How the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia Conducts Herbal Research

In this episode, Roy Upton, the president of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, and Wilson Lau discuss the importance of high quality herbal research on the herbal supply chain.

Wilson (00:02):

Roy's is one of the most knowledgeable people on herbs that I know and if you have not checked out the great monographs that AHP produces, I highly recommend that you support the great work they do. Nuherbs is a proud supporter of their work. And I just love the work you guys do over there at AHP. Roy, can you tell me a little bit more about yourself and the work that you do at the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia?


Roy Upton (00:41):

Sure. I started AHP 20 plus years ago, based on the need for quality control guidance in the industry. I think you probably know, as well as anybody, that natural products came back into Vogue, probably in the 1960s with the back to nature evolution and the herbal industry kind of grew from that, but they had left all their traditional knowledge behind. There was very little traditional knowledge of Chinese medicine, very little traditional understanding of Ayurveda, and frankly not a lot of understanding on the quality that goes into Western herbals either. So herbal products continue to grow. Quality control didn't keep up. The United States pharmacopeia had just kind of discarded herbs a long time before that. There were really no good quality control initiatives around, and that's why we started AHP.


Wilson (01:42):

That's great. As part of new herbs creating our organic Echinacea purpurea extracts standardized to USP standards, I had the opportunity to revisit the echinacea monographs. I read three of them. The quality and depth of work is just amazing. I don't deal with it on a daily basis. So to me, it was everything from growing to the active constituents and everything. I was just really, really amazed by the quality and depth of work. Until you revisit it and you actually put your hands on it and start using it, you just don't remember how great they are. I think it's one of the best resources out there if you're going to do a product. And how do you see the industry? How could the industry use these opuses that you produce, these herbal monographs that are just amazing? How do you envision the industry using them?


Roy Upton (02:58):

Well, I think you actually hit the nail on the head. Would actually look at what the monographs contain, contains everything that pretty much every department in the company needs to know. So more quality control standards like general USP, or European Pharmacopoeia, or Chinese Pharmacopeia, whatever it be. They're only for the quality control department. You test the ingredient by this test. It contains an amount of constituents and that's pretty much it. And we recognize that the quality of an herbal ingredient starts with how it's grown, how it's picked, how it's dried. The knowledge base of that herbal ingredient starts with how it was historically, traditionally used and the critical review of the modern research of what we know, based on applying scientific methodology to determining that knowledge base.

But virtually, a department in a company from procurement, the people writing the specs, the research and development department that are developing the product, they need to know what dosage do you use, what species. For example, of Echinacea, which species of Echinacea should we use, which part of the plant: root leaf, seed, whatever should be used, dosage effects, contraindication, substantiated structure and function claims. Most importantly, what's the chemical characterization of the plant that will give us the greatest constituents that will deliver intended benefit and recognize that it's that whole breadth of knowledge that's needed virtually for every department in a company.


Roy Upton (04:48):

So research and development can use it for the purposes in developing a product, dose-wise, label claims, spec sheets. Quality control can use it. Here's the constituent profile or the specific tests that we should be running, here are the quality parameters we should be meeting and the purity parameters we'd be meeting. The salespeople can use it as an educational tool for retailers, for health professionals that says here's the information, the most critically reviewed information in the English language on this particular botanical, so that if you read this or even a summary of it, you'll know exactly how this should be used and perhaps how it shouldn't be used, some contraindications, for example. So there's not a department in a company that can't benefit from what's in a single monograph. It's basically a one-stop shop for what you need.


Wilson (05:49):

I never thought about it in the way you have, obviously, because I didn't create this document or this format, but it really is that, traditional pharmacopeias is really meant for quality control and measuring the ingredient that you're using, but the monographs that you produce, it involves all the departments, including if you're vertically integrated, even growing. I think one of the things that I learned a lot about is growing and sourcing. It really helped me figure out when was a good time for if we wanted a high content of chicoric acid, when was a good time to harvest the Echinacea purpurea aerial parts, and how to harvest it. It really just at least allowed me to be very conversant with the farmers that we work with on how to do it and what we wanted. So I think it was amazing. And how do you think they can contribute to the sustainability of the plants themselves and how we use these ingredients? Because I also see that as another aspect where the monographs are great.


Roy Upton (07:17):

It's actually a little bit of a tough question because on one hand, we're teaching people how to use the herb. At the same time, if there's an environmental sensitivity, for example, if a particular herb might be, it might be ginseng. For example, our species of ginseng had CITES listed. A great example is our Osha monograph, Ligusticum porteri monograph. Osha is an extremely important plant for Native American cultures and is marginally popular in the herb industry. Used sporadically, mostly by companies in the Southwest or the Pacific Northwest, but it grows very sporadically on the mountains of the Southwest. They can actually grow in what are called sky islands. There's no continuous spread of a population. They grow in pockets and that makes it environmentally sensitive. So when we wrote the Osha monograph, we had a very strong message with regards to collection and harvest practices so that you collect and harvest in a sustainable way, provided guidance on how to replenish the botanical by leaving crowns, for example.

Even echinacea, if you pick echinacea in the foliage in the wild, if you leave a piece of root, even though that's about an inch long, that's going to grow back to a new plant the next year. If you rotate between your fields between your harvest locations every few years, that allows those new plants to recede and re-propagate. So we made it a point, in two ways, and with the OSHA monograph. We provided all this information regarding sustainability and how to replenish the crop. We also emphasized that it's used for upper respiratory infections, but that many other species of Ligustrum or even Angelica are also used for upper respiratory infections and contain many of the same compounds and so that you should only use Osha when you really need it. Just like I think in Chinese culture, most people know that young people typically don't use ginseng.

You reserve it for the old people, right? Because the idea is if you use the best herb that you can, when you're young, well, what are you going to use when you're old? You've already gotten the benefit from it... But you're right. It no longer works the same way, so you wait until you really need it. We try to expand people's knowledge of how they should and shouldn't use an herb like Osha and we'll do the same thing with the ginseng monograph. What is the most culturally appropriate way that ginseng was used, rather than as a fad, which is what we typically do in the United States.


Wilson (10:20):

Hmm. That's great. Never thought about it that way as well. Is one of those things that, what is the appropriate use of a herb and during what life cycle you're in? That's an amazing way to bring that practitioner viewpoint into it because I'm into the actual, the herbal-herbal side of things where I'm actually just into the plant material and whatnot. I don't actually think that deeply sometimes about how people are using this on a day-to-day basis because I removed myself from... Not that I ever had the practice of medicine or herbal medicine, but it's one of those things that I'm lucky that my dad's a herbalist and I don't have to think about it. I just have to show up.


Roy Upton (11:20):

But if you asked your dad or even if you had asked your grandmother, on any given day, they might have been cooking a Kanji, for example, for breakfast and adding jujube dates and lycii berries and something else. And then on another day, they might add a couple of slices of ginseng because it was particularly cold out or it was the wintertime, or in the summertime they're drinking chrysanthemum tea to get rid of the external pathogenic heat. Virtually every Chinese person that I know that grew up in mainland China, or even first generation here, had some of that cultural experience, cultural knowledge.

Here's a funny story. Remember a bunch of years ago, we celebrated Chinese Medicine Day in San Francisco. We were at a banquet and the waiter, this is a waiter in a Chinese restaurant, he's pouring the ice water into our glasses and he is going, don't drink, don't drink, don't drink, don't drink. And I know why you don't drink ice cold water on a cold day.


Wilson (12:32):



Roy Upton (12:32):

But somebody at the table asked him, why are you telling us not to drink the ice water? He said, oh, everybody knows. It's bad for your digestion and you're about to eat. So it's this cultural knowledge and that's actually what I really wanted to do with the monographs. It wasn't just to make a quality standard, but it was to revitalize all aspects of traditional knowledge that we either lost in the American Western culture, or haven't learned from Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine or other Native American traditions. So that's the real purpose of the AHP monograph, to revitalize this cultural knowledge from all, not just Western culture, but all cultures.


Wilson (13:16):

Now that you mention it, culture is very important and the way we live our lives, because a lot of things that I do, it's not so much that I thought about, on this day, I should do that. But just part of the upbringing and being exposed to it repeatedly, I sort of just do it naturally. And it's not a thought process, like you said, it's not like, oh, I shouldn't drink cold water on a cold day because of X. It's just more like, I just won't do it.


Roy Upton (13:50):



Wilson (13:51):

Or, oh, it's summertime and having Chrysanthemum tea is very soothing at this time of the year. And it's not so much that it's because of A, I do B. It's more of, it's this exposure and upbringing and that we have ingrained in us. Sometimes I think with modern culture, we lose sight of this traditional knowledge and share this traditional knowledge with future generations. So I'm really happy that you brought that aspect into it because it feels that we're so far removed from mother earth and all that she has to give and all the benefits she has. And we just sort of stopped, listened, and observed nature as our ancestors did.


Roy Upton (14:45):

Exactly. Yeah.


Wilson (14:48):

What are some upcoming monographs that you guys are working on over there at AHP?


Roy Upton (14:54):

There's a lot we have. We probably are working on 12 right now, pretty much at the same time. Some of the closest ones that are there are the therapeutic review of cannabis, which people have been waiting for for years, but cannabis is a very tricky, controversial, very tough to provide a balanced viewpoint on cannabis therapeutic, because you have either people that are scientists that are either positively biased or negatively biased. So they're either all for it, or all against it and it's very hard to get a balanced review, and so I've been wrestling with that.

Another one is a herb called yerba santa, which is a California native plant. No monograph has ever been written on yerba santa before, so that's exciting, and we found some actual new chemistry, new chemotype yerba santa. But it's like osha, it's used for the upper respiratory tract, mostly for upper respiratory infections that are really phlegmy, white phlegm. And because no monographs have ever been done, I'm excited about that. Elderberry is one that's surfaced at the top of our list too, mostly because of COVID. I think if you saw the market analysis a few weeks ago, like a 242% growth in elderberry sales over 2019 and 2021, just because of interest in COVID because elderberries used to both prevent flu and for the first stages of treating flu. It's one of the things I use. I have gallons of it every year from our local elderberry. The elderberry we're monographing is predominantly the European elderberry, because that's where most of the research is.

Obviously, you know we're working on Panax ginseng, the red Panax ginseng monograph, and we're pretty far along with that. We've partnered with researchers in Korea to work on the therapeutic and the pharmacology of that. Another big one that we work on with the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine is a monograph on hemp. And actually it's predominantly hemp slash CBD because of the CBD kind of craze, but also looking at hemp broadly and that'll be in a good kind of correlation with the THC cannabis monograph. So those are some of the big ones that we're working on.


Wilson (17:27):

Yeah. And if you have year-end money that you want to donate and support a great cause, I highly recommend that you support a monograph or two of your favorite herb that they're doing research on. And I think if you're a company, join and support the great work they do. I'm a big, big fan of American Herbal Pharmacopoeia.

And one of the things that I am currently seeing out there is, seems that there is a rush to do things in a way that, talking about elderberries, is that... I'm trying to understand and get your opinion of what is economic adulteration, which is where the vendor is making some kind of bad mode of move versus when maybe the buyer may not be clear enough about exactly what they want and assume that they understand. And instead of elderberries, right? There's many species of elderberry, and if you just say elderberry, and I gave you for example, something that is native to America versus the European species, it's going to fail to identify at the lab if the lab is clear about what it is testing on, but the buyer wasn't clear on. So this is back to specs and monographs and all back to what you guys are doing. But what is your viewpoint on how much of it is a lack of knowledge maybe, or a lack of detail on the buyers versus actual real bad motives? What is that sort of mixture based on your experience?


Roy Upton (19:20):

Yeah. It's a tough question, but I think it's probably 60/40, where 60% of people don't really know what they should be asking for, how they should be asking for it. The specs are not detailed enough. Whoever developed the specs didn't know the nuances of herb identity and herb quality. And so these are some of the problematic things and I think that there's 30 to 40% of people out there, and unfortunately that's pretty high, that will intentionally cut corners. And this is in every culture. If they don't have enough Panax ginseng today to make an extract, Panax ginseng root, well, throw in a bunch of leaf to make your extract and build up the ginsenoside profile, has almost the exact same constituent profile, so why not do that? You're not really ripping somebody off. I think that's a larger percentage of those people that are doing it purposely.


Wilson (20:34):



Roy Upton (20:34):

They're trying to do these little substitutes that might not be that big of a deal. They don't introduce a safety hazard. But then you have a very small percentage of people that just don't care. So for example, many years ago, when kava was a big thing in rage parties, there was a company in Texas who ran out of kava so they substituted it with a agricultural chemical that sent about 75 kids who went to the same party where kava was being served, sent them to the emergency room in one night. That's just gross, intentional, negligent, and criminal in my opinion. Criminal behavior. Or there's also, for example, records of people free extracting herbs like saffron, ginseng, high cost herbs, extracting them first in their whole form, drying them and then reselling that as whole material.

Now in reality, it is really ginseng and it's really saffron, but it's saffron that all the benefits have been removed from or ginseng, which has been removed from ginsenosides. I think that's a relatively small percentage of the people that actually do it for criminal purposes, but nevertheless it happens. And again, that's the basis of the monographs. The monographs provides every bit of information that somebody needs to understand the supply chain, the adulterations, why they happen, how to prevent them, what they look like, taste like, smell like, how you chemically analyze them so nobody can ever say I didn't have that information at my fingertips because they do, if they have an AHP monograph.


Wilson (22:31):

Yeah. And I think that's the key, is education. Education on the buyer's part, education on the seller's part, and really getting everyone that's involved, whether it's sourcing QC, QA, formulation, everyone to be educated about the herbs that they are using and what's the proper way to use it, what's the proper way to grow it, what's the chemical constituents. It just allows a lot of benefit to the whole system when everyone's on the same page. And I think that's what it does better than any other document out there.


Roy Upton (23:12):

I think you also have to add into that mix though, Wilson, is a regulator. The regulators also have to know these nuances because most of the inspectors are not trained in herbal medicine, obviously, but what they are trained in is looking at processes. So they might walk into a factory and say, let me look at your lab documents, but they don't know what those lab documents really mean. They just want to see that they have records, that they have specs, that they're following their specs, but their specs might be crap while the monographs also help to inform regulators as to the nuances of what they should be looking at.


Wilson (23:55):

Makes so much sense. And Roy, thank you for your time. And once again, everyone, you really should go visit the American Herbal Pharmacopeia's website, check out the work they do and see what monographs you want to support that are coming out. There are a lot of exciting ones that he mentioned. And thank you so much. Have a wonderful holiday, Roy. And I'll talk to you soon.


Roy Upton (24:18):

All right, Wilson, take care. Thank you.


Wilson (24:21):

Bye bye.