An Herb Can Be Powerful Medicine

…Or it can be too damaged to be useful. To unaware and overly trusting clinicians: Caveat emptor. Overcooked, spray-dried, months old; herbs that were once potent, can become factory processed  junk-herbs. By the time a clinic receives dry herbal extract concentrates, they just don’t seem to have an imposing residual power. Is this true with all such products? Which are the best of them? We’ll show you an easy way you can test them.

What if every brand had a potency level written on the label? Say, a 0-10 scale. That would be really helpful. Then, when choosing a brand, pick a #10 and a practice would thrive. But that’s imaginary. The reality is that unaware clinicians attempt a guess, without any solid intelligence, often relying on familiarity or biased influencers. It’s gambling for a #10 in a marketplace where the potency differences are broadly spread.


Faulty preparation/preservation will degrade certain herbs more than others. Such weak and imbalanced formulas cannot be improved by simply increasing the dosage: 3 times the Wonder Bread ≠ whole wheat bread. The formula’s action would be unpredictable (caution) . . .

When choosing a brand, if we’re not personally testing, we’re guessing. Our patients rely on our thoughtful judgements; so, it’s fortunate that testing for potency is easy (see below). Testing provides the solid intelligence needed to make the right choice for our patients and for our future.


It’s easy to layer on complexity

There is a myriad of ways to complicate the simple art of converting a tea into a more compact form; ways that allow mass-manufacturers to produce 1000’s of bottles daily, distributed to so many different brands and outlets. It’s impressive. But there’s a tradeoff between mass-production volume, and the freshness and power of simplicity. Whether or not factory-made products live up to marketing claims is what you, yourself, can ascertain. All it takes is for a clinician to do the simple test below.

It’s almost a given that a clinician who  bypasses marketing distractions to personally test multiple brands for easily observable potency levels, will uncover a more potent brand leading to better clinical outcomes. Use the simple method below to test brands; it’s an act of independence and self-empowerment. “It’s the most important thing they didn’t teach us at the university.” -L.Ac.

     Vital Signs:

A person’s vital signs are the evidence of the current physical functioning of the body.
An herbal extract concentrate’s vital signs are the evidence of the current usefulness of the product.


VITAL SIGN 1: A potent herbal extract concentrate should have a strong taste . . .

With any herbal product, the intensity of its flavor is a palpable measure of its potency. This makes it exceedingly easy to compare two brands. “Concentrate” means “really strong.” With very few exceptions: if it doesn’t taste like much, it won’t do much. Taste-test as described below; you’ll find the stronger brand and better results. Your patients will thank you.

VITAL SIGN 2: A potent herbal extract concentrate should have a rich color . . .

Let’s not be led to assume that a product is potent just because the herb specimen pictured in the seller’s ad looks potent. A raw material and a finished product are worlds apart, and we’re testing the latter. When comparing 2 concentrate brands, the one with a darker color that is true to the herbs within is likely more potent. It’s just one sign.

VITAL SIGN 3: A potent herbal extract concentrate should have a distinct fragrance . . .

Fragrance is medicine. With aromatic/fragrant herbs, the therapeutic response is rapid and significant. If an ad states “best quality,” but you can’t smell fragrance in the bottle containing “concentrated” fragrant herbs, be wary— the herbs used may have been picture perfect at harvest, but evidently they’re no longer potent. The industrial processing technique called “spray drying” is largely to blame.

VITAL SIGN 4: A potent herbal extract concentrate should have oils you can feel . . .

If a product label lists a substantial % of seeds (tao ren, xing ren, etc.) and/or rich natured herbs like tonics, you should notice an easily perceptible oily, viscus feel by simply rubbing the wet concentrate between two fingers. If you can’t feel oils, the brand’s effectiveness has been compromised. If you do feel the oil when testing a moistened dry product (pill/powder), it’s logical to carefully consider the oil’s level of rancidity.

As clinicians, testing the herbal medicine we prescribe is essential— especially in a marketplace plagued by over-hyped, industrially processed, herbal extract concentrates of little or no clinical value. A TCM practitioner can easily guess wrong and choose a product line that is weak, out of balance, and incapable, leading to years of mediocre practice and frustration.


Simple comparative analysis requires a formula from brand A and the same formula from brand B.

Place a recommended dose from brand A in a cup. If tablets, add just enough water to dissolve it into a mud; this will take time. If powder or granule, mix into a mud. In a different cup, do the same with brand B. Then, using a spoon, place the entire brand A dose in your mouth and don’t swallow. Focus your attention on the taste. Rinse your mouth. Do the same with brand B. Compare the VITAL SIGNS.

This is time well invested in the future of a practice. And this is what our patients expect from us.


  • Which brand had a stronger taste? Simple.
  • The more you test, the better your testing abilities become.
  • Eventually, just chewing on a tablet will tell you what you need to know.
  • Check for medicinal oils. See Vital Sign 4 above.
  • Don’t stop there, make periodic testing a lifestyle; test and retest often.
  • Simply ask for sample concentrates whenever you can – all brands, dry and liquid.
  • Every encounter is an opportunity for education leading to better clinical outcomes.
  • Take charge; manufacturers will respect you (or fear you).
  • It’s ok to say, “Nice ad, but nope, still tastes bland and lifeless; keep trying!”
  • Compare to find the products with stronger vital signs.
  • Use new-found, stronger products to invigorate your practice.
  • Try not to lament years using a product with an exaggerated opinion of itself.

As clinicians, we are attracted to product labels that

we recognize, mistaking familiarity for quality.

We feel safe, but our comfort zone can put our needs last.

Attraction to the familiar keeps us stuck.