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Research Notes

Using The Whole Herb, Not Standardized Extracts

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By Dr. Jeremy Hayman, ND and St. Francis Herb Farm medical advisor

Researchers have yet to isolate and name every single chemical constituent and component of medicinal herbs. In many respects, the constituent parts of the plant are largely still unknown, and possibly outside of the scope of scientific analysis. The compounds of complex herbal extracts, including those involving multiple herbs, work in synergy—which is a fascinating aspect of herbal medicine, and one that supports the use of the whole herb.

There are a number of synergistic qualities to consider:

  • Inactive constituents that enhance the effects of active constituents within herbal medicines
  • Herbal compounds that alter the absorption of other compounds
  • Herbal constituents that reduce the toxicity of other herbal constituents
  • Direct synergistic therapeutic effects that occur when active constituents are combined in multi-herb remedies.

Some studies identify a single molecule or several molecules that appear to provide most or all the effect of a crude plant extract for that assay, but that approach doesn’t recognize the complex activities of other compounds in the plant that could directly affect the actual outcome being assessed. Consider, for instance, berberine, an antimicrobial compound extracted from plants like barberry (Berberis vulgaris). Flavonoids found in that same plant work to prevent microbes from resisting berberine. In other words, while berberine may be the most important antimicrobial within that particular plant, removing the flavonoids and only using the berberine could mean that its effectiveness as an antimicrobial is reduced.[1]

Sweet annie (Artemisia annua) is another good example.

Sweet annie  or artemisinin, extracted from A. anna, is a potent antimalarial schizonticide. Artemisinin and various semisynthetic derivatives of it are among the most widely used antiplasmodial drugs in the world. A clinical trial showed that a simple decoction of A. annua provided far lower levels of artemisinin than are used as an isolated drug, but still effectively eliminated symptoms and dramatically lowered parasite burden in adults in the Democratic Republic of Congo with chronic malaria. Cure rates were, on average, 74%. Clearly, there is more to A. annua than just artemisinin.[2]

When prescribing botanical medicines to patients, the make up of the herb as a whole is important. These examples counter the notion that single constituent or standardized constituents are any better. In fact, single constituent or standardized constituents may even reduce intended outcomes. 

Sidebar: Measuring up

In whole herb botanical medicine, it’s often essential to confirm the presence or absence of a particular constituent within the final whole herb tincture. This practice speaks to whether a finished herbal medicine, whether it’s a capsule or a tincture, maintains its potency post-extraction. The practice of measuring “marker constituents” (which is different than standardizing) ensures herbal extracts and tinctures continue to maintain their potency and active medicinal qualities, and all within their whole herb form. For example, gingerol is an important marker constituent of ginger, and St. Francis Herb Farm’s Ginger 1:1 fluid extract has a significant gingerol content of about 20%. Compare this with many other “standardized” extracts on the market, where the gingerol content can be as low as 6%.

For more information on herbs check out our monograph on ginger and how it can be a supplement for liver disease. 

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Who is it for

When prescribing botanical medicines to patients, the make up of the herb as a whole is important.

How it helps

  • Direct synergistic therapeutic effects that occur when active constituents are combined in multi-herb remedies.


[1] Ivanovska N, Philipov S. Study on the anti-inflammatory action of Berberis vulgaris root extract, alkaloid fractions and pure alkaloids. Int J Immunopharmacol. 1996; 18(10):553–561

[2] Mueller MS, Runyambo N, Wagner I, et al. Randomized controlled trial of a traditional preparation of Artemisia annua L (annual wormwood) in the treatment of malaria. Trans R Soc Trop Med Hyg. 2004; 98(5):318–321

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