If you’re lucky enough to have an herb garden, you can appreciate the absolute pure beauty of herbs growing in all their botanical glory, with aromatics and delicate flowers and sturdy roots. Growing and evolving with our plant allies is the traditional way we’ve continued to partner with our herbal companions. Over time, we’ve grown slowly apart with fewer and fewer of us being able to have time or space to tend our gardens. And as a result, we’ve learned how to preserve and take our herbal preparations in ways that are more accessible to the masses and more shelf stable and long lasting. There are lots of different and effective ways to take herbs these days, each with their specific benefits. Going into the health food store or shopping online and seeing all of the different ways you can take a single herb can be overwhelming, and some herbal preparations work better for different issues than others. This is my quick and dirty little guide to herbal preparations, and my thoughts on when to use tea, tincture, powders or capsules in your own self care ritual.
Read More: Creating an Herbal Apothecary At Home
How to Use Herbal Tea and Dried Herbs
Teas / cut & sift / dried herbs
Tea infusions are ideal for long term, nourishing support. Most herbs are highly water soluble, meaning when you infuse herbs in (warm or hot) water, many of the medicinal constituents will be extracted. Water extracts starches (polysaccharides), mucilage, proteins, aromatics, volatile oils, glycosides, anthraquinones, enzymes, plant acids, mineral salts, tannins, vitamin nutrients and some alkaloids. Herbs in tea form are wonderful when you want to consume an herbal formula daily and for a longer period of time (like several months). Herbal tea infusions are often nutrient rich, highly and quickly absorbable, and super affordable to take long term. Fall and winter are the best times for energetically matching hot teas with the body, while overnight infusions are ideal in the spring and summer. Generally, when using herbs in tea form, you may notice herbs working in your body within the hour, and when taken long term they will have a tonic, supportive effect on the whole body which can be ideal for more chronic issues.
Pro: Teas are usually very affordable when made or purchased an bulk, often being less than a dollar per cup of tea; Ideal for all ages; Warming, nourishing, and make a great addition to any self care ritual (especially nighttime).
Con: Not always travel friendly; Taste can be a bit potent with certain herbs.
Read More: Intuitive Tea Blending How-To
How to Use Herbal Tinctures
Tinctures / Liquid extracts
Tinctures are an infusion of herbs in water and alcohol (and sometimes just straight up alcohol if using the folk method of extraction). The benefit of this is two fold: 1) The addition of the alcohol makes these formulas shelf stable and last a good long time (over a year usually), and 2) Water + alcohol extracts nearly 100% of the medicinal constituents in the plant material making them a little more potent than a water extraction alone. Along with all that water extracts (except mucilage and proteins), alcohol extracts resins, chlorophyll and alkaloids as well. Tinctures can be made with alcohol, glycerine or vinegars, and all are shelf stable. For reference: Alcohol will extract about 90% of the medicinal constituents you’ll want from the herbs, glycerine will extract about 15-20%, and vinegars only about 5% (but man, they taste good and are nourishing to the body all by themselves). I recommend glycerine based tinctures for little ones under age 12, or for anyone who has any issues at all with alcohol. The beauty of herbal tinctures is they tend to act pretty quickly in the body, often within 10 minutes, making them ideal for some acute issues. The liquid application makes it easy to adjust how much you’re taking depending on how much you need, and they’re extremely easy to travel with. You can drop the dose right in your mouth, or just dilute in a bit of water.
Pro: Tinctures are easy to travel with; Usually have a very quick affect and readily absorbed; Long shelf life.
Con: Often not so tasty (may need to dilute); More expensive and may not be cost prohibitive to take long term; Alcohol tinctures are not recommended for young children or folks with a history of alcohol addiction.
Read More: Late Summer Spritzer with Herbal Tinctures
How to Use Herbal Powders
Herbal powders I consider much like food. They’re usually highly absorbable and nutrient dense. Most herbs in powder form come from the root or rhizome (hardier) part of the plant for internal use, but it’s not unheard of to powder flowers and leaves as well but these are more commonly for topical use. You’ve already used lots of herbal powders in your life if you cook with seasonings like turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, cayenne…your spice cabinet is literally filled with powdered herbal tonics. That’s why I love using herbal powders every day in your foods to feed your nourishment via your daily diet. My favorite herbs to recommend in powder form are the tonic, long term supportive ones such as medicinal mushrooms (Reishi and chaga!), anti-inflammatories (turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, peppers) or nutritive adaptogens (ashwagandha, chlorella, Angelica, licorice…). The biggest issue with herbal powders is maintaining their efficacy, freshness and storing them appropriately. When you powder an herb, you immediately expose it to the air, leading it to oxidize quickly unless it’s stored in an air tight container out of direct sunlight. Traditionally in Ayurvedic medicine, herbal powders were prepared as needed to maintain their freshness. Today however, they’re often left powdered for far too long. Make sure your powders are fresh and well sealed. They should be aromatic and finely powdered.
Pro: Least expensive way to take herbs; Creative and fun to use for cooking; Easy to travel with.
Con: Oxidizes more quickly (shorter shelf life); Taste is hit or miss; Often harder to get kids to take consistently.
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How to Use Herbal Capsules
Probably the most common way folks are taking herbs these days, encapsulated herbs are essentially powdered herbs that are encapsulated at a standardized dose. Almost any herb can be encapsulated, making capsules one of the most convenient ways to take herbs. If you’ve been recommended to take a very specific dose of an herb and you need to keep this super consistent over a long period of time, then capsules are a great way to do this. You can also make your own with a capsule machine which can be much more affordable if you’re wanting to take capsules for several months at a time. Capsules, like powders, do take more time have an effect as they are not as readily absorbed (they need to basically be digested like a food). But long term, capsules can be extremely effective for chronic issues.
Pro: Very consistent with dosing; Travel friendly; No taste for the more potent herbs; Travel friendly.
Con: No taste (which can eliminate part of the medicine); Takes a bit longer to absorb / not as fast acting.
Read More: Guide to Herbal Formulating
When I’m stocking up on herbal teas, powders, tinctures and capsules I’m often sourcing from Mountain Rose Herbs. It’s a big, big deal today to make sure your herbal supplements are coming from reputable, quality controlled companies (because the supplement industry is unregulated in the US). I like knowing for certain that what it says on the bottle or package is actually what’s IN the bottle, and that’s why I always trust Mountain Rose Herbs (and if you have doubts, they can send you Certificates of Analysis of every single herb or formula). If you’re just starting out with herbs and not sure whether you’re drawn to tea, tinctures, or powders, start by trying just small amounts of each (in the 4 ounce packages) and see what’s best for you!
PS – if you’re still growing and tending your own herbs garden to harvest for teas or tinctures or whatever, tag your herb gardens with #myotherhouseisagreenhouse so I can swoon over your gardens!