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Herbal extracts hold a significant position in the realm of traditional herbal remedies, owing to their potent healing properties and efficacy.

By immersing herbs in a solvent, tinctures are produced, offering relief and treatment for numerous health issues for generations.

In this all-encompassing manual, we will explore the nature of herbal extracts, their historical background, the advantages of using extracts for health, the processes employed to develop these remedies, the preparation of tinctures, the diverse range of herbs employed, their longevity, storage recommendations, and potential drawbacks of using extracts.

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WHY DO PEOPLE USE HERBAL TINCTURES?

Herbal tinctures are used for treating a wide range of mental and physical health issues, including anxiety, depression, stress, indigestion, osteoarthritis, insomnia, and the common cold.

Health benefits can be seen in some tinctures such as Calendula, Chamomile, and Peppermint Leaf within the same day, but stronger effects typically start within one to two weeks. This especially holds true for adaptogenic herbal tinctures like Rhodiola rosea, Ashwagandha, Cordyceps, and Ginseng, as the body adapts and the herb optimizes various systems within the body.

Tincture is taken orally to relieve a wide range of health issues, or as a proactive way to support specific elements of one’s well-being.

Tincture may also be applied directly to the skin and incorporated into lotions for a variety of purposes, including aches and pains, bruises, spider veins, varicose veins, and other skin diseases such as eczema or fungal or bacterial infections. Tincture may also be diluted and used as a mouthwash to improve breath and to soothe mouth infections.

PURPOSES OF USING HERBAL EXTRACTS

Herbal extracts serve as remedies for an extensive array of mental and physical health concerns, including anxiety, depression, stress, indigestion, osteoarthritis, insomnia, and the common cold.

Some extracts, like Calendula, Chamomile, and Peppermint Leaf, may exhibit health benefits within a day, but more potent effects usually emerge within one to two weeks. This is particularly true for adaptogenic herbal extracts such as Rhodiola rosea, Ashwagandha, Cordyceps, and Ginseng, as they help the body adapt and optimize various bodily functions.

Herbal extracts are consumed orally to address a multitude of health issues or proactively support particular aspects of well-being.

Additionally, extracts can be applied topically or integrated into creams for diverse purposes, including alleviating aches and pains, treating bruises, addressing spider veins, and managing varicose veins, as well as other skin conditions like eczema or fungal or bacterial infections. Diluted extracts may also be utilized as mouthwash to freshen breath and alleviate oral infections.

THE ORIGINS OF HERBAL EXTRACTS

Although the notion of herbal extracts might seem novel to some, their history stretches back as far as the invention of distilled alcohol.

Ancient Egyptians were known to steep herbs in alcohol to create tinctures and cordials, with the latter typically containing less alcohol.

In 1025, physician-philosopher Avicenna published a collection of five books called Al-Qanoon fi al Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), which served as an encyclopedia of medicine at the time. The text outlined all known medical issues, their causes, pathologies, and treatment formulas, including herbal extracts.

Drawing from Islamic medical expertise, the original text also incorporated elements from Greco-Roman, Persian, Chinese, and Indian medicine. It laid the foundation for medical education in the West between the 12th and 17th centuries, ensuring that Western medicine embraced the historical use of herbal therapies.

Avicenna’s thesis on the cosmic elements—Earth, Water, Air, and Fire—formed the basis of The Canon. It highlighted the connection between humans and the Earth, the body as an extension of the planet, and the inseparable link between our health and our bond with nature.

The techniques of distilling and tincturing didn’t gain widespread popularity in Europe until the 14th century. The Irish and Scottish were among the early adopters, and by the Victorian era, herbal extracts were a standard part of Anglocentric cultures.

Laudanum, an opium tincture containing codeine and morphine, was once available over the counter in Canada and the United States until the 1970s. Historically, laudanum was used to treat various health issues, primarily as a painkiller and cough suppressant, even for children. Cannabis tincture was also available in pharmacies until the 1920s. Many elixirs and other common medications were either cordials or tinctures. The use of herbal extracts significantly declined when the focus shifted to pills in pharmacology.

With the resurgence of interest in natural healing and herbal medicine, herbal extracts are once again gaining prominence.

DIFFERENT TECHNIQUES TO PREPARE TINCTURES

Tinctures are primarily prepared using one of two methods: the folk method and the standard method.

The folk method is the simplest technique for creating herbal tinctures. As the name suggests, it was traditionally employed by everyday people. This approach is straightforward and does not require complex calculations, measurements, or specialized equipment. The essential items needed are herbs, a wide-mouth mason glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, solvent, and cheesecloth.

However, the folk method inherently produces variable results in terms of ratios and strength due to the lack of measurements. This inconsistency is the main disadvantage, as it prevents herbalists from knowing the tincture’s potency. The resulting tincture may also lack uniformity and have uncertain dosages because the exact concentration is unknown. For novice herbalists, this method can lead to tincture strengths that are either too weak or too potent, resulting in suboptimal extraction of plant medicine or excessive, unnecessary use of alcohol in the tincture.

Despite its simplicity, the folk method should not be considered low quality. Many renowned and respected herbalists favor this technique for its ease and the expertise required to use it safely and effectively. The folk method is primarily suitable for highly experienced herbalists or home herbalists using herbs that are safe to consume in any quantity.

The standard method, also known as the ratio, calculation, or measurement method, is a more intricate but precise approach to tincturing. This technique is considered a more “scientific” method for creating tinctures, as it allows herbalists to make consistent measurements using mathematical equations, measuring tools, and extraction equipment. This consistency ensures that the quality of the herbal products remains uniform each time.

Many herbalists prefer the standard method because it eliminates guesswork from the tincturing process, making dosing safer and easier for consumers.

CREATING HERBAL EXTRACTS: THE PROCESS

Regardless of the specific technique employed to produce a herbal tincture, the fundamental procedure remains consistent. This process is known as “maceration.”

Maceration is an extraction method carried out at room temperature, involving the immersion of chopped or ground herbs in a liquid solvent within an airtight container, such as a wide-mouth mason glass jar, for an extended period ranging from several days to weeks.

In herbalism, the liquid solvent is referred to as the “menstruum.” The menstruum serves to extract the plant’s active medicinal constituents, including alkaloids, vitamins, and minerals.

Various menstruums can be utilized to extract plant medicine in the tincture-making process. Alcohol, water, glycerine, vinegar, oil, or honey/syrup are all viable options, each with its own set of pros and cons.

Once the herbs have been soaked and macerated, they are filtered, pressed, and discarded as compost. The resulting concentrated liquid infusion, now a herbal extract, is ready for its designated medicinal application.

CHOOSING THE RIGHT MENSTRUUM FOR HERBAL TINCTURES

The selection of a menstruum for a tincture is typically guided by the plant’s chemical constituents, as well as factors such as solubility, desired strength, shelf life, and personal preferences.

Alcohol-based menstruum: Ethyl alcohol is the most common menstruum used in tincturing, as it effectively extracts a wide range of active medicinal compounds from plants. Grain alcohol, like vodka, is a popular choice due to its neutral taste. Some people may avoid alcohol-based tinctures for various reasons, such as alcohol addiction, sensitivities, religious beliefs, or concerns about administering them to children. However, the alcohol content in tinctures is minimal, similar to that found in baking extracts or ripe bananas. To evaporate the alcohol, the tincture can be added to hot tea.

Water-based menstruum: Water can extract certain compounds from plants, like minerals, mucilage, acrids, tannins, starches, and carbohydrates, but is less effective at extracting essential or volatile oils and resins. Water is often mixed with alcohol to dilute the tincture’s potency or used in a double extraction process with certain plants and fungi, such as Lion’s Mane mushrooms.

Glycerine-based menstruum: Glycerine, or glycerol, is a sweet-tasting, clear, and odorless liquid that effectively extracts various plant compounds, including essential oils, alkamides, tannins, acids, polysaccharides, saponins, and glycosides. However, it is not as powerful as alcohol and does not extract aromatic bitters, resins, minerals, or mucilage well. Glycerine-based tinctures, or glycerites, are preferred by some due to their sweet taste and suitability for those with alcohol sensitivities. Veganism and Kosherism may influence the choice of glycerol-based tinctures, as glycerine can be derived from animal fats.

Vinegar-based menstruum: Vinegar is a solution of acetic acid and water, which excels at extracting vitamins and minerals from plants but is less efficient at extracting key chemical components. Vinegar is often considered more of a superfood supplement or nourishing tonic than a plant medicine.

Oil-based menstruum: Oils can be infused with herbs for use in topicals or culinary applications, such as salves, soaps, balms, lotions, creams, or infused cooking oils. Coconut, avocado, and hemp seed oils are common carrier oils used for cooking.

Honey or Syrup-based menstruum: Honey and syrup can extract a variety of plant nutrients and provide a sweeter taste for culinary applications. They are not considered highly effective plant medicines due to their limited efficiency in extracting medicinal compounds. Some herbalists mix honey or syrup with alcohol to create a more palatable tincture, especially for children.

DISTINGUISHING HERBAL TINCTURES FROM HERBAL TEAS

Herbal tinctures are highly concentrated and potent forms of plant medicine compared to herbal teas.

A key difference between the two lies in the preparation of plant parts. In herbal tinctures, all parts of the plant, such as leaves, flowers, roots, barks, and berries, can be combined and processed simultaneously, while herbal teas often require separate preparation for leaves and flowers from roots, barks, and berries.

Another significant distinction between herbal tinctures and herbal teas is the type of liquid used for extraction and the duration of plant material exposure to the liquid. Herbal teas involve steeping herbs in boiling water for a few minutes, whereas tinctures require soaking herbs in a menstruum, such as alcohol, water, glycerine, vinegar, oil, or honey, for an extended period, typically ranging from days to weeks.

TINCTURING A VARIETY OF PLANTS

Theoretically, any plant or herb can be tinctured, including roots, twigs, berries, fruits, grasses, and barks. However, some plants or plant parts may be dangerous or lack scientific evidence supporting their therapeutic value. While every plant is unique, some are more popular and safer to use than others.

Here is a list of some of the most commonly tinctured plants that have scientific studies supporting their potential health benefits:

Calendula (flower): Known for its antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties, Calendula is often used to boost immunity, treat gastrointestinal issues, soothe heartburn and acid reflux, relieve stomach discomfort and inflammation, and reduce oral and throat swelling.

Chamomile (flower): Research suggests Chamomile is effective in treating anxiety, wound healing, and inflammation reduction.

Ginger (root): Studies indicate ginger can alleviate nausea in pregnant women, and anecdotal evidence claims it is helpful for motion sickness.

Nettle (roots and leaves): Research shows Nettle (Urtica dioica or “stinging nettle”) is commonly used to treat diabetes and rheumatic conditions, urinary tract infections, gout, bursitis, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, respiratory issues, and seasonal allergies.

Ginseng (root): Ginseng is believed to have beneficial psychological and immune effects and may help individuals with diabetes.

Raspberry (leaf): Raspberry Leaf is thought to support female reproductive health, strengthen and tone the uterus, and relieve uterine cramping, labor duration, caesarean potential, and menstrual cramping and nausea.

Rhodiola rosea (root, rhizome): Rhodiola rosea, a well-known adaptogen, is known to restore balance to all bodily systems. Studies suggest it reduces mental and physical fatigue, stress and anxiety, increases immunity protection, improves energy, heart health, athletic performance, recovery, mental focus, mood, weight loss, and libido.

St. John’s wort (flower, leaf): Research indicates St. John’s wort may alleviate depression symptoms.

Valerian (root): A review of studies suggests Valerian root may improve sleep quality and decrease insomnia.

Yarrow (flower): Yarrow is thought to help treat stomach issues, improve appetite and digestion, reduce cold and flu symptoms, regulate the circulatory system and female reproductive processes, lower blood pressure, and address circulation problems such as blood clots and varicose veins. Studies also indicate potential preventive or therapeutic properties for epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and stroke.


EXPLORING
THE SHELF-LIFE OF TINCTURES

The shelf-life of tinctures varies depending on the type of menstruum used:

Alcohol-based tinctures: These have the longest shelf life, thanks to alcohol’s anti-fermentative properties. The preservation period depends on the alcohol strength, with weaker strengths (~25% ABV) lasting around two years, moderate strengths (40% ABV) up to five years, and potent strengths (90%+ ABV) potentially lasting seven to ten years under optimal conditions. Proper storage and thorough filtering to remove plant sediment can help extend the shelf-life. When stored in a cool (but not freezing) place away from direct sunlight, alcohol-based tinctures can remain potent for years.

Water-based infusions: These have a short shelf life, only lasting a few days, as bacteria thrive in water.

Glycerine-based infusions: These typically have a shelf-life of 12 to 24 months.

Vinegar-based infusions: Although vinegar is used as a food preservative, these tinctures have a relatively short shelf life of about six months.

Oil-based extracts: These generally have a shelf life between 12 and 18 months. While microbes can grow in oil, the main threat to the shelf-life of oil-based extractions is oxidation. Storing oil-based infusions in an airtight container can help optimize their shelf-life.

Honey or Syrup-based preparations: These have a shelf-life of approximately 6-12 months.

 

STORING TINCTURES: BEST PRACTICES

Tinctures should be stored in dark glass bottles, with amber, blue, or green being the most popular color choices. Clear glass is not recommended as it does not protect against harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, which can reduce the effectiveness of the tincture. Plastic should be avoided, as the tincture solvent can extract impurities from the plastic, affecting the taste and significantly reducing shelf-life.

Alcohol-based tinctures are the easiest to store due to alcohol’s highly effective preservative properties. Even when using dark glass bottles, it is advisable to store them in a dark location, such as a bathroom or kitchen cupboard, to maintain product quality for as long as possible.

For non-alcohol tinctures, it is crucial to store them in a cool, dark cupboard away from heat and light. Avoid placing tinctures over a stove or near a heat source, as this can compromise the quality of the herbs. Mold can also develop under certain conditions.

Tinctures containing water, glycerine, vinegar, oil, honey, or syrup have some preservative properties, but not as much as alcohol. As a result, these menstruums have a shorter shelf life and are more susceptible to contamination. It is essential to check non-alcohol-based tinctures before each use to ensure they remain in good condition.

TASTING HERBAL TINCTURES: A MATTER OF PREFERENCE

The taste of herbal tinctures is subjective, with some individuals finding them unpleasant while others enjoy the taste and incorporate them into their daily routine.

Tinctures can be intensely bitter and earthy, depending on the plant used. The taste stems from the antioxidant-rich phytochemicals, such as polyphenols, flavonoids, isoflavonoids, anthocyanidins, phytoestrogens, terpenoids, carotenoids, limonoids, phytosterols, glucosinolates, fibers, alkaloids, vitamins, and minerals present in the plant. These phytochemicals are extracted and concentrated into a potent liquid form that is easily absorbed, contributing to the tincture’s effectiveness as a form of plant medicine.

If you find the bitter taste unpalatable, herbalists, naturopathic doctors, and naturopaths suggest diluting the tincture in a few ounces of water. This will not impact the absorption rate of the tincture since water is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. Some people claim that taking tinctures undiluted with water increases absorption speed and effects are noticed more quickly, but there are no scholarly articles to support this assertion.

Regardless of taste, millions of people appreciate the health benefits offered by the phytochemicals found in tinctures.

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