Consumer Beware: The Rampant Under Dosing of Herbal Products

The world of herbal supplements is often confusing and making heads or infusiontails out of dosages, etc. takes time, research and a bit of math. Many folks buy herbs from their local health food stores, through the Internet or from alternative care providers. More often than not, they follow the instructions that appear on the bottle. I have analyzed many formulas that clients have brought to me and I am always struck by the fact that what they are taking is far below the recommended daily therapeutic dosage. As an herbalist, I contend that if folks are not seeing the intended effects it is either due to under dosing or not addressing the root cause of their condition. For the purposes of this article I am going to concentrate on the issue of under dosing and although I know that this topic is potentially controversial, it nonetheless needs to be examined.

I believe that under dosing is rampant due to the following: the true cost of taking herbs therapeutically, herbal profit margins and the risk adverse nature of supplement manufactures. To illustrate my point we will look at several forms of existing herbal products in relationship to recommended daily therapeutic dosages.

Let’s start by picking an herb. An average recommended dose of Vitex (Chaste Tree) berry is 3-6 grams a day of dried ground herb, as stated in several prominent books on herbalism. For this analysis I will use this as my baseline for establishing a daily therapeutic dose. When we look at using tinctures several leading tincturesbrands provide Vitex tinctured at a 1:5 ratio (a standard ratio that many manufactures use, I believe based on profit margins). This measurement is an herb to liquid ratio, meaning that 5 milliliters of liquid equals one gram of herb. If you want to take the therapeutic dose of 3 grams of Vitex a day, you would need to take 1 teaspoon of tincture, three times a day (1 tsp is approximately 5 milliliters). When we look at the cost of this dose, a standard 1-ounce tincture bottle would last two days (1 oz equals 6 teaspoons). At an average cost of $10 a day this would cost $40 a week. If you take the upper range of the recommended dose – 6 grams, you would need to double the amount of tincture equaling an ounce of tincture a day at $10 a day this would be approximately $70 per week.

Most tincture bottles provide recommendations based on a drop dosage. In the case of Vitex a review of several manufacturers suggest an average of 30 drops (30 drops equals approximately 1 ml although this depends on the viscosity) three times a day. There are several ways to look at this, but the simplest is to remember that 5 milliliters of a 1:5 ratio equals one gram of Vitex. If this amount is taken 3 times a day you would be taking 3 milliliters of Vitex or less than 1 gram of herb which is far below the low range of the 3-6 grams a day. Some herbalists would make the case that tinctures are a more concentrated form of herbal preparation due to their bio-availability of chemical constituents thereby lower dosages are appropriate. This might indeed be true and depends on your frame of reference. Either way it behooves us to take the time to do the research and math to figure out the actual dosage that you are taking or recommending.

When we look at the comparison of therapeutic dosage in relationship to herbal capsules under dosing becomes even more apparent. For examplecapsules many leading manufactures supply Vitex at 400 mg per capsule (400 mg equals .4 gram) with a recommend daily dose of 2 to 3 capsules a day. In doing the math this translates to consuming .8 gram of Vitex at 2 capsules a day and 1.2 gram of Vitex at 3 capsules a day, far below the recommended daily therapeutic dose. In fact to get to 3 grams you would have to consume 8 capsules a day and at 6 grams a day you would have to consume 16 capsules a day.

I have done similar analysis of Traditional Chinese Medicine, medicinal mushrooms and standardized herbal supplement formulas only to find that the dosages on the bottle fall far below therapeutic recommendations. So what is the answer?

  1. Invest in a comprehensive book on herbs that lists therapeutic dosages in grams for example Planetary Herbology by Michael Tierra.
  2. Determine the therapeutic dose for a given herb.
  3. Read the information in the box (Supplement Facts panel). What is the recommended serving size? What is the suggested dosage?
  4. Do the math. Compare the supplements recommended daily dose to the therapeutic dose.
  5. Look for fluid extracts which are tinctured at 1:1 or 1:2 ratio or other concentrated forms of herbal preparations.