Tag Archives: herbalism


Traci Piccard
Traci Piccard
This is a guest post by Traci Piccard at Fellow Workers Farm Apothecary and I thought it was so right on point that I wanted to share it with you:

At one point in my herbalist journey I refused to read or listen to anything which criticized my path. Those jerks! What is their problem? Herbs are great! Haven’t they read my blog?!?!?! And then I sought these people out, just to get mysef.

My love of herbal medicines was fragile, like a precious bit of fine China, something I needed to protect and guard. And I felt like I needed to defend my right to use herbs and to make my own health choices, and I was interested in being right.

I would pick out the one point that they got wrong, while ignoring the parts which may have taught me something. Why can’t everyone see my way?!?! How can they possibly not GET this!?!?

But now, I don’t give a rat’s ass.

I have moved through the idea that other people need to believe what I believe. (Mostly.) I actively seek out people who don’t use herbs, and I am interested in why some people dislike them, make other choices or can’t access them.

I have tried things. like actually tried, not just read about them in a book or a magazine.

I have seen examples where herbs and other “alternative” healthcare have not worked, are not the best choice, or are promoted in actively manipulative, confusing or even potentially harmful ways.

And ultimately, I feel less threatened by others who want to prove me wrong. Go ahead. In fact, it would be helpful. I will read your critiques now, and sometimes they are right, sometimes wrong, sometimes both. I feel more confident in my use of plant medicines and my connection with plants, as well as my movement and nutrition choices, but I am always willing to learn more, to dig deeper, to ask questions, even of myself.

And I can see the humor in our humanity, the way we divide ourselves, the way we all form our groups and our paradigms and our dogmas and stick onto them like medicinal leeches. I am this and you are that. It is freeing to unstick myself from the sweaty leg of any one side, any one path.

And as I get older I have more of a grasp of what it means for a person and an idea to mature. I do love the new, fresh, youthful rage-against-the-system energy that innovates and wears hot pink and turns it up and boinks everything that moves, and must yell THIS WORKS in all caps on every herbal forum. Juicy, but fragile. Now I am falling in love with this more mature phase that brushes off others’ hyperbole and panic, lets my actions speak for themselves and commits to just keep walking, outlasting the haters. Well, tries to.

I still want to debate people who disagree with me, respectfully, and I still want to share my love and joy around plant medicines. And, OK, I occasionally still craft long silly arguments in my head. But I am not afraid of the other opinions and approaches anymore. And there are many sides, not just 2, not just for vs against, not just pro vs anti, not just woo vs science, not just tin foil hats vs Big Pharma conspiracies. Maybe, sometimes, they have a point. Or maybe they are reactionary douchebags. Maybe they are just lonely or disconnected, and maybe we can be friends.

Perhaps now I’m strong enough to find out.


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What is a “bitter herb”?

Dandelion leaf, by Greg Hume
Dandelion leaf, by Greg Hume
As an herbalist for whom tastes of herbs -sweet, sour, salty, spicy (pungent), astringent and bland- imply specific medicinal actions. Bitterness is something that is often confusing because there is a genetic component to the ability to taste – according to 21 and Me I belong to a snip where 80% cannot genetically taste bitterness. (I am in the 20% that can.) The most often confused tastes are sour or pungent. I cannot attribute a pungent herb like horseradish or a sour taste like lemon as “bitter”.  Bitter covers tastes like black coffee, radicchio, karela (bitter melon), dandelion greens, black walnut hulls, gentian, angelica or artichoke leaves. There is often a slightly sweet aftertaste to bitterness.


Dictionary.com defines bitter (adjective) as:

1.  having a harsh, disagreeably acrid taste, like that of aspirin, quinine, wormwood, or aloes.gentiana_macrophylla_fetissowii

2. producing one of the four basic taste sensations; not sour, sweet, or salt.

3. hard to bear; grievous; distressful: a bitter sorrow.
4. causing pain; piercing; stinging: a bitter chill.
5. characterized by intense antagonism or hostility:  bitter hatred.
6. hard to admit or accept:  a bitter lesson.
7. resentful or cynical: bitter words.
In herbal medicine the largest category of herbs tends to be bitters, which are  anti-infective, anti-inflammatory, digestive causing bile to flow and often antiparasite.  Herbalist David Winston categorizes bitter herbs as cooling bitters, warming bitters and antiparasite aromatic bitters which are intensely bitter.
In Chinese medicine bitter herbs according to Subhuti Dharmananda, in his article Taste and Action of Chinese Herbs -Traditional and Modern Viewpoints

There are two basic qualities associated with bitter taste:

  1. According to the five element systematic correspondence, the bitter taste is associated with the heart system.  The alkaloids and glycosides commonly found in bitter plants help explain this relationship, as the Chinese heart system corresponds mainly to the nervous system and circulatory system of Western medicine, the two systems most strongly impacted by these types of active constituents.
  2. According to the taste/action dogma, bitter herbs have a cleansing action (removing heat and toxin).  The cleansing action of bitters mainly refers to their antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects, which are found with alkaloids, glycosides, and flavonoids.  The bitter herbs also dry dampness, and this refers mainly to reduction of mucous membrane secretions; we can recognize today that increased mucus secretion is usually secondary to inflammation and infection.

Meals should start or finish with something bitter, be it a salad with bitter greens or an aperitif or digestif drink or an espresso after eating. Fernet Branca and Angostura Bitters are two commercial bitters, but I love Urban Moonshine’s Maple Bitters which come in a handy purse spray. Or you can take a slice of lime in water and bite down on the skin. This will stimulate your bile and stomach acid production. (So-called “acid reflux” in people over 30 is usually a problem of stomach acid being too low to stimulate the closure of the esophageal sphincter.) When the bitter taste stimulates peristalsis it helps relieve constipation and even depression. It helps create the optimum conditions for the gut bacteria as well.

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Attorney General Enshrines Bad Herbal Product Test with GNC

supplementsRecently the press was transfixed when NY State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office announced that the vast majority of herbal supplements tested by the AG’s office had none of the herbs claimed. This followed a Canadian Guelph University study from the developers of a novel DNA testing process that claimed a huge percent of herbs tested were bogus.  That study was so poorly done that the American Botanical Council asked for it to be retracted.  Their title said it all:

Science Group Says Article on DNA Barcode Analysis of Herbs Is Flawed, Contains Errors, Creates Confusion, and Should Be Retracted:  Methodological Flaws, Statistical Inconsistencies, Taxonomic Confusion, and Unreliable Conclusions Require Paper in BMC Medicine to be Corrected, Revised, and Re-peer-reviewed

Nonetheless the specter of a relatively inexpensive new test in an industry everyone assumes is unregulated was irresistible to the AGs office (and besides everyone knows DNA is scientific!)  This new DNA barcode test is different from forensic DNA tests which is what people think of when they hear “DNA test.”  Now GNC has signed a premature consent agreement and the AG’s offices in 14 states are planning to follow suit based on technically misleading testing.

As a clinical herbalist for over 25 years and a professor of herbal medicine I need to point out that the press has given a free ride to the validity of new DNA barcode testing which purported to show that 79% of herbs from Target, GNC, Walgreens and Wallmart were adulterated or missing the herb claimed. The high figure should have given the AG’s office pause.  Verification including microscopy and validated chemical test methods, like those found in official pharmacopeias for these seven herbs, should have been conducted to confirm the DNA findings.

When the initial 2013 Canadian DNA barcode study came out it was clear that it was oriented to the sales of a testing method and had poor application to prepared herbs. DNA barcoding is less expensive than traditional herbal tests and that of course would be a great new market for the test developers. Raw herbs before extraction can be identified by DNA. It has proven itself with foods where whole plant products are being tested. But the test only tests the presence of DNA. Unless I am growing herbs, the least useful compound is DNA:  instead I want to extract the medicinal secondary metabolites, the minerals, polysaccharides, polyphenols, sesqueterpenes and flavonoids.

A typical Chinese formula has 7-9 grams per herb and 5-9 herbs, so say has 50 grams of herbs daily. You would need at least 20 large 400 mg pills- too much, which is why herbs are extracted to find their most medicinally useful components. DNA isn’t one of those and it is usually degraded by extraction. However there is a need to add something like rice flour to keep the powdered extracts from clumping and that doesn’t need to be extracted, so its DNA is present. The DNA barcode test doesn’t test concentration so it looks like the herbal capsule is free of the herb and adulterated when, in fact, it is properly made.

Now encapsulated herbs are perhaps the least effective form since you can’t taste them. (Taste and smell are not merely aesthetic experiences- they engage body feedback systems.) Powders can oxidize rapidly. I wouldn’t buy my herbs from Target, Walmart, Walgreens or GNC.  I want higher quality. But it begs credibility that 79% of products were free of the herbs claimed. You can visit wholesale herb markets to see the tonnage of herbs at reasonable prices. GNC is in the business of selling herbs and they need to have a certain level of quality (if only because people like me will bite into the capsules and can taste whether the herb is present.)

So it was not accurate to say that 79% of supplements lacked the herbs claimed, instead 79% did not have DNA present.  It might have other medicinally useful constituents from the herb in question, and in fact subsequent industry-standard testing found herbs in all samples. It was not accurate to assume there was substantial adulteration, only that excipients were usually used. Some 90% of herbs are sold in extract form, unlike the foods that work with DNA barcoding.

There is a need for quality control, especially in the bodybuilding and weight-lifting sectors of the industry where ConsumerLab has identified real problems. I do use suppliers of international herbs who use HPLC and heavy metal testing, but I also purchase whole herbs directly from US growers I know, where I can taste and smell the herbs and make my own extracts.  The American Botanical Council has been in the forefront of protecting against adulteration, intentional or accidental. The ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Program, is being conducted by ABC with the nonprofit American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP) and the NCNPR, a FDA Center of Excellence lab at the University of Mississippi.

GNC couldn’t afford a shadow over their business so signed the consent requirement. They will have ample evidence they used the herbs claimed but are likely to miss the DNA barcoding target unless they add powdered herb to the excipient. But the spotlight will be off by then.  By all means make major retailers stand behind their herbs, but do not enshrine a novel DNA test just because it is cheap.

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Are Herbal Supplements Safe?


The New York Times had an article this week, Herbal Supplements Are Often Not What They Seem, that suggested that herbal capsules may not contain what they say, often containing different species in the family or fillers.  The study cited is found here.

The study has major problems and the American Botanical Association has called upon the BMC medicine journal to retract the paper: Continue reading Are Herbal Supplements Safe?

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Spring Mugwort

Young Spring Mugwort. Picture by Nick Tacket.

When, many years ago, I was walking through Prospect Park with my then toddler Francis, tasting the sprouting plants, he pointed out a lace-leafed plant with a lovely aroma.  We tasted it and agreed that, in judicious quantities, it was delicious and used it in our wild salads and omelets  along with chickweed, oxalis and wild onion.  But once it got over five inches the bitter taste was overpowering. This was our introduction to mugwort.
Continue reading Spring Mugwort

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