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Herbal Tinctures 101
By Meagan - September 02, 2015

Herbal Tinctures 101

This month on the BHS blog we're talking all things "tinctures". Not only are we going to be giving you some great educational information on tinctures, but we're going to be walking you through the different ways to make them, the various methods people have used over the years, tincture recipes and remedies, what plant constituents are extracted with them, how to tincture using fresh and dried herbs, and more. To start this month off right let's look at a brief history of tinctures, why one would want to use them, how to use them, as well as how to dose them. One last thing before we get into all of the above. Throughout the month you'll see our contributors use the word "tincture," and you may wonder what all is encompassed by that term. Often times you'll see the word "tincture" refer to extracts that use glycerin or vinegar, but this month we're going to try hard to stick to the traditional terminology. By "tincture" we mean an extract made using alcohol as this is the traditional use of the word. If we mean to make an extract with glycerin we'll call it a "glycerite," and if we mean an extract made with vinegar we'll call it an "herbal vinegar" so things don't get muddled. Does that sound good... or clear as mud? Good.

Herbal Tinctures: A History

Tinctures date back to around 1000 AD when alcohol was first distilled although the ancient Egyptians were thought to have made cordials before then. However, seeing how distilling alcohol wasn't so common until the 1400-1500's, few people knew about using alcohol with plants. Once distilling alcohol became a common practice, using alcohol to preserve plants and make medicine soon followed, first by the Irish and Scottish people followed by the Europeans. This "plant medicine" technique was then transferred over to western medicine and was one of the main ways medicine was used in the western world up until recent times as pharmaceutical companies started putting more emphasis on pills. (Source)

Herbal Tinctures: The 4 W's

Who: Anyone can use tinctures from children to the elderly. The biggest thing to keep in mind when it comes to choosing tinctures for people is whether they're sensitive to alcohol or not. If they are, try using a glycerite or an herbal vinegar instead. If those two things don't work, you'll need to resort to other herbal preparations instead. When: Tinctures can be used for everything it seems, but before resorting to a tincture right off the bat you'll want to decide if it's the right preparation for the situation you're in. Below are some things you may want to consider when it comes to choosing to use a tincture verses some other herbal preparation.
  • how much time you have to make the tincture (anywhere from 3 days to 6 weeks) if you don't already have it on hand
  • if it's fitting for the ailment you're using it for (not so much for an eyewash)
  • how much of it you'll need to take (drops or ounces)
  • if you need it for the plant material you're using (resinous plants for example) or if another menstrum would work just as well
  • if you need it to act quickly (like you would for pain) or if you have a while
All of these things will help you decide whether a tincture should be your first choice or come later in your herbal protocol. Where: Tinctures are most often used internally because they are fast acting and easy to digest. However, you can use tinctures externally in some situations. You can add tinctures to water to create herbal washes that can help clean wounds. You can also add tinctures to your salves and creams to add additional herbal properties to them (not to mention some extra preservation due to the alcohol). I'll be sharing a few more ways to use herbs in the section below. Why: Tinctures have many advantages. First, they're easy to make, and they can be made quickly. Of course this will depend on the method you're using to make your tinctures, but that's something we'll be addressing in a later post this month. Another reason one would want to use tinctures is because they're cheap to make compared to buying them. They're also convenient to use, they offer results quickly, they're easy to consume, and they have a long shelf-life.

Herbal Tinctures: How To Use Them

Tinctures can be used in many different ways... some of which I've mentioned above, but some people may be wondering how to even take a tincture. Do you squirt it right into your mouth or do you mix it with something first. Below are some different ways to use tinctures internally and externally.
  • as is on or under the tongue
  • mixed in hot water or juice
  • mixed in food
  • mixed in honey
  • added to salves/lotions

Herbal Tinctures: Dosages

When it comes to finding the right dosage for tinctures there are a few questions to ask yourself first.
  1. What kind of plant is the tincture made of?
  2. What tincture method did you use?
  3. How strong is the tincture?
First, the plant material matters. Some plants are used to benefit the whole body. These are tonic herbs and can be used in larger doses as they're nourishing to the tissues and body systems. Then there are some plants that can be used in certain ways that aren't necessarily harmful when taken in moderation, but can lead to unwanted effects if too much is taken. An example of this would be an astringent herb. Just enough is a good thing and gets you the results you want, but too much can throw the body out of balance and end up not being so good. Lastly, some herbs are considered toxic herbs and should only be taken when absolutely necessary under the supervision of a clinical herbalist. These herbs use drop dosages which means instead of taking 30-60 drops with each dose you may only take 1 or 2 drops at each dose. Next up is the method you used to make your tincture. I'm not going to go into the different methods of tincturing as we'll be covering that in a later post, but keep in mind that the different methods often produce different tincture results. For example, finding the correct dosage for folk method tinctures is often a trial and error situation as each tincture turns out differently than the one before it. Most times you start small and titrate your dose up until you get the desired effects. Unfortunately you'll have to do this dosage titration each time you make a new tincture. When you use the ratio method of tincturing you're more likely to get the same results each time you make a tincture since everything is weighed and measured just so which provides you with a better idea of the dosage you may need. The percolation method results in fast, strong tinctures that often times need smaller dosages. This tincturing method is the least commonly used, probably because it's not always predictable and it's a bit intensive, but it yields a good quality tincture that many herbalists prefer to use. Again, tincturing methods are a personal preference, and we'll be talking more about these different methods in a later post. Lastly, the strength of your tincture will effect the dosage. It goes without saying, but stronger tinctures require smaller dosages. Did you use fresh herbs or dried herbs? How much plant material did you use? More plant material equals a stronger tincture. If you used the ratio method of tincturing did you make a 1:2, 1:3, 1:4, or 1:5 tincture. The smaller the numbers, the stronger the tincture. What kind of alcohol did you use to tincture with? What was the percentage of alcohol? 95% alcohols will result in stronger tinctures where a brandy with 40% alcohol will result in a weaker one. How long did you let your tincture macerate or sit? A 2 week maceration, most times, won't be as strong as a 6 week maceration, depending upon the herb used. These are all things to keep in mind when determining dosage for your tinctures. It may all sound so very complicated, but as we cover tincturing during this month things will begin to make more sense. Plus, if you follow herbal recipes to make your tinctures, most times they'll come with dosage recommendations.
Over the course of this month, let me encourage you to experiment a bit. Choose one herb and make different tinctures with it using different methods, different maceration times, using fresh and dried plant material, or any other variations you can think of. Not only will it give you some practice making tinctures, but it will help you see what you personally like best.
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10 Comments

  1. Jessie
    This might be silly but can I use a traditional tincture for my 3 year old or would I use a glycerite? Or a mixture of the two? Thanks!
    1. Meagan
      That's not a silly question at all Jessie. You can actually use any type of extract you'd like, but children naturally prefer glycerites or a combination of alcohol and glycerite due to taste. My kids will take them mixed, but if it's a really bitter tasting herb we do straight glycerin. Hope that helps!
    2. Betty
      How do you get it ?
  2. david underwood
    I would like to try some of your herb,could u email me a receipe or mail me some of your herb
    1. Meagan
      Hi David, you can find many recipes on the BHS blog just by searching through old posts. All the recipes are linked to the herbs you need so you should be all set to try any that meet your needs. Hope that helps!
  3. Steve
    How do I subcribe to get all of your blogs. I am interested in learning about tinctures and don't want to miss any lessons. I also understand necessary herbs can be purchased from you?
    1. Joyce
      I would like to know the answers to these questions too. Thank you!
  4. Tracy
    I have been studying Herbology for the last 9 weeks. I was told Brandy was the alcohol of choice because it was more pure and did not have ingredients in it that people may have sensitivities to. I was told Vodka was made from corn, usually GMO corn and full of other additives. Can you please tell me what is your alcohol of choice?
    Even down to the brands. Thank you!
    1. Meagan
      Good question Tracy. I think alcohols and brands will vary from herbalist to herbalist. If you're trying to avoid GMOs, then it's smart to look up the different types of liquor to see what they're made from and to do a Google search to find non-GMO brands. I personally use Brandy (different brands) and 100% grain alcohol (I think Everclear is a brand name).

      The strength of your alcohol will also affect the plant constituents that are pulled out of your herbs. For example, resinous herbs require a higher percentage of alcohol to extract the resins properly so a 200 proof alcohol (or one as close to that as possible) is your best bet. This is more of an advanced concept, but it matters if you want your herbal preparations to be effective. We have a couple of posts that may help you understand more... this post and this post.