Natural Foods Merchandiser

Asian Blend Trends

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 Advantage
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.

Favored Blends
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

TCM Herbs Used In Blends

Andrographis paniculata (Chuan Xin Lian)
A very bitter and cooling herb used to remove toxins and relieve hot inflammatory conditions such as common cold and influenza symptoms, including sore throat and fever. Also used for conditions with similar characteristics such as colitis and urinary infections. Quite safe, although large doses may cause gastric distress or reduce appetite.

Astragalus membranaceus (Huang Qi)
Provides strong support for immune function, strengthens the digestive system, helps remove fluid accumulations such as edema and generally assists recovery from debilitating illnesses. Generally quite safe, however, as with other immune tonics, this herb should be used cautiously when fever and other signs of internal heat are present.

Bupleurum chinensis (Chai Hu)
Relaxes the liver and gallbladder, thus helping with digestive conditions such as nausea, bloating and indigestion. Commonly added to formulas to prevent or treat acute respiratory conditions. Generally safe. Should be used as an ingredient in a well-designed formula, not as a single ingredient product. During pregnancy, only use under the supervision of a licensed professional with training in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Cordyceps sinensis (Dong Chong Xia Cao)
Strengthens the lungs, reproductive system and immune function. When used regularly, cordyceps helps maintain strong energy and good health. Considered safe for regular long-term use.

Eleutherococcus senticosus (Ci Wu Jia)
Also known as Siberian ginseng, this herb is traditionally used to relieve tension and stiffness in the soft tissue and joints. Modern research indicates it improves adaptability to challenging environmental conditions. Use cautiously when high fever is present.

Ephedra sinica (Ma Huang)
This herb is a popular appetite modulator and metabolic stimulant. Historically, excess in the food supply has been less of a concern than scarcity. Thus the need for metabolic stimulants to aid weight loss was not common. Ma Huang also improves respiration and has been used effectively to treat certain types of asthma. Very stimulating. Can cause insomnia and nervousness in sensitive individuals. Traditionally used in formulas that balance and support its beneficial effects. During pregnancy, only use under the supervision of a licensed professional with training in TCM.

Pueraria lobata (Ge Gen)
Reduces internal heat, relaxes muscles, alleviates thirst and helps stop diarrhea. Used to treat influenza and the common cold, especially with neck stiffness. Considered safe, especially when combined appropriately with other herbs in an effect-targeted formula.

Salvia miltiorrhiza (Dan Shen)
Improves blood circulation, is calming and reduces irritability. Used to regulate menstrual irregularities, improve cardiovascular health and improve sleep and mood. Generally safe. Should be used cautiously by those with bleeding disorders. During pregnancy, only use under the supervision of a licensed professional with training in TCM.

Stephen Morrissey, OMD, is the president and CEO of Botanical Bioscience, based in Ojai, Calif.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 5/p. 34

Chinese Herb Quality Concerns Formulators

Loretta Zapp, CEO of Applied Food Sciences in Austin, Texas, recently polled U.S. suppliers and manufactures about the difficulties they face importing herbal materials from China.

"The No. 1 issue was quality," she says, which includes the cost of testing or retesting products, and the cost of returning products deemed inferior or just plain wrong. Heavy metal and pesticide contamination also made the complaint list.

"Over the years, there has been quite a bit of lower-quality product that has come out of China," Zapp says.

Zapp puts part of the blame on differing standards. She is working to bridge the cultural business gap by introducing the producers to Western quality assurance methods, standardization and good manufacturing processes.

In the meantime, manufacturers are taking precautions—lots of them. Soquel, Calif.-based Planetary Formulas ensures herbal quality the old fashioned way. "We test everything," says Roy Upton, herbalist and general manager. That includes physical testing, chemical testing and microbial and heavy metal screening.

With each Chinese herbal extract it purchases, Metagenics in San Clemente, Calif., also receives the whole herb from which the extract was made. "We manage 250 plants," says Lyra Heller, director of herbal medicine, adding that the costs of maintaining an herbal reference library and other quality measures threaten to outpace product prices.

Such drastic measures are expensive, especially when each herb in a 14-herb blend must be individually verified. "If it's inexpensive, I can guarantee you no one's tested it," Heller says. The lesson? Quality comes at a price, and so do the better blends.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 5/p. 34

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