Standardised herbal extracts seem to be popular – they are in many practitioner only herbal medicines as well as over-the-counter products. But based upon the questions I receive, few practitioners really understand what constitutes “standardisation” in Australia. As a result the Herbal Extract Company asked me to do a technical brochure which was released in early 2013, destined for practitioners and aiming to clear up some of the misconceptions and myths around standardisation.
The first thing to realise with standardisation of herbal products is that the Australian regulatory definition is rather loose. It basically revolves around whether an extract has a defined amount of a particular chemical constituent or group of constituents1.
The issue with this definition is that it is not really standardisation – at least not the way most people think of the word “standardisation”. It does not mean consistency between different products made from the same plant. And it certainly does not mean consistency of therapeutic effect.
Research often demonstrates the therapeutic importance of a range of chemically unrelated constituents in many herbal medicines. Thus standardising for a narrow range of chemicals or single chemicals may not necessarily be of therapeutic benefit. For example, research indicates that the antidepressant activity of Hypericum perforatum (St John’s Wort) is due to more than just the hypericin content. However this is the only chemical commonly declared in standardised preparations in the Australian marketplace. The hyperforin and the flavonoids all appear to be important in the efficacy of this plant in depressive disease2,3.
Herbal medicines are biological entities – they are bound to vary from batch to batch. However there is a level of variation which is acceptable, and a level which is unacceptable. Real standardisation doesn’t just consider one or two chemicals, but it is a process which establishes quality through attention to details such as:
Interestingly we see some consistency between modern true standardisation and traditional quality control. When you read some of the real traditional herbal literature, you observe authors talking about the best locations for sourcing particular herbs, and the best time of the year and even time of the day to harvest.
This is not a question with a single easy answer. In my clinical and technical experience, some standardised products are amazingly beneficial clinically, some are no better than a normal (and often less expensive) extract, and some are even less effective. What I look for in standardised products is:
It is not always easy for practitioners to find answers to the questions. However they are questions we should be asking our suppliers and manufacturers. After all, these are medicines and ethical practice comes with an obligation for us to use the most appropriate medicines for our individual patients. To do this, we must first understand them.
For more information on standardisation, contact the Herbal Extract Company for a copy of my technical brochure.