How I Come Up With new herbal formulas

If you’ve ever taken an herbal blend, you’ve probably asked yourself, “What’s in this mixture? Why did they pick these herbs? Why not another herb or that one I saw on TV last week?”

In a couple days, I’ll be launching a new set of products with my friends at Herb Pharm. Before the products appear on shelves and Amazon, let’s take a minute to talk about how we got here.

So if you’re wondering, here’s how I formulate an herbal mixture.

It can start anywhere

I’m a thinker. The way my brain works is to sit on ideas for a while. I might see something in a book or in the news that inspires me to start formulating. But before I get started, I will meditate on the idea as I go about my life. I’ll ruminate in the shower, then mull it over while cooking breakfast or driving. Once I start a project there’s some part of my brain that’s always cataloging and playing with it.

I’ve been using herbs for 35 years. So I think about herbs the way a chef thinks of new dishes.

A chef comes up with recipes every time they eat. A chef doesn’t have to taste test every time to know what a dish is going to taste like if they add cinnamon versus curry.

The aromas of herbs are part of me. Once I think of Lavender, I’m already smelling Lavender. So there I am going about my day, driving to a meeting and smelling Lavender in my car as my brain works on the formula.

What am considering during all this? Well, when you put together an herbal formula, you have to weigh a number of things.

What do I want the formula to do? 

It’s best to start with the most obvious question. What is the goal of the formula? Do you want it to relax somebody, stimulate, aid digestion, enhance mood?

Once you know what problem you are helping solve, you can design a combination of herbs to get there. You think of the category of herbs known to have the effect you want. Or maybe there are a few categories of herbs that could help.

How intense do I want the effect to be?

Next, I think about intensity. If I want a formula to be relaxing, how relaxing should it be? Can it help you chill out? Is it so intense that you cannot safely get behind the wheel? Think of number line from zero to ten. 1 to 2 is an herb that has a mild relaxing effect. 10 is an herb where you get so relaxed you fall asleep.

Then I pick one or two herbs in the categories I want with the intensity I’m looking for and those are the main players in the formula.

What supporting herbs might work?

Now it’s time to start thinking of what herbs could support these main players. Here, it helps to think of the end user. What do they want or think or need?  This comes up most often with taste. Americans are used to a sweet taste. Like, we even make bitter things sweet, like coffee. Not many of us are used to complex botanical tastes. And if the user doesn’t like the taste, maybe they will stop taking the formula. Of course, an herbal formula only works if somebody actually takes it.

Then you have to think about the herbs’ action within the body. For example, we know some herbs might upset digestion. So if the main herbs you select have that side effect, you can pair them with herbs that can counteract that element. Herbs that may ease digestion. Now the formula is starting to come together.

But before you’re done, you have to consider the world around you.

Think of people’s expectations

When you release a formula into the world, it’s met by people’s expectations. Maybe there’s been a story in the media recently where an herb is called out for having a side-effect. You have to take this into account even if you know the clinical research says differently or you think these risks are being overstated. Maybe you even leave that herb out or find a substitute. Because if misleading news keeps people from taking the formula, the formula is not going to do anybody any good.

Then I run my ideas by some friends.

I’m lucky enough to have friends spread across the herbal and natural products world. I can run potential herbal combinations by my friends. They review them in terms of the actions, the availability, the connections with other herbs. I’ll shoot a friend an email and ask, “what do you think about this herb versus that herb?” These are people I trust.

After all that, I put the herbs in spreadsheet and look them up.

I’ve known these herbs for a long time, but it’s important to see if any new studies have hit recently. So I actually research the herbs again. I make sure the science supports the actions that I expect. I make sure there are no contraindications for common conditions so as many people as possible can take the formula comfortably. It’s odd to research herbs that have been a part of your life for so long. It’s like Facebook-searching your best friend just to make sure you’re still really close.

And then I’m done!

With the formulation, yes. But now it’s time to make sure every ingredient can be sourced ethically. You don’t want your new formula to depend on herbs that are getting over harvested from the wild. You don’t want your formula to use some manufacturing process with harmful solvents. You want to consider things like organic growing, carbon footprints and the labor conditions of everyone involved in bringing your product to life.

For my latest project, I’ve been working with my friends at Herb Pharm to make sure every last herb is sourced and grown ethically. Actually, this part is fascinating. So fascinating that I think I’ll write a whole blog about it. Stay tuned…

Photos courtesy of Kwaku Alston


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