What's dong quai doing mixed up with cramp bark? You might think those herbs are worlds apart, but by tapping herbal traditions from around the globe, formulators are creating effective synergistic blends. Often consigned to the small-print ingredients in Chinese and Ayurvedic herbal formulas, traditional Asian plants are crossing borders and being added to decidedly nontraditional formulas. Such culture-hopping blends draw on numerous healing traditions and are proving effective for everything from improving wellness to helping women with specific health problems.
Asian herbs have a history that's hard to beat. As part of a medical system used virtually uninterrupted for 3,200 years, many Chinese herbal formulas have been respected remedies for seven centuries or more, says Roy Upton, herbalist and general manager of Planetary Formulas in Soquel, Calif.
"Any formula that long-standing takes [out] the guesswork," Upton says. "You know there's a track record for using a particular formula for a particular condition. That's unequaled in Western medicine."
In addition to providing reliable new ingredients for modern blends, Asian herbs address conditions and concerns often overlooked by Western medicine. "No one system has all of the answers," Upton says.
Lyra Heller, director of herbal medicine at San Clemente, Calif.-based Metagenics Inc., agrees. "It's not just about Asian herbs," she says, "it's about a system of medicine that uses herbs to promote healing."
Chinese medical practitioners mix herbs according to what the signs and symptoms of a particular illness demand. "Well-developed and well-defined Chinese herbal recipes address very specific conditions," Heller says. They're also designed to harmonize and balance the body, she says.
Modern herbal formulators follow the same rules, choosing herbs that suit conditions as well as support overall health. "It's not just using astragalus for the immune system or ginseng for energy," Upton says. "A person has to understand the diagnostic rationale behind what he's treating to know which herbs—Asian, American, European or otherwise—to mix together."
Getting the right blend also demands careful consideration. It's not unusual for plants a world apart to be chemically similar. Plant genera, and sometimes species, often cross geographic boundaries. It's the innate characteristics of an herb—not where it comes from—that dictate what it can and cannot be combined with.
Heller looks for plant similarities and blending precedents before mixing a European plant with Chinese or Ayurvedic herbs. "There must be a good reason for mixing plants," she says. "Every herb in a formula has a reason for being there. And as long as you really understand the safety of that plant, you can combine herbs from different [geographical areas] comfortably."
An Asian herb must meet two criteria before being included in a contemporary Metagenics blend, Heller says. It must be chemically well defined and individually studied in animal or human trials. "That, in some way, demonstrates its safety or confirms traditional use," she says. Ginseng and licorice, traditional Asian herbs often included in formulas, have safe and specific therapeutic ranges, she says.
Many Asian herbs used in cross-cultural blends are adaptogens—herbs that improve health by supporting the body's systems. Also called tonic herbs, adaptogens such as ashwagandha and brahmi from India, and astragalus, schizandra and ginseng from China, lend themselves well to eclectic blends.
Incorporating immune-enhancing adaptogenic herbs into western formulas adds a new dimension to herbal formulation, Upton says. "One reason I rely on astragalus as well as other Chinese tonics is that Western medicine didn't really have herbal tonics per se," he says. "It gives us a body of herbs, a body of knowledge, to work with that had otherwise been missing."
These combinations also give cross-cultural blends a leg up on traditional formulas. Planetary Formula's Women's Comfort mixes dong quai, a traditional Chinese gynecological herb, with Native American cramp bark and chaste berry, a hormone-regulating European plant. Together, the herbs deliver a more complete gynecological formula than any of the three could provide individually.
"Chinese medicine [practitioners] understood functional, gynecological conditions really well," Upton says. "But [they] didn't necessarily recognize the hormonal system." Women's Treasure, another blend from Planetary Formulas, mixes four classic Chinese gynecological herbs with the Native American uterine tonics cramp bark, false unicorn and blue cohosh.
Taking a slightly different tack, Metagenics' Saint John's Wort Plus combines a standardized extract of the European mood-lifting herb with four traditional calming herbs from North America and China—California poppy, sour jujube seed, red sage root and hawthorn berry. The rationale behind the eclectic blend, says Heller, is to address the pathology of stress.
Join The Blend Trend
It's not radical to include a traditional Chinese herb in a European formula or to combine Native American plants with Ayurvedic herbs, says Heller. Instead, it's a well thought-out hodgepodge.
Understanding the eclectic nature of herbal blends is also the key to choosing one that's appropriate. "Every herb in a formula has a reason for being there," Heller says, "and people need to know what it is."
Catherine Monahan is a health writer based in Lafayette, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 5/p. 32, 34