How to Choose the Right Herbal Preparation
Herbal preparations come in many varieties, or what is called delivery methods. When choosing a delivery method for taking herbs, you have a lot of choices and discovering which type of preparation is right for you depends on a few different factors. Flavor, concentration, convenience, and even your own health conditions all are things to consider when choosing the right preparation for your needs.
Preparing herbs in liquid extracts (tinctures), capsules, teas, syrups, and topical applications allow you to choose the most effective preparation for your needs. It would be difficult for most individuals to obtain plants for use and to use them in their raw form. Herbal preparations allow us to tailor the herbal ingredients to your needs, use the plant compounds effectively, and to obtain significant shelf life.
The list of liquid herbal preparations below introduces you to the most common delivery systems as well as how and why to use them most effectively.
Herbal teas have been the predominant method of extraction for herbal medicine up to the past 100 years or so. Most of us are already familiar with making tea as a beverage and the same concept applies to medicinal quality teas. There are two main methods for preparing herbal teas: Infusion and Decoction.
Infusions and decoctions are made with water as a solvent and extract the water-soluble plant compounds that are required for digestion, elimination, repair, toning, and overall health maintenance. These compounds are also nutrients for the body and provide food for our beneficial bacteria. The simple techniques of making infusions and decoctions provide us with a whole-herb medicinal preparation that is easily used by the body, is cost-effective, and bioavailable.
An infusion is a tea made from the delicate parts of the plant, also known as the aerial portions (flower, leaf, stem). An infusion is made by boiling water and then steeping herbs in the water for 15-20 minutes, off heat. The water for an infusion should be below the boiling point; this will happen as soon as the water is removed from the stove ad the boiling stops. An infusion is usually prepared by steeping 1 tablespoon of dried herb or herb blend in hot water for 5-20 minutes. Be sure to cover the infusion as it steeps to retain the volatile oils within the steam.
Decoctions are made from simmering the roots or bark of a plant for 15-20 minutes. The heat of a low simmer is needed to release the medicinal properties of the hard/dense portions of a plant. These plant parts would be barks, roots, resins and gums, some seeds or berries.
If you have ever made soup, you are already familiar with the process of making a decoction. Now, turn down the heat to a light simmer and that's how you make a decoction for a medicinal herb tea.
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Encapsulations (capsules) are made from powdering dried herbs and putting that powder in a 100% vegetarian capsule. The digestive system is then responsible for breaking down the herb and extracting the medicinal compounds during digestion. Capsules are useful for those who will not take liquid preparations due to the herbal flavors. These are also convenient for those who are on the go. Capsules may also be good for those who are highly sensitive to liquid preparations as the body has to take more time to do the extraction and the compounds are absorbed at a slower rate in the body.
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Liquid Extracts, also called tinctures, are made by soaking herbs (fresh or dried) in a alcohol and water for anywhere from 4 weeks to 4 months, depending on the herb. This soaking process is called maceration and is much like making fine wine. Each herb requires a different ratio of alcohol to water in order to access its unique medicinal compounds.
Liquid extracts offer us a more comprehensive profile of plant compounds than teas because we are now able to access the alcohol-soluble compounds along with the water-soluble compounds. The result is a more concentrated herbal preparation allowing us to take the liquid extract in smaller amounts and to achieve a more consistent desired effect.
Liquid extracts do contain alcohol, however a typical dose of the liquid extract may be 1-2 ml (dropperful) resulting in a minimal amount of alcohol actually ingested. Even though it is minimal, there are still some considerations in choosing this preparation method. Do you have compromised liver function due to illness or medications? Do you have an ethical objection to alcohol? Are you looking for a preparation for an infant or pet? If you answered yes to these questions, you may want to choose a different preparation.
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Glycerites are alcohol-free preparations where herbs are extracted in vegetable glycerin and water. Vegetable glycerin allows extraction of alcohol-soluble compounds giving the benefit of a liquid extract without the alcohol. Shelf life is less than a liquid extract and glycerites are usually not as strong, although some people respond more favorably to glycerites of certain herbs. Glycerin's sweet flavor is pleasing and makes herbal extracts more desirable for children.
Glycerin is not metabolized by the body in the same way sugar is so there is no effect on blood sugar or insulin levels, making this an effective sweetener for diabetics. Chemically, glycerine belongs to the class of alcohols. Glycerin is a liquid obtained by the hydrolysis of vegetable or animal fats or fixed oils. It is also important to note that not all herbs extract well in glycerin. This is why you will notice a much smaller selection of herb choices in a glycerite form.
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Elixirs are extracts that may also be sweetened with honey or glycerin and that have a lower alcohol content than liquid extracts. The typical alcohol content in an elixir is between 20-25% as opposed to 40-95% in liquid extracts. This makes elixirs a bit more pleasing to take than a liquid extract and a better choice for those looking to limit the amount of alcohol. Elixirs are also more flavorful so they help you with being consistent in taking your herbs.
A solid extract is not necessarily solid in its finished form. The name really refers to a portion of the process. Solid extracts begin as a liquid extract preparation made from alcohol and water. This finished extraction then goes through vacuum distillation to remove all the alcohol and this process concentrates the plant compounds into a solid mass (hence the name solid extract). Think of this concentration like drying fruit. After all the alcohol is removed, the solid mass is then brought to a syrup consistency using vegetable glycerin and sometimes honey. The result is more concentrated extract than a traditional liquid extract that is pleasing to take. Some favorite plants for solid extracts would be licorice root and hawthorn berry.
Solid extracts are a good choice for children or anyone wanting to avoid alcohol. They are also a good choice when you want a preparation that has a pleasing flavor.
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Syrups are made to be sweet and delicious. Syrups are most often made with berries such as elderberry, cranberry, or blueberry and then a sweetener is added. Some syrups are made by adding sugar but another choice would be vegetable glycerin or honey. Syrups with a glycerin base would be a best choice for those who are diabetic. Syrups are an ideal choice for children or those new to herbal flavors.
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Vinegar extractions are made by soaking herbs in apple cider vinegar. This preparation is an ideal way to prepare nutrient rich herbs because the vinegar allows access to many vitamins and mineral. Vinegar extractions can be taken by themselves or added to some olive oil to make a salad dressing. Now that's a great way to take your herbs!
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Whichever herbal preparation you choose, be sure to check with your healthcare provider before beginning an herbal regimen. Many herbs can interact with pharmaceutical medications and your healthcare practitioner should be aware so that you can be monitored appropriately.
To learn more about herbal preparations and to gain knowledge of how to begin using herbs for your own health and well being, here are some resources you may find helpful:
- Herbal Medicine Basics 6 video course by Herbal Wisdom Institute
- Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth by Dr. Sharol Tilgner ND
- Herbal ABC's: The Foundations of Herbal Medicine by Dr. Sharol Tilgner ND
About the Author
Kris Vaughan is a Certified Clinical Herbalist and the Director of Wise Woman Herbals®. Kris also operates Herbal Wisdom Institute where she is an educator for those wanting to learn herbalism.