Why Most Herbal Supplements Don’t Work


Essay by Walter P. Drake, Owner of  Bengal Bioscience

I have spent the last 18 years in Thailand and have been studying and learning about stem cell medicine as well as Thai herbal extracts and botanicals. I have found some excellent companies and formulations in Thailand. But most herbal supplements sold online do not work.  And this is due to many reasons. First of all,  their benefits are often over-rated. For example, how many times when you are searching for a home remedy for this or that do you come across lists of herbs or supplements that “might” help. Usually you will find something like: “The top 10 supplements for such and such.”  I always say to myself, just tell me the  one that works, not a laundry list of some herbals that might “help”. The fact that there is a list of some botanicals that might help usually means that NONE of them are any good. Most people are wasting their money on herbal supplements in capsule and powder form.

The Herbal Pipeline

In my view, there is no decent “alternative medicine” involving herbal products or botanicals at this time. I am excluding the CBD oils from this discussion which are proving to have many benefits. US and Canadian Growers and manufacturers are highly regulated with new and important products being developed. But for everything else, everyone, and I mean Everyone, buys their herbal powders from China, and repackages the powder into gel caps for resale, or even just sells the powder in some kind of plastic jar. Nobody knows what they are selling, nobody tests anything, test reports that sellers rely upon from their Chinese vendors are usually fraudulent, most of the products are worthless. This is not me saying this, it has been demonstrated time and time again in government testing studies. Even in those cases where the actual herb is being sold, say Ginseng, very little if any efffect is ever noticed. We see the same tired old herbs over and over again. 

The little known cause of this is that over 90% of all herbs, botanicals, and supplements are made in China. That’s a fact, Jack. In addition, most brand name vitamins and generic antibiotic medicines are made in China as well. Just look at the fine print on that Centrum bottle you buy.  The probability that your herbal formulation originated in China is extremely high, and there are so many unscrupulous money grubbers in China that no one has any confidence in their products. And why not, when story after story appears concerning substitutions, false ingredients, and mostly nothing at all except hay!! But you will see a lot of “Manufactured for XYZ Company”, “Distributed by XYZ Company”, “Imported by XYZ Company” suggesting the product is not of Chinese origin even though it is. And “Made in the USA” is of little value as well, since most makers of herbal supplements buy their ingredients from China and just repackage them here.  Why I am picking on China?? Because they are the main problem you are going to face when seeking a quality herbal preparation for use. After all, that was the country where one guy made and sold fake milk made of chemicals to babies. They executed him. And that ham in the US you heard about that was blended with pieces of tire rubber that came from Canada?? Well, it might of “come from” there, but that is Chinese all the way, selling to the US through their shell company in Canada, and giving Canada a black eye. So we definitely have problems with the herbal pipeline.

Not only hiding the source of the botanical, but worse: What’s in that herbal capsule you are buying, and how if at all was it tested? The popular and useful Ginseng and Ginkgo Biloba supplements have been shown to be either contaminated with pesticides, non-existent in the formulation, or substituted with plain vegetable matter.  Actual proof of purity and potency is typically lacking. So, not only is the source of product generally not clear, but on top of everything is the intentional flooding of the herbal market with adulterated, substituted, and misbranded products as many Chinese entrepreneurs seek to cash in on the supplement market in the US.

A Bengal Bioscience Study: The Icariin Fraud

Consumers continue wasting their money on supplements containing tired old herbs that have been around forever but largely do nothing. Take for example, our inquiry into Icariin, the highly touted substitute for Viagra (sildenafil). 

Based on widely exaggerated stories and urban myths that have arisen around Icariin within the last few years, Icariin has become a popular herbal supplement for the supposed treating of erectile dysfunction, available online from many herbal suppliers. It appears that many re-sellers are buying Icariin powder from Chinese sources and repackaging the powder for sale as is, or after loading into capsules. 

In the first scientific study sponsored by Bengal Bioscience, Chief Scientist Walter P. Drake and colleague Laurence V. Hicks Sr. authored a paper destroying the myth that this widely popular herbal extract, Icariin, has any effect at all on the treatment of Erectile Dysfunction. The first thing we did was to take the compound Icariin, which is highly insoluble, and prepare a transdermal formulation that would take it into the skin and eventually the blood stream. Once we got it dissolved, we then mixed it with a penetrating cream at a high concentration for use in an informal clinical study.

In our review of the icariin scientific literature, we noted that about 90% of all icariin supplements sold in the US and around the world are manufactured in China, and various studies of testing have shown that a substantial portion of the product is fake, contaminated, mislabeled, or in fact adulterated with sildenafil to ensure a positive result. One study found that the most common adulterant found in herbal products for sexual enhancement was sildenafil (Viagra), and that out of 81 samples tested, 28 contained the hidden ingredient. 

Icariin 98%, administered transdermally at a dosage of 500 mg, had no effect whatsoever on erectile problems in our study. Not even one of 12 volunteer subjects noted any erectogenic effect, although all had tried sildenafil in the past with positive results. We found these results disappointing, as it was postulated that the transdermal route of administration, by delivering the compound directly to the blood, would bypass the solubility and low bioavailability issues, causing a beneficial erectogenic effect. This was not the case. 

Our results were confirmed by another lab that studied the pharmacokinetics of orally administered Icariin. They did serial blood draws over  24 hours following a single dose of the drug at 100, 200, 400, 840, 1680 mg icariin. Plasma testing resulted in no finding of any icariin after oral ingestion,   the authors concluding “the analysis of plasma samples revealed a low bioavailability of icariin, such that the pharmacokinetic profile of the drug could not be determined.” 

We have come to question previous notions that icariin may be a useful substitute for Sildenafil in treating Erectile Dysfunction. We believe that while the herb, Epimedium, may well have mild erectogenic effects, icariin is not the active ingredient. We postulate that icariin, as the most abundant compound extracted from Epimedium, was presumed to be the active ingredient, but is not in fact so. [Drake WP and Hicks LV Sr, “A Transdermal Formulation of Icariin for Use as a Substitute for Sildenafil and a Showing of No Clinical Efficacy”, International Journal of Science and Research (IJSR),  8(9):939 – 943 (September 2019)] 

In Summary, This Is Why  Most Herbal Supplements Do Not Work

The fact is that the oral ingestion of icariin powder or capsules has no clinical efficacy whatsoever because of its insolubility. Our own studies have shown that Icariin (in any powdered form up to 98% purity) is not soluble in water, not soluble in any alcohol, not even soluble in the main stomach acid, hydrochloric acid. In addition to insolubility, many studies have confirmed that Icariin is not absorbed in the gut and therefore that oral ingestion yields a very low bioavailability. 

So, in reality, with a very poor solubility compounded by almost no uptake in the gut, it is unlikely that the oral ingestion of icariin supplements has any effect whatsoever on improving erections in men, despite the ongoing fanfare and publicity surrounding its proposed use for this purpose. And in fact, that is what our paper showed—no effect whatsoever. 

These problems of insolubility and low bio-availability, not to mention adulterated and substituted ineffective products, plague most herbal supplements being unwittingly purchased by consumers today. 

The solution to ineffective oral administration of supplements? 

  Transdermal Delivery.

You do not have to be concerned with poor solubility, poor uptake in the gut, or destruction by a primary pass through the liver. All of our products are formulated for Transdermal Delivery only.


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