Sunday, 6 September 2015

How to use herbal tinctures

First, let's establish the why. Why a tincture instead of some other preparation? As mentioned in a previous post here the reasons do vary. In some cases the parts of the herb we want are alcohol soluble more than water soluble. In other cases, we are limiting exposure to (but not eliminating) unpleasant tastes.

In my own case, I'm afraid tinctures are often the only way I can store the medicine plants for future use. Ever more humid summers are meaning I have difficulty drying them, and so I resort more often now to tinctures, vinegars and oils. (I never use a dehydrator, I find them too hot.)

Tinctures are also the way to go when we find a small amount of a plant and need to stretch it. Eyebright is a good example of this. Eyebright is considered endangered yet I often find large patches of it in our neck of the woods (well, the edges of the woods, to be more specific.) Just in case these are highly localised colonies, taking too much eyebright is something I do not want to do - especially as it tends to come out by the roots no matter how hard one tries to clip, rather than pull. So eyebright is tinctured in my house, even though it is probably "better" in a tea form.

By the way, I have my suspicions about commercially available eyebright. There is another plant, far more plentiful, which has very similar properties - you may be surprised to learn that this plant is the much maligned purple loosestrife - and I have a hunch that's what's in most commercial teas called eyebright. It's a very useful plant, loosestrife. Come to think of it, this is another example of why it's good to buy your herbs by their botanical nomenclature, rather than the common English name. (Remind me to start labelling my products accordingly!). Common names differ regionally and there is nothing stopping a supplier from calling loosestrife by the name of eyebright. Nothing at all.

Oh dear, I have digressed, haven't I?

Tinctures are little powerhouses, or at least the good ones are. Yes, by that I would like you to read my tinctures are powerhouses and so are anyone else's home made tinctures. What could be fresher than taking going out to the garden with a jar in one hand and a vodka bottle in the other, snipping the plant material directly into the jar, then pouring in the vodka? Never mind what the neighbours might think (especially if you take that traditional swig right from the bottle). That's a dynamite tincture and it just can't compare to what goes on in a factory type setting, now can it? No, it can't.

Because a well made tincture contains absolutely fresh plant material, it has lots of flavour as well. Our bodies respond to flavours. If we take a capsule, the first thing that registers to the body is capsule. It has to be dissolved, then the poor remaining plant material is dissolved in stomach acid. The message just doesn't get through the same way at all.

Taking a few drops of tincture in a swallow's worth of water allows the tongue to send messages directly to the brain. The brain recognizes the tastes of the medicines, even when we don't, and all manner of communications go on between it and the organs so they literally know help is on the way. The water is there to dilute the vodka so the brain doesn't send the wrong message, so to speak. It's gentler, too.

Take these few quiet moments when taking a tincture, especially for the first few times you use it. Every time would be even better, but I have to be realistic; even I sometimes just pull my wild lettuce tincture out of my purse and drop a few drops on my tongue if a tension headache threatens.

Still, when we take time with our tinctures, what we experience can be quite interesting. Apart from the heat of the vodka base, there might be a warmth or a cooling sensation. A sense of peace or a sense of awakening. We taste the plant and we sense its qualities. Moistening or drying. Astringent, opening, diffusive .. etc.

It's the crux of real healing, after all, to learn to listen to the body. As we take time with our tinctures this way we learn to assess how our bodies respond. 

Some of the medicine plants are what we might call tonics (sometimes called adaptogens). These are the ones we take in the long term while we work on long standing difficulties. Others (like my wild lettuce for a headache) are for more short term issues. In both cases, though, there is the need for that initial conscious .. what can I call it .. intention.

The more subtle the plant's action, the more important this is, of course. This is not to say that St. John'swort tincture won't relieve your nerve pain if you don't take the time for this. It likely will, but you will sense the beginnings of relief sooner this way. (It's often said of St. Johnswort that the people around us will notice we're feeling better before we do. This is what I mean by subtlety of action.)

I also stress the importance of taking far, far less tincture than the bottle or your herbalist or even I recommend. This is another "listening to your body" lesson. Only you know what is "right" for you. I don't care if you are a 25yr old, 200lb+ body building guy or a 63 yr old lady with the bones of a bird. There are differences in metabolism, make-up of the gut bacteria, what other supplements you may be taking or what your hormone status is. Your dose is yours, so start small and work up. Really small. 1-3 drops small. It may be all you need!

I particularly like that tincture dosages can be varied according to need far more easily than capsules. In some cases we find we need less over time; often, tapering down is how we ask our bodies how we're feeling. No waste, as can be the case if you make a pot of tea then only need a few sips. Best of all, we find our sweet spot by listening to ourselves, not an external authority.

The saying goes that herbal medicine is people's medicine - that's especially so if we can develop the cajones to make our own.

I sell tinctures, yes, but on the whole that's just my sneaky way of giving people a taste of how much damn better home made is than anything you get from Big Herb. I'm trying to work myself out of a job. I'll always be happy to help those with no access to fresh plants of course, but really, I'm trying to instigate a revolt here more than anything.

Somebody has to.


  1. I started a hot pepper tincture since we had more than we could possibly eat. I only wish it took less than 6-8 weeks. I also started some nettle oil. All due to you!

    1. Mwa-ha-ha ..

      Hey you never know, the pepper tincture might be ready sooner than that.

      What are your intentions for the nettle oil? I made some but still haven't used it.

  2. I thought I would try it on my joints. This has nothing to do with herbs but...I bought some magnesium flakes and made some oil. Which is actually just distilled water and magnesium flakes. It's been great for my dry skin.

    1. Makes sense (the nettle oil). You'll report back right?

      I made my magnesium oil with rose water. I didn't have any distilled water, it's distilled, I figured, what the heck. I use it when I'm jumpy at night, it seems to help. It helped your skin, from the inside out, you mean?

  3. I will report. Do you think 3 weeks is a proper amount of time to cure? All I know is that I apply it after a shower at night and the next morning my skin is not dry upon awakening the next morning. Prior anything I used, my skin would be dry the next morning.

    1. 3 weeks for which?

      So you don't rinse off the magnesium? I keep reading where people have to rinse it off because it dries out their skin. I haven't experienced that, nor have you, so is it something about the commercial version?

  4. 3 weeks for the nettle oil.

    When I first began with the magnesium oil it would cause a slight itch only on my arms. Now I don't notice it. I don't wash it off.

    1. I generally give an oil 6 weeks (and sometimes far, far longer), but whenever it smells nettle-y enough for you, that's when it's ready.

  5. I'm intrigued by the wild lettuce tincture. I have it growing on my rural property here in Missouri and I'd like to give it a try. Do you have a process easily at hand you can share? Thanks

    1. I just tincture it as I do anything else - snip or chop up the aerial parts - that's the above ground parts in garbling lingo, btw - but not too fine. I loosely fill a jar, then add enough vodka to cover. It might need topping up the next day, and I keep an eye on it to make sure the plant material is always submerged. Shake daily for a while. 6 weeks it's ready to strain and use.

      DO have a look at other sources and go with your inner bell on the method you prefer. There are many ways to make tinctures, I just find this one is the easiest and most reliable.

      Have fun! I'm particularly fond of wild lettuce. I like those ridges up the spine on the back of the leaves, I like how it's a scrawny fighter that will even come up in the cracks of driveways. It's action is gentle but pervasive, too, seeming to be able to work its way through the resistance that often is the cause of my tension headaches in the first place.

    2. Thank you so much. I've toyed with the idea of doing some tinctures but just haven't gotten around to it. So much to do, so little time - and still get sleep. :-) Which also brings to mind a thank you to you and others who spend some precious time sharing with others.

      I've got wild lettuce that grows to a good seven feet tall! I live in the rural Missouri woods on about 3 acres and so have a lot of interesting things that pop us. I've only been learning about them in recent years and have been working my way through more foraging for food and other interesting and healthy ways to take advantage.

      Of course most of my effort is in beating back Mother Nature from trying to swallow my land whole. :-) But I enjoy even that process - mostly.

    3. Wow. WOW!! The best stand of wild lettuce I ever saw was coming up all along a friend's driveway and at the foundation of his house. This friend had chronic pain from various injuries. He kept at it with the whippersnipper and it kept coming back, and just would not listen to me about what it could do for him if he made a tincture. "I'd rather just drink the vodka than mess with a damn weed" he'd say.

      I'd love if you'd email me pics of those giants. I know there are different varieties, but I'm lucky if I can find a couple of plants a year and they're never more than a foot tall. I'm tempted to ask you to send me some seeds - but I might regret it ;-)

    4. Woops, got so excited about the giant wild lettuce I forgot to say - making tinctures is ridiculously easy and takes no time at all. It's simply a matter of confidence that you have the right plant.

      Writing about it takes some time, but it's a labour of love, believe me. My job is to get people out of the clutches of Big Herb and their dreadful 'supplements'.

    5. I'll take a couple of pics and send them to you. I may be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that's what they are.

    6. I'll look forward to it, thanks!