Choosing an herbal remedy isn't easy. But choosing the form of herb to take can be even more puzzling. For example, say you feel a case of the sniffles coming on, and you head out to get some echinacea
to help fight off a full-blown cold. When you get to the health-food store, you find an aisle filled with pills, liquids, teas, and creams. So which one should you buy?
Herbs come in several forms, and more often than not, one form may work better than another. To help you navigate your way through this puzzle, here is a who's who of herbal forms. back to top
What is a standardized extract?
Many herbal experts agree that standardized extracts are the best way to take most herbs. An extract is a very concentrated form of an herb, and a "standardized extract" is one that contains a specific amount of that herb's healing ingredients. Make sure they are produced by a reputable drug company. back to top
What is a tincture?
Tinctures are liquid extracts of fresh or dried herbs that are soaked in alcohol, a substance that helps draw out the healing ingredients inside the herbs. Generally, tinctures are not as strong as extracts. Tinctures are usually 1 part herb to 5 parts alcohol, while extracts are 1 part herb to 1 part alcohol. However, both tinctures and extracts are faster-acting than teas and creams. Alcohol helps to preserve the benefits of the herbs, so you can keep tinctures or extracts in your medicine cabinet for a long period of time (usually about one year). People who want to avoid alcohol can find tinctures made with glycerin or vinegar, although they may not work as well as those made with alcohol.
Before you use a tincture, shake it well and dilute it in warm water (1 dropperful to one-quarter cup water). A typical dose is two to three times daily with food. Pay careful attention to dosing directions on the label for both tinctures and extracts. back to top
What are bulk and loose herbs?
Most herbs are available in bulk form at health-food stores. Bulk or loose herbs are dried herbs that have not been mixed with any other substances and are sold in larger quantities. They tend to be less expensive than extracts and tinctures and are often used to make teas.
But since herbs lose their healing properties when exposed to air, light, and humidity, many of the loose herbs you see in health-food stores have little health benefit left. When buying bulk herbs, avoid any that are not sold in covered, air-tight packages. Always check for freshness by smelling them and looking at their color. Chances are if an herb smells stale, its healing power is kaput.
Another thing to consider when buying bulk herbs is the possibility of contamination. Many herbal growers use pesticides or spray their products with chemicals to preserve them during shipping. If you want your herbs to be chemical-free, choose ones labeled "organic." Like organic foods, however, organic herbs tend to cost more.
Bulk herbs are used to make infusions and decoctions, which are prepared like teas. You can also use them to make herbal bath soaks by tying them up in cheesecloth (or a cotton sock) and holding them under running bathwater. back to top
What are infusions and decoctions?
An infusion is like a cup of tea. By pouring water over herbs and letting them steep, you can pull out, or extract, their active ingredients. Like tea, an infusion can be either hot or cold. Herbal experts agree that an infusion is one of the safest and easiest ways to enjoy the health effects of herbs. An infusion is often the best process for delicate leaves and flowers that might lose their healing properties when boiled.
A typical infusion uses 1 teaspoon of herbs for each cup of water. Many people use infusions throughout the day, drinking between one and four cups to relieve symptoms.
A decoction is similar to an infusion in that it also uses water to extract the active ingredients of an herb. What's different about a decoction is that it's made by simmering the herb in water. Hardier herb parts such as roots, barks, and seeds take well to being simmered into decoctions.
Most decoctions use 1 teaspoon of herbs for each cup of water. Decoctions are generally made by simmering a mixture of herbs and water for 10 minutes and then straining out the herbs. Like an infusion, you can drink a decoction several times a day to relieve symptoms. back to top
Can't I just buy tea in teabag form?
One of the benefits of brewing your own tea is being able to control how strong it is. But if you're suffering from a bellyache, say, and making an infusion seems like too much work, you can certainly take the easy route and toss a teabag into a cup. The drawback is, some herbs are not available in ready-made teabags.
Herbal teas that you can find in teabag form include chamomile
. You can probably buy these teas in your local grocery store. To make a stronger tea, try using two teabags in your cup instead of one. back to top
How can I use herbs externally?
Symptoms on the surface of your body, such as rashes and acne, are often best treated by applying herbal mixtures to your skin. Salves and ointments, which are made by adding herbs to petroleum jelly or other creams, can be applied directly to skin to help heal wounds, clear up rashes, and ease pain and itching. Creams and ointments should be used according to the directions on the label.
Another common way to use herbs on your skin is by making a compress. Whether hot or cold, compresses can help relieve the discomfort of throbbing pains such as backaches, toothaches, headaches, and neck tension. To make a compress, fill a bowl with hot or cold water. Add 4 or 5 drops of a soothing essential oil, such as lavender, rosemary, or tea tree. Dip a clean cotton cloth into the water. Squeeze out excess water and place the wet cloth on the affected area. Repeat three to five times.
You can also make a compress by dipping a cloth into an infusion and holding it on the wounded area for 15 minutes. You can continue using a compress off and on until symptoms go away. back to top
How do I know what's the best form of a specific herb to use?
Many herbs are best taken as standardized extracts. But there are exceptions to that rule. For example, echinacea
is best taken as a tincture, in part because taking it in tincture form allows you to experience the tell-tale tingle that assures you the herb is "good." Other herbs, such as garlic
, are often most useful in food form. Still others, such as green tea
, may be better enjoyed when sipped from a steamy cup, rather than gulped as an extract.
For more information on how to take a specific herb, look for that herb under "Herbs at a Glance." The herb listings on iEmily include recommendations about what form is best to take, suggestions on how to take it, and cautions about any side effects. Remember to ask your doctor before trying any herbal supplement, to make sure it is right for you. back to top