Primer: An Introduction to Herbal Medicine Techniques

Medicine forms

• Herbal teas offer one of the easiest ways to use medicinal herbs. You can grow, harvest, and dry your own tea herbs and make your own blends, or you can readily find both individual herbs or tea blends in bulk at health-food stores and other outlets. To keep them fresh for as long as possible, store dried herbs away from direct sunlight, preferably in dark containers that close tightly.

The main disadvantage of teas is that not all herb constituents are water-soluble, so it’s wise to consult the literature before you begin to brew. Varro Tyler’s Honest Herbal (Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1993) is a good place to start.

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 tea ball, muslin bag, or strainer. Put it in a cup, pour 1 cup boiling water over the herbs, and let 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 you boil, rather than steep, the herbs. Decoctions are made most often from roots, rhizomes, and barks, whose active constituents are more difficult to extract than those of flowers, leaves, or stems and require more heat.

To make a decoction, use 1 teaspoon of the dried herb, broken into pieces or powdered, or 3 teaspoons of the fresh herb in small pieces, for every cup of water. Place in a noncorrodible 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 three times daily. Make as many as three doses at a time, and store the leftover in the refrigerator.

• Tinctures are easy to take and readily absorbed by the body. Most often, they are made from herbs steeped in alcohol or an alcohol-water mixture. Alcohol is efficient at extracting an herb’s active constituents and at preserving them; tinctures can be stored for as long as two years, preferably in dark bottles away from sunlight. Tinctures may be taken straight or added to a cup of hot water with a little honey or fruit juice if desired.

• Capsules and tablets are made from herb powders. Depending on the type of herb, dried preparations may have enteric coatings, a treatment that allows the herb to pass through the stomach unaltered and to the

Dosage and safety

In Stress and Natural Healing (Botanica, 1997), Chris­topher Hobbs writes that ­determining the proper dos­age of herbs and herbal preparations is extremely ­important: The dose determines whether an herbal preparation will have no ­effect, a substantial therapeutic effect, or a toxic effect.

But 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 very 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 to excess. 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.

When starting a regime that includes an herbal preparation, Hobbs advises, use common sense. Check for individual sensitivity by starting with a very low dose. Although rare, it is possible for some people 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 tell your health-care practitioner. Physicians often aren’t trained in herbal medicine, so most won’t be able to tell you about herbal toxicity, side effects, or cautions. You may find a professional herbalist in your area by contacting the American Herbalist Guild, (303) 423-8800.

Most commercial products containing herbs use ingredients that are not toxic but there are a few exceptions. Member companies of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), a trade organization for herbal manufacturers, follow a code of ethics and agree to carefully monitor the quality and identification of the ingredients in their products. If you want to know whether the manufacturer of your herbal product is an AHPA member, call the organization’s national office at (301) 951-3204.

A glossary

Below are definitions of words occurring in articles in this issue of Herbs for Health.
Refer to this glossary if you come across words you’re not familiar with as you read.

adaptogen: a substance that builds resistance to stress by strengthening the immune system, nervous system, and/or glandular system
alkaloid: one of a large group of nitrogen-containing alkaline substances found in plants; usually very bitter and pharmacologically active
Alzheimer’s disease: a progressive, usually irreversible loss of intellectual function due to widespread destruction of brain cells
analgesic: relieving pain
antibiotic: a substance produced by a microorganism that is capable of killing or inhibiting the growth of bacteria or other microorganisms
antioxidant: a compound that prevents cell damage by free radicals
Beta-carotene: a pigment found in milk, some yellow and dark green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, and carrots, and in fruits such as cantaloupes, peaches, and apricots. The body converts beta-carotene to vitamin A, which is essential for normal eyesight, healthy tissue, a strong immune system, and bone development.
bioflavonoid: any of the flavonoids (a class of substances widely found in flowers, leaves, and fruits) with biological activity in mammals
chemotherapy: the treatment of disease by chem­ical agents
decoction: extraction by boiling of the soluble constituents of tough plant material such as bark or woody twigs
dementia: mental deterioration due to organic causes
DHEA: dehydroepiandrosterone, a natural hormone manufactured by the adrenal gland. It is the major androgen precursor in females.
diabetes mellitus: a chronic disorder in which the body is unable to utilize carbohydrates properly, either because of a lack of the hormone insulin (Type I diabetes) or because of inability to use insulin (Type II diabetes)
endocrine system: a system of ductless glands, including the thyroid, pituitary, and adrenal, whose secretions, released directly into the blood, have a critical impact on physiological activity
free radicals: unstable compounds that scavenge oxygen from healthy cells, often destroying them. Free radical damage plays a role in virtually every major chronic disease and is thought to be a driving force of human aging.
hypericin: the active compound in St.-John’s-wort that accounts for its antidepressant activity
influenza: a contagious disease caused by a family of viruses known as the myxoviruses influenzae. Three types of influenza viruses have been ­identified. Type A is epidemic in nature, usually concentrates in large population centers, and is more difficult to treat because it is constantly changing. Types B and C are relatively stable.
infusion: extraction of the soluble constituents of fresh or dried herb material by pouring boiling water over it and steeping it, covered, to the strength desired
insomnia: a prolonged or occasional inability to obtain adequate sleep
integrase inhibitors: HIV medications that work by blocking enzymes that allow viruses to invade cells and integrate their DNA with cells’ DNA
inulin: a complex, indigestible sugar that is a good source of fiber
nervous system: a complex system, made up of the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves, responsible for communication between all parts of the body and the coordination of physical activities
paclitaxel: the antitumor agent iso­lated from the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia) used in the treatment of ovarian cancer
partera: folk medicine midwife, a role historically reserved for women
sedative nervines: herbs that reduce anxiety and soothe the nervous system
soporific nervines: herbs that help one fall asleep faster, wake less during the night, and achieve a deeper, more restful sleep
tonic nervines: herbs that nourish and support the nervous system
virus: a disease-causing agent, regarded as either an extremely ­simple microorganism or an extremely complex molecule, that can grow and reproduce only in living cells of plants, humans, or other ­animals

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