A Guide To Taking Herbs & Supplements
In recent years, herbs & adaptogens + supplements & superfoods have been increasingly growing in popularity. While integrating these items into your life can be helpful, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what you are putting into your body and why. There is a massive difference between a therapeutic supplementation protocol and supporting slight imbalance in the body.
It’s safe to say that more than 5 supplements at a time is too much (unless you are on a therapeutic supplementation protocol). Everything we take in is processed through our digestive system and liver, and it is possible to overburden your system. When we consume whole foods, we receive small amounts of vitamins and minerals each day, which are then broken down and distributed through the body. When supplementing, we receive a much stronger concentration of these vitamins and minerals at one time, which can be difficult for the body to process. Particularly important to note are the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, which accumulate in the body faster and, over time, can lead to toxicity.
When it comes to herbs, the simples/nourishing herbs are the safest and most nourishing to have on regular rotation. Stronger herb concentrations are best suggested by an herbalist. Also, if you take adaptogens, it’s important to pulse them (unless you’re following a therapeutic program or addressing an acute issue). Always be certain there are no contradictions with your current condition, other supplements, or any medications or otc’s you may be taking in.
It can be easy to get carried away with supplements and herbs. However, taking too many supplements can often cause more harm than good. If you’ve recently received blood work that shows vitamin & mineral deficiencies or some type of imbalance, it’s best to reach out to a holistic practitioner for support. Practitioners look for contraindications, potential risks, and interactions between supplements, herbs, and medications.
The most basic way to incorporate plant-medicine into your day-to-day is with culinary herbs & spices while cooking. Fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, and basil are packed with nutrients and aromatic spices like thyme, oregano, and sage turn any meal into medicinal fare. These powerful plants help to nourish the system, heal the liver, and work as antimicrobials.
Ginger, Turmeric, and Ceylon Cinnamon act as anti-inflammatories, support digestion, and help to regulate blood sugar.
Ginger– ginger is a carminative herb, great for improving digestion and relieving gastric upset.
Try: making a lemon and ginger tea with fresh ginger root or grate fresh ginger into culinary dishes or smoothies.
Turmeric– is a potent anti-inflammatory herb that has long been used in traditional cuisines around the world. Turmeric is best known for having the compound curcumin which is anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.
Try: making golden milk with turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, honey and coconut milk. Turmeric can also be added to savory dishes, soups, and smoothies.
Cinnamon– balances blood sugar and improves blood flow and circulation.
Try: adding cinnamon to your smoothies, oatmeal or tea.
Immune system supportive herbs like echinacea and astragalus are best taken as needed. Immune supportive herbs cue the body’s immune system response; when taken in excess, however, they tend to over-work the system and fail to serve you when you need them most.
Teas and Infusions
The best herbs to start with when it comes to teas and infusions are the simple or “nourishing herbs”. Simples refer to single herb concentrations as opposed to combined herbal formulas. The nourishing herbs include oat straw, nettles, red raspberry, chickweed, burdock, and dandelion. These herbs are incredibly restorative and replenishing to the system and can be taken over long periods of time. They are also generally the safest herbs to consume during pregnancy, though it's best to speak with your holistic practitioner.
Oat Straw - Gentle Nervous system support , high in minerals, and helpful for those with anxiety/depression.
Try: An oatstraw infusion. Add 4 tbsp of oat straw to a quart mason jar. Cover with boiling water. Top & let sit 4-8 hours. (Best stored in the fridge after cooling *stays fresh 24-48 hours) Enjoy!
Nettles- Rich in minerals, promotes hair growth, and helps to relieve seasonal allergy symptoms.
Try: A nettle infusion. Add 4 tbsp of nettle to a quart mason jar. Cover with cold water. Top & let sit 4-8 hours. (Best stored in the fridge *stays fresh 24-48 hours) Enjoy!
The herbs on everyone’s radar. There are many different types of adaptogens - some are calming, while others are uplifting and energizing. They can help to brighten the spirit, provide energy and an overall boost, and renew and restore the body. Many adaptogens are modulators, meaning that they can help the body to recalibrate and find balance.
Adaptogens work by helping the body adapt to stress and have the ability to help support, sustain, and heal our nervous system and cortisol response, which can become overworked due to chronic stress.
It’s helpful to pulse them and integrate only what you need, when you need it. For instance, in times of intense stress, travel, major life change, and adrenal burnout or fatigue it can be supportive to add in adaptogens like ashwagandha, chaga, or holy basil. You may pulse these for a week or a month, depending on the circumstance. Again, when dealing with specific conditions, hormonal imbalance, or if you are taking medications, it’s best to seek the guidance and support of a holistic practitioner.
Since vitamins are most easily obtained through eating a diet that contains a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, you generally do not need to supplement unless you have a specific deficiency, disorder, or diagnosis (and almost ALWAYS in cases of digestive issues/malabsorption, in which case powdered supplements or intravenous may be the best options). Most people are vit d deficient as well so it's always helpful to check through bloodwork.
During times of healing, illness/disease, or injury you may want to supplement with antioxidant vitamins ( A,C, and E). Antioxidants can also be obtained easily by eating vegetables and fruits that are colorful such as; carrots, yams, blueberries, goji berries, artichoke, and cranberries. You can also make a herbal elderberry tea, syrup, or decoction for a healthy dose of antioxidants and immune support.
During times of high stress B vitamins may also be beneficial to supplement with as they can help to support the adrenals, healthy hormone production, and help to breakdown fats and carbs for energy use. Supplementing with vitamin D during the darker months of the year helps to reduce and lessen SAD. Vitamin D can be taken in by midday sunlight but egg yolks, mushrooms, seaweed, and salmon are also rich sources.
It’s also important to note that genetics can often play a role in determining if our bodies require supplementation and how they respond to certain vitamins. For instance, those with the genetic mutation MTHFR often need to take active forms of folate; though again, it’s best to work with a practitioner on this as some with this mutation do not need to supplement due to other genetic factors, and those with a history of “manic episodes” are often too stimulated by active folate.
For sleep support - start with something simple like sipping lemon balm or chamomile before bed or taking magnesium citrate. For insomnia / sleep disorders - you may need melatonin, gaba, magnesium, passion flower, or valerian. Again, support from a practitioner is key here as many sleep supportive supplements have contraindications.
For Constipation - magnesium citrate can be helpful, or a more gentle laxative herb like triphala (which also helps to tone the bowel). Best to seek support here. Or try chia seeds -simply add a tablespoon of chia to water and let it sit for about 15-20 minutes & then drink. Helpful before bed.
Probiotics - help to ensure a healthy microbiome which impacts a number of body systems, including digestion, immune function and hormone balance. The best way to get probiotics is to consume probiotic-rich foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, kefir, and miso. If you do not enjoy fermented foods, a probiotic capsule with lactobacillus and bifidobacterium strains is a good alternative. Try a 10-25 billion CFU capsule.
Bitters - are excellent in aiding digestion. They prepare your digestive system for food by promoting the secretion of digestive juices (hydrochloric acid in the stomach and bicarbinate in the small intestine, and bile in the liver and gallbladder, for example), as well as stimulates the production and secretion of digestive enzymes. Bitters can be taken as an herbal tincture 20-30 minutes before a meal, or by eating bitter foods such as arugula, dandelion leaf or mustard greens.
Protein Powders- A less in more approach is best when it comes to protein powders. The fewer ingredients, the better. You want to find something simple and clean, containing only a handful of basic ingredients. Basic proteins like sprouted brown rice, hemp, and collagen are all great options.
Fats (Omega 3 and 6)- Both omega 3 and 6 contain anti-inflammatory properties and support various functions in the body. Most people consume an overabundance of omega 6 and lack omega 3’s. While a proper balance can reduce inflammation, too much omega 6 and not enough omega 3 can actually increase inflammation. The body cannot make omegas on its own, and so they must either come from diet or supplementation.
Food sources include: Hemp seeds are a rich and balanced source of omega 3 and 6. Flax seeds are rich in omega 3. Cold water fish, like salmon, black cod, anchovies, and sardines are all excellent sources of omega 3 and 6, but have the richest and most readily available source of omega 3.
When to supplement: It is best to consume balanced sources of omega-rich food daily. Supplementation is often most supportive in cases of chronic inflammation, hormone imbalance, degenerative diseases, and mental health issues. It is important to note that the most appropriate ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s will differ by individual depending on health condition(s), diet and lifestyle.
Minerals can be obtained naturally through the diet, though mineral deficiencies and depletion of soils often require that we add them in. Minerals are needed for every reaction that occurs within our body; it is crucial for our health that we have enough minerals to support these.
When to supplement: Minerals such as magnesium, potassium, sodium, and zinc are common deficiencies among those with high activity levels as they level the body easily when intense sweating is induced. If you spend time in the sauna, steam room, or hot yoga, it can be helpful to replenish with a liquid supplement afterwards OR add a pinch of himalayan sea salt to your water. You can also soak in magnesium flake baths.
Iron deficiencies are common among women with heavy menstrual cycles due to the heavy loss of blood, and also among vegans/vegetarians because of the lack of high iron foods in the diet. Add in more iron rich foods: nettles, blackstrap molasses, lentils, clams, legumes, and spinach are examples of foods rich in iron. A perfect way to add more minerals to your diet is to drink nettle infusions daily.
Only choose high-quality, reputable supplement sources. Not all supplements are made alike and many often contain fillers or unknown additives. Since supplements are not regulated, it’s important to look for clean brands that are transparent about their ingredients and sourcing - another area where help from a holistic practitioner can be helpful.
Be Inquisitive- While there is plenty of useful information online regarding herbs and supplements, there is also a fair share of misinformation and sales tactics. Look for reputable sources of information, and if something doesn’t sound right, question it. Seek the support of a holistic practitioner to fully understand if a herb or supplement is right for you.