Once upon a time, when people got sick they knew that that they must “drink their bitter brew” to get well. Presumably this meant some sort of herbal tea or other liquid potion. While native and traditional cultures barely bat an eye as they wash down sometimes large doses of nasty-tasting stuff, taking herbs in this way becomes less appealing as we grow more accustomed to the conveniences and comforts of modern times. Thankfully, we have several options for getting the medicine down, as outlined below.
Teas, Tinctures and other Liquid Preparations
Liquid herbal medications are best for the intestines, stimulating blood circulation and restoring the balance of homeostasis. Liquid options are especially useful for severe, intractable diseases.
Infusions are made by steeping herbs in a covered vessel of hot freshly boiled water. This prevents the dissipation and evaporation of volatile elements that are considered vital to the therapeutic effect, particularly for diaphoretics. By such a method one does not get all of the deeper minerals found in popularly infused aromatic herbs such as mint, chamomile, or lemon balm.
A decoction is made by a prolonged cooking method resulting in what the Chinese call a tang or “soup.” Heavier substances, including hard roots, branches and minerals are boiled (decocted) specifically to extract their deeper constituents. As a result, the more volatile elements are lost during the process of evaporation. Decoctions take anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes; the dregs are strained out and the resulting tea is taken at room temperature.
Extra long boiling is necessary to transform and neutralize toxic elements of certain herbs. This is most important for one of Chinese medicine’s most poisonous but commonly used herbs, fu zi oraconite (Aconitum napellus) also known as “monkshood.” Most of the time a processed and detoxified version is used, but this too requires about an hour of decocting before it is safe to ingest. Western herbalists never learned or utilized a way to neutralize the poisonous properties of aconite. In fact it was commonly used in ancient times up through the European renaissance as a poison to get rid of someone you didn’t like. Medicinally, only single drop doses diluted in water are used.
Minerals or shells such as crushed gypsum to lower fevers, iron for the blood or oyster shell for calcium, also require extra long boiling. Traditional Chinese Medicines require that these are boiled first and separately for up to 45 minutes before the rest of the formula is introduced.
Ever since the 12th century the Chinese, who invented the pill, have been prescribing them much as we do today. Ancient formulas were often prepared as pills made from milled herbs bound with water, honey, ginger juice, or other substances. In villages in India and China local herbalists still roll pills by hand. Smaller sized pills are favored because they are easier to swallow. Therapeutic dosages of powders or pills range between 3-10 grams daily. That’s usually a small handful of pills, taken two or three times a day. Though it may seem like a lot of pills, it’s really only a few grams of medicine.
Pills, especially the small teapills manufactured by Chinese pharmacies is most effective for relieving stagnation and congestion and treating wind-cold conditions such as colds and flu. Pills have the advantage of being able to be taken over a prolonged period of time and are therefore best for chronic disease.
Powders consist of small particles of herbs with multiple surfaces that are particularly beneficial for stomach and intestinal problems. Powders are also best for suddenly erupting diseases such as a skin rash.
In fact, most traditional cultures would not take herbs as a tea but as raw powders. So long as the powder is either freshly ground or no older than three to six months, this method may be the most efficacious way to ingest medicinal herbs. Taking an herb ground into a powder means that all of it is consumed and nothing is lost through the process of evaporation and volatilization, nor through the extractive process where the extract is siphoned from the “mark” which may still contain some minerals and constituents.
Powders are also cost effective. This is because there is no selective extraction that occurs when we use alcohol or some other extractive to make herbal tinctures, to have the properties evaporate and dissipate as a result of making a hot tea decoction. Therefore, one is actually ingesting the whole herb in powder form.
Indian villagers take herbal powder by smearing it on the palm of the right hand with honey and perhaps a little ghee (clarified butter) and licking it off. Besides the fact that honey and butter tend to make anything tastier, these serve as “carriers” (called anupans in Ayurveda) and are thought to enhance an herb’s therapeutic properties by carrying them into the deeper tissue layers of the body.
Extracts (Tinctures, Glycerites, Aceta)
The constituents of herbs can be extracted by water, alcohol, vinegar, glycerine, or chemical solvents. Most herbalists prefer to use low temperature water extractions rather than the standardized extractions used by “herbaceutical” pill manufacturers. Simply soaking an herb in alcohol, vinegar, or glycerine yields extracts and this method is called “simpling.” They’re easy to make and to take.
Strategic timing for taking herbal medicine
Many ask the best time to take herbs. The following is a rough guideline:
Timing around meals
Herbs can be taken before meals to stimulate digestion or when a person’s symptoms occur before eating.
Herbal extract and tinctures can be taken while eating if there is a problem while ingesting food.
Generally speaking “herbal bitters” can be taken in small amount before eating to stimulate the body’s digestive secretions and one’s appetite or after meals to relieve bloating. A teaspoon or tablespoon should be a sufficient dose.
Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) is a very common complaint, answered by the huge market of antacids and pharmaceuticals with long-term negative side effects. But one of the simplest treatments is to simply go to your spice cabinet, mix together a pinch of every spice and take a teaspoon of the powder washed down with room temperature water.
Herbs that are intended to go to the liver, Kidneys, intestines or reproductive organs are taken after meals.
Often this can be too complicated for people who are on the go to follow so my basic thought is to take herbs regularly before meals. If there is any discomfort, try switching to taking them after meals.
Another simple and basic approach is to take tonic formulas before meals (when you body is most ready to digest food) and the more eliminating and detoxifying formulas after meals.
Other considerations for enhancing the effects of herbal medicines
Conditions caused or aggravated by cold should be treated with hot medicines (i.e., teas and decoctions). This would include the early stages of colds as well as respiratory allergies.
If the condition is caused or aggravated by heat, or to provoke urination, give room temperature herbal preparations.
When treating low energy, the addition of a little honey or some sweet flavored substances such as jujube or other dates and a small amount of licorice will serve as a carrier for herbs like ginseng.
When treating Kidney adrenals with symptoms of lower back, knee, joint pains, low libido and urinary problems taking the appropriate formula with a pinch of salt or soya sauce will help focus and direct the action of the herbs to the intended Kidney-Adrenals.
When someone is nutritionally compromised and weak, tonic herbs are best taken in soups.
One should never brew herbal teas in certain types of metal containers. This especially applies to iron or aluminum pots where the soluble metallic ions can alter the chemistry of the medicinal herbs. The ideal medium for preparing herb teas is a clay or glass receptacle. Good quality stainless steel is neutral and does not leach metallic and is therefore also all right to use.