How To Use Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide

Have you just begun to explore the wonderful world of herbs? Isn’t it awesome discovering the amazing remedies in nature’s medicine chest? Lovely Lavender flowers soothe, Chamomile calms, Turmeric tunes up tired joints, and who doesn’t love a cup of creamy Matcha for a late afternoon pick-me-up? And there is so much, much more!

But where do you start? How do you know which herb to use? And what form is best, capsules, tea, extract? Is standardized better, and what does that even mean? No worries, in our continuing “How To With Herbs” series, we explain the basics so you feel less overwhelmed the next time you walk into a herb store. So here goes…

Frequently Asked Questions About Herbs

I have never used herbs before where do I begin?

Just like any journey in life, before you start it is always a good idea to ask someone who knows. For chronic and multiple health concerns, check with an herbalist, for simple issues such as occasional indigestion or stress, a reliable herbal reference is an excellent option. The best ones will describe in simple terms what the herb is used for, suggested dosage, as well as any appropriate cautions.

For beginners, we like to recommend:

Are herbs safe?

When used in moderation and according to the manufacturer’s recommendation, herbs can be a safe alternative to drugs, which often have numerous and toxic side-effects.

However, it is important to remember this basic rule: follow directions on the labels when using herbs. Almost anything taken in excess can cause side-effects. Most reported problems with herbs have been due to overuse or misuse. Don’t fall into the trap of “If one is good, then three is better.”

Well-known author, Dr. Earl Mindell cautions:

“Just because herbs are natural substances doesn’t mean that they can be used indiscriminately. Herbs can be strong medicine. Before trying any herbal remedy, be sure you know what it does, how to use it, and the possible side effects. Never exceed the recommended dose.”

Do herbs work?

For millions of people in Europe, Asia and other countries where herbal medicine is standard treatment in their healthcare systems, the answer is a resounding “YES!”

Here are a few key points to keep in mind:

  • DO NOT expect the activity or immediate response of a drug.
  • Results vary with each person, but improvements can generally be seen within a week. Chronic problems usually take longer.
  • Make sure you purchase herbs from a reliable source like Penn Herb Company since quality can vary greatly.

Can I use herbs with my prescription medicines?

It is recommended that you ALWAYS check with your healthcare professional before using any herbal medicine. For guidance on known interactions, see the Penn Herb Wellness Guide:

A to Z Index of Vitamin & Herb Interactions
A-Z Index of Medication Interactions

But what if my doctor doesn’t believe in herbs?

Whether your doctor agrees with your choice to use herbs or not, it is always a good idea to let them know what herbal remedies you are taking.

The good news is that many progressive physicians now recognize the value of herbs. Quite a few major hospitals now have alternative and complementary treatment centers available to their patients.

If you would like to find an herbalist or naturopathic physician in your area, the following websites may be helpful:

Why do herb labels not say what conditions they are good for?

Perhaps you read in your herbal guide that a certain herb is used for colds; yet when you read the label it says “Promotes immune function”. Why is that? The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regulates what manufacturers are allowed to say on product labels. We are not permitted to say an herb cures or improves any condition that the FDA considers to be a disease, such as “colds”, “cancer”, “diabetes” or “high blood pressure”.

While this can be very frustrating for you as the consumer, it is very important for us to follow these guidelines so that we can continue to provide you with the herbs and supplements you need.

Again, you can access the Penn Herb Wellness Guide A-Z Index of Health Conditions or consult a reliable herbal reference to find information on herbs and what they’re traditionally used for.

What is the difference between a standardized herb and a whole herb?

Standardized means that the active compound believed to make the herb effective is extracted, measured and sometimes concentrated, then packaged in a capsule, tablet or liquid. For example, curcumin is one active compound found in the whole herb Turmeric. Research shows that an exact dose of 95% of curcumin supports joint health. Therefore, a standardized Turmeric capsule will deliver 95% curcumin in each dose.

whole herb supplement is carefully dried, milled to powder, measured by weight (usually milligrams) and encapsulated. ALL of the herbs’ compounds remain intact – nothing is removed, isolated or concentrated. For example, our whole herb Turmeric capsules contain 700 mg of Turmeric powder, which naturally contains the active compound curcumin, plus oils and other compounds. The whole herb Turmeric supports joint health, as well as liver health, digestive health, healthy cholesterol levels and more.

So are standardized herbs better than whole herbs?

There is no definite answer, and even herbalists are split on this issue. Consider the facts for yourself.

A standardized supplement:

  • Ensures a consistent amount of an effective active ingredient.
  • Guarantees that a herb will produce the desired effect.
  • Can be measured exactly to be used in clinical trials, such as is the case with the mood-boosting hypericin found in St. John’s Wort.

Whole herbs:

  • Have been used effectively and safely for thousands of years.
  • Contain dozens of compounds, which often have synergistic health benefits.
  • Usually have fewer side-effects, since whole herbs are generally less concentrated.

In order to accommodate the diverse needs of our customers, Penn Herb Company offers both standardized preparations and over 400 whole herbs.

Whole herb Turmeric and standardized Turmeric capsules
Whole Turmeric & Standardized Turmeric

What is the best form to take? Tea? Capsules? Liquid extracts?

The form you take depends on your personal preferences (are you squeamish about unpleasant tastes, do you have difficulty swallowing capsules) and circumstances (do you have time to brew teas, is it convenient for travel).

Capsules:

  • Convenient
  • Ideal if taking an herb with an unpleasant taste
  • Provide higher dosages than cups of tea

Liquid Extracts:

  • Easily absorbed, which is especially beneficial if you have digestion and absorption issues
  • Faster-acting since most extracts are highly concentrated
  • Easy to use, simply add to juice or water

Teas:

  • Provide immediate, comforting relief. For example, hot Ginger tea instantly warms and soothes occasional indigestion
  • Natural health author Laurel Vukovic also notes: “Teas are excellent for treating urinary tract infections because the fluids help to flush the bladder.”
Herbal forms - whole, cut, extract
Herbal forms – whole, cut, extract

What is the difference between the various forms of herbs?

You walk into an herb store or decide to order online and suddenly you’re faced with a seemingly bewildering list of options – cut, powder, whole, extract or capsules! Which one is best?

Whole 

Cut and Sifted

  • Used for making teas – the herb is cut in small pieces and the dust is sifted out. This produces a clear tea that is pleasant to drink.
  • Popular herbs to use in cut and sifted form include Peppermint Leaves and Red Clover.
  • The cut form is also used to make a bath, a facial wash or a topical compress.

Powder

  • Most often used for filling empty capsules and for making a salve or other external preparations.
  • It makes an instant, “cloudy” tea.
  • Many spices are preferred in the powder form, including Cinnamon and Cayenne Pepper.

Capsule

  • The preferred choice for many because they are convenient to carry.
  • They provide a higher, regulated dosage for continuous benefits.
  • Eliminates the unpleasant taste of some herbs. For example, Golden Seal Root is very beneficial for immune support, however, it is also very bitter.
Loose cut herb and herbs in capsules
Loose cut herb and encapsulated herbs

Now that you are armed with this basic knowledge, may you continue your herbal quest into nature’s wonderland. Oh, and check future posts for more exciting ways to use herbs.

Aristotle
“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.

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