Using herbs to boost health and heal has been a strategy passed down through the ages. Here’s how to navigate products you can buy and whether to DIY when it comes to herbs and your health.
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If you can DIY your bathroom vanity, cashew milk, and headboard, why not DIY your own herbal supplements? Short answer: You can, but you'll need to do your homework first. On the one hand, it's empowering to take charge of your own health and become more in tune with the natural remedies Mother Nature can provide. On the other hand, you may not have the time, space, or knowledge to cultivate, dry, and make your own herbal tinctures (aka concentrated herbal extracts), teas, or capsules. The following experts explain that there can be a safe path and an unsafe path in either direction.  

Using herbs, flowers, roots, and other plant compounds for health and healing is therapy as old as time. And whether people are making tinctures or their own herbal capsules or purchasing them online or from stores, the lure of the healing power of herbs and botanicals is predicted to continue for generations. 

"Herbs and botanicals are quite consistently the fastest-growing categories within supplements," says Bill Giebler, Content & Insights Director at Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ), which shows herbs and botanicals growing at 17.3% in 2020 with an estimated 9.2% growth for 2021.

Giebler says a number of things have happened to help herbal supplements maintain popularity. "Firstly, we're experiencing a plant renaissance both on the dinner plate and in the medicine cabinet, so while the plant-based diet gains traction in the grocery aisles, plant-based supplements are capturing consumer imagination in the vitamin and tea aisles. Secondly, cultivating and collecting herbs for teas or tinctures fits nicely into DIY culture. And lastly, people are becoming disenchanted with pharmaceuticals. So, even as they may continue taking pharmaceuticals, they are complementing them more with herbal remedies." 

turmeric capsules on blue background
Credit: schlosann / Getty Images

What Is an Herbal Supplement?

Congress defined the term 'dietary supplement' in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, explains Andrea Lindsey, Director of Operation Supplement Safety and Senior Nutrition Scientist for the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine. "It is anything that is intended to supplement the diet—a vitamin, mineral, herb or other botanical, amino acids, enzyme, and more—that is taken by mouth. The product should be labeled as a dietary supplement and contain a Supplement Facts Panel on the label." 

An herbal supplement, then, is any herb or other botanical product intended to supplement the diet and which is taken by mouth, such as in pill or tincture form, gummies, liquids, and much more. "These can even include herbal teas and functional foods—think turmeric in an energy beverage shot or ashwagandha in a bar," says Giebler. Because we are busier than ever, there is a trend of trying to maximize the benefits from every moment we eat or drink something, thus the rise of more "functional foods and beverages" and the blurring of the lines between what counts as a supplement, what counts as a drug, and what counts as a food. While this terminology may not matter to you, this does matter in terms of how these products are regulated and brought to market. "The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) distinction between a food and supplement can be clearly seen by whether the product has a Nutrition Facts panel, Drug Facts panel, or a Supplement Facts panel," explains Giebler. 

Are Supplements Regulated? 

In short, yes, supplements are regulated by the FDA to a certain extent. The FDA has oversight of food, drugs, and supplements under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. This includes the power to recall a product or ingredient that it deems a risk to public health, inspect facilities, take manufacturers to court, and even seize products. The aforementioned DSHEA ruling of 1994 created a new regulatory environment for supplements, as a subset of foods. When people claim that supplements are not regulated, they usually misunderstand this, or mean that supplements are not regulated in the same way that drugs are. 

The issue here is that a lot has changed in the 25+ years since DSHEA was passed. "The regulatory framework has not matured the way the supplements market has," explains Patty Deuster, PhD, Professor and Chief Science Officer for Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP) at Uniformed Services University. "Manufacturing facilities need to register, and the FDA approves ingredient use and making sure that what is stated in advertisements is scientifically based and truthful. What is not regulated is pre-market safety, efficacy, and product registration [like drugs are required to do]." 

"The supplement landscape has dramatically changed since 1994," says Lindsey, explaining that prior to then, scientists had isolated and tested vitamins, minerals, fish oils, amino acids, and enzymes. "But we didn't have all these product categories for things like brain health, pain management, immune health, bodybuilding, sexual enhancement, and more." Because of the market explosion, manufacturers have either done their due diligence to bring high-quality ingredients to market in safe and innovative ways—or they've cut corners, using cheap ingredients, contaminants, and loose claims. Both things happen.

One of the best ways for a person to know if they're choosing the high-quality supplement from a trusted company is by looking for proof of third-party testing, says Lindsey. Some examples of third-party testers include NSF International and US Pharmacopeia, IFOS (for fish oils), and Consumer Lab, plus Banned Substances Control Group (BSCG) and Informed Sport for the categories of sports supplements and performance enhancement. 

Another good benchmark, especially when considering supplements that contain concentrated amounts of herbs and other things grown from soil, is an organic certification. "Certified Organic is a good benchmark," says Ann Armbrecht, PhD, Director of the Sustainable Herbs Program. "This shows the company has to trace the herbs to the source, and you want to buy from a company that knows the whole chain of custody of the ingredients they use." 

And because all this requires some homework on the part of the consumer, it's starting to become apparent why the DIY path for supplements can be intriguing for some. While you may not be able to see how a supplement makes its way from an ingredient to a product on the store shelf, you can certainly watch an herb grow in your backyard from seed to plant. And you can pick the leaves and turn them into a tea or a tincture yourself, thus transferring the trust to a source closer to home (aka: you).

Can You (and Should You) Make Your Own Herbal Supplements?

The hyper-awareness of what we put in our bodies in terms of foods versus medicine is an interesting juxtaposition that Armbrecht illustrates. "People are often committed to shopping at local farmers markets and feeding organic foods to their kids, but they don't think twice about giving them Advil," explaining that, while many are striving for more transparency and localism for what's on their plate, they leave medicine up to the doctor and supplements up to only what you can buy from a store.

"The underlying value of herbal medicine is not just a practice, but a philosophy of how we interact with the world and notice the aliveness around us. It's a relationship, and there's a reciprocity to it," says Armbrecht, author of The Business of Botanicals, an anthropologist who completed her research in eastern Nepal and attended an herb conference in the late 1990s where she learned how to make her first tincture. "I was struck by how empowering it was to grow echinacea, dig up the root, cover it with vodka, and create a homemade tincture I could use for my immune health rather than buying an expensive tiny bottle from the store." Since then Armbrecht has mastered the process of making tinctures and teas for a variety of ailments. Peppermint to soothe digestion, lemon balm, and tulsi for a calming effect, valerian root to sleep better, rose for an uplifting mood, and even chamomile to help heal her daughter's pink eye symptoms, for example.

If the healing power of DIY botanicals interests you, Armbrect, Lindsey, and Duester all say you need to start by getting to know your herbs. Next, really understand the "red flag" categories: herbs that may counteract with pharmaceuticals you're taking, or the ingredients it's advisable to avoid when pregnant or breastfeeding, for example. 

What if you don't have the time, tools, or appropriate space to grow your own herbs? Armbrecht then suggests looking at the herbal tea in your cabinet and upping the quality there. Since teas—like many other herbal tinctures and supplements—are concentrated, then the quality or contaminants of the product is a direct reflection of the quality or contaminants of the soil where the herbs are grown. For these reasons, Armbrecht says it makes sense to seek out an organic tea brand, such as Organic India, Pukka Herbs, or Traditional Medicinals, which offer transparency into their growing and ingredient sourcing. "Not all herbal teas are the same. You want tea made from pharmacopoeial-grade herbs so it's going to have the constituents needed to provide the effect you want," says Armbrecht, whether that's calming, energizing, better sleep, or something else.

And whether you're venturing down the DIY herbal path or just want to know if the supplement you're picking up from the store has any known scientific benefit, you'll want to keep your expectations within reality. "We tend to convey herbalism as a black or white topic," says Armbrecht, "claiming that they're either the answer to everything or they're going to kill us. But it's neither; it's somewhere in between." 

And she emphasizes quality over all: "Whether it's what you grow yourself or what you buy from a company, you can get high-quality, effective ingredients or really dangerous stuff that has heavy metals or has been adulterated. And quality isn't going to come from the cheapest thing you find on Amazon." 

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