How do you know if you’re taking enough of your herbs or herbal formula?

Or what if you’re taking the right formula/herb but not getting the results as expected?

This can lead to you wondering if you’re taking the right herbs or formula. Even worse, taking an insufficient dose can lead you to believe that herbs don’t work.

It’s not unusual for someone to take an herb or herbal formula and not fully get the expected or desired results. Much of this has to do with knowing the proper dosage of herbs for one’s needs. So much can be said about dosing herbs that it could form a small booklet. Here I will speak generally about determining each individual’s unique herbal dosing needs.

There are standard doses given for each form of herb used (as listed at the end) that are within a safe range for everyone. However, you are not everyone; you are unique and so have individual responses and needs. So how do you know what the right dosage is for you?

The proper dosage of herbs is very important. First, it’s necessary to take a sufficient quantity of herbs for them to be therapeutically effective. Quite often people take the right herbs or formulas but don’t realize results simply because they didn’t take enough of them. Most traditional herbalists give herbs in fairly high doses, while inexperienced or lay Western herbalists tend to give lower ones.

On the other hand, it’s possible to take too many herbs (and supplements); over a long period of time, they can injure digestion, eventually impairing the body’s ability to metabolize food. At other times, a low dose of a formula over time can give results without any aggravating effects, especially if it contains strong-acting herbs.

Remember that most people take herbs because they are milder and don’t cause long-term side effects. However, this doesn’t mean herbs have “no effect”; for example, if you were to take a large dose of cayenne pepper for example, you would definitely feel its actions. You should notice an effect from an herb or herbal formula within three days. Traditionally, you take enough herbs until you feel a little discomfort and then back off. Famed herbalist and naturopath Dr. Christopher is reported to have said, “You know you’ve taken enough herbs if you tilt your head to one side and a stream of herbs pours out.”

Standard Doses

In general, the dose listed on bottles is safe for the population at large. Typically, such dosages are calculated for a person weighing about 150 pounds, so you may have to increase or decrease according to your own body weight. However, each body responds differently to herbs, and therefore a particular dosage may be too high or too low for your own needs and sensitivities. As a guideline, start with the given dosage, then increase or decrease according to your body’s response.

High Doses for Acute Conditions

Doses vary tremendously when treating an acute condition versus a chronic one. Standard dosages as described above are for chronic conditions when one takes herbs for weeks or even months to achieve results.

Acute conditions can change swiftly, however, sometimes within hours, and so need a special approach. When treating an acute condition, large doses of herbs are given for short periods of time and then backed down as improvement occurs.

For example, colds and flu typically need a higher dose of herbs taken every two hours until the symptoms subside. The same is true of infections and inflammations. Once our son flew home from college with pain in his ankle. When I inspected it, there was a red pinhead-sized wound on his inner ankle along with a red streak extending upward along his inner calf. As time went on, this infection moved higher and higher, which could have eventually traveled to the heart and affected the entire body.

I immediately gave him two dropperfuls of echinacea tincture and repeated this every 20 minutes. At the same time, I applied an echinacea poultice (by saturating a cotton ball with echinacea tincture and taping in place over the wound), which I replaced every 30 – 60 minutes. After an hour, the red line was already receding. After 2-3 hours it was gone as well as the pain, at which point I stopped the dosing.

Another time I treated a woman with such several menstrual cramps, she could not move from her crouched position for 3 hours, let alone call for help. I gave her 1 tablespoon of salvia tincture (Salvia miltiorrhiza, or red sage root) every 15 minutes for an hour. Her excruciating pain began to immediately diminish until she could again move and the pain disappeared after that hour.

High Doses for Chronic Conditions

Most herbs are safe and so large doses may be used. I and many other herbalists have found that standard dosages are often insufficient for most people and instead, they need higher doses. Before the advent of large-scale manufactured herbal products and standard dosage calculations, traditional herbalists used doses that were quite high by comparison, far exceeding the current label standard of one dropperful of tincture or two capsules of herbs three times a day, let alone steeping one teabag in a cup of hot water.

In the past, traditional Chinese clinical doses were based on a liang for weight. In modern times, one liang is equivalent to about 15 g, which is a little over one-half ounce of herb. Chinese formulas might call for 3 or more liang of each herb in a formula with the final formula comprised of many ounces to even a pound of herbs. This is then decocted twice in water, saving each decoction and then combining them together (called a double decoction) and taking three doses/day. This creates the true therapeutic dose of a formula.

Ayurvedic medicine in India also administers high doses. A similar approach is used by indigenous healers in the West. Michael (Tierra) has often related his experiences working with the Karok natives in northern California in the 1970s. One woman taught him to stuff a cauldron-sized pot with pipssisewa (prince’s pine, which she used for congestive heart failure), fill it with water, and decoct. After straining, it was then canned in jars and one quart taken daily for several days. It was this experience that lead Michael to standardize the concept of decocting or infusing 1 ounce of herb or formula to a pint of water to create a medicinal dose, which he first published in his The Way of Herbs in 1980.

If you are concerned about giving high doses, you can first administer the standard dose with a patient, see how they respond, and then adjust accordingly. If there’s the desired response, great — you’ve got the ideal dose. However, often a patient only improves a little on the standard dose. When I see this and know it’s the right formula, I’ll increase the dose, after which it works more effectively.

Minimal Doses

By contrast, more powerful herbs are typically given in low doses and monitored closely. However, some people teach they get great results administering small doses of safe herbs, such as 3-7 drops of a tincture 1-3 times/day. In my experience, most people need larger doses; however, I have discovered minimal doses may work well with certain single herbs.

This I’ve found especially true with the herb, teasel (Dipsacus fullonum; D. inermis, xu duan). Once I gave a 5 drop dose of dipsacus 2 times in one day for back pain and it worked miracles in a woman weighing over 200 pounds as well as reduced her ankle swelling. I’ve seen small tincture doses of this herb work well for others, too.

Homeopathic “Mother” tinctures (1x or 1c) work that way but often have little or no effect. Rather, they are used to create further homeopathic potencies that have stronger actions.

Ayurvedic dosing of tonic herbs could be considered minimal dosing by some. Tonic formulas containing typically 20 to even 50 herbs are given in small doses of 1 capsule twice a day for months to slowly strengthen the body. Despite higher doses generally given in India, North American Ayurvedic herbalists tend to generally prescribe lower doses, similar to Western herbalists.

Dosing for Sensitive People

I have worked with many extremely sensitive people who barely tasted or smelled an herb before experiencing its effects. While this might seem psychological, it is physically real for some. Many sensitive people will warn you ahead of their easy reaction. If so, I’ll tell give them a minimal dose to begin, or tell them to try ¼ to 1/3 the normal dose and see how they react. If they feel nothing, they can slowly increase. If it is too much, they can decrease, including taking the herbs or formula only 1-2 times a day instead of the standard 2-3 times daily.

Adjusting the Dose

Once you’ve chosen an herbal treatment plan, take the herbs for three days. If after this time you experience a positive or no reaction, continue your plan until you have a reaction or your symptoms are relieved. If you don’t experience any changes, increase the dose and continue for another week, then re-evaluate your condition. Sometimes subtle changes occur slowly, which take time to feel. Other times you have the right herbs but need to take a higher dose for better results.

If you experience a mild negative reaction, cut down to a minimal dose (1 tablet or 10 drops tincture, 2 times/day) and continue for another 3 days. If the reaction continues, or if you experience a marked negative reaction, stop the herbs until the reactions disappear, usually within one to three days, then restart at a lower dose. If reactions recur again, you definitely know that it’s the wrong herbal approach and needs re-evaluation. Don’t be discouraged if this occurs. Herbal medicine is a matter of strategy and herbalists often give a test formula or treatment to see if they have the right diagnosis. If an adverse reaction occurs, this may be used diagnostically to help reveal the correct treatment plan.

Frequency of Herbal Dosing

On the other hand, people often take the proper dose of an herb or formula but only ingest them once or twice a day. Since the liver cancels unfamiliar substances in the body, it is necessary to keep herbs circulating. Standard doses generally indicate taking herbs at least 2-3 times daily but sometimes even a fourth dose is needed.

Timing: When to Take a Formula

One more factor can determine the effectiveness of herbs: when you take them. The following guidelines will help you get the most out of your herbs and formulas:

l For diseases of the upper part of the body (lungs, heart and head), one would take the herbs after meals. This way, the food in the middle of the body helps to keep the herbs in the upper part of the body, where they are meant to do their work, for a longer time.

l To treat the middle part of the body (stomach, spleen-pancreas, liver), the timing would be just before or with meals.

l For the lower part of the body (kidneys, intestines, urinary bladder, genitals), one would take the formula between meals. This timing takes advantage of an empty stomach, which means there is no food to impede the formula’s journey to the lower part of the body. If a disease is urgent, the formula can be taken any time, and if digestion is weak, herbs should be taken with meals.

l Take herbs on an empty stomach for detoxification; without having to compete with food digestion, the herbs are absorbed more easily and create a stronger effect.

l Taking herbs before meals most effectively treats intestinal conditions, tonifies deficiency conditions, and reduces fat.

l Herbs taken after meals treat gas, indigestion, lung ailments, sinus conditions, and prevent gas.

l The best time to take herbs for urinary and nervous disorders is between meals, on an empty stomach.


General Dosage for Different Herbal Forms

For those who are sensitive to herbs, start with the lower dosage and increase or

decrease as appropriate. Of course, dose changes according to each herb so be

sure to research your herbs first for its specific dose). Dosage can vary according

to body weight, age and severity of condition (for instance, heavier bodies need a

higher dosage while lighter bodies need a smaller dosage).

     Bulk herbs in formulas     3-9 g (1/9-1/3 oz.)
     Teas     1 oz. herbs/pint water; drink 1 cup,


     Tinctures     20-60 drops, 3-4 times/day (traditional

herbalists tend to give 1 tsp., 3x/day)

     Capsules     2-4 capsules, 3-4x/day
     Dry concentrated and freeze-dried


    3-5 g, 3x/day
     Tablets/caplets     2-6 tablets, 3-4x/day
     Patents     4-8 pills, 3x/day (depending on patent)
     Powdered herbs     1 tsp, 3-4x/day
     Standardized extract     Follow directions on bottle
     Syrups     1 Tbsp. 3-4x/day (every 2 hours for

acute conditions)

     Compress/fomentations     1-2x/day
     Poultices     Replenish 2-3x/day and continue

generally for 3 days

     Essential oils     Add 1-2 drops to an oil and apply locally
     Liniments, salves, creams, oils, sprays

and other external ointments

    As needed


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