If you know how to cook, you can make effective herbal remedies. Even if you’re a novice in the kitchen, you can still make great herbal remedies. Though there is an art and science to making herbal medicine that can only be perfected over time, it’s easy enough that often your first remedies will be nearly as good as those you make 20 years from now. As your knowledge and understanding of the plants expand, your ability to work with them also deepens. Relationship has as much to do with healing as exact measurements, ingredients, and temperature.
Making home herbal remedies is simple, fun, and easy, and the quality of the products you can make yourself in your own wondrous kitchen is as good as that of any product you can purchase, once you learn a few basic steps.
- 1 Setting Up Your Kitchen Pharmacy
- 2 Herbal Teas
- 3 Syrups
- 4 Oils
- 5 Salves
- 6 Tinctures
- 7 Herbal Pills
- 8 Baths, Poultices, and Compresses
- 9 The Skinny on Dosage and Duration of Herbal Treatments
Setting Up Your Kitchen Pharmacy
In this chapter, I’ll describe how to make six basic medicinal herbal preparations: teas, syrups, oils, salves, tinctures, and pills. Master these and you’ll be able to address most, if not all, everyday health concerns. If you become inspired in the art of herbal preparation, as many are, you can continue the craft of herbal pharmacy and learn to make variations on the preparations presented here. Many small and large herbal companies began just this way, with a favorite herbal remedy brewed up in someone’s kitchen.
Equipment & Supplies
What do we need to get started? Not much. A kitchen with basic tools will supply you with most of what you need to prepare herbal products. Some items I’ve found especially useful are:
Cheesecloth or muslin for straining out herbs
A large stainless-steel, double-meshed strainer
Stainless-steel pots with tight-fitting lids, including a double boiler
A grater reserved for grating beeswax
A variety of glass jars with lids for storing herbs, tinctures, salves, and so on.
Measuring cups (though, honestly, I hardly ever use them)
A coffee grinder reserved for grinding herbs (Don’t use your herb grinder for coffee; you’ll forever have the scent of coffee in your herbs.)
NOTE: Though I recommend stainless steel, other good materials for cooking pots include glass, ceramic, cast iron, and enamel. You’ll hear arguments for and against any of these, depending on whom you talk to. But rather than get fanatical, do as Carl Jung, the famous psychologist, did: talk to your pots and select those that say “good morning” back. One of the few rules that most herbalists agree on is never to use aluminum pots and pans for preparing herbs, as heat releases microscopic amounts of toxic substances from the aluminum.
A SIMPLER MEASURE
While many people have converted to the metric system, I’ve reverted to the simpler’s method of measuring. The term simpler is an old one, used in times past to refer to herbalists who worked with with only one or two plants at a time. Many modern herbalists use the simpler’s system because it is both sensible and versatile. The simpler’s measurement is a “part”: for example, 3 parts chamomile, 2 parts oats, 1 part lemon balm. The formula defines the relationship among the ingredients, not exact amounts. The “part” is whatever unit of measure you desire; you simply have to apply it consistently. For instance, if you decide in this case to define part as an ounce, you would use 3 ounces of chamomile, 2 ounces of oats, and 1 ounce of lemon balm. This would give you 6 ounces of an herbal tea blend. If you wanted to make a smaller amount, you could use a tablespoon as your definition of part: 3 tablespoons of chamomile, 2 tablespoons of oats, and 1 tablespoon of lemon balm. (Whatever the “part,” it’s best to use either all fresh herbs or all dried herbs, to maintain the ratio of active constituents.)
Although the simpler’s method is not always perfectly exact, it is exacting enough to make excellent herbal products. And remember, because you’re not using any ingredients with the potential for toxicity, you don’t need to be as exact with your measurements. I often use the “pinch of this and dab of that” method of measuring with great success.
Best Practices for Success
How do you make good herbal medicine? Some of the secrets to success are the similar to those any good cook would use in the kitchen.
LABEL YOUR PRODUCT IMMEDIATELY. Include on each label the following:
The name of the product
The date made
A list of all ingredients, starting with the principal ingredients and finishing with the least significant
Instructions for use, including whether the remedy is meant to be used internally or externally
Today, with electronic labeling programs, you can design a professional-looking label yourself. Personalized labels are attractive and fun, and they add a nice touch to the finished product. Or, if you’re not into playing Martha, you can make quick, easy, and inexpensive labels with colorful masking tape and a permanent marker.
KEEP GOOD RECORDS. Unfortunately, I’ve not always followed my own wise advice in this matter. I’ve created many an excellent product that could be savored only once because I could not remember that one special ingredient that went into it. Even today, in my well-stocked herbal pantry, I sometimes find myself staring in bewilderment at an unlabeled bottle that I recall quite clearly setting there months ago, thinking there was no way I would forget what I put in it. Such a waste, because you certainly can’t use a product if you don’t know what it is or what’s in it. You will be far more satisfied if you organize your preparations as suggested, rather than following the example of this disorganized herbalist.
So keep a recipe file of all your products in your favorite format, whether on cards, in a medicine-making journal, or in a database. Record not only the ingredients but also the mode of preparation, including the dates of when you started making it, strained it, finished it, and so on, along with any notes that might be important: for example, the type of oil you used, whether you solar-infused it or cooked it on the stove, the ratio of herb to liquid. If you happen to make a remarkable herbal remedy that your friends rave about, it would be nice if you could re-create it, and that’s what your notebook will help you do. It’s especially delightful for grandchildren and younger generations to discover. That’s not why we keep records, of course, but there’s a sweet bit of satisfaction in knowing that this is how most of our information about herbalism has been passed down for generations, and now you’re part of that thread.
TEST SMALL BATCHES. When making any remedy for the first time, make it in a small batch. It is better to lose only a few ingredients than an entire batch if your experimentation goes awry.
CHOOSE QUALITY HERBS. Ideally, you’d grow the herbs you’re going to use in your own garden. But if you’re not a gardener or these plants don’t grow well in your area, buy them from good sources that specialize in local and/or organic herbs. Organic, especially, ensures better health not only for you but for the planet as well.
What’s the difference between a medicinal tea and a beverage tea? While beverage teas can most certainly be conducive to good health, they are blended and served primarily for pleasure, with flavor being the guiding factor, rather than the healing properties of the herbs. A medicinal tea, on the other hand, can be flavorful and delicious, but it’s blended specifically for health purposes. It’s a tea blend with a mission. (Of course, the better it tastes, the more compliant the “patient” will be.)
A medicinal tea can be tasty and delicious while also doing its work to ward off an oncoming cold or soothe frazzled nerves.
I seldom direct people to make medicinal teas by the cupful; it is impractical and time consuming. Instead, I recommend making a quart of tea at a time. You can reheat the tea as you need it or drink it at room temperature. Because water doesn’t have preservative properties, herb tea doesn’t have a long shelf life. Though it’ll keep better under refrigeration, it can be kept at room temperature for a day or two, depending on the ambient temperature. But as soon as it starts to taste stale or flat, and/or bubbles start to form, brew a fresh pot.
Brewed with intent and a bit of “kitchen magic,” herbal tea offers more than meets the eye. Along with herbs and water, there’s also earth, sky, sunlight, and stars captured in this cup.
Infusions and Decoctions
When making tea, leaves and flowers are prepared differently from roots and bark, in much the same way that spinach is cooked differently from potatoes. Leaves and flowers are generally steeped in hot water so as not to overcook and destroy the enzymes, vitamins, and precious essential oils. Roots and bark are generally simmered to draw forth the more tenacious plant constituents. There are a few exceptions to these rules, which you’ll generally find noted in herb books. But honestly, if you make a mistake and simmer a root that should have been steamed, don’t panic. Your remedy will still work.
The process of steeping a plant in boiling water is called infusion, while the process of simmering a plant in lightly boiling water is called decoction. When in doubt, steep. Steeping is much less destructive to many of the important medicinal components of plants. The longer you steep the herbs, the stronger the tea. That’s not always preferable, as long steeping times can bring out some of the less desirable parts of the plant. Steep black tea too long and what happens? It goes from being a fragrant, aromatic beverage to an astringent-tasting, tannin-rich medicinal tea.
A medicinal tea blend, whether an infusion or a decoction, is defined by its strength and potency. For medicinal purposes, teas need to be fairly strong, and so you’ll use a relatively large amount of herbs in making them.
How to Make a Medicinal INFUSION
Infusions are made from the more delicate parts of the plant, such as the leaves, flowers, buds, some berries and seeds, and other aromatic plant parts. Highly aromatic roots such as valerian, ginger, and goldenseal are often steeped rather than decocted, though I find they are effective either way. After, add the spent herbs to your compost. Here are the basic steps.
1. Put 4 to 6 tablespoons of dried herb (or 6 to 8 tablespoons of fresh herb) into a glass quart jar.
2. Pour boiling water over the herbs, filling the jar. Let steep for 30 to 45 minutes. (The length of steeping time and the amount of herb you use will affect the strength of the tea.)
3. Strain and drink.
How to Make a Medicinal DECOCTION
Decoctions are made from the more fibrous or woody plant parts, such as the roots and bark, twiggy parts, and some seeds and nuts. It’s a little harder to extract the constituents from these tough parts, so a slow simmer is often required. After, add the spent herbs to your compost. Here are the basic steps.
1. Place 4 to 6 tablespoons of dried herb (or 6 to 8 tablespoons of fresh herb) in a small saucepan. Add 1 quart of cold water.
2. With the heat on low, bring the mixture to a slow simmer, cover, and let simmer for 25 to 45 minutes. (The length of simmering time and the amount of herb you use will affect the strength of the tea.) For a stronger decoction, simmer the herbs for 20 to 30 minutes, then pour the mixture into a quart jar and set it aside to infuse overnight.
3. Strain and drink.
Note: Some people prefer to simmer the tea down to concentrate its properties even further. In this case, smaller dosages will be needed (see dosage guidelines).
How to Make Solar & Lunar Infusions
Using the light of the sun or moon to extract the healing properties of herbs is one of my favorite methods for making tea. Medicinal teas brewed by this method may not contain the same amount of chemical constituents as those simmered on a stovetop, but they contain a different level of healing that General Electric could never impart.
TO MAKE A SOLAR INFUSION, place the herbs (using the same proportions as suggested for infusions and decoctions) in a glass quart jar with a tight-fitting lid. Fill with cold water and cover tightly. Let sit in direct sunlight for several hours.
If you are cold, tea will warm you;
If you are heated, it will cool you;
If you are depressed, it will cheer you;
If you are exhausted, it will calm you.
— WILLIAM GLADSTONE
TO MAKE A LUNAR INFUSION, place the herbs in an open container (unless there are a lot of night-flying bugs around!), fill with water, and position directly in the path of the moonlight. Lunar tea is subtle and magical, and it is whispered that fairies love to drink it. When would a lunar infusion be suitable for healing purposes? Whenever a little extra magic is needed.
Once you’ve learned to make a good medicinal tea, you’re two steps away from making syrup. You’ll just need to cook down the tea to concentrate it and add sweetener — to sweeten it, yes, but also to preserve it. Our ancestors loved using herbal syrups as medicine not only because they taste delicious, which makes it easier to convince reluctant family members to take their medicine, but also because sugar and other sweeteners are such good preservatives. Visit any of the apothecary sections at living history museums across the country and you’ll get a good idea of how important herbal syrups were.
A SIMPLE HONEY-ONION SYRUP FOR COLDS
One of my favorite remedies for colds and sore throats is this very simple, old-fashioned, tasty honey-onion syrup. I learned to make it early on, while living one winter in the “outback” of the Canadian northwest. Far from the neighbors, with a small child in tow, we lived in a little log cabin on the side of the Bugaboo mountain range, relying on our own skills and a certain pervasive spirit of independence that marked the times. The honey-onion syrup simmered on the back of the woodstove, and as we walked by, which we often did, we’d scoop a spoonful into our mouths. I can’t remember if any of us got a cold that winter, but if we did, I can bet it was chased away quickly by this hearty syrup.
TO MAKE THE SYRUP: Slice two to four large onions into thin half moons and place the slices in a deep pan. Just barely cover the onion slices with honey. Warm the onions and honey over very low heat, until the onions become soft and somewhat mushy and the honey tastes strongly of onions. You can add chopped garlic, if you want, for an even stronger syrup: stronger medicinally and stronger tasting!
TO USE: Oh, yum. It’s actually quite tasty. To help fight off a cold, at the first onset of symptoms take ½ to 1 teaspoon every hour or two. If you already are suffering from a cold, take 1 teaspoon three or four times daily to speed your recovery.
How to Make a Medicinal SYRUP
Children and the elderly seem to prefer syrups, as both age groups are more inclined to down their medicine if it’s sweet. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” was a ditty most surely written about herbal syrups.
1. Syrups begin with a very concentrated decoction. Combine an herb or herb blend with water in a pot, using 2 ounces of herb per quart of water. Set the pot over low heat, bring to a simmer, cover partially, and simmer the liquid down to about half the original volume.
2. Strain the herbs from the liquid (compost the spent herbs). Measure the volume of the liquid, and then pour it back into the pot.
3. For each pint of liquid, add 1 cup of honey or other sweetener, such as maple syrup, vegetable glycerin, or brown sugar. Most recipes call for 2 cups of sweetener (a 1:1 ratio of sweetener to liquid), but I find that far too sweet for my taste. (Before refrigeration was common, the extra sugar helped preserve the syrup.)
4. Warm the mixture over low heat, stirring well. Most recipes call for cooking the sweetener and tea for 20 to 30 minutes over high heat to thicken the syrup. This certainly does make a thicker syrup, but I’d rather not cook the living enzymes out of the honey, so I warm the mixture only enough that the honey combines with the liquid (not over 110°F; lower is better).
5. Remove from the heat. If you like, add a fruit concentrate for flavor, or a couple of drops of aromatic essential oil such as peppermint or spearmint, or a small amount of brandy to help preserve the syrup and/or to aid as a relaxant in a cough formula.
6. Pour the syrup into bottles. Store in the refrigerator, where it will last for several weeks.
Have you made garlic oil for salads or mixed flavorful herbs into olive oil for basting your favorite roast? Well, then, you’ve made herbal oil, which is nothing more than oil infused with herbs. There are a few simple tricks to making really good medicinal herbal oil, such as choosing high-quality oil and getting the temperature just right for extracting the medicinal constituents from the herbs, but it doesn’t take long to master the art. And once you’ve made herbal oil, you’re a step away from making salves and ointments.
By using different combinations of herbs and oils, you can make either strong medicinal oils or sweet-scented massage and bath oils. Though you can use any good-quality vegetable oil, the oil of choice for medicinal oils is olive oil, which is medicinal in its own right, being soothing and rich in oleic, omega-6, and omega-3 fatty acids. Olive oil is also stable, meaning that it doesn’t go rancid quickly. It is perhaps not the best oil for bath and body oils, as it tends to be heavy, feels oily, and always smells faintly of olives, but for medicinal oils and salves, there’s no finer choice.
The easiest and quickest way to make medicinal oil is the double-boiler method. But I’d also suggest that you try the old-fashioned solar method. There’s something about the slow merging of herbal properties into the oil, extracted by that all powerful solar light, that accentuates the qualities of the herbs. There are other methods of making herbal oils as well, but since this is a beginner’s guide, let’s keep it simple and easy. These two methods work well, are easy to follow, and ensure a good product.
How to Make a Medicinal OIL
This quick, simple method makes beautiful oil, as long as you keep the oil at the right temperature. Between 95° and 110°F is perfect.
1. Chop the herbs and put them in the top part of a double boiler. I strongly recommend a double boiler instead of a regular pan, as the oil can overheat very quickly, destroying the herbs and oil both. You don’t want deep-fried herbs or burned oil, and believe me, either can happen very quickly if you’re not using a double boiler.
2. Cover the herbs with an inch or two of high-quality cooking oil (preferably olive oil).
3. Slowly bring the oil to a very low simmer, with just a few bubbles rising – no rapid boiling or overheating, please. Simmer gently for 30 to 60 minutes, checking frequently to be sure the oil is not overheating. When the oil looks and smells “herby” – it will become deep green or golden and smell strongly of herbs — then we know the herbal properties have been transferred to the oil. The lower the heat and the longer the infusion, the better the oil.
4. Strain out the herbs, using a large stainless-steel strainer, and lined with cheesecloth, if needed. Discard the spent herbs. Let the oil cool, and then bottle and label it. A quick little hint: Don’t put the labels on until after you have poured the oil and wiped down the outside of the jars, to avoid staining your labels.
How to Make a SOLAR-INFUSED OIL
This, I must admit, is my favorite method for making herbal oils. It uses the great luminary energy of the sun to extract herbal constituents into the oil. How could there not be something healing about that? I learned this method from one of my earliest teachers, Juliette de Bairacli Levy. She would place her jars of herb-infusing oils in sandboxes to concentrate the heat, a technique used in the Mediterranean.
1. Place the herbs in a widemouthed glass jar and cover with an inch or two of high-quality vegetable oil (preferably olive). Cover tightly.
2. Place the jar in a warm, sunny spot and let the mixture steep for 2 weeks.
3. Strain out the herbs, using cheesecloth or muslin. (For a double-strength infusion, add a fresh batch of herbs and infuse for 2 more weeks. This will give you a very potent medicinal oil.) Then bottle the oil.
Note: You can squeeze the last bits of oil from the spent herbs into a separate container. Don’t mix this oil with the medicinal herbal oil, as this second straining will most likely have lots of little herb particles in it. You can save this oil for cooking and salad dressings.
Because oils generally go rancid quite quickly when exposed to heat and light, you would expect these solar-infused oils to spoil within a couple of weeks. However, as long as herbs are infusing in the oils, they don’t go rancid. Once poured and strained, they are as susceptible to rancidity as any oil, but during the actual steeping they remain stable. I’ve never met anyone who could explain this phenomenon to me, so I have to assume it’s something to do with the antioxidant properties of the herbs. I do know that this is the way our ancestors made oils, and it has worked wondrously for centuries.
Many people prefer to make oils using fresh herbs, and you certainly can. But I find that high-quality dried herbs, which don’t have the water content of fresh herbs, in most cases make a better oil. Water and oil don’t mix well; water in herbal oil can introduce moisture and bacteria, which leads to spoilage. When I make oils from fresh herbs, before adding the herbs to the oil, I usually freshwilt them: I place them on a basket or screen in a single layer, in a warm area out of direct sunlight, and let them wilt for several hours. They’re ready when they look limp. Fresh wilting allows some of the moisture to evaporate, so there’s less chance of spoilage.
In general, vegetable oils — other than olive and coconut oils, which are remarkably stable — tend to spoil quickly and don’t have a long shelf life. Most oils, if exposed to heat and light, will begin to spoil within a few weeks; unfortunately, many are already rancid when purchased. Rancid oils are a major cause of free-radical damage and related health issues. All oils should be stored in a cool, dark place to prolong their shelf life. Refrigeration is best, but in most kitchens, real estate in the “icebox” is in high demand. So find a place that’s cool and dark to store those precious oils. Stored properly, herbal oils made with olive oil will last for several months to a year. When the oil starts to smell “off” or loses its color, it’s time to discard it and make a new batch.
What to Watch Out For
Occasionally, condensation will form inside the jar, toward the top. Since water can harbor bacteria in the oil, if this happens, open the jar and use a clean, dry cloth to wipe away the moisture. If condensation is a chronic problem, use a cover of thick layers of cheesecloth, rather than a tight-fitting lid, to allow condensation to evaporate.
If the herbal oil grows mold, there is too much water in the herb or moisture in the jar. Be sure to use dried herbs or to wilt the herbs before using them. Be certain the container is completely dry, and check inside the lid, especially if it has a liner; it often holds moisture.
If your herbal oil starts to smell “off,” like rancid butter, don’t use it internally or externally. Our skin is our largest organ of assimilation and elimination, and we should treat it well. A bit of healthy advice: If you wouldn’t eat it, don’t put it on your skin. That sure eliminates a lot of “beauty aids”!
Once you’ve made herbal oil, you’re a step away from a salve. Salves, also known as ointments, are made of beeswax, herbs, and vegetable oils. The oil acts as a solvent for the medicinal properties of the herbs and provides a healing, emollient base. The beeswax is also a protective, soothing emollient, and it provides the firmness necessary to form the solid salve.
How to Make a Medicinal SALVE
There are a few tricks to making a high-quality salve, but often even the first batch you make will turn out perfectly by following these simple steps.
1. Make a medicinal oil, following the instructions.
2. For each cup of finished herbal oil, add ¼ cup beeswax. Heat the oil and beeswax together over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the beeswax has melted. Then do a quick consistency test. Don’t skip this step; it’s simple, takes only a few minutes, and will ensure that your salve is the thickness you desire. Place 1 tablespoon of the mixture on a plate, then let sit in the freezer for a minute or two. Then check the firmness of the salve. For a harder salve, add more beeswax to the blend. For a softer salve, add more oil.
3. Once the mixture is the consistency you want, remove the blend from the heat and pour immediately into small glass jars or tins. Obviously, you’re working with very hot oil, so be careful. This is not a job for children!
4. Store the salve in a cool, dark place, where it will keep for at least several months. I’ve had some that lasted for years. (If, however, you keep the salve in a car or in the hot sunlight, it will deteriorate rapidly; the color fades and the oil begins to smell rancid.)
Tinctures, which are very concentrated liquid extracts of herbs, are one of the most popular ways to take herbal medicine internally. They are simple to make and easy to take, and they have a long shelf life. Though I favor medicinal teas for addressing chronic health problems, I appreciate the convenience of tinctures and often recommend them, especially for acute situations. You simply dilute a dropperful or two of the tincture in a small amount of warm water, tea, or juice, and drink. You can take tinctures straight from the bottle as well, but they are rather strong tasting and quite potent.
Most tinctures are made with alcohol as a solvent. Though the actual amount of alcohol you’ll consume when taking a tincture is quite small (approximately 1 to 2 teaspoons per day), some people prefer not to use alcohol, and use vegetable glycerin or apple cider vinegar instead. These nonalcohol tinctures are not as potent or strong as the alcohol-based ones, but they do work and are preferred for children and for adults who are sensitive to alcohol.
Choosing a Solvent
If you plan to use alcohol as the solvent for your tinctures, select one that is 80 to 100 proof. “Proof” is a measure of the actual alcohol content of a spirit: half of the proof is the percentage of alcohol in the spirit. For instance, an 80-proof spirit is 40 percent alcohol, and a 100-proof spirit is 50 percent alcohol. The rest of the liquid in the spirit is water. The ratio range of 40:60 (40 percent alcohol and 60 percent water) to 50:50 (50 percent alcohol and 50 percent water) is the perfect medium for extracting most of the properties from herbs, which is why herbalists have used alcohol as a base for herbal medicines for as long as alcohol’s been around. It’s a perfect pairing. Most vodkas, gins, brandies, and rums are 80 to 100 proof, and any of them will work well in a tincture.
How to Make an Herbal TINCTURE
There are several methods for making tinctures. Though I have run several herbal-medicine companies and can make precisely standardized tinctures, weighing and measuring each ingredient, using fancy equipment, and keeping meticulous records, when I am in my own kitchen, I use the traditional simpler’s method. It makes as fine a tincture as any made in a lab, and it’s so much easier and fun. All that you need to make a tincture with this traditional method are herbs, alcohol (or glycerin or vinegar), and a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. The herbs can be fresh or dried, but if you’re using fresh herbs, you may want to fresh-wilt them first to allow some of the moisture to evaporate.
1. Chop your herbs fine. Place the finely chopped herbs in a clean, dry glass jar.
2. Pour enough alcohol over the herbs to completely cover them by 2 to 3 inches, and then seal the jar with a tight-fitting lid. It’s not unusual for the herbs to float to the top. If this happens, let them settle for a day or two, and then check to see if you need to add more alcohol to reach that 2- to 3-inch margin. Sometimes I mark the level of the herbs on the outside of the jar before adding the alcohol, to serve as a guide for how much alcohol to add.
3. Place the jar in a warm, sunny spot, and let the herbs soak (macerate) for 4 to 6 weeks, shaking daily. Is it necessary to shake the bottle daily? It’s probably not essential, but I like the idea of infusing my medicine with prayers and healing thoughts every day. On a practical note, shaking allows the solvent to mix thoroughly with the herbs and prevents them from settling on the bottom of the jar.
4. Strain the herbs from the liquid (offer the spent herbs to the compost goddess). Pour the liquid into a clean glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Store in a cool, dark spot. An alcohol-based tincture will keep for many years, whereas a glycerin tincture will keep for 2 to 3 years and a vinegar-based one at least 1 year, and often much longer.
Tinctures are highly concentrated liquid herbal extracts. Easy to make and easy to take, they are among the most popular forms of herbal medicine, but are best diluted in tea, water, or juice.
HOW MUCH IS A DROP?
Tincture dosages are often given in terms of drops or dropperfuls. Here’s a quick guide to how much those drops and dropperfuls add up to. (Who was it who counted all those drops? I’d like to thank her!)
If you’re using vinegar as your solvent, warm it before adding it to the herbs to help release the herbal constituents. Remember, vinegar tinctures will not be as strong as alcohol tinctures, as vinegar doesn’t break down the constituents as well, nor will it last as long. But vinegar has an advantage in that it’s a common culinary substance and can be incorporated into your regular meals (in salad dressing, for example).
Glycerin, a constituent of all animal and vegetable fats, is a sweet, mucilaginous substance that also has solvent properties. It’s not nearly as potent as alcohol or as versatile as vinegar, but it has some advantages; primarily, it’s very sweet and makes a tasty tincture that children like. Use only food-grade vegetable glycerin for tincturing. It’s available in some pharmacies and in most natural food stores. Before adding it to the herbs, dilute the glycerin with water, usually in a ratio of 2 parts glycerin to 1 part water (or more water, if the glycerin is particularly thick).
An herbal liniment is made in exactly the same way as a tincture. However, a liniment is used externally, while a tincture is generally used internally. Liniments traditionally are used to disinfect cuts and wounds and to soothe sore muscles. There are hundreds of liniment recipes, and I’ve made a fair number of them. See Dr Klosss Liniment for my favorite.
Herbal pills are easy to make and practical. You can formulate your own blends and make them taste good enough that even children will eat them. They are excellent for a sore throat; you can formulate them with herbs that fight infection, and sucking on them is by itself soothing to the throat.
Depending on your technique, these little pills can look quite professional. Mine always start off as perfectly round little balls, but eventually, after I tire of rolling, the blend turns into one big glob, which I put in a jar and store in the refrigerator with a small handwritten sign that says ROLL YOUR OWN.
How to Make Herbal PILLS
Making herbal pills is a good project to do with children. It’s messy, fun, and very easy – and children are more prone to take their medicine if they’ve had a hand in making it. Carob or cocoa powder is added to make these pill balls tasty as well as effective. Licorice could also be used for this purpose.
1. Place powdered herbs in a bowl and mix with enough water and honey (or maple syrup) to make a sticky paste.
2. If you like, or if the recipe calls for it, add a tiny drop of essential oil to the mixture and mix well. Don’t add too much; one or two drops will do. Wintergreen and peppermint essential oils are nice as flavoring agents. Or you might choose other essential oils for the medicinal benefits they’ll bring to the remedy.
3. Thicken the mixture with enough carob or unsweetened cocoa powder to form a thick, smooth paste. Knead until the dough is as smooth as bread dough.
4. Break off small bits of dough and roll them into small balls, the size of pills. You can roll the pills in carob or cocoa powder for a finished look, if you like.
5. Dry the pills in a dehydrator, or place them on a cookie sheet and dry them in the oven at a very low temperature (around 150°F, or with just the oven light on). If you’re having warm, dry weather, you can even sun-dry them.
6. Once dried, these pills will keep indefinitely. Store in glass jars in a cool, dark location.
Baths, Poultices, and Compresses
One of my earliest teachers was the great herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy. She lived to be almost 100 years old and had a greater impact on modern American herbalism than any other individual. Juliette’s success rested in her ability to care, her compassion, her inner knowing and awareness. She relied on the earth’s simplest recipes and used plants she found growing nearby, and these she infused with her own touch of wisdom and passion.
Juliette’s techniques, too, were simple. She was especially fond of the “laying on of leaves,” as she called poultices and compresses, and used them for treating many types of health problems. She also employed cold-water bathing, treating all manner of maladies in the bathtub. Until she was in her late 80s she swam daily, often in the ocean and rivers that were part of the natural landscape around her. Was this daily infusion in the waters of life part of her secret for well-being and rejuvenation?
Following are some of these simple skills or tools that augment or enhance the way herbs work. I’m not convinced that science or modern medicine offers anything quite as practical or effective as these old-fashioned, free-for-the-taking techniques for home health care.
WHAT IT DOES: Depending on the herbs you choose and the temperature of the water, you can create a relaxing bath or a stimulating one, a bath that is soothing, or decongesting, or uplifting. Baths open up the pores of the skin, our largest organ of elimination and assimilation. Bathing is nothing less than immersing ourselves in a strong infusion of healing herbal tea. In fact, several prominent healers administer most of their herbal formulas via the bath.
WHAT’S NEEDED: A good old-fashioned clawfoot bathtub is wonderful, but any good-sized tub will do. You’ll need herbs, of course, and perhaps essential oils, and you may also want candles and incense. You might as well make this an experience and do it up; it’s well worth it!
HOW TO: Place the herbs in a large handkerchief, clean nylon stocking, or strainer and tie it directly to the faucet of the tub. Turn on the water at the hottest temperature, and let the water flow through the herb bag vigorously until the tub is about half full. Adjust the water temperature to a suitable degree; warm to hot is relaxing, cold is stimulating, and tepid is neutral. Finish filling the tub, then add any essential oils.
WHAT IT DOES: A poultice is an external application of moist herbs, clay, grated or mashed veggies, or other absorbent material on the skin used to draw out impurities, to soothe, or to increase circulation. Typically a poultice is used to treat insect bites, rashes, burns, sore muscles, sprains, blood poisoning, swollen glands, cysts, boils, pimples, internal injuries, and tumors.
WHAT’S NEEDED: At the most basic level, you’ll need herbs and/or whatever other ingredients will be in the poultice. You may want two or three towels or cotton cloths (flannel is my favorite) in which to fold the poultice.
HOW TO: If you’re using fresh herbs or vegetables, mash or grate them, and then mix with enough boiling water to form a paste or pulp. If you’re using powdered herbs or clay, just add enough boiling water to form a thick paste. Then apply the poultice ingredients to the skin, either directly or folded into a piece of cotton fabric. Cover with a towel. You can keep in the heat by placing a hot-water bottle or heating pad over the poultice. Replace the poultice as it cools down. Repeat as needed, for up to an hour at a time.
WHAT IT DOES: A compress is an external application of hot or cold liquid on the skin. A hot compress draws blood to the skin’s surface, thereby increasing circulation in that area. The heat also pulls impurities to the surface and in some cases can help relieve congestion. A cold compress reduces inflammation and swelling and soothes excess heat, as in cases of sunburn, bruises, strains, sprains, swollen glands, and mastitis.
WHAT’S NEEDED: Soft cotton fabric and hot or cold herbal tea or water.
HOW TO: Prepare a strong herbal tea (usually three times stronger than you would drink). For a cold compress, cool the tea in the refrigerator or by adding ice cubes. For a hot compress, heat the tea on the stovetop, and keep it hot. In either instance, hot or cold, dip a piece of soft cotton fabric in the tea and place directly on the affected area. (For a hot compress, you can place a hot-water bottle or heating pad over the compress to keep it hot and help the heat penetrate the tissues.) Keep the compress on for at least 30, up to 45 minutes, dipping the cloth back in the tea as needed. Repeat several times a day for several days.
WHAT IT DOES: A fomentation is an external application of alternating hot and cold compresses. The fluctuation in temperature causes the capillaries to dilate and constrict. This physical manipulation of blood flow is one of the best and safest mechanisms for removing congestion and obstruction throughout the system.
WHAT’S NEEDED: You’ll need two large soft cotton squares and both hot tea (kept hot throughout) and ice-cold water (kept cold with ice cubes).
HOW TO: Apply a hot compress, then leave on for 5 minutes. Next, apply a cold compress, and leave on for 2 to 3 minutes. Repeat, alternating hot and cold, for at least 20 minutes. I’ve used this process for hours to help people pass gallstones and kidney stones.
The Skinny on Dosage and Duration of Herbal Treatments
Dosage varies according to the size and weight of each person. A basic adult dosage assumes a person of approximately 150 pounds. But other factors play a role in determining the correct dosage, including a person’s sensitivity to foods and herbs, overall health, and the particular condition or health issue being treated. One of the most important factors is whether the condition is acute or chronic.
Acute Health Problems
Acute problems are short term, generally come on quickly, have aggressive symptoms, and respond quickly to treatment; examples are toothache, headache, fever, nausea, stomach distress, menstrual cramps, cuts, scrapes, and wounds.
Pharmaceutical medications are generally very effective for relieving acute symptoms. They are designed to get rid of symptoms quickly — sometimes to the detriment of the system as a whole. Herbal remedies also work well for acute situations, but they don’t always have as dramatic an effect.
For example, upon noticing the early symptoms of a cold coming on, you could perhaps avert the illness by taking ½ teaspoon of echinacea tincture every hour. But if you took the amount of echinacea tincture often recommended on the bottle (30 drops two times daily), you’d most likely still end up with that darn cold; a smaller dosage taken much more frequently would be more effective.
DOSAGE FOR ACUTE HEALTH PROBLEMS
Because the situation is active and symptomatic, it’s necessary for the remedy to work quickly and efficiently. The point is to see symptoms improve quickly. Generally, small dosages given frequently are more effective than large dosages taken over longer periods of time. As a guideline, dosages are:
• ¼ cup of herbal tea every half hour, for a total of up to 4 cups per day
• ½ to 1 teaspoon of herbal syrup every 2 hours, for a total of up to 10 teaspoons daily
• ¼ to ½ teaspoon of herbal tincture every hour, for a total of up to 6 teaspoons daily
• 1 or 2 herbal capsules or pills every 2 hours, for a total of up to 8 capsules daily
As another example, to address a raging fever, rather than drinking 1 cup of fever-reducing tea (with, say, yarrow, peppermint, and elderberry) three times a day, you might drink ¼ cup every half hour, until the fever subsided.
Chronic Health Problems
Chronic conditions usually develop over a period of time, often arise because of lifestyle choices and/or genetic factors, and are generally more challenging to treat. Because they are long term, they usually require a longer period of treatment. Herbalists often say, for every year you’ve had a chronic problem, you’ll need a month of treatment to heal it. For example, if you’ve had allergies for 6 years, plan on following an herbal program for 6 months. That’s arbitrary, of course, but the point is that there’s no quick fix for chronic issues. Herbal and other natural therapies are ideal for treating chronic problems because they address the foundational or core issues that cause the problems while modifying or eliminating the symptoms. Pharmaceutical medications, on the other hand, generally address only the symptoms. While they can be quite effective for relieving the symptoms of a chronic problem, they often make the actual problem worse.
Take breaks from the herbal program, not because the herbs will build up and/or have toxic side effects, but because it’s always good to give your system a break. Relax, skip the dosages for a day or two each week you’re following the program, then resume and continue.
DOSAGE FOR CHRONIC HEALTH PROBLEMS
If a chronic problem is causing acute symptoms, often you’ll need to treat those symptoms using the dosages recommended for acute problems. But for long-term treatment of the foundational issue(s), it is better to give larger doses over a longer period of time. Most often, the key to success in addressing chronic problems is consistency: remembering to follow the program and take your herbal remedies for the designated period of time.
As a guideline, dosages are:
• 3 to 4 cups of herbal tea daily
• 1 to 2 tablespoons of herbal syrup twice daily, or as needed
• ½ to 1 teaspoon of tincture two or three times daily, for a total of up to 3 teaspoons daily
• 2 or 3 capsules or pills two or three times daily, for a total of up to 6 capsules daily
USING HERBS TO TREAT CHILDREN
People are often wary of treating children with herbs, and they might treat themselves with herbal remedies but opt to give pharmaceuticals to their children because “the doctor says so.” This seems odd and contrary, as herbal remedies are generally so much safer and children respond quite well to them. It’s up to parents, of course, to decide what they feel is best for their own children. But a quick look at the side effects of even the safest over-the-counter medications for children and a similar look at the herbs used for children’s health might convince them of the safety and efficacy of using herbal remedies.
Suggested Dosages for Children