Herb Basics

A Place to Start


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Herbal teas are an easy and inexpensive way to take your herbs. You can grow, harvest and dry your own tea herbs and make your own blends, or you easily can find both individual herbs and tea blends in bulk at health-food stores. To keep teas fresh as long as possible, store them away from direct sunlight, preferably in dark glass containers with tight-fitting lids.

To make a tea, place 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried herb leaves, flowers and/or stems (if using fresh herbs, double that amount) in a cup. Pour 1 cup boiling water over the herbs, and let the tea steep for 10 minutes, or until it reaches the desired strength. Strain, then sip.

Infusions are stronger than teas but are prepared similarly — just let the herbs steep for twice as long. A standard dose of an infusion is 1 cup three times daily.

Decoctions, which are stronger than infusions, require that your boil (rather than steep) the herbs. Decoctions are made from roots, rhizomes and barks — plant parts whose active constituents are more difficult to extract than those of flowers, leaves or stems. To make a decoction, use 1 teaspoon of the dried herb, broken into pieces or powdered (or 1 tablespoon of fresh herb in small pieces) per cup of water. Place the herb in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and gently simmer for 20 to 40 minutes. Strain the decoction while it’s still hot. The standard dose is 1 cup twice daily.


The unpleasant sensation of heartburn is caused by stomach acid backing up into the esophagus. This can be caused by a relaxed or damaged valve between the esophagus and the stomach.

Most people experience occasional heartburn from eating spicy foods. Problems arise, however, when the condition becomes chronic. The lining of the esophagus is not protected from acid like the stomach, and it can become inflamed, especially with continued irritation over time.

Two supplements can help relieve heartburn. First, try deglycyrrhizinated licorice root extract (DGL), from Glycyrrhiza glabra. This can help reduce inflammation and soothe tissues. This type of licorice is preferable, because it has less potential for causing high blood pressure than other licorice preparations. Follow manufacturer’s instructions for DGL capsules or chewable tablets.

You also might find relief from taking calcium carbonate supplements, which work as antacid lozenges. Take 600 to 1,200 mg daily.

Avoiding spicy foods in an obvious solution, but many other foods also can cause heartburn. These include fried foods, high-fat foods, chocolate, alcohol, orange juice, tomato sauce, coffee, tea and carbonated sodas.

Source: Hobbs, Christopher and Elson Haas, M.D. Vitamins for Dummies. Foster City, California: IDG Books Worldwide, 1999.


Looking for a fun new way to take your herbs — one that’s especially popular with the kids? Try herbalist Rosemary Gladstar’s Jump for Joy Balls, found in her book Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal (Storey Books, 2001). To make, grind equal parts raisins, dried apricots and walnuts (alternatively, you can use equal parts nut butter, such as almond or peanut, and honey) in a food processor or grinder. Add the powdered herb of your choice, in the dosage you need, stir and roll the mixture into small balls. Roll the balls in shredded coconut, and store them in the refrigerator.

Powdered herbs, such as echinacea (Echinacea spp.) and eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), work well in the Jump for Joy Balls.


Common names: Skullcap, blue skullcap, scullcap, mad dog weed

Latin name: Scutellaria lateriflora

Family: Lamiaceae

Part used: Leaves

Medicinal uses: Skullcap is used as a mild treatment for anxiety and insomnia. It also helps support the nervous system. European and Russian studies have shown the herb to have tranquilizing effects. Skullcap is included in many European over-the-counter sleep aids. Herbs for Health editorial adviser Christopher Hobbs likes to use skullcap for patients with the nervous tension and irritability associated with premenstrual syndrome.

Forms commonly used: Tea, tincture, capsules, tablets

Side effects: According to the Botanical Safety Handbook (CRC Research Press, 1997), skullcap is a Class 1 herb, meaning it is safe when used appropriately. No adverse effects associated with skullcap tea have been reported; some users of large amounts of skullcap tincture have reported confusion and twitching. Use the herb in recommended amounts.

Notes: To make skullcap tea, steep 1 to 2 teaspoons of the dried herb in 1 cup of water for 10 to 15 minutes; strain and drink.

Skullcap is native to North America and still grows wild in the United States and Canada. It often is found in damp areas that get ample sun, such as along riverbanks.

Skullcap was used traditionally by American Indians for menstrual problems and in purification ceremonies. In the 19th century, the herb became well-known in the United States as a treatment for rabies; hence the plant’s nickname “mad dog weed.”

There are approximately 100 species in the Scutellaria genus. Another commonly used variety, Baikal skullcap (S. baicalensis), is the Chinese drug known as huang-qin. This variety grows in China and Russia.

Skullcap is a member of the mint family, but has no scent.


The nutrition experts at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America created the following recipe, designed to boost cancer patients’ immune systems and help patients endure the often-grueling treatments. It’s also a tasty dish useful for those of us trying to incorporate more essential fatty acids into our diets.


Serves 4

Four 4-ounce portions salmon
2 teaspoons olive oil
Salt and white pepper, to taste
4 blue corn tortillas, chopped very fine

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush salmon with olive oil. Season fish lightly with salt and pepper. Dip one side of salmon into blue corn tortillas. Place corn side down in sauté pan and cook for 4 to 5 minutes over low heat, until tortillas are crisp. Flip salmon onto a baking sheet and bake for about 8 minutes, or until fish is done.

Terms to Know

Candida: A common but difficult-to-diagnose health condition in which the yeasts that normally inhabit the body (particularly the intestinal tract) proliferate, causing a variety of symptoms, in- cluding fatigue, digestive problems and muscle weakness .

Chromium: A nutrient that plays a key role in insulin synthesis, and maintenance of normal blood sugar levels. The supplement has been shown in research studies to help type 2 diabetics lower their blood sugar .

Harpagoside: An inflammation-fighting compound found in the roots of devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens). Studies show the herb can reduce arthritis pain and improve mobility .

Natto: A stringy, strong-smelling soy condiment made from soybeans that are steamed and then fermented with salt, sugar, yeast and the rice straw bacterium. Natto has a strong cheeselike flavor and popular in Japan, where it often is served over rice for breakfast .

Saponins: Compounds found in astragalus (Astragalus membrana-ceus) that are believed to have positive effects on the immune system. Astragalus has been shown to improve immune function in several ways; the herb is a good addition to an immune-boosting regime .

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC): The hallucinatory psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Marijuana contains anywhere from 5 to 20 percent THC; hemp, a distant cousin, contains less than 0.3 percent. The trace amounts are as harmless as the trace amounts of opiates in poppy seeds .