Posted by Ryan Wade on Feb 07, 2019
The Mindful Approach to Stacking and Combining Herbs
This is not going to be a discussion about formulas or formulation. We draw our methodology for building formulas from Chinese herbal medicine, where a combination of herbs is used to construct an organization of herbs, where each herb has a specific function within the formula. This is different from the common Western approach for formulas where similar herbs are used together.
In Chinese herbal medicine, each herb is selected to perform a specific function, a specific job. The herbal formula is constructed according to these different jobs, where each formula has herbs filling these specific functions.
- Principal. This is the primary herb in the formula and shows the overall intention/goal of that formula.
- Associate. The associate herb supports the principal herb. Not every herbal formula will have an associate, but for the most part, there will be an associate herb. The combination of the principal herb and the associate herb is the closest correlation to Western herbal formulas, where similar herbs are combined to achieve one goal (such as combining antiviral herbs to combat a viral infection). Like the principal herb, looking at the associate herb in a formula can provide clues as to the purpose, the objective, the intention of the formula.
- Assistant. With the assistant herb, we begin to reveal the true beauty of Chinese herbal medicine formulas. The assistant herb considers everything else going on in the body. This herb will have a different function than the principal or the associate. For instance, within Chinese medicine, viruses are seen as being very cold. In constructing a formula to combat a viral infection, which the principal and the associate may be antiviral herbs, the assistant may be an herb chosen to combat the coldness within the body which allowed the infection to take root.
- Catalyst / Envoy. The catalyst and the envoy provide logistical support to the formula. Many Chinese herbal formulas will have Gan Cao (Licorice Root) in them. This is to harmonize (catalyze) the formula and to spread it throughout the body. The envoy delivers the different herbs—the principal, associate, and assistant herb—to the part of the body that needs them. Does the formula need to support the kidneys? If so, the principal and associate herbs may be classic kidney tonics, and the envoy herb would help bring these to the kidneys. In this way, we can think of them as logistical support. We use Chen Pi (Immature Citrus Peel) as the catalyst/envoy in most of our formulas (avoiding Licorice Root because of the estrogenic nature of it).
But like I said, this post is not going to be about formulas or formulation. The above is just to give some context to the science of it.
We get many, many emails asking about combining products. We'd love to offer some guidance on the product pages, but the issue is that the combinations are infinite. To help figure out which herbs or herbal formulas work well together, we can break the products down into different categories.
Here, I'm going to use the term stack to refer to a group of products with an intended purpose. So when we're combining products, we're building stacks. When putting together a collection of products—a stack—I think first about what the overall goal is. Is the goal pro-androgenic? Is it immune wellness? Is it for general health and enhancement (tonic and adaptogenic)? Figure this out and select a product. For the most part, choosing just one product will suffice. You can think of this as the principal (although we're not going to use that formulary). If your goal is pro-androgenic—increasing testosterone levels or correcting low testosterone levels—you may choose an herb such as Tongkat Ali (this is a fantastic pro-androgenic).
Many customers want more than one product in serving the principal function. Here, we would choose Nettle Root. Again, you can think of this as the assistant, but you don't have to. Nettle Root is perfect in combination with Tongkat Ali. Nettle Root is pro-androgenic, but unlike Tongkat—which signals to the body to produce more testosterone—Nettle Root maximizes the testosterone present by blocking it from being bound to Sex Hormone Binding Globulin. So its method of action (MOA) is different, and it is also complementary to the principal herb (Tongkat Ali).
While these are both pro-androgenics, I'm going to instead classify them here as Ignitors. These are herbs that turn something on. They're like the verbs—the action words—of herbs. They are Yang. They are movement. They make things happen. But, they need sustenance. If there is no gas in the car, cranking the ignition is not going to get you going. You need fuel in the tank and you need an ignitor to make it happen. These are the Nutritive herbs.
As a side note, after working so long with Pine Pollen, it's my opinion that it is both an ignitor and a nutritive, and that's why it works so well. It is both providing deep nutrition but it is also providing the spark to make use of it.
This is not either/or. Herbs—like Pine Pollen—can serve both functions. But in my opinion, many of our diets are lacking in nutrition, resulting in a body that is deficient and more prone to illness, stress, premature aging, and loss of drive. This is the Yin of the body. While ignitors, the Yang herbs, are action, the Nutritives are inaction. They are the foundation. Without a solid foundation, whatever you build on top won't last.
I see this often, where someone tried a tonic or adaptogenic herb and it works great for a little while—they feel better than ever—and then the herb seems to stop working. That's because the herb burnt through the available fuel. I think of it as a sports car, where someone has this beautiful sports car with the cheapest tires on it. That car isn't going to be fun at all to drive. Without tires to match the rest of the car, you'll never get to experience all it could do. We build that foundation with nutritive. This is similar to the theory behind the practice of adding butter or coconut oil to coffee (known as Bulletproof Coffee). Coffee is the ignitor—obviously—and the fats in the butter or coconut oil are the nutritive.
All of the RAW Pollens ****are nutritive. There is a distinction here because when an herb is tinctured, it is no longer a nutritive; they become (for the most part) ignitors. Shilin Stone Forest Elevated Black Ants are nutritives (as well as being mild ignitors). Additionally, many of the medicinal mushrooms (perhaps excluding cordyceps) are nutritives.
- Cistanche tubulosa is an ignitor, so we may combine it with RAW Brassica Pollen, Black Ants, or 12 Rivers MycoMedic—all nutritives.
- Royal Pine Pollen Tincture is an ignitor, so we may combine it with RAW Pine Pollen.
- Reishi Buddha Blend is both an ignitor and a nutritive.
Herbal medicine is as much an art form as it is a science—but it is both. We often forget that herbal medicine is a science, just as we often forget that Western (bio) medicine is an art form. There are no absolute rules in art.
My goal here is to provide some guidance and another lens with which we can look at the actions of medicinal herbs and a way to think about combining them. You don't have to become an expert herbalist to figure out which products are best for you (although it may feel like that), but with a little education, you can make wiser, smarter choices.
Just remember: Fires need fuel. Ignitors need nutritives.