cup of herbal tea

When it comes to herbal medicine, there is no shortage of choices. You can take your herbs as tablets, capsules, powders, teas, tinctures, syrups and even fresh or dried in your food.

Some forms are better than others when it comes to bioavailability, dosing, ease of use and cost. So it’s important to know why you’re using a particular herb or blend and what’s the best form to meet your needs. Using the wrong form of the right herb can lead to a poor result, making you question the efficacy of herbal medicines.

Let’s look at the most common ways we can take our herbs and the pros and cons of each.

Dried herbs & powders in jars on shelf

Powders

Powders are an essential part of ancient healing traditions, and they are still used by herbalists all over the world. Many are available for use in smoothie mixes, baking and cooking, and the term “superfood” is now synonymous with a range of plants, herbs and spices.

Powders can be made from the roots, berries, leaves, flowers, bark and fruit of plants. Different processes may be used, but what’s essential to all of them is maintaining the full spectrum of nutrients from the plant (and therefore all its benefits). Powders can be further decocted (extracted using boiling water), or they can be added to juices or used in smoothies, cooking or baking.

Advantages to taking powders include:

  1. Quality powders give you the plant’s full spectrum of nutrients and healing properties.
  2. They retain important resins, volatile oils and other compounds that may be lost in water extraction.
  3. They’re easy to incorporate into a healthy diet.
  4. They can be used over the long term.
  5. They are generally well tolerated.

Some disadvantages include:

  1. Powders may lose their potency over time.
  2. There is no standardization; many factors may affect their quality and potency.
  3. It usually takes longer to see a result, unless you’re working with a herbalist or other practitioner.
cup of herbal tea surrounded by dried herbs

Herbal Teas

There are so many incredible herbal teas with powerful medicinal properties! Herbal teas have been an essential part of plant medicine and ancient herbal practices. Many of these teas are also now part of our repertoire of healthy beverages.

Medicinally, teas can be infused or decocted. Infusing means steeping the dried or fresh plant (typically leaves, aerial parts or flowers) in hot water for 10-15 minutes. Decoctions take longer, often several hours. They are suited to the tougher parts of the plant (like the fruit, bark, roots or seeds), which require a longer simmering time to get the benefit.

Advantages of herbal teas include:

  1. You get the benefit of most of the plant’s active constituents.
  2. Tasting is often part of the healing process. Herbalists usually recommend tasting the plant, especially to stimulate digestion.
  3. Teas can be taken hot or cold. This also has therapeutic value when you need more heat (as is the case with fevers, congestion, and circulation issues) or cold (such as with urinary tract infections or hot flushes).
  4. They are readily absorbed.
  5. They’re easy to make.
  6. They can help with just about anything.

Disadvantages to teas:

  1. They don’t all taste great, so you may stop taking them.
  2. The time it takes to steep or decoct may be a challenge.
  3. You may forget to make your tea, especially if you need to take it multiple times a day.
  4. Teas are not standardized, so you may not be sure how much to use.
woman dosing herbal tincture with dropper into cup

Tinctures

Herbal tinctures are an essential part of herbal healing. They offer a number of benefits that you may not be familiar with.

Tinctures are made by soaking parts of plants in alcohol to extract as many beneficial compounds as possible. Whilst a basic tincture is easy to make at home, a standardized product may be more useful. A herbalist or herbal manufacture will use equipment and more precise measuring to ensure a consistent extraction process as well as a particular plant-to-liquid ratio. This is to ensure standardization in quality and dosing.

Advantages of tinctures include:

  1. Their use is fairly straightforward and usually involves taking a specific number of drops from a dropper (either straight or in a liquid like water, juice or tea) one or more times a day. Dosing is easy, which is especially beneficial during the early stages of an infection.
  2. They contain many of the plant’s original active compounds, providing a powerful therapeutic action in a small but concentrated dose.
  3. They are rapidly absorbed. As soon as they come in contact with mucous membranes (mouth, throat, digestive tract) the absorption process begins. And because of their liquid nature, there’s also a high degree of bioavailability.
  4. You can take them as a single herb or as a blend containing several herbs. Herbs often work synergistically, which serves to enhance the benefits. They also have affinities to specific therapeutic actions or body systems, and blends often are used to optimize this therapeutic benefit. Blends can also allow you to take one remedy rather than many.
  5. They are useful in both chronic and acute situations. They act quickly, but most can also be used long term to strengthen, nourish or prevent certain health problems.
  6. Because of the alcohol, they have long shelf lives when stored correctly.
  7. They have a better compliance record than herbal teas.

Disadvantages of tinctures

  1. They often have a strong taste, even in small doses.
  2. They contain alcohol. Some products are extracted using glycerine or vinegar, but these are hard to find.
  3. Not all parts of a plant are good for tinctures. Some are better suited to water extraction, including plants chosen for their mucilage or tannin.

One of the mistakes people make when it comes to taking tinctures is to increase the dosage beyond what’s been recommended. In the beginning stages of an infection, for example, increasing the frequency of doses is usually recommended before increasing the dose itself. Tinctures are concentrated, so don’t increase the dose because you think it’s going to work better or faster, or it’s just cool to do it!

When working with tinctures to treat a specific medical issue, it’s always better to work with a trained herbalist or medical professional. Herbs are medicines, and you may have a particular reaction to certain plants or plant families. Herbs can also interact with prescription or even OTC meds. When pregnant or breastfeeding, or before undergoing surgery, it’s always advisable to ensure that the herbs are safe for use.

woman working with dried herbs with mortar and pestle

Other Forms

There are many other ways herbs can be taken for medicinal purposes. Herbal products include essential oils, ointments, creams, syrups, capsules and tablets. Each has its place; what’s best depends not only on what you want the herb to do but also what form works best for you and your body.

The focus of herbal medicine is on healing holistically. And whilst herbs are generally regarded as safe to use with fewer side effects than pharmaceutical products, it’s still important to be careful. Consider the source and quality of the product you’ll be taking, and do your homework on potential side-effects and contra-indications.

Conclusion

We’ve touched on three ways to take herbal preparations that are foundational to herbal healing. As we’ve mentioned, there are many other forms that a herbalist may use or recommend.

Herbal medicine is ancient medicine. The beauty of herbal preparations is that they confer many health benefits that have been tried and tested through the ages. And whilst we can take herbs to prevent illness and support the body, we can also use them to treat specific issues with good results.

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