Medicinal herbal preparations run the gamut from do-it-yourself “kitchen medicines” made from fresh, whole plants to high-tech standardized extracts produced in modern, high-quality manufacturing facilities. Today, many people enjoy the convenience and uniformity of commercially prepared herbal remedies, although it’s easy to prepare your own simple remedies, too.
Commercially available herbal preparations include tablets, capsules, cough syrups, ointments, creams, suppositories, and lotions. Tablets are made by eliminating the water from a plant or extract, powdering it, and pressing it into the form of a tablet, sometimes along with fillers or excipients (inert substances that help hold shape). Hard-shelled capsules are two-part shells (made of gelatin, starch, or cellulose) filled with powdered herb. Soft-shelled capsules are often made of a single piece designed to hold oil-based extracts or pure oils.
Standardized extracts must contain a specified amount of one or more chemical constituents, often called marker compounds (For more about this, see “Whole Plant Herbal Remedies and Phytomedicines”). Chemists test for marker compounds using sophisticated laboratory technologies, such as high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC). With HPLC, a solvent-containing extract is pumped over a solid material that separates compounds by physical and/or chemical properties. This provides a chemical profile that shows exactly what compounds an extract contains and in what proportions.
Standardized extracts are usually sold as capsules or tablets, labeled with the percentage of marker compounds they contain. Milk thistle (Silybum marianum), for example, is usually standardized to contain 70 to 80 percent silymarin. Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is standardized to 85 to 95 percent fatty acids and sterols. Some standardized extracts are also concentrated to increase the levels of certain constituents. For example, standardized Ginkgo biloba extract is a 50:1 concentrated extract standardized to contain 24 percent ginkgo flavone glycosides and 6 percent terpene lactones.
Standardized extracts offer several advantages. They allow herbal product manufacturers to ensure that the extract contains the same quantity of marker compounds each and every time they make it. (In nature, the amount of chemicals produced by a given plant can vary according to weather, altitude, soil composition, and other factors.) And doctors and clinical researchers appreciate standardized extracts because they can administer the same dosage to a patient time and time again, ensuring consistent results.
But standardized extracts have drawbacks, too. As mentioned earlier, the beneficial effects of many herbs appear to be due to many constituents working together. Because of this, identifying the active ingredients, or marker compounds, for a standardized extract can be challenging. Another disadvantage is that they’re usually more expensive than simpler, traditional herbal preparations, and they can’t be made at home. Some herbalists and consumers are uncomfortable using standardized extracts because they seem more like high-tech pharmaceuticals than natural plant remedies.
Herbal Infusions and Decoctions
Herbal infusions and decoctions, commonly called “herb teas,” are two of the simplest and most effective ways to take herbs that have water-soluble constituents, and you can easily prepare them yourself. Herbal infusions can also be added to baths or used in compresses, douches, enemas, gargles, and mouthwashes.
Infusion is a gentler extraction method than decoction. It’s best for delicate leaves and flowers that could be destroyed by too much heat, such as mints (Mentha spp.), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), bee balm (Monarda spp.), and chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile). Decoction is used to extract water-soluble compounds from harder plant materials such as roots, like astragalus and ginger, seeds, and bark. Roots with a particularly high content of volatile oils, such as valerian, should not be decocted, however, but instead ground into a fine powder and steeped as an infusion to prevent the loss of volatile oils.
To make an infusion: Pour boiling water over dried or fresh leaves or flowers, and cover the container tightly to prevent the escape of volatile oils. Steep for 10 to 15 minutes, strain, and drink. The exact proportion of plant material to water will vary with the herb used, but a general rule of thumb is to use 1 cup of water to 1 teaspoon of dried herb. Fresh herbs have a high water content, so you’ll need to use about three times as much fresh herb for a similar concentration.
To make a decoction: Place herbs (roots, bark, or seeds) and water in a pot. Cover, bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for about 20 minutes. Strain and drink. General proportions for decoctions are 1 cup of water to 1 ounce of dried herb.
Tincturing is a method for extracting and preserving the medicinal constituents of herbs in a solution of alcohol and water. Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), echinacea (Echinacea spp.), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa), nettle (Urtica dioica), and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) are frequently prepared this way. Properly made and stored, tinctures can last for 5 years or more. While many high-quality commercially prepared tinctures are available, you can make them at home, too. For the home medicine-maker, vodka is an excellent solvent for most herbs because it has a mild flavor and contains enough alcohol to serve as a good preservative. To reduce the chance of spoilage, use 100 proof (50 percent) vodka.
To make a tincture: Finely chop the fresh or dried herb. Fill a 1-quart glass jar about two-thirds full with the herb. (If you’re using roots, fill the jar only one-third full.) Add the vodka to within ½ inch of the jar rim, completely covering the herb. Stir gently to release any air bubbles. Cap the jar tightly. About twice a week, shake the jar to help extract the medicinal compounds; also check the liquid level and top off with more vodka if necessary. Allow the mixture to extract for 6 weeks. Drain the resulting mixture through a coffee filter or a strainer lined with muslin or cheesecloth, pressing as much liquid as possible out of the herb. Label and store the tincture in a dark-colored glass bottle, out of the reach of children and pets.
An infusion of chamomile flowers tames tension and aids digestion.
Infused oils — vegetable oils in which dried herbs have been steeped (or macerated) — have therapeutic benefits when applied directly to your skin. Infused oils can also be used as bases for healing salves, ointments, and other preparations.
Organic olive oil is an excellent base for therapeutic infused oils; grapeseed, sweet almond, and other oils can also be used. Olive oil infused with the flowers of St. John’s wort makes an effective massage oil for treating sciatic nerve pain. Mullein flower oil is useful for treating skin conditions, earaches, and joint pain. Arnica, calendula, chamomile, chickweed, comfrey, and many other herbs can also be infused in oil for external use.
To make a therapeutic herb-infused oil: Fill a jar about three-quarters full with dried herbs (fresh herbs are more likely to cause spoilage), and then pour the olive oil over the herbs to fill the jar. Be sure the herbs are completely submerged in the oil, because any plant material exposed to air can generate spoilage. Cap the jar. Allow the herb to soak (macerate) in the oil in a warm, sunny location for 4 to 6 weeks, and then strain carefully through cheesecloth or muslin, pressing out as much oil as possible from the herb. Pour the oil into clean, dry, amber bottles. Label and store them in a cool, dark location for up to 1 year.
Oils infused with herbs can be used — alone or in combination — to make healing salves. Try any of those listed in “Healing Herbs Used Externally.”
To make a healing salve: Gently heat ½ cup of herb-infused oil in a double boiler. Add ½ ounce of grated beeswax to the oil. Stir, and remove from the heat when the mixture is blended and the wax has melted. Add the contents of two vitamin E capsules (as a preservative). Cool for 2 to 3 minutes, then pour into a small, wide-mouth jar. The salve will become semifirm as it cools. When it has cooled completely, cap the jar, label, and then store it in a cool, dry location. Apply the salve externally, directly to your skin, to treat skin irritation and muscle or joint pain.
Liniments are similar to herb-infused oils but use rubbing alcohol as a base rather than oil. Eucalyptus and peppermint are often included for their cooling effect. The liquid or spray is rubbed into your skin to soothe muscle aches, sprains, joint pain, and bruises.
To make a liniment: Fill a jar about two-thirds full with dried herbs, such as peppermint, rosemary, and lavender. Cover the herbs with rubbing alcohol, then seal the jar tightly. Macerate (soak) the herbs in the alcohol for 4 to 6 weeks, shaking the jar every few days. Strain the liquid into glass bottles with mister tops. Label and store in a cool, dry place.
The ingredients for a healing salve include herb-infused oil, beeswax, and vitamin E.
A compress can be applied externally to treat pain and inflammation, strains, sprains, chest congestion, or sunburn. In Thailand, hot herbal compresses have been used for thousands of years. Ginger, turmeric, and lemongrass are commonly used. The herbs are wrapped in muslin and then steamed to moisten and heat them. The hot compresses are then pressed onto the skin or applied in circular motions to treat muscle pain and cramping, arthritis, tendonitis, stress, and anxiety, and to increase the flow of energy.
To prepare a compress: First make a strong infusion or decoction. Dip a cloth into the liquid, then apply it to the affected area for up to 1 hour. Reapply several times a day, as needed.
A poultice is a paste prepared from moistened herbs. It can be applied, cold or hot, directly to the skin to treat inflammation, bruises, or chest congestion, or to draw out toxins. (The technical name for a hot poultice is a fomentation.) Herbs traditionally used in poultices include St. John’s wort (for inflammation and muscle or nerve pain), yarrow (for skin irritations and bruising), plantain (for cuts, burns, eczema, poison ivy, and insect bites and stings), and mullein (for sore throat, chest congestion, hemorrhoids, and skin irritations including sunburn). Mullein poultices are usually prepared with a hot liquid, such as cider vinegar, sometimes diluted with water.
To prepare a poultice: Use a mortar and pestle or a blender to crush the herbs. Slowly add enough distilled water to make a thick, spreadable — but not watery — paste. Clean the affected area with hydrogen peroxide, than apply the paste. Loosely cover it with a bandage or gauze and tape. Reapply the poultice as needed when it has dried.