more strongly than Dandelion and therefore should be used in somewhat smaller doses. This herb/spice is indicated in congested liver and gallbladder. Also, new scientific research is justifying Turmeric’s uses in Traditional Ayurvedic Medicine in inflammation.

Some other alterative/depurative herbs of interest are Chickweed, Cleavers, Gotu Kola, Holy Basil, Prickly Ash, Myrrh, Celery seed, Spilanthes, Blue Flag and Yellow Dock.

Remember that a true alterative/depurative herb is one that not only cleanses and detoxifies, but also facilitates proper nutrient assimilation and which has a normalizing action on overall physiology.

Originally Published Spring 2006

Herbal Spotlight: Umckaloabo

umckaThe genus of Pelargonium brings to us a large and diverse number of horticultural and perfumery plants, together with a handful of traditional medicinal herbs. Made up of about 270 species, the largest variety and diversity of Pelargoniums occur in the Cape Provinces of South Africa. Of these 270, one species is conspicuous for its sordid history, promising medicinal potential and now, its renewed accessibility by the people of South Africa and the world. This herb is popularly known by the strange name of Umckaloabo.

Locally known as Rabas or Rooirabas, Umckaloabo is endemic to South Africa and Lesotho, a smaller country entirely surrounded by South Africa. Umckaloabo and several similar species have been long used in traditional medicine to treat diarrhea and dysentery. Today, Umckaloabo has become an extremely popular herbal medicine in Europe for the treatment of variety of respiratory ailments.

In 1897, an Englishman named Charles Henry Stevens was diagnosed with a lung condition and his doctor advised Stevens to travel to South Africa to recover. While in South Africa Stevens was treated with a root decoction by local healer Mike Kijitse and in a relatively short time Stevens was well enough to return to England, where he was now pronounced healthy. By 1908, Stevens was successfully marketing a secret patent medicine in England called Steven’s Cure. He called the active ingredient “Umckaloabo,” a name reputedly derived from a combination of Zulu words. More likely, however, this name was just made up by Stevens based on sounds he had heard in South African native languages. One of Stevens’ primary objectives throughout his venture was to protect the identity of his herbal ingredient. And what better way to ensure secrecy than to concoct a fictitious name. Regardless of the etymology, the name “Umckaloabo” stuck.

Stevens came under the scrutiny of the British Medical Association (BMA), brought about not only by jealousies of the BMA but also by Stevens’ exaggerated claims, his unsupported marketing guarantee and his refusal to disclose the active ingredient in his product. During his time of troubles with the BMA, a purported employee of Stevens opened the short-lived Umckaloabo Chemical Company in New York. Nothing more than a footnote now, it is interesting in that the company’s marketing created the basis for Umckaloabo to qualify as an old dietary ingredient under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). After Stevens’ death in 1942, his son sold the product rights, which clearly belonged to the indigenous people of South Africa, to a German drug manufacturer.

Amazingly, Stevens’ protection of the actual identity of Umckaloabo lasted until 1974 when a chemist, due to taxonomic discrepancies, mistakenly identified it as Pelargonium reniforme. This error was later resolved based on phytochemical differences between closely related species and the true identity of Umckaloabo was finally revealed publicly as Pelargonium sidoides. With the identity mystery solved, research on Umckaloabo was renewed in earnest. Especially in the last two decades, numerous papers with positive findings have been published for Umckaloabo’s effectiveness in treating a range of respiratory conditions. These studies support Herb Pharm’s Umckaloabo structure/function statement, “Supports Healthy Sinus, Nasal & Bronchial Function.”

Claiming a special extraction method and special uses of the extracts, German drug manufacturer Schwabe Pharmaceuticals acquired several European patents for Umckaloabo. With their patents in hand and a South African subsidiary able to supply vast amounts of wild Umckaloabo, Schwabe developed a highly popular German drug under patent protection. Because of the patents, Schwabe effectively had a monopoly on international Umckaloabo trade and even on the name “Umckaloabo” itself, which was their registered mark. This led some U.S. supplement manufacturers to avoid the name Umckaloabo and simply label their products as “Pelargonium.” Today, Schwabe’s U.S. subsidiary, Nature’s Way, continues to maintain a registration for the abbreviated name Umcka®, which they use on their Umcka Cold Care® line of homeopathic cold and cough remedies.

Schwabe’s patents were highly contested by other European manufacturers and by native communities of South Africa, who claimed that their traditional knowledge had been stolen. Pressure on Schwabe grew and in 2010 the company relented and withdrew the patents, freeing other companies to freely manufacture and market Umckaloabo products. Withdrawal of the patents also allowed the South African people to reclaim this herb as their own after more than 100 years.

As demand for the German preparations escalated, so did the pressure on the wild South African populations of Umckaloabo, prompting numerous cultivation projects to help meet demand. Some of these projects were moved overseas, pulling potential income out of South Africa and further upsetting the native communities. Fortunately, the development of cultivation has been so successful that much of the Umckaloabo supply today is from cultivated material, thus protecting wild populations. Herb Pharm is proud to offer Umckaloabo that is not only cultivated, but is Certified Organically Grown in its native South African habitat.

Among a complex array of phytochemicals, Umckaloabo is very rich in coumarins (all without anticoagulant activity), including one novel coumarin compound. This unique-to-Umckaloabo coumarin is used as part of Herb Pharm’s Umckaloabo raw material identity verification. We use phytochemical fingerprinting as a final step in our process to identity every lot of our Umckaloabo as genuine Pelargonium sidoides.

The convoluted journey this plant took during its introduction from South Africa to the rest of the world seems rather extraordinary. But in fact, many plants carry with them similarly remarkable stories. While at times questionable, such accounts are testaments to the intertwined and complex destiny humans and plants share. From food to medicine to environmental stability and even the air we breathe, our lives are inextricably linked to the green world of plants.

*This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

An Herbal Myth Challenged


Does Echinacea’s immune system activity diminish with continuous use?

I am on a mission to dispel the modern herbal myth that people should not take the herb Echinacea for long periods of time because its immune-enhancing activity diminishes with repeated and continuous dosing. Unfortunately this misinformation has now become “common knowledge,” although it has never been scientifically or clinically proven. This myth evolved from the misinterpretation of a single, translated study in the 1980’s and as a myth has endured as a part of modern herbal misinformation.

Extensive medical and pharmacological research on Echinacea has revealed multiple immuno-modulating actions (e.g., increases phagocytic action of immune cells, enhances properdin/complement system, enhances production of alpha-1 & -2 gamma globulins, inhibits hyaluronidase enzyme activity and enhances polymerization of hyaluronic acid, enhances wound healing by augmenting growth of healthy new connective tissue, increases killer T-cell production, is anti-inflammatory, increases interferon levels and  more). However, all this research has never shown any evidence that indicates that any of these immuno-modulating actions are decreased by continued use of Echinacea.

But let’s set science aside for a moment and look at Echinacea’s clinical use by the Eclectic physicians who practiced medicine from the mid-1880s until the 1930s. Tens of thousands of Eclectic physicians prescribed hundreds of millions of doses of Echinacea for many decades and yet in their voluminous medical texts and journals they never once mentioned anything about diminished success with Echinacea (for any reason). If they did indeed see such, one would assume it would have been mentioned in their literature at least once, if not scores of times. And while their empirical evidence cannot be considered scientific proof, I have much confidence in the bedside experience of these physicians who “saw it all.”

I have offered a friendly challenge to several prominent herbalists and herbal authors who claim Echinacea’s immuno-activity diminishes with continuous use. I’ve asked them to supply at least one reference that supports their claim — either from modern medical research, or from the Eclectic or Physiomedicalist literature, or from traditional folk medicine sources. So far no one has been able to supply even one reference. For me, I have to have something in order to believe — either modern scientific evidence or historical references, and definitely more than theory and conjecture alone. What I do know for sure is that Echinacea “works” — and does its immunomodulating job dose, after dose, after dose, after …

Originally Published Spring 2007

These Are Not Your Ordinary Encapsulated Herbs


While we believe that there are inherent advantages to the liquid herbal dosage form, solid dosage forms such as capsules and softgels can also be effective herb delivery options if properly made. With this in mind, Herb Pharm is pleased to announce three new encapsulated herb products created with the same meticulous attention to detail we give to all of our products. And as with all of our products, our capsules and softgels are 100% vegetarian and vegan.

Goldenseal root, Milk Thistle seed and Saw Palmetto berries – three of our newer encapsulated herb products – join our two existing herb capsule products, Kava root and Super Echinacea®. All of our encapsulated herbs share important characteristics that anyone seeking an herb product should consider.

The first is our exclusive use of sustainably cultivated and sustainably wildcrafted herbs. Purity and environmental responsibility are at the heart of our philosophy and work, and our encapsulated herbs are no exception. Herb Pharm only uses plants that are certified organically grown, tested free of pesticides and herbicides, or sustainably wildcrafted in their native habitat to ensure conservation of wild plants for future generations.

Next is our close attention to proper harvest timing. It’s often said that timing is everything and this certainly applies to medicinal herbs where precise harvest timing and proper selection of plant part(s) are so vital to producing herbs that are abundant in pharmacologically active constituents with optimal therapeutic efficacy.

Lastly, we never use toxic, environmentally harmful chemical solvents to make our extracts. There’s no point in selecting the purest herbal materials if in the end we pollute our extracts with harmful chemical solvents. Therefore, we only use natural, food and pharmaceutical-grade alcohol and distilled water. We never use toxic chemical solvents like hexane, acetone, methanol, petroleum ether or ethyl acetate.

In putting our philosophies to work, the result is a purity-assured, authentic line of encapsulated herbs that you can choose with confidence and peace of mind.

Our Saw Palmetto vegetarian softgel is made from the dark (deep purple to black) berries of Serenoa repens palms. We use pharmaceutical-grade alcohol to extract optimal levels of both fatty acids and phytosterols. We have found that alcohol extraction provides a broader range of Saw Palmetto’s active compounds than supercritical extraction. Saw Palmetto is primarily known for supporting prostate gland health and also provides general reproductive support for men and women. And unlike some other extract on the market, Herb Pharm’s Saw Palmetto is never extracted with hexane. Each vegetarian softgel contains 160mg of fatty acids.

Milk Thistle is a popular herbal remedy for healthy liver maintenance. Our Milk Thistle capsules are made from the dark, mature seeds of Silybum marianum plants. Our broad-spectrum extract is achieved only through physical rather than chemical defatting and extraction with pharmaceutical-grade alcohol. We never use common defatting and solvent chemicals like petroleum ether and ethyl acetate. Our Milk Thistle is guaranteed to provide 140 mg of silymarin in each vegetarian capsule.

Wild populations of Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) have been on the decline for many years, which is why we only use sustainably cultivated plants to make our Goldenseal vegetarian capsules. We use only the root (rhizome and rootlet) without any leaf and all of our Goldenseal is certified organically grown. We grind the rhizomes and rootlets of shade-dried, autumn-harvested plants and encapsulate without further processing.

Rounding out our capsule line are Kava and Super Echinacea® vegetarian capsules. These products are made to promote relaxation and reduce stress, and to support healthy function of the immune system, respectively. Our Kava root comes from chemical-free gardens in the Vanuatu Islands of the South Pacific, considered the best Kava growing region in the world. We use only the underground parts of Kava, commonly called the root but technically consisting of rhizome and root, and we never use any stem or leaf. Our Echinacea is grown on our own certified organic farm in southern Oregon. To fully capture the immuno-modulating compounds in Echinacea, we blend extracts of the root, leaf, flower and seeds.

So if you’re an experienced herb user who prefers capsules, or you’re a new herbal user looking for a place to start, we highly suggest trying our encapsulated herbs. If the herb you seek is not one we encapsulate, then we hope you will reference this article and choose a brand that speaks to the important characteristics that embody a quality herbal supplement.

Originally Published Summer 2011

Infused Herbal Oils & Essential Oils What’s the Difference?

The term “oil” in herbal medicine can be a confusing matter without clarifying exactly what type of “oil” we are talking about. The generic term oil can refer to two distinct herbal preparations. In one type, herbs are extracted with a fixed oil, usually vegetable oil, to make infused herbal oil intended primarily for use on the skin. The other products, essential oils, are phytochemical constituent groups isolated from aromatic herbs. An important point here is that essential oils are both plant constituents and when isolated from the plant, herbal products.

Culinary oils like Olive oil used in making infused herbal oil are lipids or fats. Lipid-based oils are also known as fixed oils because they are non-volatile. Fixed oils consist in part of fatty acid chains and are best known in the realm of nutrition. The highest quality fixed vegetable oils are cold-pressed from the fatty fruits and seeds whose names they bear. Olive and sesame oils are the most commonly used oils in herbal dietary supplements today, but many others can be found in herbal cosmetic products.

To make infused herbal oils like Calendula and St. John’s Wort, Herb Pharm uses a traditional process called digestion. Digestion is a very low heat, prolonged extraction designed to draw out the plant’s bioactive compounds. Herb Pharm uses food-grade, cold-pressed, certified organic extra virgin Olive oil to make our infused oils. Fixed oils dissolve many of the same compounds that dissolve in pure alcohol and the resulting infused oil represents a whole herb extract of the plant.

Fixed oils are distinct from the very fragrant essential oils. Essential oils are highly aromatic, volatile plant oils that are commonly used as fragrances, flavorings and in aromatherapy. These oils tend to evaporate or volatilize fairly easily at moderate temperatures. It is this volatile character that allows their aroma to reach your olfactory receptors and be perceived as fragrant. Natural essential oils occur in complex combinations that have a fairly specific composition for each plant. In herbs like Peppermint, Lavender and Cinnamon, the unique phytochemical composition of each essential oil is responsible for the highly distinctive aroma of the plant.

Essential oils can be separated from plant material by extracting them with certain types of solvents and in many cases by passing steam through the herb. Some essential oils are collected by simply pressing the fresh plant, as in the case of Orange oil used to flavor Children’s Echinacea™. Steam distillation is widely used to produce essential oils and is the method used for our Tea Tree oil and other essential oils we use as ingredients. We eschew chemical solvents and never use essential oils that are extracted with them.

The chemistry is complex, but it is the hydrophobic or water-repelling nature of essential oils that allows for their isolation and collection through steam distillation. And since both essential oils and fixed oils are hydrophobic, they are very compatible with each other. Fixed oils are commonly used as carriers and diluents for very strong essential oils. This combination is commonly seen in products like massage oil.

In line with the “like dissolves like” principle, essential oils are also highly soluble in strong alcohol. This forms the basis for the old pharmaceutical preparations known as “spirits.” Herb Pharm makes several spirits as combinations of a liquid extract or tincture with the essential oil of the plant rather than a simple alcohol solution of the essential oil. Our spirits include Oregano Spirits™ and the very popular Peppermint Spirits. One similar product is Erigeron/Cinnamon Compound that combines essential oils of these two plants in high alcohol. Another related product is Friar’s Balsam that contains several balsams, which are chemically closely related to essential oils, dissolved in alcohol.

Tea Tree Oil represents the only essential oil product that Herb Pharm carries. In all other cases the essential oils we use are ingredients in other products, but our Tea Tree is a pure, standalone essential oil. Essential oils represent large quantities of plant material and are therefore very powerful plant derivatives that should be used sparingly and carefully.

In contrast, the infused oils like those made from Calendula, Arnica and St. John’s Wort are very soothing to skin because of their fixed oil bases. Each of these herbs brings their vulnerary or skin healing properties to their respective infused oils. These single oils are also combined in our aptly named Trauma Oil™. Two other special oil-based formulas are our Mullein/Garlic eardrops and Herb Pharm’s Original Salve™. While tinctures or liquid extracts comprise the bulk of our product line, these two distinct categories of oils are important contributions to the Herb Pharm medicine chest. Our infused oils constitute a very visible and significant part of our external product profile. Herb Pharm’s essential oils may not be as apparent, but they establish a noteworthy category of flavoring and active ingredients throughout our products.

Originally Published in June 2010

American Herbalists Guild 20th Annual Symposium

ahgThe American Herbalists Guild (AHG) is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting herbalism and herbalists throughout the United States. The Guild welcomes both general members (anyone can join) and professional members. One of the Guild’s main goals is to establish AHG professional membership as a recognizable standard of competency in botanical medicine. In order to demonstrate their skill level, Professional member applicants are peer-reviewed by the AHG Admissions Board. General members include students, aspiring herbalists and a wide variety of others drawn to plant medicine.

This past October, the American Herbalists Guild (AHG) held its twentieth annual symposium in Santa Rosa, California. About 300 people turned out for the three-day symposium, entitled “Herbal Medicine: New Possibilities for Primary Care.” Nineteen nationally recognized teachers presented classes and herb walks to attendees from around the country. The symposium addressed herbal healthcare throughout all stages of life, from healthy pregnancy to end of life care. Topics included children’s herbs, maintaining health in aging, and treatment of diseases associated with aging.

Herb Pharm attendees included co-owners Ed Smith and Sara Katz, Herbal Educator, Julie Plunkett and staff Herbalist, David Bunting. Julie and David tended to the Herb Pharm information table over the weekend. It was good to see friends and current customers and Julie applied her excellent educational skills in telling new customers about Herb Pharm and our products. Herb Pharm is proud to have been one of the top-tier sponsors of this important event.

Ed Smith presented two great classes during the event. The first was entitled “An Herbal Travelogue, the Botanical Adventures of Herbal Ed.” This travel slideshow took attendees on Ed’s herbal explorations from Kava ceremonies in the South Pacific island nations of Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu to the Junín Maca Festival at 15,000 feet elevation in the Peruvian Andes. Ed’s second class, “Optimizing Male Sexual Health, Performance & Pleasure With Herbs” dealt with tonics to optimize sexual health and treatment of various sexual maladies. This class served as a complement to a talk addressing women’s sexuality presented by Aviva Romm, the president of AHG.

The idea for an organization of herbalists was planted in the early 1980s during the annual herbal gatherings at Breitenbush Hot Springs in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. In 1989, a group of herbalists from around the country came together in Santa Cruz, California to move the idea forward and the American Herbalists Guild was born. Guild founding members included Herb Pharmers Sara, Ed and David.

In keeping with its long-term goals and mission, the Guild has brought together a disparate coalition of people who share in common a love of plants and herbal medicine. AHG publishes an excellent journal and newsletter, sponsors regular telephone trainings and the annual symposium and acts as an ever-growing voice for promoting herbalism. Annual memberships are available for the general public, herb students and pro-fessionals. To find out more about the American Herbalists Guild, visit www.americanherbalistsguild.com.

Originally Published Winter 2010

The Language of Our Work

What is a botanical?
A botanical is a product that exclusively contains ingredients from plants, algae or fungi valued for its medicinal or therapeutic properties, flavor, and/or scent. “Medicinal herbs” are thus a subset of botanicals. Products made from botanicals that are used to maintain or improve health may be interchangeably called herbal products, botanical products, or phytomedicines. In contrast to most conventional pharmaceutical drugs comprised of one single chemical, botanicals contain complex mixtures of naturally-occurring chemicals.

In naming botanicals, botanists use a Latin name made up of the genus and species of the plant. Under this system the botanical black cohosh is known as Actaea racemosa L., where Actea is the genus, racemosa is the species, and “L” stands for Linneaus, who first described the type of plant specimen.

Are botanicals dietary supplements?
Congress defined “dietary supplements” in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which became law in 1994. According to that definition, a dietary supplement is a product (other than tobacco) that:

  • Is intended to supplement the diet
  • Contains one or more dietary ingredients (including vitamins; minerals; herbs or other botanicals; amino acids; and other substances) or their constituents
  • Is intended to be taken by mouth as a pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid
  • Is labeled on the front panel as being a dietary supplement.

What is Pharmacognosy?
Derived from the Greek pharmakon meaning “drug” and gnosis meaning “knowledge”. Pharmacognosy is the study of natural products (i.e., plant, animal, or mineral in nature) used as drugs or for the preparation of drugs. Much of the work performed by our chemists will be in pharmacognosy.

Phytochemicals, what are they?
Phytochemicals are chemical compounds or chemical constituents formed in the plant’s normal metabolic processes. The chemicals are often referred to as “secondary metabolites” of which there are several classes including alkaloids, anthraquinones, coumarins, fats, flavonoids, glycosides, gums, iridoids, mucilages, phenols, phytoestrogens, tannins, terpenes, and terpenoids, to mention a few. Herb Pharm’s “full spectrum” extracts contain many phytochemicals.

Originally Published in November 2006