Patrick P. Jones, DVM
I was walking past the pharmacy section of my local grocery store the other day. It was amazing to see how many herbal products they had on the shelves…Echinacea, St. John’s Wort, Gingko, garlic…all kinds of stuff. It’s great that herbal supplements have become so popular. The only downside was that every single one of those products was packaged in capsules.
I’m not a big fan of capsules. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying they don’t have some significant advantages. Capsules make herbs “easy to swallow”. Capsules are particularly nice when dealing with herbs that have an unpleasant flavor or texture. They’re also terrifically convenient. Encapsulating gadgets can be purchased at most health food stores and are easy to use. However, there is one BIG disadvantage. Herbs taken in capsules don’t start interacting with the body until the capsule is dissolved. This usually happens somewhere in the small intestine when the gelatin capsule is finally digested by the body’s enzymes.
So, what’s wrong with that?
Well, the fact is that some herbs have some or all of their medicinal effect because of their strong flavors or intense stimuli. The stomach bitters are a perfect example. This is a group of herbs that soothe the gastro-intestinal system and ease digestion. The bitter taste of these plants stimulates saliva and natural bicarbonate production and peristalsis (gut movement). In order for those things to happen the bitter taste must be experienced in the mouth. Cayenne is another herb that depends on its local effect in the mouth for some of its medicinal properties. The effect of cayenne in capsules is very different than the effect of cayenne without capsules…
Spine: Sir, we’ve just received a message from the duodenum. It appears there was some sort of accident.
Brain: Accident? What kind of accident?
Spine: Well Sir, apparently they were processing some gelatin and there was some kind of explosion.
Brain: (Yawn) Duodenum…duodenum…Isn’t that down in the bowels somewhere?
Spine: Yes Sir…small intestine I believe.
Brain: Well I can’t possibly be bothered with that right now. I’m nearly to level five on my Tetris game. Tell them whatever it is I’m sure it will pass.
Spine: Ha ha ha. Good one Sir.
Contrast that response with the response to cayenne taken without a capsule…
Brain: Is it getting hot in here?
Spine: Yes Sir. Mouth temperatures just increased by 500%. Apparently the whole place on fire!
Brain: What? Fire? Here in the head?! Increase heart rate and respiration! Dilate all the blood vessels! I want a full circulatory flush!
Spine: Mouth temperatures still rising Sir.
Brain: Impossible! Increase salivation and bicarbonate production! Dump everything from the sinuses! Get those tear ducts and sweat glands pumping! I want to throw everything we’ve got at that fire!
The taking of medicinal herbs should be a holistic experience. Ideally, the plant should be able to interact with your entire body all the way through. The stronger the flavor of an herb, the more likely it is that much of its effect happens in the mouth. So, ironically, the herbs we’re most likely to want to put into a capsule are the ones most likely to have their medicinal value diminished if we do so.
Certainly an herb in a capsule is usually much better than no herb at all. And there are some herbs that can be encapsulated without their medicinal effects being diminished. But, for the most part, I believe you will get better medicinal effects without the capsules. Don’t be a sissy. Take your herbs the way God designed them to be taken. Your mouth may be mad. But the rest of your body will thank you.