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Home » Medicinal Herbs: A Guide To Herbal Preparation Methods

Medicinal Herbs: A Guide To Herbal Preparation Methods

    Common Herbal Preparation Methods

    Herbs are available in a variety of forms including fresh, dried, in tablets or capsules, or in bottled or liquid forms. You can buy them individually or in mixtures formulated for specific conditions. Whatever type of product you choose, the quality of an herbal preparation – be it in capsule, tablet, tea, tincture, bath, compress, poultice, or ointment, is only as good as the quality of the raw herb from which it was made.  Here’s a look at the different herbal preparation methods that are commonly used and are available.

    Herbal Preparation Methods:  Creams

    Creams are mixtures of oils or fats with water. Since water and oils do not readily mix, it is necessary to add an emulsifying agent that prohibits their separation. Medicinal herbs, typically in the form of a tincture, infused oil or decoction of herbal, can then be added to creams. An herbal cream blend can be applied directly to the skin where it is absorbed by the body. Creams are permeable, allowing the skin to breathe and sweat.

    Herbal Preparation Methods: Decoctions

    Roots, barks and fruits are thicker and less permeable than the aerial parts (leaves and flowers) of medicinal plants.  They do not release their active components by simple infusion. It is necessary to simmer these parts in boiling water in order to extract their medicinal constituents. The roots, bark or fruit should be cut or broken into small pieces.

    When preparing, in order to avoid loosing volatile constituents, a lid should be placed over the simmering pan. Separate the solids from the liquids after the decoction has cooled down. Decoctions can be taken hot or cold.

    Herbal Preparation Methods: Essential Oils

    Essential oils are the volatile oily components of aromatic plants, trees and grasses. They are found in tiny glands located in the flowers, leaves, roots, wood and resins.

    Essential oils are extracted by four main methods: steam distillation, expression, solvent extraction and effleurage. In the first method, the oil is extracted by the action of hot steam and then selectively condensed with water from which it is separated. In the second method, the oil is extracted by pressure or centrifugation. In the third method, the oil is dissolved in a volatile solvent that, when evaporated, leaves a heavy natural wax substance called concrete.

    When separated from the wax, the resulting liquid is called an absolute, the most concentrated form of aroma available. Effleurage is a longer process involving the dissolution of the oils in animal fat and its separation using alcohol. Although an essential oils’ primary usage is in cosmetics and perfumery, many of them have proven therapeutic properties.

    Herbal Preparation Methods: Infused Oils

    Pure vegetable oils like sunflower, almond and olive oil are easily found at grocery stores. They have the property of dissolving the active, fat-soluble principles of medicinal plants and herbs. This process is called infusion and can be carried out at room temperature or higher. Infusion is a slower process than alcohol extraction but has the advantage of resulting in an oil based solution of medicinal constituents that can easily be used to make creams and ointments.

    Herbal Preparation Methods: Infusions

    Infusions are a simple way of extracting the active principles of herbs through the action of hot water. The preparation of infusions is similar to the way we prepare tea. This method is used to remove the volatile components of the dried or green aerial parts (flowers and leaves) of herbs and plants. Infusions may use single herbs or a blend and can be consumed either hot or cold. Certainly this is the most common and least expensive method of extracting the medicinal compounds from herbs.

    Herbal Preparation Methods: Ointments

    Ointments are prepared like hot infused oils, the difference being that herbs are simmered in waxes or fats and contain no water. After separating out the simmered herbs, by squeezing and cooling, the result is a solid mixture of the wax or fat with the medicinal constituents of the plant. Petroleum jelly, soft paraffin wax and beeswax are some common bases used. Ointments form an oily barrier on the surface of injuries and carry the active principles to the affected area.

    Herbal Preparation Methods: Syrups

    With some rare exceptions, such as peppermint which is a familiar flavoring agent in toothpaste and chewing gum, infused or decocted herbs are not palatable, especially for children. In order to disguise their taste, infusions and decoctions can be mixed with honey or unrefined cane sugar. This can be especially beneficial when caring for a cough or sore throat.

    Herbal Preparation Methods: Tinctures

    Most of the volatile components of medicinal plants and herbs are soluble in alcohol. By immersing dried or fresh herbs in alcohol, the active principles are easily extracted at concentrations that exceed those that can be achieved by infusion or decoction. These highly concentrated solutions will last for one to two years and are a convenient way to store and use medicinal.

    Ideally tinctures should be made using pure ethyl alcohol distilled from cereals. However, since this product is not available to the public a spirit such as Vodka, with 35-45% alcohol content can be used. The extraction process is fairly quick to achieve. A 50% mixture of herbs and alcohol kept in a tightly closed jar will hold a tincture ready for use when the need arises. Never use methyl alcohol, methylated spirits, isopropyl alcohol or any other kind of unknown spirit to make tinctures.

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