herbal preparations: tinctures

when folks begin to stick their little toe into the big river of herbalism, tinctures are usually one of the places they start.  if you’ve ever been into a health food store, then you’ve probably seen tinctures before—they’re the little amber dropper bottles with bold plant names on their labels and little black squeeze droppers at the top.  they’re often in eye-shot of the registers because they are alcohol-based medicine (although i pitty the fool who downs an ounce of wormwood tincture thinking they’ll get a buzz…..blerrrg!).  they also come in glycerine as well, but these are harder to find and are usually less effective.

imagine this times ten. that's your wall-o-tinctures

so you’re walk up to the overwhelming wall-o-tinctures at your health food store, you pick up a bottle, and you wonder to yourself… “hmm, i wonder what this one does!”  you scan the label on the front—then the side—then the back.  you think to yourself… “umm ok, so maybe this does so many things that they don’t have space to list it on the bottle…maybe there’s accompanying literature from the company letting me know what i can use this for!”   and you look for that—and you look—and you find none.   the man behind the desk asks if you need some help, but, not wanting to seem like a noob, you smile and say “no thanks!”   you rifle through more bottles, flipping each one over, each time finding no indication of what the tincture could be used for, and instead finding a dosage (20-30 drops three times a day or as needed) that’s eeeeeeerily similar on all of these vastly different plant-based medicines.   you give up and go home.

sound familiar?  well there’s actually a very good reason that those labels don’t tell you anything about the herb.   it seems like such a shame, but really and truly, there are several really great benefits to the arrangement.   backing up a bit…   so we all know that time is not a straight progression forward, strictly speaking anyway.  although times change, patterns of turning and returning appear throughout history.   we veer one direction, and then we swing back the other, like a very, very slow (and very predictable) pendulum.   medicine is no exception:  it has moved from the realm of the home to that of the “medical profession” and then back to the home—and then back to the professionals.  most of us are familiar with the ama (american medical association); this organization was founded in 1847, and one of its main aims was to oust the quack doctors from the medical scene.  many folks have rather romantic views of the past, and although grandmas did treat colds, neighborhood wise women did deliver babies, and herb doctors did help keep the population well, there was also some very dangerous quackery afoot.

this guy looks legit....right?

one of my favorite examples of such quackery was recently featured in the book charlatan, which, believe it or not, is about my husband’s grandfather’s uncle!  “dr” john brinkley, who was neither a surgeon nor a doctor, claimed that he had found the secret to restoring “lost male virility,” and that with a simple surgical procedure (again, not a surgeon) he could restore men to their youthful vigor.  brinkley claimed that he could cure no less than 27 different ailments with his surgery and that it has been effective 95% of the time.  the reality:  brinkley killed at least 42 people at his mildford, kansas “clinic.”  the surgery:  implanting the testicles of baby goats into the scrotums of his patients……yeah.  thanks ama!

the pendulum began to swing back, and medicine that was once relatively unregulated (brinkley had gotten his diplomas from diploma mills) became, throughout the beginning of the 20th century, highly regulated.  while one good effect of this was the squashing of quacks, one bad effect was that it took the treatment of everyday afflictions out of the kitchen and in to the operating theater.  no longer could people be trusted to care for themselves, and the hopsital rose in prominence as the place to be if one were sick.

now fast-forward to the 1980’s…times began a-changin’ (yet again) and people started to move away from doctors and big medicine in favor of herbs and supplements from shops that were springing up across the country.  once again, the pendulum swung and small-scale medicine for everyday afflictions began returning to the realm of the home.  well, the doctors didn’t care for this too much, and over the next decade, they ran a HUGE campaign to co-opt herbs and make them available only by a doctor’s prescription (heaven forbid health food stores steal a doctor’s revenue!).

get ya hands off our herbs!

the public outcry against this proposed take-over was enormous, so in 1994, after a massive write-in campaign, a piece of legislation was signed into law that assuaged the fears of the herbal community.  the “dietary supplement health and education act” noted that all herbs currently in use were to be grandfathered into the category of  “food supplements.”  these herbs were granted legal status as food and were made available to all…on the strict condition that no one made any medicinal claims about their products.  that, my friends, is why products have to mention that they aren’t for medicinal purposes and that they haven’t been shown to prevent, treat, or cure any disease.  the caveat statements are oftentimes blatant lies, but they allow the public to have access to herbs.

why is this a good thing?  well i’ve already mentioned that it gets the ama out of our kitchens, bedrooms, and bathrooms, but another benefit to this situation is that it forces people to take the quest for knowledge into their own hands.  it becomes the responsibility of the populace (not the lofty privilege of the doctor) to know what herbs have what effects and why.  it becomes our responsibility to learn how to heal ourselves.  one of my teachers susun weed once said that herbal medicine is people’s medicine—and that couldn’t  be more true.  if we want to use herbs, we either have to learn about them or we have to support the endeavors of those in our community who want to become herbal practitioners.   as a herbal practitioner in training, there’s nothing that i love more than providing a product to a client, telling them why/how it works, and then showing them how they can make their own.  perhaps this is bad business, but i’m not a businesswoman—i’m a healer.

long story short—when you see those empty labels, don’t get frustrated; get a book!  my next post will be about where you can get an herbal education—there are plenty of great resources out there that will tell you more than a label ever could.

so back to tinctures.  i’d like to tell you both how to make them and where to buy them.  its always fun to make your own products, but honestly, this is one that i almost always buy.  you really need fresh plant material to make them (though you can use dried), you have to know when in the year to harvest the plant, and you have to know where you can find it wild.  homemade tinctures are something i do for fun—when i happen upon a plant that i’d like to tincture, i do it; when i need something acutely though, i always buy.

(wordpress is being a butt and won’t embed a video for some reason, so click the link below to see one of my teachers make a motherwort tincture.)

http://www.youtube.com/user/wisewomantradition#p/search/0/UONyxo-A2tg

ingredients

fresh plant material (leaves, berries, flowers, etc. depending on what you’re making; roots and barks can be dried)

80-100 proof vodka (or brandy if you’re making a tummy recipe because it’s gentler)

pint jar

recipe

step 1.  shake any dirt or six-legged wayfarers off of your herb.  you may want to coarsely chop it, but this isn’t really necessary.

step 2.  loosely pack your jar full of fresh plant material.  if you’re using dried, only fill it halfway or your jar will burst.

step 3.  fill your jar all the way to the top with alcohol.  if you’re using dried material, the plant will soak it up and expand.

step 4.  stir well or poke with a chopstick to be sure that all of the air bubbles have risen to the top.  air=mold.

step 5.  put the lid on your jar and label it.  seriously—label it.  i can’t count the times that i’ve said, “eh, i’ll remember what it is” and then have forgotten what in the heck it was.  put the plant’s botanical (latin) name, the proof and type of alcohol used, and the date made.  put labels on lids because sometimes not even a dishwasher will get them off of jars.

step 6.  every day for a week, give your tincture a few gentle shakes and then poke all of the air bubbles to the top again.

step 7.  let your tincture infuse in a cool dark place for at least 5 more weeks.  don’t shake or stir.

step 8.  using a strainer and cheesecloth, strain the plant material out of your tincture, giving it a really good squeeze to release all of the goodies.  make sure you label your new jar.  this should stay good for about a decade.

so there it is.   nothing to it.  the hard part is finding the plant material if you don’t have your own garden or window box to grow it in.  for that reason, i would like to make a few suggestions about where to buy your tinctures.

coyote moon tinctures!

coyote moon herb company—this is by far my favorite company.  it’s run be a great lady named theresa finkbeiner who lives and teaches in pensacola, florida.  she travels around harvesting her own herbs, dries them for the journey, and then makes her tinctures with the freshly harvested material.  i’ve never tried anything as potent, and the prices are insanely low!

red moon herbs—this company is run by a fantastic woman named corinna wood and is based out of ashville, north carolina.  red moon grows their own herbs and they really produce a superior product.  the company is part of an intentional community called earthaven ecovillage, so they’re a good small business to support.

red moon tinctures!

mountain rose herbs—these guys and gals offer a mind-blowingly long list of tinctures made from organically grown and ethically wildcrafted herbs.  i rarely buy from them because i have the opportunity to buy in person from coyote moon and red moon every october at the southeast women’s herbal conference, but that in no way reflects upon the product—just my personal convenience.  good stuff, as always.

herbs etc. and herb pharm—if you’re in an health food store, these are probably the two brands that you’ll see.  i’ve used them both and like them just fine, but i prefer to support small-scale operations when i have the chance.

so now you know where to buy—we should move on to what to buy.   the selection is endless, but you can rest easy knowing that, barring experimentation or a really specific recommendation from an herbalist, there are only a couple of these tinctures that are essential to have.  your list may differ from mine, but off the top of my head, here’s my list of tinctures that everyone should know.  i’ve given botanical names as well because some plants have multiple names and some names describe multiple plants.  botanical names are always a sure thing.

echinacea

echinacea—(echinacea pupurea)—echinacea, or purple coneflower to the average gardener, is a great herb for helping the body deal with infection.  most people know echinacea as  “what you take when you have a cold,” but it’s important to know that it doesn’t cure the cold—it gives your immune system a gentle kick in the pants, allowing it to do a better job.  remember, the best herbs don’t “do” things to us; they allow us to better do things for ourselves.  you can take echinacea prophylactically, at a dropperful or so three times a day, and in an acute situation (cold, infection, etc), you can take half a dropperful every 30 minutes to an hour for about a day and then back off.

black cohosh

black cohosh—(cimifuga racemosa)—black cohosh is most widely known for its ability to help menopausal women (it helps control mood swings, hot flashes, and vaginal dryness), but it is a great hormonal balancer for lots of different kinds of people (men too!).  black cohosh is what is known as an adaptogen, that is, an herb that modulates the body’s stress response system and that has a balancing and strengthening effect on the cardiovascular, immune, and neuroendocrine systems.  because it contains salicylic acid (the active compound in aspirin), it can be mildly pain-relieving.  avoid this herb if you’re pregnant.

valerian

valerian—(valeriana officinalis)—valerian is liquid relaxation, but the trade-off is that it smells like dirty gym socks.  power through the smell, and give this one a chance for pain relief, spastic digestive issues, frazzled nerves, and chronic insomnia.  as a sleep aid, valerian is far superior to pharmaceutical medication because it helps you fall asleep faster, you don’t do crazy things in your sleep like toilet paper your own yard (true ambien story), you feel refreshed and rested in the morning, and it’s non-habit-forming.  take one dropperful in some warm water about fifteen minutes before bedtime.  if this has no effect, try two the next night.

dandelion

dandelion—(taraxacum officinalis)—dandelion is a great ally for folks with digestive issues.  the ultra-bitter compounds promote the movement of gastric juices (this is why folks used to drink “bitters” in water) and it gently stimulates the liver, pancreas, and spleen.  this is a great one to take as a tonic just before meals.  dandelion is also a potassium-sparing diuretic, meaning that it can help move water and address urinary issues without depleting your body of precious potassium.  when used over time, dandelion also helps clear up some skin conditions like acne and eczema.  feel free to use this one liberally.

chickweed, at extreme close-up

chickweed—(stellaria media)—chickweed is a wonderful herb to use for dissolving things.  the primary use for it is dissolving ovarian cysts, but many sources suggest that chickweed’s high concentration of saponins make it an ideal ally for weight loss and cellulite as well.  folks usually jump at anything touted as a “weight loss” solution, but use your common sense here—chickweed is an ally, but you’re going to have to give your body healthy food, plenty of water, and daily exercise to sustain real change.  chickweed is a cooling anti-inflammatory herb as well.  doses differ according to the reason that you’re taking chickweed tincture—check out some resource material.

lemon balm

lemon balm—(melissa officinalis)—lemon balm is like liquid sunshine; it addresses anxiety and depression,  and it can be uplifting to those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder.  lemon balm is also a strong anti-viral, making it a welcomed addition to any flu blend.  topically, it can be used to speed the healing of herpes sores and reduce the size and painfulness of lesions.  doses differ depending on the person and the disorder, so check out a good herbal book for some recommendations.

motherwort

motherwort—(leonurus cardiaca)—the two names of this plant really give away its properties.  leonurus cardiaca means “lion-hearted,” signifying this herb’s affinity for the heart and circulatory system.  motherwort can regulate heartbeat for those folks who suffer from stress or anxiety-induced tachycardia.  also, it’s called motherwort because it is a herb that mothers you.  ever have one of those days when you need your mommy?  well, reach out for motherwort—it addresses tension and pain and helps to relieve emotional stress.  although motherwort can be relaxing, it shouldn’t be used like valerian as a sleep aid because it can be habit forming.

hawthorn

hawthorn—(crataegus spp.)—hawthorn, like motherwort, is a heart tonic herb.  unlike motherwort though, it is not at all habit-forming.  hawthorn is a good support herb for folks with arteriosclerosis, enlarged heart, and weak heart muscles.  it can also help lessen symptoms of orthostatic hypotension (feeling like you’re going to black out, or actually blacking out, upon standing too quickly).  hawthorn is food-safe, so you can’t really go wrong with it, and you can use it indefinitely.

there are as many tinctures as there are plants on this earth to make tinctures with, but these are some of the goodies.  if you want to get to know herbs through the use of tinctures, get some books, do a lot of reading, and perhaps pick up a new tincture every month to play around with.  see how the tincture works for you.  note how it feels in your body.  most bottles tell you to take whole droppersful, but play around with drop doses—try three drops three times a day.   see if you notice a change.   if you work on slowly acquiring new medicines, then, like me, you’ll wake up one morning and gaze in amazement at your mysteriously complete medicine cabinet.

*disclaimer reminder—my suggestions for herb usages and dosages are from personal experience and folk tradition.  please consult your doctor about any possible interactions or restrictions before taking tinctures, and please consult literature about each of these herbs to get a fuller picture of their properties.  my statements about herbs have not been approved by the fda and are not intended to cure, prevent, or treat any disease.

wink wink 😉

blessings!

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