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Herbal Medicine at Home: Be Your Own Herbalist

Use this beginner’s guide to make basic herbal medicine that is safe and effective for your whole family.
By Michelle Schoffro Cook
July/August 2014
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You can create safe and effective herbal medicines with our beginner's guide.
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For those of us interested in both herbal medicine and self-sufficiency, creating our own herbal health- and body-care products is appealing. After all, it can save money, improve our families’ health and control exactly what goes into our herbal products. But while making homemade herbal teas is easy enough, it can be intimidating to take it to the next level—we want to make sure we’re making safe and effective choices for ourselves and our families.

Fear not! Making useful tinctures, oils and salves is easier than you might think and can quickly become part of your natural health repertoire. Stock these 13 top herbs in your home apothecary and use this step-by-step guide to making basic herbal products, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming your family’s own home herbalist. Note: Always discuss herbal treatments with a qualified medical professional, particularly if using in combination with prescription medicines, if pregnant or nursing, or for children.

Home Herbalism Recipes

Basic Skin-Healing Salve Recipe
Echinacea Tincture Recipe

Stock Your Herbal Apothecary

With literally thousands of herbs with medicinal properties, it’s difficult to narrow down which to keep on hand at home. I’ve selected these 13 herbs for their safety and well-rounded medicinal profiles. By stocking these herbs, you’ll ensure a diverse stash for a variety of health needs. Most of these herbs, such as dandelion, echinacea, garlic, peppermint and St. John’s wort, are easy to grow and can be used fresh. However, many herbs’ medicinal qualities are enhanced when dried, so consider using dried herbs for medicinal purposes. Please note the scientific names, as numerous plants are sometimes sold under the same common name.

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius): Several species are sold as ginseng, so be sure to check the species name for the one you purchase. Ginseng has long been known as an energy booster due to its status as an “adaptogen.” Adaptogens are a specific class of herbs that help our bodies adapt to stress in many ways and can even affect the levels of natural substances (such as hormones) in our bodies. In other words, they help our bodies cope.

Recommended uses: Make dried or fresh ginseng root into a tea; ginseng is also effective as a tincture. 

Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa): This is the go-to herb for women experiencing hormonal imbalances during perimenopause (the decade prior to menopause), menopause and postmenopause. It is especially effective for hot flashes.

Recommended uses: Black cohosh root is most effectively used as a tincture.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis): Best known for healing the skin, calendula is useful as a remedy for many conditions and ailments including skin irritation, burns, bruises and wounds.

Recommended uses: Use calendula petals to flavor and color broth, butter or cheese. Make a strong tea from the flower petals and use as a compress for minor burns or wounds. Add infused calendula oil to salves to soothe skin rashes and irritations; use by itself on swelling or bruises. You can also make a calendula tincture and add it to teas, baths or cosmetic solutions.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): Many parts of the dandelion plant are useful for improved health. Dandelion leaves may be among the world’s best kidney and urinary tract cleansers, and its root is excellent for liver health. Note: If you’re allergic to ragweed, use dandelion with caution at first.

Recommended uses: Eat young dandelion greens as an addition to mixed salad greens or sautéed with olive oil and lemon juice. Harvest roots from large plants and dry roots in an arid place for about two weeks. Roots can be eaten steamed along with other root vegetables. Dried roots can be made into a tea (add dandelion leaves, as well as peppermint for taste), ground for a coffee substitute or turned into a tincture.   

Echinacea (Echinacea, various species): Most people grab echinacea when they are suffering from a cold, but it is also a great herb to support lymphatic system health. The lymphatic system is a network of nodes, tubules, fluid and glands that “sweeps” away toxins and byproducts of inflammation to keep tissues healthy. Echinacea can help reduce congestion and swelling and help lymph fluid move better.

Recommended uses: Echinacea is excellent in an immune and lymphatic health-boosting tincture. You can also make a tea out of the dried root.

Garlic (Allium sativum): Garlic is one of the world’s most versatile herbs. It can help fend off viruses, lower high blood pressure, prevent hardening of the arteries and lessen cholesterol buildup in the heart. Thanks to many studies on garlic’s medicinal properties, we also know it is antibacterial and antifungal.

Recommended uses: Eat garlic raw (or crushed for 10 minutes before cooking) or make it into a tasty culinary oil (either enjoy it fresh or refrigerate garlic oil immediately and eat within five days). You can also make garlic tincture.

German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla): Among the best-researched medicinal herbs now used in Europe, German chamomile is used in dozens of ways to treat inflammation and irritation of the skin, mouth, gums and respiratory tract; to relieve spasms and inflammation of the intestinal tract; and as a mild sleep aid. Note: If you’re allergic to ragweed, use chamomile with caution at first.

Recommended uses: Add to skin salves and oils to treat inflammation or irritation; make a strong tea or oil and add to the bath for its calming effects; drink as a tasty calming tea.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba): Ginkgo is one of the best herbs for overall brain health. According to Michael Murray, a naturopathic doctor and author of Dr. Murray’s Total Body Tune-Up, ginkgo is helpful in warding off cerebral vascular insufficiency (insufficient blood flow to the brain), Alzheimer’s disease, glaucoma and vascular fragility.

Recommended uses: Ginkgo is most effectively used in tincture form. You can also make ginkgo tea using fresh or dried leaves.

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum): An effective herb for the body’s natural detoxification systems, milk thistle is an excellent liver tonic. Renowned herbalist James Duke, author of The Green Pharmacy, recommends milk thistle to alleviate indigestion and treat jaundice, cirrhosis, hepatitis and liver poisoning. Note: If you’re allergic to ragweed, use milk thistle with caution at first.

Recommended uses: Milk thistle makes a tasty tea, alone or with other herbs. You can also make it into a tincture.

Peppermint (Mentha x piperita): Versatile peppermint is helpful for bad breath, sinus congestion, nausea, vomiting and digestive upset. It makes a delicious tea on its own but also improves the taste of many less-than-tasty herbal teas.

Recommended uses: Peppermint is excellent taken as a tea and can be made into a tincture. Peppermint is also useful in oils or salves for stimulating or energizing skin-care products.

Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens): Duke said it best: “An old man’s best friend may be his saw palmetto...I figure a guy owes one helluva debt of gratitude to anything that, all by itself, averts prostate problems, may keep his hair from falling out, possibly bucks up his and his wife’s libido…” Enough said!

Recommended uses: Saw palmetto is most effectively used as a tincture. Its active ingredients are not water-soluble, so teas are probably not effective.

St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum): This plant has been shown in many studies to be effective for mild to moderate depression, making it a great herb to keep handy for the winter blues, hormone-linked mood imbalances, or periods of sadness. Of course, if you’re suffering any type of severe depression or taking any medications you should always consult a physician.

Recommended uses: St. John’s wort oil made from the flowers of the plant is excellent for treating bruises, swelling, hemorrhoids, scars and sprains. Avoid sun exposure for a few hours after using St. John’s wort oil on your skin as it can cause photosensitivity. You can also make St. John’s wort into a tincture.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa): This yellow spice adds delicious flavor to meals while conferring a huge array of health benefits, all thanks to curcumin—its primary active ingredient. Curcumin is a proven anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effective against inflammation-related pain disorders such as arthritis. Research at the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the University of California at Los Angeles found that curcumin protects the brain against amyloid plaques, which have been linked to brain diseases including Alzheimer’s disease.

Recommended uses: Turmeric is delicious eaten fresh, makes an interesting addition to herbal teas, and can even be used as a body scrub or in salves and lotions.

How to Use Herbs

Tea time: infusions and decoctions

Making herbal tea may seem fairly straightforward, but if you want to reap the most medicinal value from your herbs, you’ll want to know more than just how to dunk a tea bag in hot water.

There are two main forms of herbal “tea”: infusions and decoctions. Infusions are the more common form in which herbs are literally infused in hot water (usually one heaping teaspoon dried or one tablespoon fresh per cup of hot water). Although you can make a delicious infusion with fresh herbs, minerals and other phytochemicals may be made more accessible by drying. Simply bring water to a boil, then remove from heat and pour over herbs. Let steep for 15 to 60 minutes or more, depending on the herb—the more herbs and longer it steeps, the stronger. Let your senses guide you. This is the ideal method for extracting the medicinal compounds in most berries, flowers and leaves.

To extract the medicinal compounds from seeds, roots or stems, you’ll want to make a decoction, a method of boiling herbs and allowing them to simmer, bringing out the medicinal benefits of these tougher plant constituents. To make a decoction, put three tablespoons dried herb in a saucepan, cover with cold water, and slowly heat the water to a simmer. Allow the decoction to simmer, covered, for 20 to 60 minutes.

So what if you want to make an herbal tea that combines roots, berries and leaves, or some other combination? Simply start with making a decoction in a pot on the stove. Put any roots, seeds or dried berries in the pot, bring to a boil and then simmer for an hour. Turn off the heat and add any fresh berries, flowers and leaves; allow to brew for an additional 10 to 20 minutes. Drink all infusions and decoctions within 36 hours to preserve their medicinal benefits.

Infused oil: massages, baths and more

When herbs are infused in oil, many of their healing properties are transferred to the oil. Infused oils are excellent for massage or as a basis for balms and salves, which we’ll discuss in greater detail later.

Infused oils are simple to make. You can use nearly any type of vegetable oil or carrier oil, but avoid oils that cannot tolerate heat, such as flax oil. I prefer olive oil or sweet almond oil, as both can be warmed to encourage the transfer of healing compounds from the herb matter to the oil. 

There are two methods of making an infused oil: A cold method, best for flowers but also fine for leaves; and the warm method, better for stems, roots or seeds. To make a cold infusion, add fresh flowers or leaves to a glass jar with a lid. Add your oil, making sure all plant material is completely submerged in oil (to prevent mold growth). Allow your oil and herbs to rest for two weeks, shaking periodically to encourage the infusion process. After two weeks, strain herbs from oil, squeezing out any remaining oil with clean hands. Use this oil for a massage, skin-care or bath oil; or use it as a medicinal base for balms and salves. Do not use this oil internally. It will keep in a lidded jar or bottle for up to a year.

To make a warm infusion, place your herbal matter with enough oil to completely cover it in a small slow cooker and allow it to “cook” on low heat for at least a few days, but preferably a week (there’s no need to stir). After your oil is infused, strain the herbs from the oil, squeezing out any remaining oil with clean hands. Use this oil for a massage, skin-care or bath oil; or use it as a medicinal base for balms and salves. Do not use this oil internally.

Salves: soothe the skin

Salves are herbal ointments made by thickening oil infusions made with medicinal herbs. To make a salve, put a saucepan over low heat and add a cup of infused oil (strained of herbal material). Next, add two tablespoons of pure beeswax, melting slowly over low heat to prevent overheating the oil. Stir regularly. As soon as the beeswax is melted and the oil well-incorporated, remove from heat. Pour into small, shallow jars or tins. Let cool undisturbed to allow the ointment to set before sealing it with a lid. Use for skin irritations and other skin conditions. Salves will typically last about a year covered and kept in a cool, dark place.

Tincture: the ultimate herbal medicine

Tinctures are alcohol extracts of fresh or dried herbs. They are extremely effective at preserving the plant’s active constituents. You can make a tincture from roots, leaves, seeds, stems or flowers—whichever part of the plant is used for medicinal purposes. Always make sure you are using the correct part of the plant, as some components may be toxic if used incorrectly.

To make an herbal tincture, finely chop fresh or dried herb. Place in a glass quart jar. Top with vodka or pure grain alcohol (Everclear)—some experts recommend using vodka with dried herbs and Everclear with fresh herbs—making sure all plant matter is submerged beneath the alcohol to prevent mold growth. Allow the mixture to sit for two weeks, shaking daily to encourage extraction. After two weeks, strain contents using a cheesecloth-lined sieve. Once the liquid has gone through the sieve, pull up the the cheesecloth and, using clean hands, carefully wring out any remaining liquid in the plant.

Although tinctures are excellent herbal medicines, there are circumstances when they are best avoided because of their alcohol content. These include pregnancy, severe liver impairment, diabetes or alcoholism. For most other circumstances, the small amount of alcohol is fine, but always check with your doctor if you are unsure. Also check with a local herbalist before using tinctures with kids—some are fine in small doses while others aren’t.


Safety First!

Determining the proper dosage of herbs and herbal preparations is of the utmost importance: The dose determines whether an herbal preparation will have no effect, a substantial therapeutic effect or a toxic effect. It is vital to know the nature of the herb or herb formula before deciding on dose. Herbs such as pokeweed, which can cause vomiting and stupor if misused, are harsh and have a narrow range of safety. Others such as peppermint have a wide range of safety. However, even safe herbs can produce unwanted side effects if used incorrectly. For instance, psyllium husk is a safe and effective source of dietary fiber when taken in appropriate quantities. Too much psyllium, however, can bring on painful diarrhea.

We advise all home practitioners of herbal medicine to consult a respected book before making or using herbal medicines. We recommend Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide by Rosemary Gladstar, The Green Pharmacy by James Duke, Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine by Steven Foster and Rebecca L. Johnson and Hands-On Healing Remedies by Stephanie L. Tourles.

When starting a regime that includes an herbal preparation, use common sense, says renowned herbalist Christopher Hobbs. Check for individual sensitivity by starting with a very low dose. Although rare, it is possible for an individual to have an adverse, idosyncratic reaction to an herb that is considered safe. If you experience symptoms such as rash, headache, upset stomach, nausea or diarrhea, call your health-care practitioner. Additionally, some herbs can interact or interfere with pharmaceutical medications. If you are taking medications, be sure to discuss any herbal medicines with your health-care practitioner. Physicians often aren’t trained in herbal medicine, so many won’t be able to tell you about herbal toxicity, side effects or cautions. Find a professional herbalist in your area by contacting the American Herbalists Guild.


Michelle Schoffro Cook is the best-selling author of 60 Seconds to Slim and Weekend Wonder Detox, as well as the upcoming book The Probiotic Miracle. Visit Dr. Michelle Cook's website and healthysurvivalist.com to learn more about her work.


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