by Dr. Andrew Weil,”Herbal Medicine Chest“
Growing interest in herbal medicine has stimulated the proliferation of both high-quality herbal suppliers and marginal ones. Overall, I think standardized extracts are your best bet. The next best are probably tinctures, and then freeze-dried preparations of particular plants, such as stinging nettles. Whether you buy these in a grocery store or a health food store or an herb shop doesn’t really matter – as long as they’re as fresh as possible.
Herbal products are made from plants that have medicinal properties. Light, air and moisture all speed the deterioration of dried plants and rob them of their usefulness. The most destructive process is oxidation – that is, reactions with oxygen that change the plants’ chemistry.
A standardized extract is one that has been assayed to determine the content of one or several key constituents. The label will give a percentage content of these compounds. Standardization is the best assurance that a product contains what it’s supposed to contain in amounts sufficient to produce a desired effect. Standardized extracts may be liquids or solids.
Tinctures are liquid extracts of fresh or dried plants in alcohol. The alcohol content is high enough to preserve the plant material. Tinctures are stable and convenient, but their quality is only as good as that of the herbs that went into them. Tinctures should be shaken before use and diluted in warm water before being consumed; a typical dose is one dropperful in one quarter cup of water, taken three to four times a day with food.
[See more on preparing herbs in the next article]
If you don’t want the alcohol, you can look for other liquid extracts of herbs in vinegar or glycerin, but these are not as good as alcohol-based products.
Or you can buy your herbs freeze-dried. Freeze-drying is a process that uses chemical solvents to extract the plants, then flash-evaporates the extracts at low temperature in a partial vacuum. This process removes the solvents. The solid residue is then packed into capsules. Freeze-dried extracts are far superior to air-dried whole herbs.
Loose herbs sold in bulk are probably not going to be much more useful to your body than grass clippings on a compost heap. If they’re finely chopped and sitting in a bin, they’re likely to have lost all of their medicinal properties through exposure to the elements. This is especially true of leaves and flowers. Roots and bark deteriorate more slowly.
Powdered herbs in capsules are probably just as bad. Because they’ve been ground up, they oxidize much faster, since there is much more surface area exposed to air.
In some cases, you can use bulk herbs to prepare teas – for example, ephedra stems for asthma, blueberry-leaf tea to regulate blood sugar, cornsilk tea as a diuretic or raspberry-leaf tea for menstrual cramps. Again, make sure they’re packaged well to prevent deterioration. You can check for freshness by smelling them – if they smell stale, they probably are not much good.
Another concern is contamination. Herbs may have been grown using pesticides; they might have been fumigated in shipment; and they might contain foreign material. Herbal preparations that have been harvested from the wild (“wildcrafted”) or cultivated organically are better choices. It makes sense to buy brands that advertise the purity of their products. In my book Natural Health, Natural Medicine (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), I mention “herbal” remedies from Hong Kong that turned out to contain powerful – and potentially toxic – pharmaceutical drugs. Look for a list of ingredients on the package, and buy from reputable sources.
Copyright © 1999-2012, CompWellness Network, Fairfield NJ USA Asklepios Enterprises, Inc. Reprinted with Permission. Also see Dr. Weil’s sections on the best herbs to help you through each season of the year.
How To Make Herbal Remedies
It seems that more people are becoming interested in the use of herbs as an alternative to store-bought medicine – [read the] various ways herbs can be [prepared] medically. – Chet Day
Refer to our Herbal First Aid article for information on how to use medicinal herbs.
An infusion is made by immersing a herb in either hot or cold water. Use bottled mineral water for best results. For a hot infusion, place the herbs in a canning jar along with the mineral water. Put a canning lid on the jar. Steep the jar in hot water (not boiling). The length of time depends on the individual herb and on whether you’re using the leaves, flower head, seeds, or roots. Use after the liquid cools. Honey may be added, if desired, to improve the taste.
If kept cool in the refrigerator, the infusion can be saved for 2 to 3 days. Some herbs (e.g. common yarrow) give off a bitter taste when infused with hot water. Make a cold water infusion for these varieties. (Time needed varies with the variety of herb used).
This is more potent than an infusion. Place the dried herb in an enamel or glass sauce pan with cold water and slowly bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the volume is reduced to 1/4 of its original volume. Will keep 2 to 3 days if refrigerated. The amount of herb and water used depends on the variety of herb.
Chop dry plant parts, such as roots, bark or large stems into small pieces. Crush the pieces with a mortar and pestle into powder form (a coffee bean grinder can also be used). The powder can then be added to drinks and soups, or sprinkled on food.
A tincture is made by immersing a herb in alcohol, which acts as an extractive. Place 4 oz of dried herb in a container with a tight lid. Add 1 pint alcohol that is at least 60 proof (brandy or vodka). Do not use treated ethyl alcohol or rubbing alcohol. Let this mixture sit for 2 weeks, shaking daily. Strain and store the liquid in a dark jar. Add 5 to 10 drops of the tincture to a cup of hot water or tea.
Ointments and Creams
Prepare a strong decoction or infusion and add this to a small quantity of olive oil. Boil until the liquid from the infusion has evaporated (bubbles cease to appear). This will leave the herbal principles in the oil. To make a cream from this, simply stir in melted bees wax. Amounts of wax and oil vary depending on the variety of herb. These are a few of the ways herbs can be used medicinally from the garden.
For exact amounts of herbs to be used and complete directions for using herbs, refer to one of the many books on this subject. We recommend The Reader’s Digest Handbook – HERBS;Herbal Antibiotics by Stephen Harrod Buhner and Natural And Herbal Family Remedies by Cynthia Black. All of these can be purchased from our web site or found at your local bookstore or library.