What is the Difference Between Raw Herbs and Herbal Extracts in TCM?

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raw herbs and herbal extracts

The world of Traditional Chinese Medicine can seem complicated at first glance. However, if you learn a few key concepts about TCM, you will have a much easier time understanding it, putting its benefits to use and improving your health. One of the first things you’ll notice as you explore TCM further is the great variety of herbs that are available to you and the wide range of concerns which they can help improve. You will probably also notice right away that practitioners may recommend the same Chinese herbs and formulas in many different forms.

When you think of Chinese Medicine, you might picture endless boxes of dried herbs resembling those you have in your kitchen, but dried or ‘raw herbs,’ as they are called, are just one of the forms in which you can take your formula. Primarily, these medicinal herbs come in two main forms — raw herbs, which have been minimally processed, and herbal extracts, which have been derived from raw herbs and offer much the same benefits. There are, however, subtle differences between raw and extracted herbal formulas. For the most part, these differences are practical rather than substantive in nature.

Let’s look at each form in closer detail, learning how each is to be taken and what the prominent differences are between the two formats so that you can get the most benefit from the TCM herbs your acupuncturist or licensed practitioner prescribes for you.

What Are Raw Herbs?

Raw herbs are dried herbs. They are closest to the form in which they are grown and most similar to something you might find at a grocery store or farmers market. The herb is harvested in its natural form (roots, stems, bark, flowers, fruit and/or leaves), then ground into a powder or cut into pieces to be used for tea. TCM originated with the use of raw herbs and information about their properties has been passed down through generations of healers.

Raw herbs are not simply eaten. The herbs are soaked, boiled and strained in a process called “decoction.” Following your practitioner’s recommendation, you will decoct and take raw herbs either individually or in combination, as a formula, depending on your particular needs and concerns.

What Are the Benefits and Drawbacks of Raw Herbs?

TCM practitioners have recommended raw herbs to their patients for hundreds of years. Taking raw herbs has several advantages over taking herbs in other forms. For example:

Rapid Absorption —

When you ingest food or a supplement, it has to be metabolized — broken down by your body into smaller parts — and then absorbed before your body can use it. It is believed that the body metabolizes raw herbs quickly when they are consumed as a decoction. Raw herbs in decoction form also have high bioavailability. “Bioavailability” refers to the rate at which a nutrient is absorbed into the body’s internal systems and becomes available for use.

Faster Effects —

Because decocted raw herbs are rapidly metabolized and have high bioavailability, they will take effect quickly. Their therapeutic effects can be felt sooner than the effects of a supplement with low bioavailability.

Easy Substitution —

In TCM, each herb has a unique character and a specific role in a formula. It is essential to have a deep understanding of the herbs and how they can be combined to select appropriate substitutions. Practitioners may substitute raw herbs for use in a decoction if one herb is not available. Experienced practitioners also have the skills and knowledge to make adjustments to the formula as the body condition and symptoms develop over the course of treatment.

However, there are some drawbacks to taking raw herbs. These include:

Identification —

TCM cannot be effective if the correct herbs are not used in the first place. The herbal extracts produced by KP all undergo a species identification process that ensures customers receive authentic herbs. Without this meticulous process, raw herbs may be identified incorrectly or substituted with imitation products. Correct identification is particularly important because some herbs must be processed in a certain way to minimize the toxin level. Failure to identify and process these herbs correctly can have severe consequences.

Sourcing —

Obtaining quality raw herbs depends, to a greater degree, on the experience of the practitioner, growers, and distributors, which may vary. With today’s rising interest in Chinese herbs, a growing number of farmers are adopting harmful practices to meet demand. These include chemical pesticides and fertilizers used to promote better yields and industrial waste carelessly released into the environment.

Preparation —

Very few raw herbs are consumed in their natural form. The vast majority are prepared into a decoction. Although this method is a respected tradition, preparing raw herbs is more time-consuming. Most decoctions require at least 30 minutes to prepare following the correct methods, and not everyone prefers the strong taste and smell of raw herbs. Individuals who enjoy the tradition and ritual of TCM may continue to use raw herbs, while those who appreciate convenience may favor newer format options.

Storage —

Herbal products of any kind must be stored properly to maintain optimal freshness and avoid unnecessary spoilage. Some herbs must be kept in cool, dark, well-ventilated environments where they will not be exposed to moisture or direct sunlight. Others require refrigeration at a consistent temperature. Storing raw herbs properly under the right temperature conditions can often be more costly.

How Do I Decoct My Raw Herbs to Get the Maximum Benefits?

In order to take raw herbs, you will first need to prepare them into a decoction. Decoction is a simple process but one which nonetheless requires some care. To decoct your herbs properly, you will need to take your raw herbs and perform the following steps:

  • Retrieve a ceramic or glass pot with a tight lid. Try to avoid metal pots, as the metals can leach into the decoction.
  • Place the prescribed amount of herbs in the pot and cover them with three cups of water.
  • Boil the herbs for about 30 minutes or until about one cup of water remains.
  • Strain the liquid into a separate container, keeping the herbs in the decoction pot.
  • Repeat this process with fresh water two more times to extract all the healthful benefits from your prescribed herbs.

Each cup of final liquid makes one serving, which you should take as prescribed by your practitioner. This traditional method is becoming less desirable among some patients. Many do not appreciate the bitter taste and unpleasant smell of raw herbs. Others find that the process of preparing raw herbs does not fit into their fast-paced modern lifestyle.

What Makes Herbal Extracts or Granules, Capsules and Tablets Different From Raw Herbs?

Granules, tablets, and capsules offer customers a pre-prepared version of the raw herbs they have been prescribed. Granules have a fine, powdery texture and dissolve quickly in water. Tablets are granules that have been compressed into small, easily swallowed servings. Capsules contain granules in a smooth shell for maximum comfort and convenience.

The various forms of herbal extract production impact the effectiveness of the herbs. For example, some companies use single herb powders blended together, while others decoct the herbs together before extraction. Herbal extracts that contain decocted formulas provide individuals with greater benefits than those that include blended formulas.

Decocting raw herbs prior to making granules, capsules or tablets ensures that you will receive the intended benefits of the formula you have been prescribed because, when decocted together, raw herbs have pharmacological interactions that enhance their collective effectiveness. These complex interactions do not occur when single herbs are merely blended together. However, single herbs can have their own benefits, and can still be effective when combined with a formula for added or enhanced benefits.

What Are the Benefits and Drawbacks of Herbal Extracts?

As with raw herbs, herbal extracts have their own unique advantages and drawbacks. Individuals may prefer these extracts in forms like granules, tablets, and capsules over raw herbs because of:

Safety —

Herbal extracts can be safer than the raw herb alternative because of additional laboratory quality control checks. Products from KPC must pass a rigorous testing and inspection process that ensures they are free of dangerous pesticides, aflatoxins, sulfur dioxide, heavy metals, and aristolochic acid. Only batches that fulfill the ‘Golden Standard’ — a collection of strict safety criteria from the U.S., Singapore, the E.U. and Japan — are distributed.

Consistency —

If well manufactured, extracts can be consistently fast-acting and effective. KPC’s herbal extracts are created utilizing a state-of-the-art process and the industry’s most advanced technology. Learn more about our manufacturing process here.

Convenience —

The fast pace of modern life demands convenience. Granules, capsules, and tablets are easier to carry around and, because there is little to no preparation process, they can be consumed anywhere, anytime.

Storage —

Herbal extracts are easier to store than raw herbs, which have varying storage temperature and humidity requirements. Correct storage of your Chinese herbs extends their shelf life by helping to preserve their quality and efficacy.

Cost-Effectiveness —

Because extracts have a longer shelf life, TCM practices and patients enjoy reduced waste and lower overall cost.

Since herbal extracts are decocted in a clean and controlled environment and tested in a laboratory, more quality control measures can be taken, making them somewhat safer than raw herbs; however, not all labs are made equal. Variability in the source of the raw herbs the lab accepts and in the extraction methods being used can result in a product whose quality also varies. This is why it is so important to choose a Chinese herbal products company that has implemented and rigorously follows internationally accepted, pharmaceutical-grade laboratory protocols.

A drawback that comes with herbal extracts is the potential to have reduced beneficial active compounds caused by improper extraction or low concentration levels. Stringent lab protocols can control and minimize these problems, and even help ensure that the level of active ingredients remains consistent from batch to batch.

Why Does KPC Products Offer Herbal Extracts in the Form of Granules, Capsules and Tablets?

There are a few reasons why KPC Products offers herbal products like granules, capsules and tablets instead of raw herbs. Since KPC Products has long been committed to offering herbs of the highest quality, producing extracts from carefully selected premium raw herbs allows us to perform additional quality control testing on these products to further ensure our customers’ safety, providing them with greater peace of mind.

Also, many people find granules, capsules or tablets easier to take than raw herbs, which must be carefully prepared first. As a result, there are higher levels of patient compliance when the formulas are in powder or capsule form. To make our products more accessible and achieve a higher compliance level, we offer hundreds of decocted formulas in granule, capsule or tablet form in addition to our single-herb products.

KPC Herbs — a History of Tradition, Innovation and Quality

KPC began as a raw herbal pharmacy offering the safest and highest quality of herbal products to our customers — values that we still adhere to today. Using the advantages of state-of-the-art laboratory technology along with world-class and internationally-recognized pharmaceutical and manufacturing guidelines has allowed KPC Products to extend its ability to deliver quality products even further.

Today, our company still honors the traditions upon which it was founded by continuing to make proper identification and decoction of herbs a critical focus of our business since it has the most direct impact on our formula’s effectiveness. We hope you will derive great benefit from our products, guided by your acupuncturist or TCM practitioner, and enjoy greater health today! Want to know more about how we manufacture our herbal products? Fill out our contact form or call us today at (949) 398-8158.

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