The healing qualities of plants have fascinated me since I was a little kid. During summers with my grandparents on their farm, Grandma and I would spend hours in the garden, hands buried up to our elbows in the dark, rich soil. I loved watching and listening to her as she selected which plants to harvest that day, holding each one up as she recited various vitamins, minerals and health benefits we were to receive from it. Gnarly roots, aromatic leaves and flowers—even stems seemed extra special as they were picked and prepared with care. Some of the herbs went directly into the stew-pot for dinner (yum yum!). Some were steeped and enjoyed as an after-dinner tea. Some were hung up to dry for use in the family medicine chest.
Today, I find herbs even more fascinating. I get downright excited to share with people just how amazing plants are for healing and how easily they can be incorporated into everyday life. Making your own tinctures is a cost-effective, convenient way to harness the healing power of plants for yourself. This article is intended to give you an introduction to herbal tinctures and an overview of how to make them yourself. It is not intended to be an exhaustive how-to guide, but rather to spark your interest in learning more. It is written in a question/answer format so it can easily referenced as you go through the process of making the tinctures. Enjoy.
What are herbal tinctures?
Simply put, tinctures are alcohol-based plant medicines.
Benefits of Tinctures:
- They are extremely stable and have a long shelf-life. Alcohol acts as a preservative making tinctures remarkably shelf-stable. If made and stored properly, tinctures will maintain their medicinal potency for years.
- They are easy to administer.
- Very small dosages can be therapeutic since the medicine is very concentrated. (Usually 30-60 drops up to 3 times a day for an adult.)
- Dosages can be quickly adjusted up or down.
- Tinctures are able to extract compounds from fibrous and woody herbs, roots and resins that would be otherwise difficult to gain the benefits from.
- Alcohol acts as a carrier for the chemical constituents of the herbs causing them to be rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream when you take them. The body can absorb up to 98% of the components in an herbal tincture because absorption begins immediately in the mouth.
What is the difference between a tincture and an extract?
I get this question all the time—along with “which are better for you?” I personally tend to use the terms interchangeably, but there are technically a few differences.
Extracts: the definition of an extract is the substance that is drawn out of—or extracted from—a raw material by force. Different methods will extract different materials depending on their solubility. Some constituents are water-soluble, so water may be all that is needed to extract these components. Other compounds, terpenes, alkaloids, resins and oils are not water-soluble and require a solvent to be drawn out. Physical pressure is anothermethod that may be used for extraction.
All tinctures are indeed extracts, but not all extracts are tinctures.
Tinctures: Merriam-Webster defines a tincture as “a medicine that is made of a drug mixed with alcohol” and renowned herbalist/author, Rosemary Gladstar says that if anything other than high proof alcohol is used as the solvent—it is an extract, not a tincture! Tinctures are alcohol extractions (although people refer to water, glycerin and apple cider vinegar extracts as “tinctures” all the time. Don’t worry about it). It doesn’t really matter what you call it. Herbs can be extracted in all of the above as solvents. Each has their pros and cons.
Tincture Trivia... Do you know what it is called if the herbs are extracted in an alcohol that is less than 80 proof—such as brandy? Hint: may be sweet and enjoyed after dinner... (Answer revealed at the end of article).
What are tinctures used for?
Tinctures are used to treat health conditions and/or enhance wellness, just as other forms of herbal medicine. Some are good to reduce fevers, while others calm the mind, give energy, improve immunity, etc. Their applications are as varied as the species of plants from which they are made. The benefits and actions of specific plants have been well documented over the centuries and there are many good herbal reference books that can lead you to the safe and effective use of specific herbs for your desired benefit.
- Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide: 33 Healing Herbs to Know, Grow and Use, by Rosemary Gladstar (not for making tinctures, but rather the use of herbs)
- Making Plant Medicine by Rich Cech (includes how to make tinctures)
What is the history of tinctures?
While herbalism has ancient roots in many cultures across the globe, tinctures appeared in Europe soon after the process of alcohol distillation was developed. Distilling wasn’t common in Europe until the 1400s, but as it became more widespread, so did the availability and use of tinctures. By the Victorian era, tinctures were the preferred delivery mode for herbs as medicine and could be readily purchased in the corner pharmacy.
Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners (TCM) prepare herbal formulas using a method called decoction (cooking of herbs in water). As a TCM practitioner and western herbalist, I use both decoctions and tinctures (as well as other forms of herbs) in my wellness practice. My observation is that patients are more willing to use the tinctures consistently than the decoctions. Decocting herbs is time-consuming, labor-intensive and the medicine it produces may have a strong “unpleasant” flavor. On top of that, only doses for a few days can be prepared at one time, because it doesn’t keep for long. With the tinctures, patient compliance is high and complaints are few. The tinctures can be diluted in juice or water if desired. They are easily transported and have an excellent shelf life.
Ever heard of Warburg’s tincture? This was an herbal tincture invented in 1834 by a physician named Carl Warburg, which contained quinine, aloe, rhubarb, angelica seed, elecampane, saffron, fennel, and other ingredients. It was well known in Victorian times for its ability to treat all types of fevers, especially severe tropical fevers such as yellow fever and malaria. Laudanum (a tincture made from opium!) was a tincture that was around since the 1660s and was used to treat a variety of ailments with its analgesic and cough suppressant actions. A variety of laudanum flavored with camphor, aniseed and benzoic acid—called paregoric—was sold well into the 1970s as an over-the-counter medication for the treatment of diarrhea and coughing in children. Yikes!
What are the perks of making your own tinctures?
I personally feel that making and using your own herbal tinctures is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself. It nourishes both your health and your spirit—plus it can save you a ton of money over store bought products. For example, I recently made a batch of immune support tincture at a total cost of about $40. To purchase the same amount at the store would have cost me 10 times that.
If you seriously are not the do-it-yourself type or just can’t find the time, then you of course are invited to check out our selection of herbal tinctures available in the health and wellness department of Willy Street Co-op. All of our tinctures are of the highest quality coming from reputable sources—such as Herb Pharm, Urban Moonshine, Simplers, and Wisconsin’s own Four Elements Farm. We have lots of tinctures to choose from —both single herbs and condition specific combos. Our friendly staff is happy to guide you. If we don’t have what you are looking for on our shelves, oftentimes we can place a special order to get it for you.
What supplies will I need?
- A clean jar with a tight fitting lid.
- Masking tape or sticky labels and a permanent marker to label the jar.
- A cutting board or food processor for chopping plant material.
- Fresh or dried herbal material. Suggestions to follow. (Note: although I have to admit I’ve attempted it, powdered herbs are not suitable for tincturing).
- Pure grain alcohol that is at least 100-proof. I usually purchase a quantity of 190-proof grain alcohol (95% ethanol) because it can be used straight for some applications and diluted with water if needed for others.
- Clean jars—or amber bottles to hold finished tincture (the amber bottles protect from light extending the shelf life, but clear is ok as long as they are stored in a cool, dark place).
What is the procedure of making a tincture?
The process in a nutshell goes something like this: you mix your desired plant matter (marc) with an alcohol/water solvent (menstruum), allow it to steep (macerate) at room temperature, giving it a shake now and then to remix the blend. The alcohol extracts the volatile oils and most alkaloids, while water absorbs any water-soluble components. After a period of time—usually about 4-6 weeks, the active constituents of the herbs will have all dissolved into the alcohol. The menstruum is then pressed out from the spent marc. The spent marc is discarded, while the menstruum—now called a tincture—is filtered and stored for use.
What is the Folk method of making tinctures?
Before formally studying Traditional Chinese Medicine, I had been enjoying making and using my own herbal tinctures for years. I would simply fill a jar up to the brim with the desired plant matter, then fill it up again with 100-proof alcohol (approx. 50% ethanol). This is called the “Folkloric” method and it is the simplest way to make tinctures because nothing is measured. What I like about it is that it is quick, easy and feels very intuitive for me. I made some awesome tinctures with this method. The disadvantage of this method is that there can be huge differences in potency batch to batch. Proper dosing becomes a challenge because 30 drops of one may not be equivalent to 30 drops of another. Since there is no way to know the strength of each batch without trying it, this method should only be used for herbs that are safe at any dose.
What is the Weight-to-Volume Method of Making Tinctures?
Making tinctures using the weight-to-volume method takes a little more time and effort, but yields a more precise and replicable tincture. Because this method measures all ingredients and is prepared the same each time, strength and potency are relatively consistent batch to batch.
The weight-to-volume method of extraction is based on two things: the ratio between the weight of herb to the volume of menstruum, and the concentration of ethanol in the menstruum (for example 100-proof grain alcohol is 50% ethanol and 50% water). Since math ties my brain into an unsightly knot and renders it paralyzed for extended periods of time, I usually apply one set ratio to extract most fresh herbs (along with a higher alcohol content menstruum, since the plant is providing more water), and one set ratio to extract most dry herbs (along with a lower concentration of alcohol menstruum, since no water is provided by the dry plant material).
I use a ratio of 1:2 ( that is, one part marc by weight to two part menstruum by volume), and 160 to 180-proof alcohol (Everclear, meaning it has 80-90% ethanol). The fresh herbs weigh more due to the water still in their cells and since the fresh herbs also provide water from the plant, I don’t need to add any more in order to extract the water-soluble components.
I use a ratio of 1:5 (that is, one part dry herb by weight to 5 parts of menstruum by volume) with 100-proof alcohol (50% ethanol, 50% water). Don’t worry if you’re confused. It will be clearer with a little experience. For a much better explanation, please read Richo Cech’s of Horizon Herbs book Making Plant Medicine. He does a much better job of explaining it and I highly recommend it!
OK, tell me step by step how to do this!
(Instructions adapted from Making Plant Medicine, Richo Cech)
- Chop the fresh herb or grind the dried herb.
- Place the herb in a glass jar labeled with the current date and name of the herb.
- Add sufficient menstruum to cover the herbs.
- Screw on the lid, put the jar in a dark place at room temperature and shake at least once daily.
- After 4 to 6 weeks, pour the contents of the jar through several layers of cheesecloth or unbleached muslin and express the liquid.
- Allow the liquid to settle in a clean jar overnight.
- Decant the clear liquid through a filter paper.
- Store in correctly labeled, amber glass bottles, out of the light.
What’s on a Label?
Make sure to label your tinctures with as much of the following information as possible:
- Fresh or dry, and the part(s) used in the tincture.
- Date of tincturing.
- Percent of alcohol by volume (40% for 80-proof vodka, 50% for 100-proof, etc.).
- Weight-to-Volume ratio, if applicable (1:2, 1:5).
- A batch number (if you plan on more than one batch per year).
- Name of herb(s), both should be included: common and Latin if possible, to avoid confusion.
What herbs should I use to make my tinctures?
Medicines made from plants of the region are thought to provide the best healing potential for the people of that area, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, so you may want to go down to the farmer’s market or Co-op for some fresh locally grown herbs for your tinctures. Many culinary herbs even have extraordinary medicinal qualities when concentrated as a tincture.
Wild-harvested herbs can be great for medicines, but—in order to find them, harvest them sustainably at the peak of potency, make sure they are uncontaminated, etc.—it is usually best to have the guidance of an experienced herbalist. Unfortunately, this topic is beyond the scope of this article.
In order to provide you with at least a few suggestions, I took a walk through the Willy West’s bulk department and found some great medicinal herbs to tincture. There were so many more than I can include here. This is just a sampling of what is available...
- Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla): Used in treating hay fever; inflammation; muscle spasms; menstrual disorders; relieving fevers and restlessness; insomnia; ulcers; wounds; rheumatic pain; hemorrhoids and gastrointestinal disturbances including flatulence, indigestion, diarrhea, anorexia, motion sickness, nausea, and vomiting; arthritis; back pain; bedsores and stomach cramps.
- Dandelion (Taraxacum): Used to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, diuretic, ingredient in bitters, mild appetite stimulant, improves digestion and settles upset stomach, helps normalize blood sugar levels and lower total cholesterol and triglycerides while raising HDL (“good” cholesterol), anti-inflammatory. [NOTE: If you are allergic to ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigold, chamomile, yarrow, daisies, or iodine, you should avoid dandelion.]
- Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus): Energy tonic, adaptogenic (meaning it helps protect the body against various stressors, including physical, mental, or emotional stress) strengthens immune function, helps prevent colds and upper respiratory infections, lowers blood pressure, helps regulate healthy blood sugar, protects the liver, mitigates symptoms of seasonal allergies.
- Echinacea (E. angustifolia): Amazing herb for helping the body rid itself of microbial infections, bacterial and viral attacks, especially useful for infections of the upper respiratory tract such as laryngitis, tonsillitis, nose and sinus infections and oh so much more.
Best of luck and happy DIY tincturing!
Answer to Tincture Trivia...
An extract in which the solvent used is less than 80-proof alcohol (40% ethanol) is called a CORDIAL.