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Tincture of herbs next to baby's breath

Not all herbal formulations are created equal.

“It’s the wild, wild West out there as far as what’s being sold and who is recommending what,” says functional-medicine practitioner Mark Menolascino, MD. The safe use of herbal remedies requires doing some homework and keeping a buyer-beware attitude. With that in mind, follow these basic guidelines:

  • Avoid buying herbs online unless you know and trust the company. When possible, go to a natural-food store or co-op and ask staff for help selecting a reputable product. If you do buy online, herbalist Lily Mazzarella, MS, CNS, suggests choosing manufacturers with solid reputations, such as Herb Pharm and Gaia Herbs.
  • Pass on the cheapest option. High-quality herbal formulas are expensive to produce, so avoid the temptation of the lowest cost.
  • Notice certifications. A seal on the package may show the product is endorsed by a trustworthy third-party certification organization, such as the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP). But the absence of a seal doesn’t mean a product isn’t good, says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, a nonprofit herbal-research organization. “Some of the best products don’t have certification, which leaves consumers in a tough spot.”
  • Start by trying single herbals in lieu of antianxiety mixtures. “With individual formulas, it’s easier to pinpoint what works for you,” says Menolascino.
  • Pay attention to shelf life. When looking for freshness and potency, know that teas are the first to fade. Tinctures last quite a bit longer, because most are preserved in alcohol; Blumenthal believes these can last up to five years, and some maintain their potency even longer. For freeze-dried extracts, he suggests discarding them if you haven’t finished them before their expiration date. Still, there is little danger if you do take an expired capsule.
  • Consider seeing an herbalist, a naturopath, or an acupuncturist for guidance, says Mazzarella. “A professional will help to identify if your anxiety is an indicator of a systemic imbalance that needs attention.”

This originally appeared as “Herbs for Anxiety” in the March 2020 print issue of Experience Life.

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