How to make & take
your herbs

Using herbal remedies

Herbs can be delicious and effective to take. But, like anything, they do need appropriate handling and use. Common sense is best applied when using anything for the first time. For treating any specific conditions we always recommend to see a professional clinical herbalist.

The herbal remedies we use today represent only a tiny proportion of the plant species growing around the world. Something like 30,000 of the 400,000 plants in the world have been used as foods & medicines. It is certain that humans through history adopted the use of those plants that were quickly effective and with minimum adverse effects. Short-term safety at least is built in to these millions of human experiences through the ages.

Further, the benign qualities of these herbs arise from their complexity. The existence of the secondary plant metabolites- the tasty and not-so-tasty aromatic oils, polyphenols, tannins, mucilages, saponins, or other constituents, – in different ways buffer the effect of more active compounds, which are often in any case present in only low levels. Its the synergy within the plant that creates the balance. You could say that our human relationship with nature has been based on us being exposed to micro-doses of 10s of thousands of phytochemicals on a daily basis. We know each other.

Most importantly, the whole thrust of treatment with plants is different from that of conventional medicine. The herbs are used ideally to nudge healing responses in the body rather than directly attack the symptoms or pathology. A bitter stimulates digestive activity, a hot spice the digestion and circulation as well; laxatives provoke bile, bowel and urinary elimination; expectorants, diuretics, hepatics and lymphatics produce their own detoxifications, and so on. We trust the body to look after its affairs and seek only to help it on its way without disturbing it unduly.

Making your herbs

The remarkable art and science of herbal preparation is a world unto itself. And in amongst all the elixirs and balms is an intent to harness the power of the plants by harnessing the aromas, colours and unique characteristics of each plant. It takes some prior knowledge and practice to skillfully draw their healing properties into a form that is easy to take and be safely preserved. Whether its a cup of tea, a tincture, infused oil or a fresh juice, each plant needs appropriate handling to get the best out of them.

How do you decide if the the water should be hot or cold? Should it be an extract in high or low alcohol? Why are some herbs extracted with vinegar and some in oils?

A little bit of plant chemistry is helpful here. It will help you understand how to harness the best from the herbs. Think of it as a continuum; some plant compounds love water; they are hydrophilic and water soluble, like the mouth-puckering and teacup-staining tannins in a cup of tea or the sweet glycyrrhizin in licorice; some prefer alcohol, like the bitter alkaloid compounds found in gentian and in many a digestive bitter apperitif; and some are fat soluble and hydrophobic – such as the red pigmented hypericin found in infused St John’s Wort oil.

A simple way of thinking about it is that like will attract like; fats will attract fatty properties from plants – which is why cooking essential oil-rich spices in oil makes the food much more delicious; and water will attract the more water-loving elements such as the colourful chlorophyll pigments and sweeter polysaccharides.

More in-depth herbal alchemy for the herbalists

Much of this comes down to the polarity continuum: some molecules are totally non-polar, some have low polarity, others are just a little polar, some are moderately polar, and so on. The main significance of this is that substances with similar polarities can dissolve within one another: Oil and water don’t mix, because water molecules are very polar, and oil molecules are almost non-polar. On the other hand, water and ethanol do intermix, because their polarities are somewhat similar. In the same fashion, polar solvents (e.g., water, ethanol, glycerin – also called glycerol) will dissolve molecules with a polarity similar to their own. Low-polarity molecules will generally dissolve in oils; and polar molecules will dissolve in polar solvents like water and ethanol.

That’s why there are so many types of pastes, percolates and poultices as herbs need different mediums to reach the parts that other herbal extracts can’t reach.

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