In traditional herbal medicine, herbal remedies are prepared in several ways. These techniques will vary based upon which plant is being utilized, and sometimes, what condition is being treated.
The following are some of the most common preparation methods:
- Capsules: Vegetarian capsules are a perfect way to take herbs that are bitter or mucilaginous. You can buy already made capsules (my favorite brand will vary depending upon the herb) or you can make your own. Buying herbs in bulk and filling your own capsules is super easy to do, and can save you a little money! Mountain Rose Herbs is my favorite resource for both the bulk herbs as well as a capsule machine and empty capsules for making your own!
- Bolus: A bolus is a suppository or internal poultice use in the rectal or vaginal area. It’s used to draw out toxins and is the carrier for healing agents. You make a bolus adding powdered herbs to cocoa butter, creating a thick, firm consistency. Place this in the refrigerator to harden – and bring it to room temperature before using. Typically you apply this at night when the cocoa butter will melt with body heat, thereby releasing the herbs.
- Compress: A compress is basically a soft cloth secured on the body to provide heat, pressure, or medication. It’s often used when the herbs are too strong to be taken internally and allows the herbs to be slowly absorbed in small amounts by the body. It’s used for superficial ailments such as swelling, pains, colds and flu. It also helps to stimulate circulation of blood and lymph in the body. To prepare a compress, add 1-2 heaping tablespoons of the herb(s) to one cup of water and bring to a boil. Dip a sterile cloth or gauze into the strained liquid and apply.
- Decoction: With a decoction, you are extracting the flavor or essence of something by boiling. It is typically made with the root and bark of a plant when they are not soluble in cold or hot water. It will yield its soluble ingredients after simmering for 5-20 minutes. To prepare, place a teaspoon of the dried herb in an enamel or glass container with one cup of pure water. Boil it, 5 minutes if it’s finely shredded or up to 20 minutes if you have hard or woody pieces. (Pre-soaking in cold water before boiling can be helpful). Decoctions should always be strained while hot.
- Extracts: An extract is a concentrated form of an herb that you get by mixing the herb with an appropriate solvent (i.e. alcohol and/or water). They’re typically made from stimulating herbs, such as cayenne, and antispasmodic herbs, like lobelia. They’re rubbed into the skin as a treatment for strained muscles & ligaments, or relieving arthritis and other inflammations. To prepare, you place four ounces of dried herbs or eight ounces of fresh, bruised herbs in a jar with a tight fitting lid. Add one pint of vinegar, alcohol, or massage oil. With time, the liquid will extract the medicinal properties of the herbs. It takes about 4 days to get a potent extract if the herbs are powdered, and about fifteen days if they are whole or cut. Just remember to shake the jar once or twice daily.
- Hydrotherapy: This is the use of water (basically an herbal bath) for treatment of an illness. To make a decoction for a full bath, you should use anywhere from several ounces to a pound of plant parts sewn into a linen bag and boiled in a quart or more of water. The water is then added to the bath. You can add the linen bag as well if you’d like. Bathing with herbs accelerates their absorption through the skin, making it especially effective for circulation troubles, swelling of broken bones, gout, etc.
- Infusion: An infusion is an extract made from herbs with medicinal constituents in their flowers, leaves, and stems. You make infusions by pouring hot liquid over a crude or powdered herb and allowing the mixture to steep. They are prepared a little like tea, but are steeped longer and are much stronger. The usual ratio used when preparing an infusion is about one-half to one ounce of an herb to one pint of water. Use a glass, enamel, or porcelain pot to steep the herbs for about 10-20 minutes, then cover to avoid evaporation. Strain the infusion and drink it lukewarm or cool. To induce sweating and to break up a cold or cough, drink it hot. Infusions have short shelf lives, so use them soon after preparation.
- Oils: When the best properties of an herb are from its essential oils, an oil extract is the best way to prepare a concentrate. They’re very useful when ointments or compresses aren’t practical. They’re prepared by macerating and pounding fresh or dried herbs. Olive or sesame oils are then added, two ounces of herb to one pint of oil. Let it sit in a warm place for about four days before it’s used.
- Ointments: These are used on the skin when the active principals of herbs are needed for extended periods. Ointments stay on the skin for an extended period of time and allow for accelerated healing. To prepare, bring one or two heaping tablespoons of the herb and a good helping of Vaseline to a boil. (You can purchase a naturally derived Vaseline-type product instead of petroleum based ones.) Stir and strain the mixture. After it cools, store in a jar for later use.
- Poultices: An herbal poultice is a soft, moist mass of fresh, ground, or powdered herbs applied hot as a medicament to the body. It is applied directly on the skin to relieve inflammation, blood poisoning, venomous bites, eruptions, boils, and abscesses to promote proper cleansing and healing of the affected area. To prepare, moisten herbs with hot water, apple cider vinegar, herbal tea, a liniment, or a tincture. Whatever liquid you use, make sure it is hot. Cleanse the area with an antiseptic and then oil the skin before applying the hot poultice.
- Powders: Powders are simply fresh herbal agents that have been crushed into fine particles. Herbs in powder form can be taken in a capsule, in water, in herb teas, or sprinkled on food. For external use, herbs can be mixed with oil, petroleum jelly, a little water, or aloe vera juice and applied to the skin.
- Salves: These are similar to ointments. They are made by covering fresh or dried herbs with water, bringing the mixture to a boil, and letting it simmer for thirty minutes. The water is then strained off and added to an equal amount of olive oil. Simmer the oil/water mixture until the water has evaporated and only the oil is left. Add enough beeswax to give the mixture a salve-like consistency and pour it into a dark glass jar with a tight lid. If stored well, salves will last up to a year.
- Syrups: An herbal syrup is ideal for treating coughs, mucus congestion, bronchial catarrh, and sore throats because it coats the area and keeps the herbs in direct contact. A syrup is made by adding about 2 ounces of herbs to a quart of water and gently boiling it down to one pint. While still warm, add two ounces of honey and/or glycerin.
- Tinctures: Tinctures are solutions of concentrated herbal extracts made with alcohol rather than water. They are more concentrated than infusions and decoctions, and can be kept for longer periods of time because the alcohol acts as a preservative. Tinctures are usually made with strong herbs that can not be taken as a tea. They’re also useful for herbs that do not taste good or that need to be taken over an extended period of time. Tinctures are convenient for external application. A tincture can be made by combining four ounces of powdered or cut herbs with one pint of alcohol such as vodka or brandy. Allow the tincture to steep for two to four weeks, shaking every few days to encourage alcohol absorption of the herbs’ medicinal properties. After four weeks you can strain the herbs out of the liquid, but it isn’t necessary. Store tinctures in a cool place and keep them out of reach of children.
“Today’s Herbal Health, The Essential Reference Guide” by Louise Tenney, M.H. (Master Herbalist)
NOTE: This list is an overview of herbal preparations commonly used and is for educational purposes only. For more detailed info, please see the above referenced book.