Thursday, March 13, 2014

Radically Natural Remedies: Tincture Making 101

Information abounds online about how to make herbal tinctures.  At the risk of re-inventing the wheel, I wanted to share my basic "quick" method for tincture making.  Creating herbal medicine is both an art and a science.  Various schools of thought exist regarding tincture making and achieving consistent and efficacious potencies.  To learn the secrets of master herbalists and achieve greater botanical medicine wisdom, please study the resources I'll list at the bottom of the post.

This is my alcohol tincture method (most herbalists use the term "tincture" to mean an alcohol extraction)...glycerites are another form of herbal extraction and will be another post for another day.  Why do we tincture in alcohol?  Some botanical constituents are not easily released into water (such as alkaloids, essential oils, resins, etc.); alcohol is the best solvent for extraction.  Alcohol is also a natural preservative, extending shelf life of your tincture.  And, alcohol as a vehicle gets the medicine into the bloodstream and directly to the liver fairly quickly.  The amount of alcohol you ingest when dosing with tinctures is fairly low, and lower still if you dilute your tincture in water when taking it.

When tincturing with alcohol, you want your menstrum (that's the liquid you use for tincturing the herbs) to be at least 40% alcohol, so an 80 proof vodka or brandy is a good choice (proof is the measurement of ethanol in an alcoholic beverage).  I want to use the best quality alcohol I can find when making medicine.  I want to avoid GMOs in my medicine, to say the least.  Because vodka is made from grains, the GMO concern is very real, not to mention the horrors of chemical farming.  Brandy is made from grapes, but I have little expectation that those grapes are not chemically treated in some way (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc).  I have researched organic alcohol options, but found that the shipping to receive the product costs as much as the product itself, making organic a very expensive option.  My compromise has been to use vodka brands that claim to be GMO-free and alternate vodka with brandy. It's not a perfect solution; if you can't afford organic alcohol, you'll need to choose your rock or hard place, or distill your own alcohol.  LOL

When tincturing your herbs, you want to maximize release of the botanical constituents.  If you are using bark, roots and hard bits, you will end up with more potent medicine more quickly if you grind or blend those bits first.  This allows the plant matter to more efficiently release medicinal and nutritional constituents into the menstrum.  If using leaves and flowers, this step is not necessary, but would not be harmful in the least.

Directions are slightly different when using fresh plant material versus dried because of the amount of water naturally occurring in fresh plant matter.  Fresh herbs require a higher alcohol content because the water released by the herb while tincturing will dilute the menstrum.  Some herbs are more effective if tinctured with fresh material (like Shepherd's Purse, a hemostatic herb), while some react better after drying (like Hops, a sedative herb).  To learn more, see the resources below.  Learning to identify and wildcraft herbs is a wonderful activity, as is growing your own herbs; if you do not have access to good herbs, ordering them from a reputable supplier like Mountain Rose Herbs is your best option.

Herbal Tincture How-To

  • If using fresh plants, tear/chop your fresh leaves/flowers into little bits and stuff a quart mason jar 3/4 full.  If using fresh roots/bark, first grind them and fill jar only halfway (these plant parts will expand in the menstrum).  For dried leaves/flowers, fill jar only halfway (crumble leaves/flowers into small bits).  Dried roots/bark should be ground first; fill jar up to 1/3 full (expect some swelling).
  • For fresh plant matter, use minimum 100 proof alcohol; for dried plant matter, use minimum 80 proof alcohol.  Pour alcohol into jar, almost to top...leave an inch of breathing room, but make sure all plant matter is covered.  Place lid firmly on jar.
  • Label jar with herb name and date; place in dark, cool place for 6 weeks minimum (the longer the herbs tincture, the more potent the medicine will be).  Check jar to make sure herb matter hasn't swollen too much, requiring more menstrum.  The herb matter should be moving freely within the menstrum in your jar when you shake it.
  • Give your jar a good shake every day.
  • When ready, strain the liquid out of the herbs (using a potato ricer, or pouring the tincture through cheesecloth into a bowl/large pyrex measuring cup...squeeze as much liquid out as possible).  Bottle your tincture; store it in a cool, dark should last for years, though potency fades over time.

To Learn More

Making Fresh Herb Tinctures
Mountain Rose Herbs Guide to Making Tinctures
Making a Tincture by Susun Weed
HerbPharm FAQ about Tinctures