Number 15
July/August 1998

Herbs in this issue:





A Note From Dr. Leung


      What is an active principle? It can be anything that possesses one or more of the many known pharmacological activities.  These include lowering fever, easing pain, relieving allergies, lowering blood pressure, relieving constipation, reducing blood sugar, boosting the immune system, calming nerves, as well as having such effects as antioxidant, antihepatotoxic, anti-mutagenic, anti-tumor, antimicrobial, hypolipemic, etc., etc. There are often many active principles in an herb. 

      In order to avoid the current confusion in the herbal supplement/drug industry, we need to define precisely what an active principle of an herb is. An active principle of an herb is different from the active principle(s) of an herb.  The former means that it is only one of potentially many of the active chemicals in the herb, while the latter is the only active chemical(s) in the herb which is/are responsible for the herb’s traditionally known effect(s).


Dr. Leung is author of the Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics (Wiley-Interscience), which was published in 1980 and revised in 1996. He is also creator of PHYTOMED, a prototype computer database on Chinese herbal medicine developed under contract with the National Cancer Institute.


        Currently, there are too many people with technical titles (Ph.D., N.D, M.D., etc.) brandishing too freely the term “active principles” or “active components.”  Some actually claim to have found methods to “fingerprint” the “active principles” of herbs.  Others claim they can even “identify” and “fingerprint” “active components” of herbal mixtures.  However, since there are no standard uniform definitions of what constitutes an active ingredient in any herb, they can simply be talking gibberish, and most people have no idea of what they are talking about anyway, even if they were talking sense.  At present, we can claim to know some of the active principles of only a handful of herbs, and without certainty at that.  Even this has to depend on how you define an “active principle/component.”  Herbs such as some laxatives (senna, cascara, drug aloe, etc.) as well as some now well-publicized herbs, including echinacea, kava, St. John’s wort, mahuang, ginkgo biloba leaf, ginseng, etc., all have known active principles.  But are these known active chemicals the only ones responsible for an herb’s traditional properties for which it has been used through centuries?  Or are they simply “active” chemicals with certain pharmacological activities, which you can also find and isolate from other herbs but which have nothing to do with the traditional usage(s) of the herb in question?  In the latter case, you don’t need a genius to design assays to “identify” and/or “fingerprint” these so-called “active components” (even in herbal mixtures) because any decent analytical chemist can do that.  This is no different than chemically testing a drug substance in a dosage form, which is relatively easy.  The real challenge, however, is to relate these “active” chemicals to the traditional properties of the herbs themselves.  Thus, analyzing or “fingerprinting” ginsenosdes is fine.  But will this give you a product with ginseng’s traditional properties?  Not really, because we still don’t know what ginseng actually does, nor how it works.  One thing we do know is that ginseng contains many active components, and ginsenosides are only some of them.  Research has shown that other ginseng components like polysaccharides are also active (hypoglycemic, immunomodulating, etc.).  Which means that so-called standardized ginseng extracts with high levels of ginsenosides (e.g., 80% or 90%) cannot be good ginseng extracts because they simply don’t represent ginseng.  They lack other components (such as polysaccharides) that may be more active than ginsenosides.  As I have repeatedly stressed earlier (Issue 4, p. 3; Issue 13, pp. 2-3), I have no problem with whatever you want to do with these “active components” (either as a group or further reducing them into single components), but just don’t tell me that you have a ginseng extract!  And I am afraid overzealous self-serving promoters have bitten more than they can chew.  Without understanding the difference between “an active principle of an herb” and “the active principle(s) of an herb,” they are prematurely proclaiming that they have found ways to “fingerprint” the latter.  Frankly, these technical people have their specialties in the wrong place; otherwise they would have realized, that, in order to do the latter, the herbs must first undergo clinical trials to see if they do actually perform the function(s) for which they have traditionally been known.  And that could take years for each herb, even if it is possible to do “clinical” trials on that herb!  For example, you can never do conventional clinical trials on ginseng, because we still don’t know what effect(s) ginseng is supposed to have.  However, we can subject a certain ginsenoside or mixture of ginsenosides to clinical trials if we are looking at a specific activity (hypoglycemic, hypotensive, hypertensive, tranquilizing, etc.).  But then, these have nothing to do with ginseng itself.  You are simply doing clinical trials on basically new drugs, even though these drugs may have been derived from ginseng.  Let’s take another example – licorice.  Among the dozens of glycosides, flavonoids, isoflavanoids, chalcones, triterpenes, polysaccharides, and sterols it contains, most possess some sort of biological activity.  Each, when isolated, has its own specific biological effect or effects, and more likely the latter.  This isolated chemical can individually be used as an active agent for something.  But does this active chemical have an activity that licorice is traditionally known to have and for which it is traditionally used?  The answer is no!  Then, why is everyone who recently has entered the herbal business talking about “guaranteeing” a standardized dose of “active” principles in an herb?  My answer to this is threefold. One, some people just don’t get it.  Two, some people find the simplistic approach a great marketing tool which brings them big bucks with little effort.  And three, people are simply confused about what an active principle of an herb is and the easiest course to follow is the prevalent fad. 

        Under the first category belong the many technical newcomers to the herbal field who are either chemists or scientists heavily influenced by modern pharmaceutical practices.  The only thing they know is single-chemical drugs.  If a chemical does not show immediate one-to-one effect, they tend not to consider it active. And they don’t understand (or refuse to accept the fact) that there can be more than one chemical that contributes to the biological effect being sought.  Because of the drug-oriented nature of their training and research, they just can’t visualize that there is such a thing as a group of similar or different chemicals that together are responsible for the effects of an herb.  Also, there is another side to this.  Compared to multi-component formulas, analyzing and studying the effects of a single-chemical drug has been relatively easy.  At times, a handful of chemists or related technicians may get it, but why rock the boat and start with multiple components if you can get away with not dealing with them?  And they might get away with it if knowledgeable scientists in the herbal field did not speak out.  So far, all drug research and drug evaluation has been based on the elusive “magic-bullet” approach.  But to date, there is no magic bullet; and I don’t believe there ever will be.  Our body is a multifaceted and interconnected entity; no magic bullet can hit one area without affecting other areas, thus throwing it out of balance in another way. 

        The second category includes marketers or entrepreneurs who saw the tremendous opportunity in herbal products, especially after the passage of the October 1994 Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act (DSHEA).  To some of them, herbal products are just like any other products.  You market them using any gimmick that entices the public to buy.  “Standardization” (whether or not it makes any sense) is an extremely effective gimmick.  It not only meets the drug and medical establishments’ “requirements” (analyzable chemicals with guaranteed amounts), but also, in the eyes of the public, it appears to be “scientific.”  You have probably heard of the phrase “guaranteed potency” in many advertisements.  Except for a few very limited cases where the true active principles are reasonably known, most of the products being promoted with “guaranteed potency” are strictly gimmicks.  What the marketers mean is not really guaranteed potency but rather guaranteed amount of a certain chemical which may or may not have anything to do with the potency or effectiveness of the herb.  Some of the chemical compounds against which some marketers use to standardize their herbal products are so irrelevant and ridiculous that I can’t think of any other reason for them to do so except out of ignorance or dishonesty, or both (e.g., see Issue No. 13, pp. 2-3). 

        The third category includes the rest of the population, especially the consumers.  This group is basically brainwashed by promotional literature.  In a field like this that is choked with information, much of which is still mumbo jumbo put out by promoters of products, if you didn’t have your own information resources, you would have to rely on information, that based on your best judgement, is most credible.  What is more credible information than that from the company that has a scientific advisory board full of MD’s and Ph.D.’s with top university affiliations?  Once you had this information, you would feel comfortable to pass it along.  That is how “standardization” is being abused and turned into a money tree for certain suppliers and promoters.  At least that is the way I see it, and I have been in this business for over 20 years and have seen them come and go.  But this time around, I have a feeling we will see more of them come than go.  With the tremendous profits they make, even a tiny portion of them can exert enormous clout with self-serving influential organizations and institutions to keep them in business for a long time. 



Beware of the Internet!


        Talking about information-dissemination out of control!  As if it is not bad enough to try to make sense out of information on herbs and herbal medicine in printed media, now we also have the Internet to deal with.  The media are not the culprit for poor information or misinformation; the authors are.  And irrespective of how reputable or unbiased a journal or magazine is, its printed information may not necessarily be accurate.  It all depends on the authors/contributors to the information.  With the Internet, anyone can set up a Website and give his/her own interpretation of herbal information.  Anyone can become an instant expert.  There is no control of the information put on a given Website.  Much of the information currently on the Internet is from marketers who want to promote their products.  In only one short year since 1997, there is already a proliferation of misinformation and misleading information on herbs in the Internet.  Just log on and search the word “herbs” and you will see what I mean.  I have already written about one such example in the last issue (p. 3) of this newsletter.  There are many more such examples.  They are simply too numerous to keep track of.  Some of the Websites are fascinating and very slick in promoting their herbal products.  I must admit it is quite difficult to leave the Internet once you have logged on and started surfing.  Suffice to say that despite their slick appearance, among the several dozen sites I visited one evening, I had not found a single credible commercial Website.  Of course, if you screened them all, you might find a small handful of credible sites.  I stressed commercial, because there are legitimate Websites put out by certain universities, institutions, and botanical gardens.  Again, like information in printed media, there is no guarantee that the information is accurate, even in the latter sites, especially when it relates to Chinese herbal medicine.

        During my Internet surfing, one commercial site popped up in every search.  It was the slickiest and looked very professional, in everything except what counts most, namely, honest and correct information on herbs and health.  The company was promoting herbal products at prices lower than you can buy from retail stores.  I had no problem with that.  But then it listed a Health Advisory Board, consisting of over a dozen members, some of whom quite prominent, including a retired dean of a major school of public health and the editor of a major university health newsletter.  I have no problem with that either.  What I did have a problem with is the quality of its glossary of technical and health terms, which is simply outrageous in its content.  Here are just a few dandies:  “acetyl-CoA” is “radical of acetic acid,” “antigen” is “a substance that interferes with antihistamine ..,”  “carcinogenic” is “cancer-causing chemicals,” “carcinogens” is “cancer-causing substances,” etc. etc.  Nowadays, forming advisory boards is quite common.  A few of these are legitimate, but most are gimmicks, simply there to try to lend credibility to the company and its products.  In this case, it serves precisely that purpose.  Judging from the quality of the information in the glossary, I wouldn’t be surprised if the board is a phantom board.  If by chance it is indeed a genuine board, I would think that its members would be totally embarrassed to be associated with this kind of promotion. 

        Also, there was this site that promoted ginseng and other herbal products.  Again, it attracted my attention because of its slick appearance and its prominent messages on “quality control” and “standardization.”  It said it required its suppliers to supply a “Certificate of Analysis” along with each product, which contains “information such as product specifications, purity, potency and contamination levels.”  Nothing wrong with that!  But in practice, unless the company is well-known for its strict quality standard requirements and its technical expertise, what it would get is fake certificates of analysis from some suppliers who would furnish you with any certificate of analysis that would meet your “requirements.”  This has been going on for years with aloe vera gel ingredients, particularly those supplied to the cosmetic industry (Issue 2, p. 2), as well as other herbal ingredients (Issue 4, p. 3; Issue 10, p. 1; Issue 13, pp. 2-3).  This company was obviously not known for its quality control or technical expertise.  And the following excerpt from its message on “Standardized Extracts” is a telltale sign of its ignorance in both areas:


        When a powdered extract is made, it can be analyzed for any number of active or inactive ingredients.  When various extracts are combined to yield a standard amount of an ingredient, this extract is then considered standardized.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that it is more or less potent, only that each batch of extract will have the same (standard) amount of certain constituents. 

        Standardized extracts were developed to enable health care providers to develop better protocols for using botanicals and allow for more consistent dosing.  Clinical results have shown standardized extracts to be superior and more reliable than non-standardized extracts.  At XYZ, we offer high quality, STANDARDIZED herbs. 


        This is obviously the work of a marketer or promoter who has no technical knowledge about herbs and has been brainwashed by promoters of “standardized extracts.”  Folks!  You are going to see more of this type of promotion of herbal extracts, not less. 



Recent Findings


         Antioxidant Herbs [Shizhen Guoyao Yanjiu, 9(2): 146(1998)].  Many common Chinese herbs, especially tonics, have been shown to have strong antioxidant effects that are often stronger than those of well-known vitamins such as C and E.  I have given some examples of these herbs in an earlier issue of this Newsletter (Issue 2, p. 3); and here are some more from a recent report.  Ethanol extracts of 8 herbs were studied using vitamin C as a comparison.  Using an in vitro assay (linoleic acid peroxidation), the following herbs exhibited stronger antioxidant activity than vitamin C (inhibition ratio, IR=10.8):  gao liang jiang (galangal or rhizome of Alpinia officinarum Hance)(IR=70.9), sha ren (fruit of Amomum villosum Lour. or A. xanthioides Wall. ex Baker)(IR=48.3), mao ji gu cao (whole herb of an Abrus species with root but without fruits)(IR=44), ye ge or kudzu root [Pueraria lobata (Willd.) Ohwi.](IR=38.4), yi zhi (fruit of sharp-leaf galangal or Alpinia oxyphylla Miq.)(IR=33.8), and da liang jiang or greater galangal [fruit of Alpinia galanga (L.) Willd.](IR=33.8).  In contrast, another type of kudzu root, fen ge (Pueraria thomsonii Benth.), had weaker antioxidant activity (IR=3.5) than vitamin C.  This is probably due to the fact that fen ge contains more starch and much less isoflavones (traces to 2.22%) than ye ge (1.77 to 12.0%). 

Leung, A.Y., and S. Foster, Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs and Cosmetics, Wiley-Interscience, New York, 1995, pp. 333-336.



Herb Tips


          Fresh ginger and vinegar for treating hand and foot ringworm.  Simply cut a fresh ginger root crosswise.  Dip the exposed surface in vinegar and gently rub it on the afflicted areas for 3-5 min.  Do this once in the morning and once at night. This method should not be used on ringworm that has a cracked or broken surface.  It is especially recommended for hard-to-treat ringworm.  A case is described of a 62-year-old male with ringworm on his hands for over 1 yr.  He had been treated unsuccessfully with several types of both traditional and western antifungal medications, including clotrimazole and 10% salicylic acid tincture.  After ginger and vinegar treatment for 10 days, his ringworm was healed.  This is such a simple way to deal with an often nasty and difficult problem.  It certainly is worth a try, since one can now buy ginger in most supermarkets. 

X.X. Wang, “Highly Effective Treatment of Hand and Foot Ringworm with Ginger and Vinegar,” Shizhen Guoyao Yanjiu, 9(2): 178(1998).


         Acne treatment with bletilla (bai ji) compound.  The formula consists of the following herbs:  6 g each of bletilla [rhizome of Bletilla striata], Dahurian angelica (Angelica dahurica root), and xin yi (flower bud of Magnolia spp.), and 3 g of huang qin or Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis root).  These are all readily available from any Chinese herb shop.  Pick off any dirt or extraneous matter and discard.  Cut the herbs into small pieces and place them in a blender and chop them into a very fine powder.  A better way is to pass them through a coffee mill a couple of times until a very fine powder is obtained.  Then store the powder in a small sealed bottle so as to leave minimal amount of headspace to avoid oxidation.  For prolonged storage, leave it in the freezer. 

        This remedy is for pimples “all over the face.”  Every night before going to bed, place an adequate amount of the bletilla compound powder on the center of the palm, add an adequate amount of water, and make a paste.  Gently rub this paste on the pimpled areas.  [The author does not tell us whether to leave the paste on overnight or wash it off right away.  But I assume you would want to leave it overnight.]  According to this report, the pimples will disappear 7 to 10 days after treatment starts.  After 7 to 15 days, the blackheads will also come off.  The author recommends that even after pimples disappear, one should continue with this treatment 1 to 2 times during the week that follows, so as to “protect and nourish the skin and to prevent recurrence.”  Sounds good to me!  Looks like it’s a simple treatment for another common and often difficult to treat problem. 

        All the herbs in this formula have been shown to have antimicrobial activities; some also antiinflammatory (magnolia flower bud. Dahurian angelica, Chinese skullcap), and healing (bletilla).  Dahurian angelica contains sizable amounts of furocoumarins that can be photosensitizing.  However, since this remedy is to be used at night, this would be an unlikely problem.  Still, be alert to allergic skin reactions.

F.H. Zhao, “Acne Treatment with Bai Ji Powder,” Zhongguo Kexue Meirong, (5): 17(1998);  Leung, A.Y., and S. Foster, Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs and Cosmetics, Wiley-Interscience, New York, 1995, pp. 362-364, 530, 532-533, 554-555.