Here we are at the final post in the How To Start Using Herbs blog series. These posts have spanned 2 1/2 months with 14 posts total covering the basic things you need to know to help you get started using herbs.
Today, we’ll be talking about herbal syrups, honeys, and oxymels including what they are, how they’re used, and how to make them. We’ll also be talking about how you can make these preparations more shelf-stable as well as the big question of whether it’s a smart move to be giving kids herbal medicines that contain sugar.
Herbal Syrups, Honeys, and Oxymels
An herbal syrup is basically an herbal decoction that is sweetened with a large amount of honey or some other sugar (organic sucanut, cane sugar, or brown sugar). The amount of sweetener you use will vary depending upon how sweet you want it, and dried or fresh herbs can be used. Herbal syrups are most often used for coughs, but they can be used for other ailments as well.
An herbal honey is basically honey in its regular form (raw with beeswax removed) that has been infused with herbs. The properties of the herbs are drawn out of the plant material and into the honey. This honey can be taken in small frequent doses, used in food, or added to herbal teas. It can also be added to herbal salves, homemade skincare products, or used directly on wounds and infections. Herbal honeys also make great gifts, especially for foodie friends! Dried herbs are most often used although fresh can be used as well.
An herbal oxymel is a mixture of apple cider vinegar and raw honey that has been infused with herbs. They’re commonly used to fight off viruses and respiratory issues as well as for basic coughs. You can make them as sweet or sour as you’d like, and you can use them as a salad dressing if you wish!
The Many Benefits Of Honey
Honey has been used since ancient times not only for food but for cosmetics and medicine as well. It’s amazingly antibacterial and has been used to stimulate the healing process and rapidly clear infection on the body with amazing results. In fact, it’s been so beneficial that it’s now being added to wound care products and used in hospitals! (Eteraf-Oskouei, 2013)
Unfortunately, not all honey is created equal. Honey you buy in the store (labeled grade A by the USDA) is not the kind of honey to use on wounds and infections… or in herbal preparations for that matter; however, manuka honey is thought to be the best honey for as far as health benefits go. In a past article by Dr. Mercola, he stated findings from a clinical study which revealed that manuka honey sourced from New Zealand, made from the pollen gathered of the manuka bush, was shown to effectively eradicate more than 250 clinical strains of bacteria, including resistant varieties like MRSA, VRE, and H. Pylori. (Mercola, 2009)
Besides being antibacterial, honey has also been shown to be “antiseptic, antimicrobial, antipyretic, anti-inflammatory, antiallergenic, antitoxic, sedative, laxative, anti anemic, antioxidant, healing and cleansing (external and internal), moisturizing and blood-purifying. It promotes rehydration, is easily digestible, stimulates immunity, and is beneficial for all types of skins diseases.” (Needham, 2008)
Honey is very nutritious (for a type of sugar) when in its raw state. It’s a mixture of carbohydrates and proteins. It also contains 18 free amino acids, a number of enzymes, and trace amounts of B vitamins and vitamin C. Minerals like calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, selenium, chromium, and manganese are also found in honey as well as antioxidants (the darker the honey, the more antioxidants it has) and other compounds. (Ediriweera, 2012)
As you can see, honey alone is an amazingly healthy substance. Combine it with the power of herbs, you’re doing a great service for your body! Unfortunately, no matter what kind of honey you’re using, too much of a good thing can end up being a bad thing, but we’ll talk more about that below.
Making These Preparations Shelf-Stable
Honey makes a great preservative because of its low water level (.6%) and high sugar content which inhibits most microorganisms from growing in it. It has been used for centuries as a preservative and can be stored for long periods of time without going bad if it’s not exposed to moisture. Even after long periods of storage, the properties of honey can still be used and assimilated by the body! (Wikipedia, n.d.)
When it comes to using honey or sugars to preserve herbal preparations, a couple of things need to be considered.
First is the sugar to liquid ratio. In order to extend the shelf-life of something using sugar or honey, a 1:1 ratio which is equal to 50% sugar and 50% liquid, is suggested. Most herbal syrups call for that amount, but I personally find it too sweet so I make my syrups in smaller batches at a ratio of 1:2 which is around 33% sugar.
Now, if you do end up with a 1:1 ratio in your syrup, it doesn’t mean your preparation can sit out at room temperature because anything with liquid will eventually go bad. It just means that your preparation will last a bit longer than it would if you didn’t have any sugar.
Another way to prolong shelf-life in herbal products is temperature — cold temperatures to be exact. Cold temperatures slow down microbial growth and the natural enzyme activity in foods which cause them to rot. This is why it’s important to keep your preparations in cold environments if you want them to last longer. Your refrigerator’s consistently cool temperature is the perfect place to store your herbal preparations that have high water contents in order to have them last longer.
Sugar & The Immune System
It’s a fairly well-known fact that large doses of sugar inhibit the immune system so people often wonder why herbalists like to use sugar in their preparations. After all, aren’t herbs supposed to be beneficial? Why would you combine something good for the body with something bad for the body?
As I mentioned earlier, there are 3 main reasons sugars are used in herbal preparations.
- Health benefits (honey only)
Now, no matter what good reasons there are, it still doesn’t negate the fact that large amounts of sugar decrease the immune response in the body.
Thankfully, herbal preparations don’t contribute to large amounts of sugar going into the body at one time, even with frequently repeated doses.
I’m not going to go into much detail on this whole process here, but if you’re more interested in the science behind this, check out this post I wrote on the topic! It’s fascinating!
For now, you can take my word for it, and when the post is written, I’ll link back to it here.
How To Make Herbal Syrups, Honeys, and Oxymels
Below you’ll find the basic steps needed to make herbal syrups, honeys, and oxymels.
- Start by making an herbal decoction (4 cups of water to 1/4 cup of herbs) in a saucepan, heating over low heat until liquid is reduced by 50%.
- Strain herbs and let liquid cool to room temperature.
- Add anywhere from 1-2 cups of honey or sugar to liquid. Stir well until dissolved.
- Bottle and store in refrigerator. Usually stores anywhere from 6-12 months.
- Fill a glass jar 1/3 full of dried herbs (1/2 full if using finely chopped fresh herbs).
- Cover with raw honey of choice until honey reaches 1 inch from the top of your jar. Cap jar tightly.
- Place a washcloth on the bottom of a crockpot or saucepan. Sit your glass jar on top and fill your pan or crock with water covering as much of the jar as possible.
- Turn heat on low. Heat for 3-6 days, stirring daily.
- When time’s up, strain herbs through a fine mesh sieve and cheesecloth. Bottle honey. Label and store. Most honeys will store at room temperature for 12 months or longer.
- Fill a glass jar 1/2 full of herbs.
- Combine apple cider vinegar and raw honey in equal proportions, filling jar to 1 inch from the top. Cap tightly. (Plastic caps are recommended when using vinegar as it will erode metal lids.)
- Let sit in a cool, dark place for 6-8 weeks. Shake daily if possible.
- Strain herbs. Bottle and label oxymel. Store at room temperature. Usually stores anywhere from 12 months or longer.
- Ediriweera, E. R. H. S. S., & Premarathna, N. Y. S. (2012). Medicinal and cosmetic uses of bee’s honey: A review. Ayu, 33(2), 178–182. http://doi.org/10.4103/0974-8520.105233
- Eteraf-Oskouei, T., & Najafi, M. (2013). Traditional and modern uses of natural honey in human diseases: A review. Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences, 16(6), 731–742.
- Honey. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honey
- Mercola, J. (2009, November 17). This bee product has enormous benefits for your health. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/11/17/this-bee-product-has-enormous-benefits-for-your-health.aspx
- Needham, A. (2008). Health benefits of honey. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.bees-online.com/HealthBenefitsOfHoney.htm