We are all familiar with modern-day Western medicine and the different forms they come in. From pills to syrups, to creams and vaccinations, medicine comes in all shapes and sizes. Herbal medicine also comes in many forms and today we are going to look at the most common forms of herbal medicine.
Infusions & Herbal Teas
Infusions and teas are almost the same thing and are both prepared similarly. Teas are made up of one or more herbs and taken when you want to enjoy tea and occasionally while ill. Infusions have a higher concentration of herbs and can provide more vitamins and minerals per cup than a regular cup of tea. Infusions may be steeped longer than tea. Infusions are meant to benefit the body, tea is typically a drink for pleasure.
You may be familiar with infused oils used for cooking, often called flavored cooking oils. Herbal infused oils are different from flavored cooking oils but processes of creating the two are similar. Herbal infused oils have a high concentration of herbs to oil, is typically left to infuse much longer, and is not usually used for cooking.
The creation of an herbal infused oil is meant to draw out the properties of the herbs placed in the oil. That oil is then used topically rather than internally. The oils can be used by themselves but are often used to create salves, lip balms, lotions, creams, massage oils, soaps, and more.
Tinctures have been around for over 1,000 years but the tinctures we know today are not the same tinctures that have been used throughout history. Tinctures are an infusion of herbs in alcohol that is meant to be taken internally to treat or prevent ailments.
The practice of putting herbs in alcohol was often done with wine. In China, they would infuse wines with herbs and prescribe it to treat various ailments. In Chinese medicine, these are not called tinctures, but Medicinal Wines. Tinctures were developed in the West as a way to preserve fresh herbs that did not last very long after being dried, unlike many Eastern herbs. Modern Western tinctures are usually made with very strong proof alcohols, typically vodka, and infused with herbs. Tinctures are administered through drop dosages in drinks, directly in the mouth, under the tongue, or in tea if one wishes to evaporate the alcohol. The wine itself in medical wines of the East was as much a part of the treatment as the herbs were. Today, we do not see the alcohol as part of the treatment. You can even make them without alcohol.
A salve is like a medicinal cream and is meant to relieve a topical condition such as itchiness from poison ivy. They are typically made with infused oils that have been infused with specific herbs that will bring the required relief. Salves have not been around as long as many of the other medicinal preparations but it is something the Native Americans have used. Salves are pretty common today, as we easily have access to the required ingredients to make them. They are always used topically to soothe or bring relief. Never consume a salve.
Have you seen The Hunger Games? Remember that scene where Katniss gets attack by tracker jackers and wakes up with a bunch of mashed up soggy leaves on her wounds? Well thanks to Rue’s knowledge of a poultice, she saved Katniss’ life.
A poultice is a mashed up mess of one or more plants that kept moist. It is then applied to a topical wound and may have a bandaged wrapped around it to keep the herbs in place. A poultice is used similarly like a salve as it is applied topically to soothe or treat a topical condition. Depending on the injury or condition, a lot of salves and poultices can be used interchangeably. For example, the herb plantain infused in oil and made into a salve can help elevate itchiness from poison ivy. If you were to take the plantain and make a poultice instead and place it on the affected area, it too will help elevate itchiness. In some cases, like with Katniss, certain plants made into a poultice can help “draw” out issues and reduce inflammation. Poultices can be made with a mortar and pestle or even by simply chewing the herbs in your mouth (depending on the herb).
Decoctions are made by boiling barks, roots and berries to extract the active ingredients. The liquid is strained and can be taken either hot or cold.1
Decoctions are much like teas but they are much, much stronger and more potent. They are typically used with barks, roots, and dried berries as these parts need a longer steep time to draw out the properties of the plant. Decoctions are very common in Traditional Chinese Medicine but today capsules, pills, or tablets are recommended over decoctions. They are typically used over a short period of time, often over a few days, but could possibly be used for three or more months depending on the illness or disease and what kind of treatment is required.
Herbal supplements are made from natural plants and are used by some individuals to supplement traditional medical treatments.2
Herbal supplements allow you to take herbs and receive the plant’s benefits without having to eat or drink the herb. It’s a pretty easy way to take herbs but not always the most effective way to receive the plant’s benefits. Herbal supplements are not considered drugs so they are not regulated by the FDA. Always make sure to research herbal supplement brands as there are many out there whose supplements are full of fillers and may not even contain the supplemental plant. Make sure to also consult a doctor or nutritionist before taking herbal supplements so that you don’t take the wrong herbs or amount. Herbal supplements and other herbal preparations can interfere with medications.