Photo Credit: Africa Studio/ Shutterstock.com
October 9, 2013
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You’re not feeling well, so you head to the grocery store for some herbal tea. Or perhaps you pass a booth at your farmers’ market, full of herbal concoctions to cure every ill. Thanks to a 1994 law known as DSHEA (the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act), herbal products cannot promise to actually cure you of anything. Rather, they offer to support or promote a specific body part or function. To most of us, it’s all the same, whether a tea, tincture or capsule promises to help cure our cold or “support upper respiratory health and immune function.” You see the promise, you buy the product, but does it work? Did you get ripped off?
First off, herbs can and do work. If herbs were entirely ineffectual at altering our body state, then marijuana would not be illegal and nobody would ever put aloe on sunburns. The questions for someone seeking to use herbs are, which herb to use, how much and how frequently to use them, which form to use them in, and how much to pay for them. Answer those questions correctly and you might be pleasantly surprised at the medicine cabinet you never knew was growing in your front yard. (In fact, you might have called those herbal remedies weeds.)
Although they can work wonders, herbal products are not regulated like drugs. Manufacturers do not need to prove that chamomile tea is better at relieving anxiety or improving digestion than a placebo. Most of the time, that’s okay. Humans have used herbs for millennia and we don’t need the FDA’s blessing to know that ginger is good for nausea or lavender helps you relax. But sometimes, the products on the shelf are overpriced, ineffective, or even unsafe.
If you buy herbal products from the store, the best-case scenario is probably that you get a product that helps you feel better but you pay too much for it. A box of 16 teabags can run you $5 or more. In most cases, you can probably buy loose herbs online or at a local herb store, blend them together, and make the same amount of tea for less than a dollar. (Many herbalists swear by Mountain Rose Herbs for organic, fresh, and fairly priced supplies.)
The downside to blending your own tea is that you might end up with far more than you need. Even if you pay less per cup of tea, you might pay as much or more overall than you would have by just getting a package of teabags at the store. You also need a basic amount of knowledge about the herbs you select, like what they do and whether or not they are safe for you. (Some herbs are not recommended for children, pregnant women, nursing mothers, or people with certain medical conditions.)
On the other hand, when you buy herbs or harvest them yourself, you know that they are fresh. Who knows how long that box of tea has been sitting on store shelves or in a warehouse before that?
That said, herbal products at the store that are effective and yet overpriced (and maybe not so fresh) are typically the best-case scenario. Alarmingly often, herbal products are shoddy or even questionably safe. Here are a few pitfalls to look out for.
1. The herb is sold in the wrong form. Herbal medicine comes in many forms. Infusions, which are like strong teas, are perhaps the most common. Herbalists differ in their instructions for infusions, but often they say to pour one cup of water “just off the boil” over one teaspoon of herbs and steep, covered, for 20 minutes. (If you buy herbal tea from the store and you’re hoping it will provide some medicinal benefits, don’t just steep in hot water for a few minutes. Bring the water to a boil and steep the herbs for at least 20 minutes.) But there are also tinctures (made by combining herb with alcohol for several weeks and then straining out the herbs), essential oils, topical products like compresses, salves, and poultices, and more.