Are you a Mom who wants to know more about how you can use herbs internally to improve your health or that of your children and families? If so, you are my kind of Mom, so pull up a chair. First of all, let me explain how herbs work: Herbs contain “active constituents” that create physiological changes within our body. These active constituents are called all sorts of standoffish-sounding names, like tannins, alkaloids, saponins, glycosides, bitter principals, etc. Let's ignore all the scientific jargon for now. For now, let's call these active constituents, “goodies,” and all a Holistic Mom needs to know is that in order to take advantage of the health benefits of herbs, these “goodies” have to be extracted and taken into the body somehow. So how do we do that?
To take an advantage of an herb's “goodies,” we can ingest them internally as well as apply them topically. This article will focus solely on internal preparations. For internal purposes, we usually extract an herb's goodies using water or alcohol as a solvent. By ingesting the water or alcohol that has been used to release an herb's goodies, we take in those constituents and marshal them for their therapeutic benefits. In order of weakest to stronger action, we can ingest herbs as capsules, tisanes, infusions, decoctions, tinctures, and extracts.
* Capsules : Quite literally, herbal capsules are dried herb material packed into digestible capsules. The capsule membranes melt when they reach your stomach, and the herbs release their goodies into your body and bloodstream through the digestion process. This is the weakest form of using herbs because you're relying on your stomach acids to release the goodies instead of ingesting them directly. Taking capsules is appropriate if you are trying to effect an overall long-term change in your health, ie, giving your husband daily Saw Palmetto capsules to protect his prostate.
* Tisanes : Honestly, an herbal tisane is like a “tea.” Except we do not call it “Tea” because “Tea” specifically refers to the herb Camellia sinensis (black tea, green tea, white tea, etc.). A tisane uses hot water to extract an herb's goodies (they dissolve in the hot water), and usually in the ratio of 1 teaspoon of herb steeped in 8 ounces of hot water.
* Infusions : An infusion is like a tisane, except it's a little stronger because the concentration of herb is higher (one ounce of herb to one pint of water). The typical dosage for an herbal infusion is 8 – 10 tablespoons, 3-4 times a day.
* Decoctions : A decoction is much like an infusion, except that instead of steeping an ounce of herb in a pint of boiling hot water, you add the herb to the water and boil the whole thing together. You would make a decoction instead of an infusion because sometimes the herb you are trying to take the goodies from is a harder / woodier substance (a bark or root or rhizome). A decoction has the same herb to water ratio as an infusion. The typical dosage for a decoction is 2 – 6 tablespoons, 3 to 4 times a day.
* Tinctures : A tincture uses alcohol (usually vodka) to extract the herb's goodies, although if you're making a tincture for children, you can also use apple cider vinegar instead of alcohol. The strength of tinctures is usually expressed in ratios, such as 1: 5, which means that 1 pound of herb material was dissolve in 5 pounds of liquid. Making tinctures is a bit of a science, because the ratio of herb to alcohol (or vinegar) changes depending upon the herb you're using (different plants require different alcohol concentrations in order to give up their goodies). Because tinctures are more concentrated, you usually take them as drops in water or on the tongue. The typical dosage for a tincture is 8 to 12 milliliters, about 2 – 3 teaspoons, 3 -4 times per day.
* Elixirs : An elixir is like a tincture, except that a mixture of herbs are suspended in the solution (usually in alcohol). (Most tinctures are of a single herb or plant). An elixir is usually prepared by steeping powdered herbs or herbal formula in a solution of water and alcohol for two weeks in a ratio of 2 ounces herbs, 1/2 pint of alcohol, and 1.25 pints of water), then training, filtering, steeping with honey, and then diluting before use.
* Extracts : Extracts are still more concentrated than tinctures (they're about twice as strong). Extracts can not be made at home, as they require some very specific and specialized equipment to prepare. Extracts are made using evaporation, cold percolation, or high pressure, depending on the particular herb's goodies. The typical dosage for an extract is 2 – 8 milliliters, or 1 – 2 teaspoons, 3 to 4 times per day.
* Syrups : Syrups are herbal preparations that are especially useful as cough mixtures. A syrup is preparing adding honey to a cooled decoction of the herb of choice (usually an expectorant herb such as Horehound or Licorice Root) and simmering. Syrups prepared in this way can be stored for up to 3 days in the refrigerator, or up to 1 week when vegetable glycerin is added.
* Essences : An essence is an herbal preparation that can make bitter-tasting substances more palatable. Essences are created by adding 1 teaspoon of essential oil to 3 tablespoons of alcohol (usually vodka). Essences are best stored in cool, dark areas in dark glass bottles (amber, cobalt, etc.).