Herbal Preparations: Which Are Right for You?
Herbs are the earliest form of medicine.
Over the long and varied history of humankind, we have developed many ways to ingest plants for therapeutic benefit. From simple to complicated and everything in between, traditional herbal medicine has left us with several choices as modern humans seeking to heal ourselves by reconnecting to nature.
Or maybe you just want a source of medicine that doesn’t lead to a list of side effects and complications requiring a 30 second, double speed disclaimer at the end of its ad. Either way, herbal medicine has got you covered and you have options.
I like to think of herbs as the “whole foods” of medicine. While you can identify specific compounds in herbs as the “active ingredients” such as vitamin C, in their whole plant (or plant part) form, they contain many other components. And while science may not recognize all of the components as being active, they support and balance the active ingredients so your body can absorb them better, buffer you from any negative side effects, and likely add benefit that we haven’t yet been able to quantify.
So what are some of the most common ways you can consume herbs and which forms will work best for you?
Here are some things to consider:
Raw Herb Decoctions: Tastes Like Sticks and Berries, Get’s You Better Quick
Raw herb decoctions are the most customizable way to prepare herbal formulas. They’re also super potent. To make a decoction, herbs - mostly roots, barks, twigs, seeds, and other hard or woody plant parts are boiled in water for a relatively long time, typically 20-60 minutes. Once the herbs are all boiled together you strain them out and drink the liquid throughout the day.
Pros: Super customizable - if you have specific symptoms or a complex pattern, herbs can be added or left out and the amount of each herb can be changed for a stronger or weaker effect. Because you’re extracting the healing constituents from the plants yourself and drinking them soon after, the decoctions are fresh and potent. Water is excellent at extracting minerals and long chain polysaccharides, prebiotic compounds, and mucilage from plant material. If your condition requires these types of phytonutrients, you for sure want a water based extraction.
Cons: Because decoctions are basically sticks, roots, and twigs boiled in water, they taste like sticks roots, and twigs boiled in water. As a liquid extraction, the volume of a therapeutic dose is pretty high. Anywhere from ¼ to 1 full cup of liquid may be required 2-3 times per day. They take significant time to prepare and most herbal medicine needs extended periods of time to take significant effect. Natural medicine is slow medicine after all.
Tinctured formulas: Portable, Potent, Lasts Forever
Tinctures are made by soaking herbs in very strong alcohol for long periods of time. There’s probably some fancy new way large scale manufacturers can speed up the process, but traditionally the herbs were soaked from weeks to months before being strained and bottled.
Tinctures can be made of single herbs or combinations of herbs to create a symptom or condition specific formula. They can also be mixed together to create custom blends - either by combining single herb tincture to create a formula or combining multiple formulas to treat more complicated cases.
Pros: These extracts are highly concentrated and require only a ½-1 teaspoon liquid per dose. The alcohol acts as a preservative and tinctures virtually never go bad or lose their potency when stored in cool dark conditions. Small doses of high concentrations is a good way to take bitter, or otherwise unpleasant taking herbs. Alcohol is especially good for extracting resins and essential oils from plants, but not that great at the water soluble components such as minerals, polysaccharides, pre-biotics, or mucilage. There is no prep and they’re easy to carry with you. They’re even suitable for airline travel.
Cons: Because they’re alcohol extractions of Roots, sticks and twigs, the taste like a shot of alcohol made from roots sticks and twigs. Alcohol isn’t suitable for everyone.
Granular herb preparations: A Modern Take on Ancient Wisdom
Granules are one of the newer forms of herbal administration. They’re made by first decocting herbs in to a water extraction and then dehydrating the extraction into a powder that can be rehydrated back into a drinkable liquid. Instead of boiling your own herbs for an hour, all you have to do is bring water to a boil, add a teaspoon or two of herb powder, sweeten if you want to and have yourself a nice warm cup of herbs. And yes, they still taste like roots, twigs and sticks. They can be single herbs or formulas.
Pros: Granules can be customized by combining formulas, creating formulas from single herb powders, or amending premade formulas with additional single herbs. They’re relatively convenient and pretty portable,
Cons: These formulas have to be dissolved into hot water to be consumed. If you don’t have access to hot potable water, you may miss your doses.They take time and equipment to prepare. They aren’t quite as strong as a decoction but still very potent.
Capsules: Convenient, Like Popping a Pill
Capsules are widely used for administering pharmaceutical drugs and so may seem the most familiar to you if your main experience with medicine comes from your regular biomedical doctor. They’re a newer form of administration of herbs if you consider the entire history of herbal usage in humans.
Capsules can contain a dose of a single herb or a premade formula in a typically cellulose based encasement. While very convenient, they offer little room for customization except by with the addition of more pills.
Pros: Very convenient, they store well, last a long time, and your daily dose can fit in your pocket, if you’re so inclined.
Cons: Capsules can’t be easily customized unless you’re filling your capsules yourself or your healthcare practitioner has the ability to encapsulate their own prescriptions. Most people however would require additional encapsulated herbs or formulas for a more personalized prescription. Combined with their expense and large dosage - typically 3-9 pills 2-3 times per day adding more pills is usually not at the top of anyone’s list. Additionally your digestive system has to break down the capsule before the medicine can be absorbed and take affect.
Herbal Infusions - Magic Teas Made With Ease
More popular in Western Herbalism than Eastern, herbal infusions are like lighter decoctions. Instead of boiling the herbs in water for long periods of time, the lighter parts of plants - leaves, flowers, and other herbaceous parts of the plant - are steeped in boiling water removed from heat, just like you’d prepare a cup of tea. The herbs can be steeped from 5 minutes to overnight, then strained and consumed throughout the day.
Pros: Infusions are inexpensive and often pretty tasty. If unpleasant tasting herbs are required, better tasting herbs can be added to improve the flavor. Infusions are easy to prepare - you can set it and forget it and come back later to drink it. Water is excellent at extracting minerals, long chain polysaccharides, prebiotic substances, and mucilage making them especially appropriate for cases requiring those constituents.
Cons: Infusions do require time and equipment to prepare and the volume of the dose is high. Water is not the best way to extract some phytonutrients such as resins and some alkaloids.
Culinary Herbs: Eat Your Medicine
As I said at the beginning of this article, herbal medicine is the oldest medicine, and the first way humans ingested herbs was simply to eat them. This is the simplest and most direct way to use herbs in your everyday life. You can add culinary herbs and spices to anything you cook and eat and gain long term benefit throughout your life. Plus they make your food taste better.
Most of the herbs and spices already in your kitchen have therapeutic benefit. Many are digestive aids such as fennel, ginger, cardamom, and pepper. Others are antibacterial and antifungal like ginger, garlic, and oregano. While others are anti-inflammatory like turmeric. Keep in mind that herbs typically have more than one benefit so they can be digestive aids, antimicrobial, and antiinflammatory all at the same time and taken regularly in small doses over long periods of time your body is able to take the benefit it needs to maintain health and function.
Whatever way you decide to take your herbs, I hope you enjoy them often and always!