Friday, 24 July 2015

Tea, tincture, infusion, decoction

(Originally posted here )

Oh what an education I've been getting as people share with me their adventures with mainstream, commercial herbal medicines. I lead a sheltered life in the garden and forest and meadows, and hadn't been keeping up on the latest chicanery developments. The interweb seem to have sped up the process of decay in what was once an art and is now, alas, an industry.

There was a time, not too long ago, that food was a pleasure. Now, for far too many people, it is a source of guilt. Perhaps that's why, even in the once gentle world of herbs, we accept treatments that are so harsh as to border on punishment. It's unnecessary, most of the time.

Yes, some things are going to be yucky. Bitter tastes sweeten the stomach, after all. There are some sticky, icky feeling poultices, too. But there is little truth to the common belief that we should expect feel worse before we feel better. Well, at least not in my tradition.

And as my tradition (which has no name, by the way), is the only one I know, it's the one I teach. The following, though, is basic to all of what I suppose we should call folk medicine. Medicine that "just folks" can and have been making for a long, long time.

For some of you, this may be review.

The form in which you choose to use your plant medicines is important. It is not, as the (sigh) sellers of remedies might suggest, a matter of convenience. It is a matter of the plant material itself, and which of its qualities you want to extract.

Some are water soluble but are easily bruised, so we make a tea. Others are tough and need boiling. Or tincturing in alcohol. None - sorry, none - are meant to be taken in capsule form. (but you knew I was going to say that, didn't you!). There are also lohocks and electuaries, lozenges and even bread-ball pills, the making of which we might get into another day. Today we're covering the basics.

Here's how it all breaks down, roughly (there are many, many exceptions):

Flowers and delicate leafy parts of medicinals - ie chamomile, mints, sage, thyme, etc., are taken as a tea, steeped for five minutes in water just off the boil. These can be steeped right in the cup so you can inhale the fragrance. These plants are rich in volatile oils, which we want, but long steeping draws out the oils too far and may be harsh on our organs. We can use these plants fresh or dried. Powdered plant materials are to be avoided, we want recognizable plant material that retains its colour, not inert, yellowed dust. Teas should be consumed immediately, no more than 2 or 3 cups a day.

Tougher leaf and stem of the nourishing plants - ie nettles, oatstraw, comfrey, violet leaf, are best taken as an infusion, steeped 4-8 hrs in a tightly lidded jar. Again, the water is just off the boil. We want to extract the minerals from these plants. They are closer to food than medicine. Dried is preferred, again, no powders, just recognizable plant material with good colour. Infusions can be refrigerated 24 - 48 hours, and most can be taken freely, up to a pint a day.

Roots, seeds and barks: ie echinacea, burdock, dandelion, yellow dock are taken as a decoction. We first steep the plant material in cold water to soften it, then bring to a simmer for, depending on the plant, a few minutes to a few hours. Occasionally, these are then strained then simmered again to reduce them further so they will keep for several days. This is a double decoction. Dried material is preferred, usually, but here we make an exception and there are some powdered materials, for instance slippery elm bark. Decoctions are taken in smaller quantities, a few sips to a small cup at a time 3x a day, usually before meals. Double decoctions are taken a tablespoon at a time. I like to freeze the leftovers in ice cube trays.

Almost but not quite all plants : can be made into tinctures. This is where it gets tricky, as now we're extracting different qualities. Sometimes we make a tincture because it is the only humane way to expect someone to take a particularly nasty tasting plant. In some cases (like echinacea) one preparation can sub for another, but it's not always so. Tinctures are (generally) fresh plant material steeped in a jar of vodka or other spirits for a month or longer. Or simmered in water first, then the water along with the plant material are steeped in spirits, which is a decocted tincture. Tinctures should always be diluted in a little water. You can hold this under the tongue for a quicker effect. Dosages on commercial tinctures usually say "15-30 drops". This is nonsense. Start with 6 drops and work up if necessary. Small frequent doses are far more effective than large and infrequent.

Confused? Yeah, I know, it looks like there are as many exceptions as rules, because, well, there are. Yet if you're drawn to this sort of thing, it's as easy to learn as grocery shopping and cooking. If you're not, it's as bad as conjugating irregular verbs in a foreign language.

My preference is always to nourish, so my first step is always is to suggest infusions and/or decoctions to someone I'm helping. This is especially important to anyone who has digestive difficulties and absorption problems. Really, we want to flood the body with nutrients. It can decide what to send where and then easily dispose of the extra without stressing the kidneys or liver. The more "medicinal" medicines need to be processed through the liver, and I want the liver happy before I'm going to ask it to do any extra work.

Because, as we say, "the body remembers", oftentimes simple nourishment is all that is needed to nudge someone back into a state of health. Anyone who is subject to low grade infections would take more benefit from this than a so called immune booster. The immune system knows what it needs to do if it has the tools, and if we push or pull it we confuse it.

So soup really is the best medicine more often than you'd think. That would be a decoction, by the way, and it's a wonderful thing to add some of the root medicines into a long simmering broth. You can even put ginseng in there.

Once the body has its sea-legs back, then we can begin to work on the more deep seated issues.

Let's take the example of hormonal migraines. While motherwort tincture can definitely assist in relieving the congestiveness of the womb that might be at the root of this, to offer it too soon can cause menstrual flooding. But if we first ensure that the iron levels are up by offering nettle infusion for a few weeks, we can move on to motherwort tincture with less disruption. If we alternate the nettle infusion with oatstraw some days, we've added extra magnesium and mellowed our friend with the headaches a bit. These two might be enough to relieve the tension in the body, especially if we give her baths in either or both. She might not need motherwort after all.

But in another case, we might reach for the motherwort first. If she's exceedingly nervous and her heart tends to flutter, motherwort will help her there. We make sure she takes a break from it near her period so she doesn't experience flooding, and that's when we can offer her the nourishing nettle. In that order, she may find nettle gives her some fire and strength of spirit so she can get past her nervousness and gain some confidence.

It's all relative. It's not a matter of swallowing this herb for that ailment in the most "convenient" form, which is really only convenient and cheaper for the manufacturers.

It's a matter of respect, as well. Respecting the plants and using them with care and awareness means we get the most from them.

Please, feel free with your questions in comments or email!

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