Mother Earth Living

Herbal Tinctures for Health and Well-Being

Photo by Adobe Stock/chamillew

Crafting stellar herbal remedies in your kitchen that surpass anything you can buy in stores is easy and fun. The basic method simply entails packing herbs in a jar, covering them with something, such as alcohol, vinegar, or honey, and then straining them after a few weeks. Alternatively, they can be simmered on the stove and then strained.

Here, we’re going to talk about tinctures, a liquid extract made with alcohol. Alcohol is as good as water, and sometimes better, for extracting most plant constituents, and it makes a far more concentrated product. Instead of drinking a whole cup of tea, you take just 1/5 to 1 teaspoon of tincture. Dilute your tincture in a little bit of water (or whatever drink you like) when you take it, because the high alcohol content can burn your mouth. Alcohol extracts have a long shelf life — 5 to 10 years! — and they do a fine job preserving fresh plant properties that get lost in the drying process. They absorb rapidly into the body, bypassing digestion.

In typical doses of 1 to 3 milliliters, you’ll get very little alcohol effect from your herbal tincture. However, some people with alcohol issues (including addiction, allergy/sensitivity, special diets, and religious concerns) may want to avoid alcohol entirely. Instead of tinctures, herbal remedies including glycerites, vinegar, oxymels, powders, capsules, and teas all are effective ways to make use of plant medicine.

Tricky Tinctures

The alcohol proofs (percentages) offered in my recipes work as a general rule for most herbs (see Making Sense of Proof and Alcohol Percentages). However, some herbs and constituents require a different treatment. Research individual plants for specific recommendations, but here are some general exceptions and considerations:

Mushrooms: Polysaccharides (the complex starches in mushrooms that support the immune system) extract better via hot water decoction than in a typical tincture. You can cheat the system by doing a double-extraction tincture. This is ideal for mushrooms, which have an additional confounding factor of chitin fiber blocking the availability of many useful constituents; several hours of hot water extraction helps break that chitin down to release the mushroom’s constituents.

Resins: Resins repel water and require high-proof alcohol of 70 to 95 percent (151- to 190-proof) for optimal extraction. Pure resins include pine resin/pitch, boswellia, and myrrh. Pure resin tinctures are finicky in blends, sometimes precipitating out into a resin glob at the bottom of the bottle. High-resin herbs (which are not quite so finicky but still do best with relatively high alcohol extractions) include evergreen needles, poplar buds, and turmeric root.

Mucilage: Mucilage repels alcohol and extracts best via cold water, though hot-water extracts also work. High-mucilage herbs include marshmallow and slippery elm. I usually use tea or powder rather than alcohol extracts of these herbs, though a low-alcohol (30 percent or less) tincture or syrup offers some benefits for formulation.

Minerals: Alcohol doesn’t extract minerals, though a double-extraction tincture would. Double extraction simply means straining the marc (the dregs or leftover herb), decocting it, and then adding the tea to the tincture. Alternatively, some herbalists make a separate decoction and tincture to blend together. Vinegar is a better solvent for minerals, and so are super-infused or decocted tea and food forms. Mineral-rich herbs include nettle leaf and oatstraw.

Tannins: Tannins provide astringent, tightening, and toning activities. They love to bind to alkaloids, minerals, and other constituents, precipitating out into chunks and making your tincture gloppy and less effective. Add 10 percent food-grade glycerin to high-tannin plant tinctures (or formulas that include high-tannin plants), such as most barks, bacopa, and yellow dock, to stabilize them and improve their shelf life. High-tannin tinctures and formulas still have a shorter shelf life, but the glycerin extends it from a few months to as long as a few years.

Holy Basil: Tinctures and Beyond

Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum or tenuiflorum), part of the mint family (Lamiaceae), is a delicious, aromatic herb that excels at relaxing the mind and body, improving cognition, and lifting the spirits. In addition, it also helps lower blood sugar, modulates cortisol, decreases inflammation, improves digestion, and helps strengthen the immune system to protect against common pathogens. It’s best in tea, tincture, vinegar, honey, capsule, glycerin, hydrosol, water, and seltzer.

Photo by Adobe Stock/shaiith

Heat-Loving Aromatic

Holy basil (also called tulsi) jumps for joy when everything else in your garden bows in submission to hot-as-Hades midsummer temperatures, and begins rapidly producing useful medicine, provided you’re watering it enough in good, well-drained garden soil. This plant comes from India, and several cultivars are used somewhat interchangeably. ‘Kapoor’ or ‘Temperate’ tulsi thrives and produces best in temperate gardens. If your seed catalog offers one type and doesn’t specify the cultivar, it’s probably ‘Kapoor,’ which may also self-seed. Some types are perennial in warm zones or if brought indoors. Also called sacred basil and O. tenuifolium, ‘Kapoor’ tulsi produces nonstop flowers, which you can trim regularly to use for tea, water, and medicine, and to encourage growth.

Calm-Energy Zen

Inhaling and consuming this aromatic herb reminds me of doing yoga, meditating, or surrounding myself with incense. The intense, sweet flavor includes hints of clove, mint, and basil. As an adaptogen and nervine, holy basil both calms and energizes the spirit, quells anxiety and grief, and brings clarity and focus to the mind. As a cortisol modulator, it not only eases stress but also lowers blood sugar, bad cholesterol, and triglycerides, and reduces sugar cravings. As an anti-inflammatory COX-2 inhibitor, it helps fight many chronic diseases and eases pain, especially when combined with other anti-inflammatory herbs, such as turmeric, ginger, rosemary, and ashwagandha.

Great Protector

Holy basil is associated with the Hindu god Vishnu and is used for medicinal protection in Ayurveda. It fortifies the immune system to fight infection, increases digestive function and juices, and protects against ulcers and radiation. It may stimulate anti-cancer activity, and it fights both oxidative stress and inflammation with its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Holy basil could take a spot in almost every garden — it’s that kind of plant. As a flower essence, it brings sacred sensuality.

Safe for Most People

Holy basil is safe for adults and children, and rarely interacts with medications, though some may find its digestive effects too stimulating. If you’re prone to hypoglycemia, take it with meals or lightly sweetened with honey. A few people paradoxically feel anxious with holy basil, or simply don’t like it. 

Harvesting, Preparing, & Using Holy Basil

Regularly trim the top 1/2 to 2/3 of the flowers and leaves, which will keep the plant happy, producing more vital growth. Use fresh or dried.

  • Part Used: Aerial in flower.
  • Tea: 1 teaspoon dried herb per cup, 1 to 3 cups daily.
  • Tincture: 1 to 3 milliliters, 1 to 3 times daily, solo or in formula. Fresh 1-to-2 ratio in 95 percent alcohol (best) or dried 1-to-5 ratio in 50 to 60 percent alcohol.
  • Honey, Oxymel, Glycerite, Syrup: 1 teaspoon as needed (heavenly!).
  • Capsules/Powder: 500 to 2,000 milligrams crude herb daily.
  • Other uses: Cordial, infused water, seltzer/soda, hydrosol.
  • Holy basil and lemon balm: Calm energy, mood lift, anti-anxiety, great for workaholics to de-stress and before bedtime
  • Holy basil and rose: Gladden the heart, ease stress, lift spirits

Holy Basil Beverages

Holy basil’s fabulous flavor and nerve-soothing, stress-busting properties make it a favorite beverage herb. Use it dried in tea. Fresh sprigs (including those blossoms you trim off to encourage growth) can be steeped in hot water, cold water, or seltzer — one of the great joys of summer! Try holy basil solo, or consider these delightful garden blends:

More Ways to Use Calming Herbs

Simple tinctures: All these plants make excellent simple (single-ingredient) tinctures, ideally from the fresh plant material, which is far more potent. Choose the one best-suited for you, or blend them into a formula. Fresh plant vinegars, oxymels, or glycerites can also be used. For calm energy, also consider ashwagandha or milky oat seed. For gentle sedation, try passionflower, blue vervain, or low-dose lavender.

Additional teas: Along with holy basil beverages, consider chamomile, lemon balm–mint, or lemon balm-linden tea.

Aromatherapy: Lavender or rose essential oil, hydrosol, glycerite, or potpourri helps bring things down a notch when diffused, left to waft through the air, or rubbed on the skin.

Flower essences: Use betony, blue vervain, dandelion, lavender, lemon balm, skullcap, valerian, and others. Take a few drops on the tongue, add to water or tea, mix into tinctures, apply topically, or spray in the air.

Making Sense of Proofs and Alcohol Percentages

Proof       % Alcohol               Examples                   Best For

190               95%                     Ethanol                        Fresh plants, resins                        
                                                 (grain, grape,               (preferred), diluting with
                                                  sugarcane)                  water for other % alcohol

151               75%                     Grain alcohol,              Fresh plants, resins

100               50%                     Vodka                          Dried plants, acceptable

                                                                                       for fresh plants

80                  40%                     Vodka, brandy              Topical liniments, acceptable   
                                                                                        for dried and fresh plants

Learn More:

Excerpted from Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies © by Maria Noël Groves. Photography © by Stacey Cramp. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.

Expert herbalist Maria Noël Groves has advice for budding herb gardeners: grow exactly what your body needs! In Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies, Groves provides 23 specially tailored garden plans for addressing the most common health needs, along with simple recipes for using each group of herbs. Whether the need is for headache relief, immune support, stress relief, or a daily tonic, readers will learn the three to six herbs that are most effective and how to plant, harvest, and care for each one. All of Groves’ plant suggestions emphasize safe, effective, easy-to-grow herbs that provide abundant harvests and can be planted in containers or garden beds.Order from the MOTHER EARTH LIVING Store or by calling 800-234-3368.

  • Published on Jun 4, 2019
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