What is a Tincture?

A tincture is a solution of alcohol or a combination of water and alcohol prepared from fresh or dried herb or herbs. A tincture that is made for a single herb is referred to as a “simple”. When a blend of herbs are needed for a specific remedy and the form to be used is a tincture, it is much more efficient and effective to combine the parts of the remedy from the tinctures of each of the herbs.

Tinctures are made by using the maceration process. This is the process of soaking a plant in a solvent, such as alcohol or a combination of alcohol and water, for the purpose of drawing into the liquid the desired medicinal chemical compounds that are in the plant and then removing the remaining plant material. The key word with maceration is “soaking” which means time is spent waiting for the medicinal compounds to come out of the plant and go into the liquid.

There are two methods for making a tincture by maceration – the folk method and a method that the herbalist James Green calls the w/v method, where w/v is shorthand for the weight to volume method. Although the Folk Method has been for the most part successfully used for hundreds of years, it lacks measurements of qualities that would optimize the potency of the specific herb, as well as provide more consistency of potency each time the tincture is made. Thus I make all my tinctures using the w/v method as detailed in my book Making Tinctures: Beyond the Folk Method.

Why take a Tincture?

I would much prefer taking herbal medicine as food whenever possible. However it does take longer for the food to break down to its medicinal (and nutritional) components before they can get into the bloodstream. And not as much of the desired medicinal constituents may reach the bloodstream, as some may be moved out of the body during the digestive process. For the most part this is not an issue if eating medicinal foods for maintaining and/or improving health and for preventing disease or health conditions.

However some herbs just taste too horrible to tolerate as food, so you just want to quickly take the dose and chase it with lots of water to kill any after taste. The powdered form of herbs is very similar to food, but the taste can be more tolerable when combined with other foods and/or better tasting herbs, such as in a smoothie or as a gravy or soup.

Powdered herb in a capsule is an easy way to quickly avoid the taste of the herb altogether. It is also more convenient to store. The capsules should be stored in a dark bottle (like an amber bottle).

Drinking the herb as a decoction (the liquid strained from simmered roots, bark or seeds in water) or infusion (a strong tea from leaves steeped in hot water) is often ideal, especially when the aromatic part of the herb is one of the desired medicinal components. The taste in the tea can often be offset by combining with another herb that not only makes the taste better, but also aids in the assimilation of the medicinal components. Cinnamon and ginger are excellent examples of those type of herbs. Also adding lemon can aid in the taste, as well as adding a sweetner (hopefully something sweet that is healthy…).

A potential issue with food, powdered herbs, decoctions and teas as an herbal medicine is when the medicinal constituent is only alcohol soluble. One good example is Milk Thistle seeds. If the stomach’s hydrochloric acid is strong enough, eating the slightly nutty tasting seeds is absolutely fine on a salad. But if the stomach acid is low, which is often true of the elderly or people who thought (or were told) they had low acid (the perceivable symptoms of low and high stomach acid are exactly the same) and so took TUMS or other anti-acids often, the milk thistle seeds (whole or powdered) can not be broken down to get the necessary medicinal constituents to heal their liver. So only a Milk Thistle seed tincture with its very high alcoholic content as a solvent will provide the necessary medicinal value.

Another issue with food, powdered herbs, decoctions and teas is a question of the quality of the herb over time. All organic matter deteriorates over time, thus losing its medicinal potency. They effectively have an “expiration date” although it might not be specified on a label. However alcohol is not only an excellent solvent, it is also an excellent preservative. Thus herbs well sealed (in my shop I vacuum seal my herbs in canning jars and place in dark cabinets), may last one to three years (depending on the herb and whether whole or powdered). However tinctures in amber bottles with at least 20% alcohol (lowest percentage is usually 25% in tinctures) can last decades.

In fact, the longevity of tincture potency is one of the main reasons why I make tinctures and have a mission to teach you and others how to do the same. If you start making tinctures now, then that someday when you can’t get the herb in any form, when you don’t have the time to make a tea (or it’s not the appropriate form), and especially when you need to immediately administer a medicinal herb, you need only go to your cabinet filled with bottles of tinctures. You will be so thankful that you were prepared.