Why David Started H&A
When I started practicing as an herbalist in 1976 there were very few good herbal tinctures on the market. In fact I would go as far as to say that there weren’t any decent tinctures in the herbal marketplace and so I started to make my own tinctures, ointments, oils, teas and other products for my patients. The problem was that when you make a tincture there’s a certain volume of scale that’s necessary. Tiny little batches simply don’t work. I would have to make a gallon of tincture when I might only need a pint, so in 1981 decided to start a business to sell all the “extra” tinctures. Along with a few investors that included my mother, a friend, and a friend of a friend, I got together little bit of money and formally incorporated Herbalist & Alchemist, Inc. in 1982.
The name Herbalist & Alchemist actually came to me in a dream. Prior to 1982 I was using the name Herbal Therapeutics, which I actually ended up using for another one of my companies (Herbal Therapeutics provides herbal education). When I dreamt that the name of the company should be Herbalist & Alchemist, I decided to use it because I felt it accurately reflects how plants are transformed into the best and most effective medicines.
Why We Started Selling Formulas
Early in my career as an herbalist, I believed that each person needed their own distinct formula and so I only made individual herbal extracts, no formulas. But there was a constant demand for formulas; both practitioners and natural food stores wanted them. So I reviewed cases from my clinical practice and found that even though I might not be using the exact same formula for each patient, there was often a basic group of herbs that consistently worked clinically for a specific condition.
For example, our Bitters Compound came from a base that I called DOPAA. DOPAA stands for Dandelion root, Orange peel, Angelica and Artichoke. I had found that that combination was incredibly useful for helping to stimulate gastric hydrochloric acid and enhance digestive function. All of our formulas are based on a nucleus of about 300 herbs that I’ve consistently used clinically for specific conditions with good results. People with more complicated problems should consider going to a clinical herbalist and get a formula designed specifically for them, but we have seen in the last 30 years that you can create herbal formulas that work well for the vast majority of people.
Why We Are Alchemists
I learned about Alchemical or Spagyric processing many years ago from a Dutch naturopath who explained the whole process. When I started making tinctures myself what he said made a lot of sense. I had heard a lot of people talk about “full spectrum” extracts, but questioned whether their products really matched that description. Many herbs contain minerals that are a very important part of their activity. For example with nettles, alfalfa, raspberry leaf, dandelion leaf, oat straw or fresh oat, minerals play a very significant role in their activity. I knew for a fact that water and especially hydro-alcoholic solutions are very poor methods for extracting minerals. I felt something was missing from the “full spectrum” concept and that it was the minerals.
Alchemical processing gave me a way to include these essential nutrients into my tinctures, taking full advantage of the plant’s activity. After the herb is macerated in the extracting liquid (the menstuum), the used herb or marc is removed and then burned and reduced to white ash. This white ash is pure minerals and almost all of it is soluble when it is added back into the tincture. To me that produces the finest, full-spectrum extract available.
In addition, we have done scientific research to develop the best and most effective methods for extracting the unique constituents of each specific herb; this includes determining the correct percentages of organic alcohol, distilled water, and if needed, glycerin or acetic acid for each menstruum. We also use traditional processes such as water decoction, hydrolization, wilting or acidification for certain herbs to enhance their extraction. This knowledge of and attention to using whichever method yields the best activity from each individual plant is not common practice, but I could not do it any other way.
Sourcing and Creating
I am often asked why H & A uses herbs from around the world. In my clinical practice I use what works, whether the herbs are from Asia (including Chinese and Ayurvedic herbs), Europe, Africa, South or North America. I am trained in Western/Eclectic, Chinese and Cherokee herbal medicine, so I have experience with many different systems of medicine and the wide array of herbs used by each tradition to draw from. I use herbs according to their specific indications, energetics, modern research and my decades of clinical experience. This means that I am not bound to standardized combinations or the few herbs have been studied by science for a specific condition. I attempt to combine the art, tradition and science together in my use of herbs. What is important is that the herbs are of high quality, preferably organically grown or sustainably wildcrafted.
What I’ve learned from my training and experience is that to understand herbs better you need to know not only what they do, but also their “energetics.” Once you understand the energetics—is the herb warming or cooling, or bitter or drying or moistening—you understand how to combine them more effectively for a specific purpose. Let’s use our lung formulas as an example. We have respiratory tonics and anti-spasmodic formulas, but we also have energetically based formulas: one that’s for hot and dry lung conditions, one for cold and dry, one for cold and damp, and one for hot and damp.
I think it’s unfortunate that so many people limit themselves to a small handful of herbs, which essentially means trying to fit the patient to the available herbs. There are Chinese and Ayurvedic herbs that have simply no Western equivalents. There are Western herbs for which there are no Ayurvedic or Chinese equivalents, and so I choose the best of either herb world. Of course it depends on what is seasonally available or whether you can find high quality botanicals that are free from heavy metals and pesticides. We use the best of everything that we can find in the world, literally.
Evolution of the Business
A Harvard Business School graduate, H&A CEO Beth Lambert had a very successful Wall Street Career, but she left to follow her interest in environmentally based businesses. For years she had made money for clients whose products were made without consideration for sustainability or the environment. Having met some environmental pioneers in the Permaculture movement in the late 1980s, she resolved that the rest of her life would be dedicated to making products that were healthy, “closer to the earth” and sustainable. Before she knew it, she was running a Permaculture publishing company and a community-supported farm, and teaching at Rutgers University. One of her farming partners was taking David Winston’s two-year herbal studies program, and introduced them. David was looking for some advice on his herbal products company. And after reviewing the business, she joined the company as his business partner.
Beth has been very involved not only in running the company for the last 17 years, but is a long time board member of the American Herbal Products Association, the Veterinary Botanical Medicine Association, Genesis Farm and Chair of the AHPA-ERB Foundation.
30 Years Later
When I started Herbalist & Alchemist thirty years ago you could start a company on a shoestring and we did, in very humble conditions. Now the amount of regulation (FDA, FTC and ATF) is much, much more significant. Especially with the FDA’s Dietary Supplement Good Manufacturing Practices regulations, it is a more complex business with everything from detailed documentation and staff training to our various computer systems. We started off with a little 512K Macintosh as our first computer. Now we have computer systems and manufacturing systems. Production is on a much larger scale of course, but the biggest changes are the regulatory requirements and quality assurance costs of production. The cost of regulations, the cost of business insurance, the cost of innovation... all these things have dramatically increased, as well as the complexity of meeting all of those challenges. We meet those requirements very well, but it would be much harder to start Herbalist & Alchemist today.
I guess many companies don't last 30 years and I am very proud that we’re still here producing products that I’m as satisfied with as when I made everything with my own hands. The basic premise of wanting to produce the best medicines I could for my patients is still the guiding force behind what we do today. They’re not necessarily my patients today, but whether it’s a customer in a health food store or a practitioner in their office, I want to know that we’re producing the best quality product that we possibly can. And that we are consistently looking for ways to improve and enhance products, even if they been successful for 30 years. I believe that there is always room for improvement, for growth and that is part of our company culture. I hope in another 20 years when we’re celebrating our 50th anniversary we will hear people say “they are one of the great Herb companies of all time.”