Dietary Supplements Issues - 5 Problems with Herbal Formulations  

Herbal formulas have been used for thousands of years, especially in the traditions of Ayurveda and in traditional Chinese medicine. In fact, Western medicine is also based on man’s relation to plants. In this article, we explore some of the problems with herbal formulas sold by supplements companies in the West. Some important problems include contamination with toxins from pesticides due to commercial production, heavy metals, insects, bacteria, and other plant species. Other problems arise due to a lack of understanding of the unique plant physiology, the interactions between active components, and a lack of consistency in storage and manufacture. [caption id=""attachment_2137"" align=""alignright"" width=""847""] There are some problems with herbal formulas and herb stacks[/caption]

Problems with Herbal Formulations

Supplements companies around the Western world are cottoning on to the increasing awareness of alternative healing methods. In the United States and other developed countries, many people are growing tired of the symptoms-approach of conventional medicine. That is, to treat the symptoms of disease with numerous chemical agents that vary in potency and in the side effects that they produce. [1] As people look for alternative options, the room for exploitation increases. Alternative medicine practices from around the world include Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Importantly, these are holistic treatment systems. Both systems use herbal formulas as part of their treatment plans, but they also incorporate other aspects. This is important because of the increasing sales of polyherbal formulas in the West. These herbal ‘stacks’ often contain many different herbs or plant species in various ratios. Crucially, most of the herbal formulations on sale today were not developed by trained Ayurvedic or traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. This is where we run into problems. The use of herbal formulas is growing in developed countries. In developing countries, some 80% of the population used herbal formulas as part of their primary health care. The inadequate knowledge of safety, mechanisms of action, chemical interactions, storage guidelines, and manufacturing processes make herbal formulas problematic for consumers. [2] To avoid the problems associated with herbal formulations, we always recommend choosing a product with no more than two or three verified active compounds. The supplement should contain a full list of ingredients and their percentage concentration. Ideally, you’d want a product with a verified third-party Certificate of Analysis. Below we explore the top five problems with herbal formulations available from supplements companies in the US today: [caption id=""attachment_2139"" align=""alignright"" width=""625""] An example of a third-party verified Certificate of Analysis[/caption]

1.    Contamination with other plant species

One of the most important issues with herbal formulas is contamination. Numerous studies have found that many herbal formulations are contaminated.  One of the key sources of contamination is other plant species. There are a number of reasons for this: some plant species look very similar, and some species have similar effects but are cheaper or easier to procure. In a 2013 study, researchers used DNA barcoding to test a variety of herbal supplements for contamination.  The researchers studied data from 44 herbal formulation products, from 12 different companies. The results showed that 59% of the herbal formulas contained DNA from plant species not listed on the ingredients. One-third of the products also contained fillers or excipients that were not listed on the ingredients.   In fact, only 2 out of the 12 companies tested had products that did not contain any herbal substitutions or unlisted fillers/excipients. Furthermore, many of the contaminated products contained DNA from plant species with potentially dangerous health effects. [3] This creates a problem for the legitimate companies selling uncontaminated herbal formulas. The dilution of herbal products with other plant species or with fillers reduces the effects of the product and creates a lack of consumer confidence in dietary supplements as a whole. Not only this, but it may be putting customers at risk of negative health effects. [caption id=""attachment_2138"" align=""alignright"" width=""847""] According to recent studies, the majority of herbal formulas are contaminated with different plant species[/caption]

2.    Contamination with bacteria, fungi, insects, pollutants

Herbs are natural products from the ground. These plant species are grown in nature and, as a result, the raw material is often contaminated with bacteria, fungi, insects, or pollutants. This is normal and occurs in most farming methods. However, it is important that supplements companies take appropriate measures to remove the contaminants before selling their herbal products. Examples of microbial contaminants found in herbal formula products include:
  • Pathogenic micro-organisms (bacteria)
  • Fungi spores
  • Mycotoxins (toxins produced by fungi) [4]
The American Herbal Products Association has posted guidelines for companies to follow to remove microbial contaminants from their products. Although it is almost impossible to remove all microorganisms from a naturally derived product, there are guidelines as to the recommended microbial limits in herbal products. Confusingly, these guidelines differ by states, regions, and countries. So, if your supplement was produced in a different state or country, it may contain more microbial contaminants than what is recommended in your state. [5] Plants naturally contain dead insects. Although these are not considered to be dangerous, contamination of herbal products with insect material is undesirable and unacceptable in industry practice.   Pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are often sprayed onto plant material during production. These chemical agents may be found in varying quantities in herbal formulas. Again, this is a result of improper handling and post-farming production. [6] Studies have found that many herbal products contain contaminants like insect material, pollutants like pesticides, and heavy metals. In the US, studies have found that these are usually within the recommended guidelines set out by the FDA and the American Herbal Products Association. [7] However, it is impossible to tell whether your batch contains contaminants within the recommended range without a verified third-party Certificate of Analysis (CoA) for each batch. [caption id=""attachment_2140"" align=""alignright"" width=""848""] Industrial production of ingredients in herbal formulas means that there is a possibility of contamination with pesticides[/caption]

3.    Seasonal variation in bioactivity

This is a very important aspect of herbal formulas and plant extracts. Most people without a background in botany or local indigenous knowledge will not know that the concentrations of active components in plants are known to vary in response to seasonal changes. [8] Therefore, it is very important to harvest the herbs or plants at the correct time of year. This ensures that the herbal formula will be of a high potency. However, the continuous year-round demand for herbs and the lack of knowledge about the correct harvest times means that herbal formulas are often sold at below-par strength.   A scientific review published in the International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research found that the active components in various Ayurvedic herbs varied quite dramatically, in a rhythmic cycle, throughout the year. The review looked at a number of studies on the optimum harvest time for different plant species. Importantly, the researchers found that there was no “one-time-fits-all” for the different herbs – the harvest times were unique for each various herb – some also had very specific harvest times, will others could be harvested over full two seasons. [9]   This highlights the complexity of plant responses to seasonal changes, and the importance of knowing when the correct time is to harvest. Interestingly, the season does not only affect the concentration of the active components. In some herb species, the season determines whether or not active compounds are found in the plant at all! [10] Unless the company from which you buy your herbal formula sells their product with either a Certificate of Analysis or a fact sheet about the time of harvest, you actually have no idea of knowing whether or not it contains any active components!

4.    Degradation of active components in storage

The stability of active compounds in herbal formulas has been brought into question recently. There are numerous factors that can affect the stability of an herbal formula in the manufacturing process and especially in storage. Environmental factors like temperature, humidity, exposure to light, and air quality can affect the stability of active components. [11] Other factors include the particle size, the pH of the formula, the type of container in which it is kept, and the presence of other chemicals or components from contamination. The result is that there are important tests that herbal formulas must undergo before being put to market. [12]   Problems with the stability of herbal formulas include:
  1. Physical stability of the product – especially due to impurities and contaminants
  2. Environmental issues – rainfall, altitude, light, harvest time, manufacturing methods, storage conditions, pH, air quality
  3. Chemical stability – the chemical stability of a herbal formula is affected by a number of factors, especially temperature, light, and humidity
  4. The mixed nature of the formula – since herbal formulas contain numerous active compounds, it can be difficult to determine the optimum storage conditions
  5. Interactions between active components – in the presence of moisture and warmth, the active components of a herbal formula may begin to react with each other [13]
  As the use of natural medicines increases, it becomes ever more important that storage methods are properly determined. The problem of storage is more difficult with herbal formulas than with single compound supplements. [caption id=""attachment_2141"" align=""alignright"" width=""848""] Storage and interaction between compounds are important factors in herbal formulas[/caption]

5.    Lack of understanding of unique plant physiology

An important aspect of herbs and plant extracts is that each plant has a unique physiology. This means that certain parts of the plant are often more useful than others. An example includes the Sceletium tortuosum (Kanna) plant, which is found in the deserts of Southern Africa and is also called ‘Bushman’s Ecstasy’ due to its uplifting effects. Kanna roots and leaves contain a far higher concentration of active components – alkaloids – than other parts of the plant. As a result, purchasing Kanna extracts that are not from the roots or leaves is not recommended. [14]   Another example is the bark of the magnolia tree, which is high in honokiol alkaloid content. However, other parts of the plant do not contain nearly as high of an alkaloid content as the bark. [15] A lack of intimate knowledge about the unique physiological properties of the plants or herbs being used can result in below-average products. To further compound this issue, herbal formulations tend to use multiple plants or herbs. This means that the people involved in the manufacturing process should have an in-depth knowledge of all the plants that they’re using. [caption id=""attachment_2146"" align=""alignright"" width=""848""] Knowledge of plant physiology is important in production of herbal formulas[/caption]

Ayurveda: Ancient Indian Integrative Medicine

Ayurveda is a traditional Indian form of healing and living, which literally means “the science/knowledge of life”. In Ayurvedic tradition, the mind is the most important aspect of healing because of the intimate connection between mind and body. Unlike in Western medicine, Ayurvedic practitioners prescribe meditation and various forms of exercise as part of the healing process. [16] Until recently, Ayurveda was frowned on by Western medical schools as being ‘backward’ or unscientific. However, recent studies have emerged suggesting that Ayurveda – which uses different methods of treatment, including specific ancient herbal formulas – may be as effective as conventional medicine for some ailments. An example is a 2011 study on rheumatoid arthritis, which found that Ayurvedic herbal formulas were as effective as the conventional treatment. The study included 43 participants over 36 weeks and found that there was no statistically significant difference between results. The group receiving conventional medicine, did experience significantly greater side effects than the Ayurveda group. [17] Other examples include the use of turmeric-based herbal formulations for inflammation, as well as varieties of frankincense to create an anti-inflammatory resin. Both of these examples have clinical evidence to show their efficacy. [18]   Ayurveda is a holistic treatment method developed over 3000 years ago in ancient India. Western researchers have explored some of the herbal treatments of Ayurveda and have found a few to be as effective as conventional treatment methods. However, the extraction of the herbal formulas from Ayurvedic medicine reduces their potency. To fully explore the potential of Ayurveda, scientists need to study the effects of full Ayurvedic treatment – including lifestyle and dietary changes – compared to conventional medicine. [19] [caption id=""attachment_2144"" align=""alignright"" width=""847""] Ayurveda incorporates mindfulness with herbal medicine[/caption]

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is another alternative form of healing developed in the East thousands of years ago. TCM focuses on the flow of Qi (pronounced ‘Chi’) energy throughout the body. According to TCM, if the flow of Qi is disrupted, this is what often leads to disease. There are a number of aspects to traditional Chinese medicine and these include: acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, and Tai Chi exercise. [20]   Modern scientific research has tried to explore the efficiency of traditional Chinese medicine. However, there are some setbacks to this process. For example, in areas of Chinese where TCM is practiced, it can be difficult to obtain sufficient data. Many of the studies that have been done on TCM were not able to reach any substantive conclusions because of the lack of solid data. The practice of Acupuncture remains controversial due to a lack of scientific understanding of the mechanism. Western scientists have conducted large reviews on the clinical studies on acupuncture treatment. They found that acupuncture produced a greater relief from pain than no acupuncture or fake acupuncture, but that the difference was not very great. [21]   Traditional Chinese medicine uses herbal formulas as part of the healing process. There are over 350 different herbs that are used in TCM and these are often combined in varying ratios to create unique formulas. The practice of Chinese herbal medicine is supposed to complement the other aspects of TCM – including acupuncture, healthy eating, acupressure, meditation, and exercises targeting the flow of Qi. [22] Western scientists conduct studies that examine the use of traditional Chinese herbal formulas compared to modern chemical agents. However, it would be interesting to see the results of well-conducted comparative studies between full Chinese medicine and commonplace Western medicine. [caption id=""attachment_2145"" align=""alignright"" width=""848""] Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) involves an intimate knowledge of Qi energy[/caption]

Conclusion – One or Two Active Compounds Max!

[caption id=""attachment_2142"" align=""alignright"" width=""250""] The Rod of Asclepius is associated with Hippocrates, the 'Father of modern medicine'[/caption] In conclusion, herbs and herbal formulas are an important aspect of alternative medicine like Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine. They are also the basis of our modern conventional medicine system. In fact, Hippocrates - considered the ‘father of modern medicine’ - used many of the herbs and plants that we still use today. Examples include St John’s Wort, Dittany, Willow (formed the basis of aspirin), Mandrake, Chaste Tree, and Ivy. [23] He is also famous for his saying: “Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food.”   However, herbal formulations available from supplements companies run into a number of issues. We don’t recommend purchasing herbal formulations from supplements companies. LiftMode does not sell herbal formulations. None of our products contain more than two active components, and our products are shipped with a third-party verified Certificate of Analysis (CoA). If you are interested in exploring alternative medicine practices, then we urge you to contact a recognized treatment center near you to experience the benefits of the holistic alternative medicine approach.  

Medical Disclaimer

Not intended to treat, diagnose, or cure any disease or ailment. Please read and fully understand potential adverse effects before using this product. These statements have not been reviewed by the FDA and are not written by a medical professional. Please consult your doctor before using any supplements, especially if you have any medical conditions.


B.Sc. in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Researched & written by Tristan and verified by the Research Team


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