What’s the difference between vitamins and herbs?
Most vitamins sold today are similar to the natural chemical compounds found in the body. They are single compounds intended to address a deficiency; for instance, a lack of exposure to sunlight (vitamin D) or not enough dairy in the diet (calcium). Our understanding of vitamins is relatively recent. Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, scientists began to discover that diseases like scurvy and rickets were not caused by germs but due to a lack of certain substances (coined “vitamins by Casimir Funk in 1912).
Studies on vitamins suggest that they can sometimes disturb the balance of other natural chemicals in the body, doing more harm than good. Herbs, however, work in a very different manner.
Herbs have been used for wellness by humans for thousands of years in nearly every region and culture. Herbs typically include bitter-tasting plants or plant parts that are not already part of a normal diet. Centuries of observed use give many herbal therapies their track record as an natural, effective approach to sustained wellness. While some herbs are only to be used for targeted conditions and should only be taken for short durations, the most commonly used herbs have an excellent safety profile and extensive history of effectively restoring the body’s normal balance.
Plants have developed their own defense mechanisms to protect against the elements and survive in often harsh environmental conditions. They need to fend off microbes and manage the stress of drought, freezing conditions, and human interference. Plant’s develop their own resilience in the form of chemical substances that offer antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and immune enhancing properties.
Modern food cultivation often drums these inherent survival traits out of culinary plants. But plants used for herbal wellness -- when sourced from responsible and experienced growers and suppliers -- retain their strong survival chemistry. This is yet another reason it’s essential that we know and trust where our herbs are coming from, and only use plant extracts that are organic, responsibly wildcrafted, or sustainably harvested.
Herbal therapies with their multiple actions on the body also differ from prescription drugs, which began to replace natural remedies in the United States around 1930. Pharmaceutical drugs (many of which were created from a single extract from a single plant) are targeted to “fix” a problem. Herbal therapies, however, use whole plant parts which have multiple actions that serve to promote healing, prevent imbalance, or restore harmony in the body. Herbalists focus more on the whole person and the goal of living well, rather than on treating sickness or specific symptoms.
Herbs also work best in synergy with combinations of multiple herbs. High amounts are often needed to get the most benefit. This is another way that herbs are different from both pharmaceutical drugs and vitamins. The body takes what it needs from a plant, just as the plant itself uses what survival substances it has developed when conditions call for it. Curious about what combination of herbs and in what amounts can help you roll with the punches? Take our speedy and fun quiz to get started.