Herbal medicine is one of the oldest healing arts and is very much the medicine of the people. Much effort has gone into trying to regulate this art (for better or for worse) but there is nothing to stop a person stepping outside their door to forage for herbs to make into numerous different healing remedies.
Much effort has been made by pharmaceutical companies to isolate chemical compounds present in certain plants but much of the time these active compounds which are shown to have certain medicinal benefits are to complicated to synthetically copy.
Modern pharmaceuticals are strong, fast acting but can also negatively impact peoples health in a the long run. Herbal remedies basically take the opposite approach, many herbalists would choose the milder option when deciding between two or more options.
We haven't even scratched the surface when it comes to researching every day plants you may find in your back garden for their medicinal benefits let alone all the weird and wonderful plant life that can be found else where on the planet.
We may not understand exactly how plants affect the body, we do have a long and well-documented history of their use as food and medicine.
Modern medicine is essential for the successful treatment of many complicated and serious illnesses, however due to the ever rising costs of disease care it is not accessible to everyone and many minorities and under privileged groups unfortunately don't get access to this type of modern medical care. In fact in the United States medical bills are the primary cause of financial ruin and many Americans have and are being forced to file for bankruptcy every year.
Medicinal plants grow everywhere and therefore can easily be harvested or even purchased for a fraction of the price of some modern pharmaceuticals. Most people learn to cook and making your own tinctures or salves is just as easy.
The key to herbalism is understanding not just how to prepare the herbs but mainly what parts of the plants to use and at what time to harvest them.
Preparing Herbal Remedies
Whether you plan on making your own remedies or just want to use store bought ones, it helps to understand the different ways herbs and plants can be prepared and administered.
The most common way people use herbs is to pick them fresh (espcialy when using in cooking). The problem is few herbs are avalible fresh all year round so it may be necessary to preserve it by drying or by extracting the relevent plant consitiuents.
Plant Poultices are just mashed up fesh herbs which are then usually applied to the skin directly. Traditionaly poultices were sometimes made with saliva (spit poultices) but this is an unhealthy practice as the mouth can contain bacteria which should not be applied to broken skin.
Sometimes called a paste this just involves crushing and mixing the plant parts with honey, butter or sometimes glycerin. These are either eaten or used to form a base for a poultice.
Juices and smoothies are very popular these days and people can often forget that these can be a very simple way of using fresh herbs and plants.
Dried herbs can be easily obtained from most supermarkets but should always be stored in air tight containers.
Capsules are much like tablets which is probably the reason this method of taking supplements and herbs is so popular for medicinal reasons given our cultural inclination to take our medicine in pill or capsual form.
A key benefit to taking herbs in capsual form is that you don't have to taste some of the nastier and foul tasting herbs, althouh a draw back to this is that our bodys can help us regulate doasge. When you have had your fill of a particular food your body often gives you clues such as feeling full-up.
Encapsulated herbs rarely act as quickly or even as effectively as teas or tinctures.
Warning: Many capsules are made from animal by-products such as Gelatin.
More often used for supplements than in herbal medicine, tablets are another popular herbal form stocked in shops. The good thing about pre-made tabletsis that the dosage can be standardised which may sound great and a good idea but in some cases there could be less of an advantage to doing this.
The quicker you preserve the plant parts the better, as the chemical constituents present in the plant / herb can imediantly start to break down a short while after picking
Water Extraction Methods
Also known as Infusions or decoctions, this method just involves using either hot or cold water. Creating a tea infusion with boiling water is probably the most popular method of water extraction.
For more information about herbal teas see our Herbal Tea blog.
Syrups are usually made by using a 50% water and 50% honey (or sometimes raw sugar) solution and then allowing the herbs to stoop in this solution. This csn help sweeten nastier tasting herbs and plants but the sugar is a problem for people with diabites.
Tinctures are usually made by stooping the plant parts in alcohol, although vinegar has also been used for children or alcoholics (and for those with liver disorders).
For more info on Herbal Tinctures please see our blog post .
Normaly used for topical application the plants constituents can be extracted in an oil such as olive oil or coconut oil. It isn't the best solvent for many herbal constituents so may not be used that often.
Standardized Products & Extracts
You may see products avalible in store labled as "standardized" but it is important to remeber that all is really means is that the plant material harvested has been tested and has been verified as being what the product lable say it is.
The product has been manufactured in batched and certain quality control measures have been met. The standardisation and quality control measures generaly ensure that each batch will have the same guaranteed potency.
You may think that standardisation can only be a good thing but it is the opinion of many proffesional herbalists that many of these standardized products don't work as effectivly as using the whole plant part.
"The whole is greater than the sum of it's parts".
This is due to the extraction method only extracting some of the plant constituents (probably only the active part), so much of the possible chemical constituents that may help with a possible condition may be missing from the final product.
Although this may be the case there is however a good reason for choosing "Standardized" products if you lack the proper experiance when dealing with certain toxic herbs as the process of making the manufactured store sold standardized products can help to reduce the toxicity of certain botanicals and therefore help make safe dosage easier and more precise.
All this complicated manufacturing doesn however effect the end price to the user and the mark up on such products can be high.
Highly concentrated extracts of plants are known as essential oils and are normally either extracted through expression (cold pressing) or thorugh distillation.
Essential oils are used in the practice of aromatherapy, which is a subject in itself but for more information on the safe usage of essential oils and aromatherapy in general please see our "Essential Oils as Herbal Medicine" blog post.
Plant identification is outside of the scope of this simple blog post and I do not recommend you use or harvest any plants which you cannot identifty by using it's Latin name. This is because many plants especialy members of the carrot family look similar and can be easily mistacken for one another.
The incorrect harvesting or use of a plant can cause some very serious health problems, maybe even death, so never use plants you are unsure of.
The safest plants to use are the ones you grow yourself as they should been correctly labeled by the place you bought them from. Some of the most popular herbs can be bought very cheeply and grown very easily.
If you don't have anything growing in your garden (if you even have one), then you may be surprised what you may find growing naturaly near by.
If you do plan on harvesting plants from the wild I recommend investing in a good plant identification book. This may not be written for your specific regional area but it should cover at least the country you are in. It's no good buying one for Chinese herbs if you plan on walking through the British wilderness.
Propbably the best thing you could do as a begginer is to find a local botanical walk or wild medicine foraging walk as these will be run by a skilled herbalist who should know the area well and shown you the best places to go localy.
The overharvesting of certain plants can lead to plants in your local area becoming rare, indangoured or even lead to the death of the plant. Even if the plant you want to hervest isn't at-risk it is still better to observe these simple guidlines below.
- Never take more than 10% of the plant or plants in a given area.
- When harvesting plants on a hill then leave the plants at the top of the hill untouched.
- Understand the plants reproductive habits.
- Gather leaves, seed or flowers that will grow back easily rather than barks etc which could kill the tree or plant.
- When harvesting roots or bulbs then replant the crown part of the root and fill the holes.
- Label everything as you go so as not to get confused as to what is what when you get home.
- Only harvest the part of the plant you wish to use medicinally.
I personally prefer not to harvest plants that grow in hedge rows next to very busy roads due to the pollution and traffic fumes. It also has the added benefit of being safer and i'm far less likely to get run over by a car in the woods or down by the river.
You should also be careful not to harvest plants that may have been sprayed with harmful chemicals.
Always dry or process the plant materials you collect as quickly as possible, remeber that the active and useful chemical constituents in the plant can start breaking down very quickly after harvesting.
We aways want to try and harvest our plants at the peak of their maturity or potency. All plants have seasons and times at which they ripen, or are a peak strength. It is at these times that the concentration of the active chemical constituents or ingredients are at the highest.
Here are some basic guidelines for the general harvest of plants and herbs but I recommend that you do a bit of research yourself on what you plan on harvesting.
- Barks should be harvested on a spring morning whe the sap is rising.
- Buds, stems and leaves should be harested in the morning
- Flowers should be piked during the day, shortley after they open.
- Flowers which open at night should be harvested at night.
- Roots are gathered in the fall, as the plant dies back and it's nutrients returns to the root.
As previously said it is important to know which part of the plant you will be using before harvesting an this important not just for ethical reasons but also becuase some parts of a plant maybe toxic whilst other parts not.
Oil-based herbal preparations are suitable for minor skin conditions such as burns, rashes, abrasions or dry skin. You must be very careful with new cuts as oil can trap bacteria and help it spread.
I recommend using a compress which just involves soaking a cloth in a herbal tea or decoction and then applying it to the affected area.
Salves, Ointments & Balms
These are semi-solid preparations made of a herbal oil base which is then solidified usualy with beeswax. Normaly salves etc are used for scrapes, burns and skin irritations. They can help carry herbs directly to the tissue.
Salves can act as drawing agents to pull things such as splinters or even glass shards out of the skin.
To make a salve just add a herbal oil to melted beeswax. Depending on how hard you want the salve you want to adjust the ration of oil to wax. Most often a ration of 6:1 - 8:1 of oil to wax is used.
Grated wax will melt quicker than chunks
Balms are made with slightly more beeswax approx 30grams to 80-100 milliliters of oil. The beeswax helps to create a protective barrier fro the skin.
Lotion are simply just a mixture of oil and water which is used to moisturize the skin. The water and oil do not naturally mix and so an emulsifier is used.
It is worth noting that for lotions a preservative should also be used to prevent the lotion from becoming moldy and preventing bacterial growth.
1 Part Emulsifier, 1 Part Solid Fixed Oil (Coconut oil), 2 Parts Liquid fixed Oil (Olive Oil), 4-6 Parts of your herbal preparation (essential oil or herbal infusion, etc).
Below is a simple emulsifier recipe but it will need to be made fresh for each batch of lotion, as it does not keep for long.
These are just a whipped blend of saturated oils (oils which are solid at room temp) and monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils (oils which are liquid at room temp).
Body butters tend to last longer than lotions as they often don't contain water and will feel creamy / smooth without the need to add an emulsifier.
7 Parts Sold Fixed Oil, 3 Parts Liquid Fixed Oil, Essential Oils etc.
Remember to whip the mixture after mixing together the to refrigerate for approx 30mins, then to whip again.
These are just carrier oils mixed with essential oils, please check out our blog about essential oils as this is a specific type of herbal medicine which is best studied on it's own due to the need to understand correct dillutions etc.
Poultices & Plasters
These are just mixtures of dried or fresh herbs simply moistened with water and applied directly to the skin, similar to a compress. Generally Poultice implies a hot application and plaster implies a room temperature application.
It is recommend you use a gauze bandage over the poultices.
You may think that is would be easier for a begginer to just stick with using one herb and not to add too many together. This however is not the case due to how many herbs may be listed as helping to treat a specific condition but there can be many different types of a certain condition.
Depression for example can come in many different forms and although St John's Wort may be good for one type of depression it may not work on another.
Creating a formula which contains several different herbs which all have a slightly different effect on the body or problem would be a much better solution than just guessing which herb to choose first when trying to tackle a problem.
Many are tempted to just open a herbal and blend together every herb the book says helps with the condition they want to create a formula to treat but this is really not a good idea as, all these herbs can and will interact with eachother in the body.
This can be a good thing, as selecting herbs which compliment each other can mean they also enhance eachothers medicianl properties.
We will not go into detail about how to create you own formulas in this blog due to the problems what could arise if you get something wrong. Instead I recommend using formulas that have been created by professional herbalist.
Dosages of tinctures are often given in drops and although this may seem like a good idea droppers and therefore dropper sizes vary and so are not universal. On top of this you also would need to factor in the strength of the tincture also.
Drop doses of low dose botanicals are normally added to a large volume of water and then given in teaspoon doses. This will make it safer than swalloing drops directly.
Most herbalists will use a persons weight to calculate dosages but some go by age when dealing with children.
Dosages for children 2 - 18
(Weight in pounds / 150) x adult dose = child's dose
Dosages for children under 2
(Age of child in months / 150) x average adult dose = child's dose
*This blog is designed to give you a basic introduction to western herbal medicine. If you have a serious medical condition then please seek the advice of a professional, don't treate yourself with recipies from random blogs you find on the internet. If you have a medical condition then go see your doctor.