Anyone who consults with me knows that I always suggest taking herbs in a way that allows you to taste them. That means that I usually use teas, tinctures, syrups, herbal jams like chayawanprash or turmeric honey, pickled herbs, overnight infusions, herbal decoctions or powdered herbal extracts that are added to water. The only time I really approve of using capsules is when giving the severely bitter anti-parasite herbs (usually a long term proposition and the bitterness is for the parasite) or when a person is so debilitated that they will miss dosages unless they have pills to tide them over until they can brew up their herbs. In that case I may give herbs in two or more forms.
Why would you want to taste your herbs?
Taste is not just an aesthetic sense. It provides the body with information that the herbs are coming and to get ready to use them. It triggers secretions, hormones and digestive processes. All things being equal, a dose of herbs that are tasted will be assimilated faster and put to work earlier and may be as effective at lower doses which can reduce potential side effects.
Taste can be protective. Any woman who has been pregnant knows that taste and smell can direct you away from foods that can potentially upset the baby. I will only give herbs in a form she can taste because revulsion means she should not take that herb. Similarly taste can regulate dosage. I like to nibble on aromatic but potentially toxic fresh sassafras leaves but at a certain point my body suddenly says, “Stop!”
The entire digestive tract has taste buds, as do the lungs. Yes, taste buds. Potentially you could taste your herbs in your small intestine when the gel caps break down, but that would mean signals to the stomach, liver and gallbladder would be missed. The bitter taste, for instance, triggers the secretion of HCl in the stomach and bile through the liver and gallbladder. Bile triggers peristalsis in the gut and potentially reduces depression since most neurotransmitters like serotonin are made in the gut. The sequence is set up for a reason and we shouldn’t short circuit it.
There are lymph glands in the tongue and throat. That means if you take your echinacea tincture it gets into your lymphatic system immediately instead of being digested and going through circulation. Faster, and probably needed in lower doses than with capsules.
Capsules are usually made from extracts which leave minerals behind. They tend to be in tiny dosages, say 500mg of 5:1 extract instead of 9 grams per average herb as you would typically find in a Chinese formula.
Capsules also can hide what is inside since at most you see a powder behind the gel cap. I can tell plantain from foxglove when I see it in leaf form, but I wouldn’t be able to tell the powders apart. I also can’t tell what concentration is in a capsule and Consumerlab frequently finds that herbal capsules contain less material than claimed.
A recent study using a barcoded analysis found that one third of encapsulated herbs tested contained plant material not indicated on the label and 30/44 contained some measure of substitution. Now some of that probably includes rice flour used as an anti-clumping agent or alfalfa used as a filler, but there was a significant problem with adulteration. One reason could be that in Chinese medicine, a single herb name may refer to several functionally similar species which might be considered adulterants unless properly identified by species. But there is also ignorance and fraud in the market. ( I would also note that the analysis technique may not recognize processed herbs so could overstate the problem.)
When plant material is powdered, more surface area is exposed to the air so it can oxidize and go bad sooner. This even occurs within capsules. If I were to smell or taste the herb I would know if it were rancid or inert, but inside the capsule, who knows? (This also applies to fish oil or cod liver oil.)
Teas, infusions and decoctions also have an advantage of being given in a material dose which can include minerals along with other constituents. They are more nourishing, as are herbal jams, syrups and honeys.
Herbs are outstandingly safe and rarely cause any deaths, unlike pharmaceuticals, so there is little reason to be afraid. See my article on the barcode study here which elaborates on the safety issue. But you want your money’s worth and you don’t want to be undertreated when you are ill. So the best way to take herbs is in a way that you can see, taste and smell.
And taking time to brew and drink your teas, decoctions and infusions means you are deliberately taking time to care for yourself!