What are herbal tinctures, and how are they used?
Have you gone into the alternative health isle at your local coop or health food store? I am sure you've seen all those vitamins and supplements, right? And possibly you also noticed all those little dropper bottles of liquid, with herbal names? Those are "standardized" tinctures. In other words, liquid preparations made using the herb material (sometimes the leaves, sometimes the roots or the flowers), using either alcohol or vegetable glycerin as a carrier. Standardized means they are made in a lab and the amount of the active ingredient has been validated.
So what are they? Why do they look so mysterious? And are they something you want to consider for YOUR healthcare? That's the subject of today's post!
In case you don't know it, herbs are the foundation of all modern medicine. The first aspirin was made up using the bark from white willow trees, and that bark is still an effective headache remedy today. Valerian has been used as a sleep aid for centuries, and Chamomile has been used as a gentle and soothing herb for calming sickness and relaxing people with a variety of ailments for ages as well.
So how about those little bottles...
Tinctures, as seen in health food stores, are a preparation made from plant materials (herbs, roots, leaves, flowers) and liquid (usually a mix of alcohol and water). The liquid is referred to as menstruum. The exact measurement of alcohol to water varies with the variety of herb. Some medicinal properties are easier to get out of the plant with alcohol, and some are easier with water. Different plants require different amounts of alcohol to extract their medicinal properties.
How is Tincture Made
The process of making tincture involves using the liquid to remove or extract the medicinal properties from the plant material and leaves you with medicine. Make no mistake, this IS medicine!
Herbal tincture can be made in a couple of ways: through a maceration or a percolation method.
Maceration tincture is made by:
Grinding up the plant material into very fine pieces
Putting it into a glass jar or other glass container
Then filling the jar with the menstruum or liquid.
The jar is then set aside for 4-6 weeks
Finally the plant material is removed and the liquid left behind, is tincture.
Percolation tincture is a little more complex; it invovles the use of specialized measurements, and a process to extract the medicine much fastr. In the end however, the result is once again a liquid plant extract.
How are Tinctures Used in Healthcare
Herbal tinctures are taken by mouth. Generally, they are mixed with water, juice or tea to alleviate the often bitter taste and dillute any alcohol. If the tincture uses alcohol as a base, one way to remove the alcohol almost completely is to put the tincture into a cup of hot decaffeinated tea so the boiling water can vapourize the alcohol leaving you with the herbal medicine only.
Tincture is generally administered in very small quantities. One reason those little bottles are so little! Tincture is usually recommended in drops, or possibly as much as a teaspoon, but that would be under the supervision of a healthcare provider.
A couple of reasons people use tinctures:
They are a quick and easy way to take herbs for healthcare
Tinctures can be stored for literally years, and still maintain their medicinal properties, while fresh or dried herbs have a much more limited span of useful time.
Generally, medicinal herbs should be discarded after one year. The medicinal properties leave the dried plant material gradually, but after about a year the properties will be far less than they are in a freshly cut herb. When plants are tinctured, that shelf life is dramatically extended. Although sources differ on how long exactly, it is safe to say that tincture is viable for at least 5 years.
Once tincture is made or purchased, it is a good idea to store it in a cool, dark place. I generally store tinctures I purchase or make in amber bottles, in a cool, dark cabinet. Tinctures should always be well labeled with information on what plant was used to make the tincture, what proportion of alcohol was used for the menstruum, and if there is room on your bottle, it is a good idea to put a little information on what the tincture is used for, as well as any contraindications.
Labeling tincture with lots of information helps your family figure out what things are for if you aren't around to tell them! Remember the example above about Willow Bark? Willow bark is a substitute for aspirin and is used for headache or other minor aches and pains, but without dosage information you could find a family member sick from taking too much. Clear information on the label also prevents you from having to go back and look things up if a long time has passed since you last used a specific medicine.
Is Tincture Safe?
This is a harder question to answer. For some people, herbal tinctures are a safe, effective alternative to over the counter medicines and even to some prescription drugs. It is critical to remember however that some herbal tinctures can carry side effects almost a serious as their commercial cousins.
One rule of thumb is to NEVER take an herbal tincture for the same purpose as a current prescription drug you also take. For example, do NOT take St. John's Wort with a prescription anti-depressant such as Elevil or Paxil or Zoloft. If you take one of these medicines, you should not be adding anything to the mix without the supervision of your doctor.
You should also endeavor to understand the action of herbs before starting to use them, as well as any potential side effects. And you are never to knowledgeable to learn more...
Recently I made up some tincture combining Cat's Claw with Devil's Claw to use for my arthritis. Both herbs have powerful anti-inflammatory actions. I have used other tinctures for years and had no problem with them, so thought I'd dive right in and use this as a home remedy. I decided a teaspoon sounded good. A few hours after taking it however, I found myself dizzy, having heart palpitations and found my pulse was in the low 50's no matter what I tried to do. I eventually ended up in the ER, where they told me that Devil's Claw often causes a large drop in pulse and blood pressure, and Cat's Claw is known to make people dizzy and cause other symptoms if taken in large doses. I apparently took a larger dose than advisable. Since my blood pressure runs very low to start with, that was a problem for me.
The moral of the story: consult a qualified health practitioner! Talk to your general doctor, or to a naturopath (a doctor trained in the use of alternative medicine) before you embark on any treatment with new herbs. Explain what it is you are thinking of using the herbs for, and discuss possible side effects. Talk about other medicines you take, including over the counter medicines!
Lastly, there is no substitute for learning about what you take. There are many wonderful writers who have published countless volumes on herbalism. A reading list of some of my favorites is below. Links are to Amazon, but I am sure you can find these at other booksellers too:
by Rosemary Gladstar
by Matthew Wood
by Maude Grieve
by Jethro Kloss
by David Winston