Q: Are Herbs and Supplements The Same Thing?

Have you always assumed herbs and supplements are basically the same thing? Would you be surprised to find out that they are quite different? Even thought most people, me included sometimes, refer to “herbs and supplements” collectively, there is a distinct and important difference between the two.

A few months ago I had a young woman walk into my office with severe depression and anxiety. She had been to a functional medicine practitioner who put her on a regimen of 15 pills a day, including vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids, etc. And after months of taking all these (expensive) supplements, she had gotten no relief.

When I recommended that she try herbal medicine in addition to the acupuncture to speed up her healing, she refused. Because of her prior experience taking pills, both supplements and anti-depressants, she was turned off of taking anything internally. Unfortunately, she didn’t get the results she wanted fast enough, and discontinued care.

What I tried to explain to her, and what I hope to get you to understand, is that herbal medicine and supplements are not the same thing.

Supplements include vitamins (like your beloved multi-vitamin), minerals, enzymes, hormones, amino acids, probiotics, fatty acids, and many more. These are synthetically made in a lab, and may or may not be made from extracting chemical constituents from natural sources (such as food or herbs). A doctor might do a blood test and find out that you are low in a particular nutrient, and prescribe a specific amount of that nutrient in a chemical form to correct the imbalance. Or you may read an article on the all mighty Google, listing all the supplements you should take if you have a particular condition.

And maybe they work for you, and that’s great. But maybe they don’t, and, like my patient, you get more frustrated.

But before you give up, herbs are here to the rescue. Unlike supplements, which are pills made in a lab and put together by researcher’s best guess at what we need and how much, herbs grow out of the ground, and are already pre-packaged to contain the perfect mix of what we need.

Humans and plants have grown up together over thousands of years.

We have a symbiotic relationship with each other; we give life to one another. Without plants, we would not exist, and without animals, plants wouldn’t survive for long, either.

As far as modern research has come, there is still more that we don’t know. A LOT more. But thankfully, nature already figured it out for us. For example, if you were to take a diuretic from your doc, your mineral levels would be monitored closely. It is important as you urine increases, that you don’t lose too many minerals in the process. However, herbal diuretics, such as horsetail and nettles, contain huge amounts of minerals. So, as they encourage your body to excrete extra fluid retention in your body, they also remineralize your blood.

As you can see, herbs are actually safer than supplements, and many times are more effective as well. Because they work with your body’s unique and complex chemistry, they heal the root cause of your condition, instead of masking a symptom.

And now I would love to hear from you. Have you had success taking herbal medicine? Are you still confused by the differences? Leave us a comment below.


Elizabeth Williams is an acupuncturist in Greenville, South Carolina, specializing in pain management, women’s health, and psycho-emotional issues. She’s passionate about helping people feel their best and sharing her wealth of knowledge with the community. Elizabeth is the owner of Dragonfly Acupuncture & Massage, on Wade Hampton Boulevard. Appointments can be made by calling 864-451-4313, or scheduled online here.