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Making Your Own Medicinal Tinctures

Just in the last handful of years, instructables on herbal medicine making have flourished. The internet has become an encyclopedia of information on pretty much every subject you can think of. When I started expanding my herbal knowledge past what I learned as a child, there was no internet and even when I started expanding further, into how to preserve it via salves, tinctures and vinegars, there was still none of that type of knowledge available that way. You had to seek out other herbalists who had the knowledge you were after. Along that path, I made many a trip to learn from whomever I could.  Some of the time it was worthwhile and other times it was not. What soon became apparent, and has since become rampant on the internet, is the inconsistency in preparation. What I’m talking about is equivalent, for example, to the consistency of strength of a store-bought Ibuprofen. Because the methods are standardized, you know that every time you buy a bottle of Ibuprofen, every tablet in the bottle, and every tablet in every bottle thereafter, will be the same strength. It makes it easy and safe to know how much to take and you can count on the dose being sufficiently effective. The same standards are used in commercial herbal preparations you can buy at the store. While we home herbalists don’t measure down to “grains” of powder, it’s important to be consistent in your preparations so you know how much to take and be consistent enough that you produce a strong enough batch of product to do the job. I’m not an herbal snob, but it does make me wince a little to see Pinterest pictures of herbal how-to’s with a tablespoon or two of herb floating around in a pint jar filled to the top with oil, vinegar or spirits. There’s not enough of the herb to make a cup of tea, much less an effective tincture… oh my, I have to step away from that rabbit hole. No wonder people shun homemade herbal preparations as being “quackery”.  Heavens. Before I get bogged down any further in that, let me say a few words about why you would want or need to tincture an herb:

Reasons to Tincture an herb:

  1. To preserve the life of an herb you can’t just go pick when you need it.  Seasonal root medicine is a good illustration of this.  One that comes to mind is Poke which is only harvested twice a year and sometimes only once, depending on who you ask.  Roots can be dried and then used, but tincturing a fresh root just after it is harvested gives you medicine you can use for many years before you have to harvest again.
  2. To have medicine already prepared when you need it.  We use 4 hour infusions for many medicines when waiting is not really an issue.  Sometimes you need medicine right away though;  hence the attraction of big pharma’s pills in a bottle.  With a little planning, you can have tinctures you will need on hand when you need them.  Black Cohosh is the example used in this article because when I need it, it’s very inconvenient to wait 4 hours for an infusion to be ready.  (I’ll tell you about a solution I have for that in a future post)
  3. To create an herbal preparation that travels well.   You can take with you in your purse, to work, on vacation, etc.

I like to make my own tinctures and things because I often can go out to where we have it growing, pick what I need, make the medicine and know exactly what is in the bottle that I’m using from.  No bad quality herbs that have been sprayed, no substitute herbs, no chemical preservatives, etc.  For things we don’t have growing, I like being able to choose dried herbs from sources I trust.  There are legitimate ways to infuse using heat, but this is the traditional way (relatively speaking) and produces an end product that will be the same strength every time you make it. This is for a tincture and will differ slightly than when you infuse an oil.

What you will need to make a tincture:
* Lidded Mason type jar big enough to give you at least a little headroom at the top so you have room to shake it.
* Dried (or fresh) herbs
* 100 proof grain alcohol
* Label for your jar

Place your dried herbs into the mason jar.  The nice thing about this method is how much herb you use depends on how much tincture you want.  You’ll only cover the herbs with alcohol, so eyeball it from that perspective. If using fresh herbs, see the post Using Fresh vs. Dried Herbs for how to prepare fresh herbs and to determine if the ones you are using need to have anything done to them first.  This tincture is of dried Black Cohosh root so all I have to do is put it in the jar. 

Pour just enough 100 proof alcohol over the herbs to cover them.  Secure the lid and label the jar with the type of herb, that it is a “tincture” and the date.  I usually also go ahead and calculate when it will be ready (8 weeks) and put that on the label too, just because it makes it easier.  Your label doesn’t have to be anything fancy, painter’s tape and a sharpie works well and the painter’s tape won’t be hard to take off after it sits for a couple of months.

***A note on the alcohol… it’s worthwhile to use 100 proof as that will be equal parts water and alcohol. Some plant constituents extract better in water and some better in alcohol. 100 proof gives you the ability to extract both.   I prefer vodka and use the cheap stuff, since I won’t be taking enough of it to matter much what it tastes like.

The dried herbs will almost always absorb some of the alcohol, so over the next few hours, top off the jar to keep the herb covered.  this is after only about an hour so I will add just enough alcohol to re-cover the Black Cohosh.

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After about 3 hours, give it a shake and see if it needs topping again.  As you can see, this one does.

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The next morning, it looks like this.  I gave it a shake and after it settled it looks like most of the absorbing is finished, so I will leave this as is.

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Put the jar somewhere out of direct sunlight and every now and then, as you think about it, give it a shake to move things around.  Sometimes you may notice after a couple of weeks that the herb has absorbed more of the alcohol.  I usually don’t add more unless it is visibly dry on top of the herb or you consistently have a layer of herb on the top that is not slushy.

After 8 weeks, strain out the herb and store the infused alcohol (now a tincture) in a dark glass jar or bottle.  You can purchase amber dropper bottles like these or put it in a lidded mason jar out of sunlight and use a separate dropper.  The dose will vary by herb, but for this one, Black Cohosh, the dose is one dropperful (about 36 drops – dropper sizes vary also) 3 – 4 times a day as needed.  I don’t have bad hot flashes that require a continual dose, but do have hormone fluctuation migranes and bouts of nighttime restless legs.  For my purpose, I can just take a dropperful as needed and having tincture makes that much easier than making a 4 hour water infusion every time.  It also makes traveling with it much easier.

Your strained out herb can go straight into the compost.

If you want more information about medicine making, James Green’s book,  The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual is a very good resource and uses the same method.  He covers a ton of really good information and has clear dosage instructions.  If you want some really deep details on the chemical actions of what you’ve extracted, take a look at Medical Herbalism: The Science Principles and Practices Of Herbal Medicine by David Hoffmann.  It’s pricey and very deep, sometimes too deep, but offers a whole other level of understanding.  

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