Tinctures, which are easy to take and readily absorbed by the body, are plant medicines made most often from herbs steeped in alcohol or an alcohol-and-water mixture. Alcohol is efficient at extracting an herb’s active constituents and preserving them; tinctures can be stored for as long as two years, preferably in dark bottles and away from sunlight.
Tinctures are readily available for purchase at health-food stores and some drugstores and supermarkets. They may also be prepared at home using a grain alcohol of at least 80 proof, such as vodka. Do not use methyl alcohol, denatured alcohol or rubbing alcohol because all are either toxic or unpalatable (avoid all contact with methanol). Although most tinctures are made with vodka, you can also use other spirits, such as whisky, rum or gin. For an alcohol-free tincture, you can use glycerin or vinegar to extract the plant properties.
To make a tincture, use 4 ounces finely chopped or ground dried herbs. Put them in a container that can be tightly sealed. Add 1 pint of 80 proof vodka or other grain alcohol and tightly seal the container. (If you use fresh herbs, such as a whole plant, use 190 proof grain alcohol, otherwise the water in the fresh herbs will dilute the tincture too much.) Store in a dark place for two weeks, and shake well each day. Then, pour the mixture through a wine press lined with a muslin bag, and press into a jug. Pour the strained liquid into dark, sterilized bottles. Label the bottle with the name of the herb and when you made it. If you like, you can include information such as part of the herb used, whether it was fresh or dry, and what percentage of alcohol was used.
You can tincture many herbs. To get started, take a look at what is in your garden. It makes sense to start with herbs that are easy to get and have varied medicinal uses. Lemon balm, for example, is an antiviral and mood-elevating herb. You can also tincture peppermint, spearmint, lavender, echinacea, skullcap and many other herbs. (Try our Sage Tincture recipe to fight off pesky colds.)
Did you know? The usual ratio for tincturing is 1 ounce of dried herbs to 5 ounces of alcohol. Sometimes a 1:10 concentration is used instead.
Tinctures may be taken straight or added to a cup of hot water with a little honey or fruit juice, if desired. You can also just pop a dropperful in your glass of water, or, if the taste repulses you, put it inside a capsule. The standard dosage is 1 teaspoon of the tincture three times daily, but check with your health-care provider if you’re unsure about doses.
Many herbalists believe that tinctures—or liquid herb extracts—are more quickly assimilated by the body than other herb forms. But when you take tinctures can affect how well they work. In most cases, it’s best to take them between meals, when absorption isn’t slowed by food.
There are a few exceptions, however. It’s better to take bitter herbs just before meals to improve digestion and to take sleep-aid herbs before going to bed.
• Barberry: Before meals
• Gentian: Before meals
• Ginseng: Between meals
• Milk Thistle: Between meals
• Peppermint: After meals
• St. John’s Wort: Between meals
• Valerian: Before bed