Toxic Processing: Standardization of Herbs

Herbal Extracts: Beware of Toxic, Un-Natural Processing

Standardization of Herbs

by Nathan Jaynes, M.H., Student Advisor, School of Natural Healing

A look into the way some plants are standardized should show just how un-natural this whole process is. Below is a common way alkaloids are extracted from raw plant material. This is not a recipe; some of these chemicals are very dangerous.

  1. The plant material is first juiced and blended along with water.
  2. Acetic acid (or some other acid) is added until the solution is around 5 pH. This acidic solution slowly converts the alkaloids into alkaloid salts.
  3. The solution is heated for hours and sometimes days.
  4. The aqueous solution is strained off and saved and the plant material goes through the process sometimes three or four times before the plant matter is finally discarded.
  5. A defatting solvent like methylene chloride (see reverse), ether, chloroform, dichloromethane or naphtha (lighter fluid) is added to the solution. This will take out all fats and waxes from the product.
  6. The mixture will separate into 2 parts the solvent with dissolved fats and oils and the alkaloid solution. The solvent mixture is discarded.
  7. To this solution, a base chemical is added like ammonium hydroxide, sodium hydroxide (lye), ethyl acetate or potassium hydroxide until the pH is about 9 or 10. This un-hooks the salts and transforms the alkaloids into their free base form.
  8. The alkaloids are no longer soluble in water and are extracted as in step 5 by again adding more methylene chloride, ether, chloroform, or naphtha (lighter fluid).
  9. This yellow to brown extract (the color indicates alkaloid content) is allowed to evaporate or is heated and the process may be applied again and again until a final white crystalline product is achieved.
  10. The resulting isolated alkaloid is then added to your herbs just before encapsulation. Even after adding all of these chemicals they market the end product as “all natural”. Ephedrine, extracted in this manner from mahuang is as natural as cocaine from coco leaves or morphine from poppies. When did the herb stop being a natural and safe product and start being a dangerous and powerful chemical?

Answer: When the “inactive” phytochemicals that are usually present in the plant are taken out. These “inactive” phytochemicals work synergistically or as buffers with the so called “active” principles making the whole plant a safer and more effective medicine. The less processing of an herb between harvest and ingestion, the better and more natural it is.

FACT SHEET: Methylene Chloride (Dichloromethane)

Methylene chloride, also known as dichloromethane, is a very widely-used solvent and is commonly used in processing herbs to standardize them. Beware that residues of this toxic solvent may remain in standardized herbs.

Methylene chloride is found in many common products, including:

  • paint and varnish thinners and removers
  • cleaning solutions
  • paints and adhesives
  • metal and plastic cleaners and degreasers
  • aerosols (as a propellant)
  • pesticides, fumigants, insecticides, and herbicides
  • refrigeration and air conditioning equipment.

Health Effects

Overexposure to methylene chloride can cause serious health problems. Like most organic solvents, methylene chloride can damage the brain, as well as the skin, lungs, and other organs. In addition, methylene chloride has been shown to cause cancer in humans and laboratory animals. Most people cannot smell methylene chloride until it reaches a hazardous level — so don’t depend on your sense of smell to warn you of overexposure. If you smell it, your exposure is too high.

How Can Methylene Chloride Get Into Your Body?

Methylene chloride can enter your body when you breathe in vapors. It can also be absorbed through your skin, so proper protective clothing is essential. If you eat, smoke, or drink in your work area, or if you don’t wash your hands, you can also ingest (swallow) methylene chloride and other chemicals that you work with.

Short-Term (Acute) Health Effects

Methylene chloride can irritate the eyes, nose, throat, and skin and cause skin rash, coughing, and shortness of breath. At high levels, exposure to methylene chloride can also affect your central nervous system (brain) and cause the following symptoms: “drunk” behavior, sluggishness, staggering, mental confusion, sleepiness, irritability, lightheadedness, dizziness, and headache. At higher levels, symptoms can include nausea, flushing, confusion, slurred speech, loss of balance and coordination. Exposure can also irritate the lungs, causing a build-up of fluid that can lead to death.

Methylene chloride breaks down in the body to carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide decreases the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, and reduces the amount of oxygen that gets to your heart, brain, and other organs. This may result in fatigue, shortness of breath, and chest pain. If you are exposed to methylene chloride and carbon monoxide at work, both exposures should be kept to a minimum. Smoking also increases levels of carbon monoxide in the body. If you smoke, you may be more susceptible to the effects of methylene chloride exposure.

Long-Term (Chronic) Health Effects

Methylene chloride causes a variety of cancers in laboratory animals, including cancer of the lung, liver, breast, and salivary glands. Chemicals that cause cancer in animals are assumed to pose cancer risks to humans as well. (The Food and Drug Administration has just banned methylene chloride from hairsprays because of the potential cancer risks faced by hairdressers and consumers.) One study of workers indicated that methylene chloride may pose a risk of cancer of the pancreas.

Long-term exposure to methylene chloride can damage the brain (causing memory loss, blackouts, personality changes, poor coordination, and reduced thinking ability). At higher exposures, methylene chloride can also damage your liver. Methylene chloride also causeskidney damage in animals.

One study has suggested that male workers exposed to methylene chloride may be at greater risk of sterility. Methylene chloride may irritate the lungs, especially when used near heat (furnaces, welding, etc.) Repeated exposures may cause bronchitis with cough, phlegm, and/or shortness of breath. When exposed to heat, methylene chloride breaks down into deadly phosgene gas. Exposure to methylene chloride may cause heart disease or aggravate pre-existing heart diseaseand cause irregular heartbeat and rapid pulse.