Why we make Haven Herbs formulas the way that we do...

Posted by Lily Kunning on

At Haven, I (Lily, the staff herbalist) have a particular way of making products (fly method, focused on tinctures) and choosing supplements to make (based on customer request) that may seem odd until you know why I do what I do.

So I thought I'd take a moment to explain the main points of why our products look the way that they do. First, all products have come into being from customer request. I am an herbalist that sees clients and makes custom formulas, in addition to my mass market formulas for Haven. Once I have a number of clients need the same sort of formula, I propose making it for Haven Herbs as a mass market formula. The way I see it, there is a need and Haven can reach far more people than I can with my little practice.

To come up with a formula, I look at generational wisdom as well as the latest scientific studies to determine how to best approach an issue with plants. Looking to the future and the past and seeing where the two meet is the key to how I formulate and choose the plants that I include. When formulation is approached this way, there is no conflict between folk wisdom and scientific inquiry. In fact, there never has been for the vast majority of herbalists I know and respect.

That said, because we live in a country that assumes everything is done in the name of profit, there are precious little studies being done on plant medicine in the US. Since 1986, it has been cheaper to synthesize chemicals in a lab rather than grow, harvest, extract, and compound chemicals from them. (Before 1986, most formulas were done with plants as the starting point- many people do not know this.) So the pharmaceutical industry started a marketing campaign that their synthetics are superior to plants and many have bought that idea, hook, line, and sinker. Are they? In some cases, compounding is warranted. Antibiotics are an example of this. But along with synthesized and compounded chemicals comes myriad side effects that happen far less often than with full spectrum plant extracts. 

This is why when I look for studies (and I read new ones every week!) I tend to search outside the US for them- the EU and Japan, China, and India have great studies on plant medicine!), as most other countries believe that medicine and science are in the public interest, and they get public funding for research (and therefore are not beholden to a bottom line and ultimate patent to ensure profits.) IN the US, the vast majority of research into medicine is done by companies seeking a patent and profit. And these companies submit their research, often not yet peer reviewed, to the FDA for approval. The FDA simply does not have enough resources to test every single submission for accuracy and efficacy. And lately, the agenda of the FDA has been to ensure corporate profits over consumer safety.

Why are the vast majority of your remedies and tonics not compounded?

We make plant tinctures and other products using whole plant medicine (using the folk method). We make full-spectrum extractions (tinctures, elixirs, syrups, oxymels, and tisanes) and whole plant remedies (using whole plant parts, as in our Chill Pills or Turmeric Tea Paste).

I prefer allowing the whole plant and plant part work its magic, rather than assuming one constituent and one constituent alone is responsible for its effects. (Studies show, it's not simply one chemical). To me, this makes the remedy more palatable, gentler (fewer side effects), and more effective, not less. Science simply has no idea how all the constituents work together in the body- and which ones to eliminate. Often the whole plant works together to create an effect, rather than one chemical inside it.

Due to the biochemical model of medicine, there its a controversy over which is better, full-spectrum or standardized extraction and compounding. In reality, this is a false dichotomy. Often, when science looks at a plant that has shown efficacy in certain conditions, the tendency is to break the plant down into all its components and test only certain ones. Yet, often they cannot replicate a whole plant's effects this way, and then assume that the plant is not suitable for treatment strategies. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

In fact, often when plants are reduced to single constituents and compounded they either create more side effects (Like aspirin, an extract of salicylic acid originally from either Willow Bark or Meadowsweet, upsetting the stomach lining or curcumin (an extract of Turmeric) and diarrhea when taken in large doses) or are rendered less effective (St. John's Wort* is a prime example of this).

I believe in the power of plants to work in and with our bodies to create balance and healthy homeostasis. All we need as human beings is actually right here, surrounding us, if we just stop and listen.

So how do you make your extracts, like tinctures?

We make what many call "full-spectrum extracts", which are made with an herbaceous plant’s part(s), tinctured in a menstruum (for tinctures, this is of alcohol and water, for vinegars, we use raw apple cider vinegar) for a product that includes the highest percentage of all the plant’s chemicals and compounds, without affecting the natural ratio of these constituents present in the plant. Full-spectrum extracts leave the natural ratios of the constituents intact.

Many scientists and practitioners around the world believe that some of the desired effects observed from a full-spectrum extract may likely be attributed to the interactions between constituents. Though this idea is not yet fully explored in science, I have seen the effects work time after time. To me, the answer seems pretty clear.

Plants contain an array of phytochemicals with internal complexity working together as important pieces to a puzzle. Consequently, standardization may concentrate one constituent at the expense of other potentially important ones, while changing the natural balance of the herb’s components. This is selectivity, the characteristic of standardized compounding of extractions done by pharma. Due to the complex nature of this internal puzzle, it is also believed that there are constituents in plants that should not be left out so as to avoid adverse or unwanted effects. This is why I work WITH the plants to create formulas.

Besides tinctures, how else do you make your formulas?

I think about plants, their chemical makeup, and the proper solvent and method to extract them. (This is why I went to school for years, and continue my study! It's a huge topic to know a lot about.) Different solvents and methods extract different constituents. 

Think about coffee. Most people extract roasted coffee beans in what herbalists call a "hot infusion": We boil water and pour it over powdered beans, preferably beans that have been powdered immediately prior to extraction.  (We coffee snobs grind beans immediately before instead of purchasing already ground beans. Why? It is fresher, tastes better, and is more potent.). Extracting this way is an effective method in getting out many constituents, including the much-desired caffeine. 

Some folks, though- they cannot handle coffee's acidity. They say it hurts their stomachs. So I always recommend a cold infusion instead. Soaking the grounds at least overnight (or perhaps longer) in room temp water before straining and refrigerating is a way to extract flavor and caffeine, but not as much acid- which is a byproduct of a heat extraction. What works for Coffee beans also works the same for Stinging Nettle, too.

I also use vinegars (oxymels), honey (electuaries and soft lozenges), and ultimately water to extract from plants. When I blend a tisane (herbal tea), I know that water will be the extraction method, done in the customer's home. I pick plants that have a long history of extracting well in water. Fortunately, many plants fit this category. If a plant has hundreds of years of human history of use- chances are, it extracts well in water!

Why do I prefer tinctures? Can't you use glycerin to extract instead or make all of the formulas into teas?

Reason #1: Tincture extracts are second only to eating the plant in its entirety at peak potency. Obviously, this is not possible for many. Making tinctures and other extracts is a convenient way to both preserve at harvest as well as consume supplements for wellness and remedy. 

Glycerin extracts constituents in a similar way to water. If the plants are well extracted in water (like herbs traditionally used in herbal teas), a glycerine would be effective at making a medicine. However, tinctures get out MORE phytochemicals than teas or glycerites- they get out water soluble AND ethanol soluble constituents. More potent medicine! I am a fan!

Reason #2: Tinctures have a longer shelf life than a water or glycerin extract (teas are 4 days, glycerin are two years). Tinctures, on the other hand, last up to a decade. A precious plant that is hard to come by can last a long time for future formulas that way.  As a conservationist, I see this appeal.

Reason #3: Tinctures are portable and easy to take. Not everyone has the ability to make a tea. Some people do not have homes and still need remedies. Some people have on-the-go lives and need to take their formula with them. Tinctures can do this, a tea cannot.

Why do you use folk method instead of weight-to-volume or other "standardization" techniques?

What I say here is only my own opinion, and I mean no disrespect to the wonderful herb companies that use weight-to-volume for extraction. They have their reasons.

<Rant>

When you look at the history of herbalism, you see that there has been a pay-to-play system set up (pretty common in capitalism).  The American Medical Association and pharmaceutical companies, in particular, have sought to gatekeep medicine and profit from that gatekeeping. They have caused no end of trouble to holistic practitioners in the US, including naturopaths, osteopaths, midwives, and yes, herbalists. Many herbalists wanted to jump on that validation bandwagon, thinking that if they somehow played by the rules (that were stacked against them to begin with) so they created a system to quantify how formulas, specifically tinctures, are made. Weight-to-volume is that system, and it is a direct response from herbalists seeking validation and acceptance. That validation is never going to come from the companies and lobbies themselves. The only reason herbal medicine is gaining wider acceptance, even among medical professionals, is because people are demanding holistic treatments.


Pharma and modern biochemical medicine started a marketing campaign stating that what we herbalists do is quackery and that "we cannot even tell folks what chemicals are in our formulas and to what extent". Measurement and quantification became a way to dismiss our work. So weight-to-volume was created to "standardize" how we make extracts. Look on a tincture bottle for any nationally distributed company and you will see the ratio (usually 1:5 for most botanicals) is on the label. That is their way of responding to this complaint. 

Here's the deal: when I make a folk method tincture, I cannot tell you how many milligrams of a specific chemical is contained within it. Nope. I can not, and I am ok with that. And neither can a weight-to-volume manufacturer, unless they are batch testing every single batch. Because plants vary in their phytochemical ratios naturally- season to season, location to location, and in differing climates. Which is why plant potency and quality is MORE IMPORTANT than quantifying how much of it you used in relation to menstruum.

As a folk herbalist focused on bioregional plants, I can tell you where that plant came from, its growing conditions, when it was harvested, when it was extracted, when it was strained, and how much to take, with general guidelines that take into account body mass and metabolism. 

I do not seek validation from powerful entities that are never going to like what I do and always find fault with it. They have to- I threaten their system of profit and gatekeeping! If I can teach people to grow their own medicine- what use are they?

I do not heal for their applause. Instead, I know, because of years of personal work and generations of herbalists that came before me, what plants work and how to extract them. I was trained for this and I prefer to do it the way my elders have done.

I am not anti-science. Quite the contrary. My kiddo and I are huge fans of science and geek out all the time doing experiements and watching science channels on YouTube. If, at some point in the future, science shows me that another method of extraction is better suited to my ingredients, I will try that. But weight-to-volume extracts have no better efficacy than folk method extracts. I have seen no studies that show this. And I have looked.

In our eagerness to show modern medicine that we can quantify something, anything, we came up with weight-to-volume. But all we are quantifying is measurements of plants and menstruum, not the chemicals contained within. So why bother? Because plant constituents vary based on soil, sun, water, and other natural elements.

The best I can do is get the most potent plants to extract. Which is why I recently moved to a farm. (Aw, heck yeah!)

</Rant>

Haven Herbs formulas are getting better and better because I have access to hundreds of plants at their peak potency now. My 100 acres has so many medicinals already here, and what isn't here yet, I am cultivating!

Haven will reap the benefits of me being here at Make/Do in so many ways. I will be able to create more formulas, help more people, and access so many fresh plants at their peak potency. I am already creating a spreadsheet of plants I discover, where they are on the land, and what time of year they appear.

We will be converting an old barn into a Haven Herbs facility, too. So many opportunities! Stay tuned and subscribe to our newsletter to learn about things as they happen!

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*St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
St. John’s Wort is a good example of a plant that offers full-spectrum efficacy but has been unnecessarily picked apart by standardization. Originally, companies believed that the phenolic compound Hypericin was the target for standardization, but over time the phytochemical Hyperforin was determined to be another important part of the puzzle of active ingredients, along with pseudohypericin and several flavonoid constituents. The WHOLE PLANT is what's needed. Companies cannot profit from something people can grow in their backyards themselves, so they stopped the research.

Cover image is The Weed Wife by Rima Staines, a print I own and that is in my office. Support artists!


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