When I first started learning about and using herbs, my idea of herbal medicine centered around the use of herbal tinctures for everything.
Not only was I trying to fit herbs in a box (as you learn more about herbs you’ll find that they do NOT fit into boxes), but I was limiting them in so many ways. Besides that, I had no idea how herbs really worked, and when I didn’t get the results I thought I was supposed to be getting it was frustrating. As I’ve said many times in previous posts, herbs themselves aren’t going to “cure” your problem. They gently assist the body in healing itself. Basically, they give the body little nudges to get itself back to normal. I hope I’m making sense.
Now if you too have thought the same thing about herbal medicine, today’s post is for you. Today I’m going to talk about herbal tinctures, glycerites, and vinegars. I’ll be talking about the differences in these preparations, what they’re used for, how long they last, and of course, how to make them.
Herbal Tinctures, Glycerites, and Vinegars
Tinctures, glycerites, and vinegars are all very similar, and the great thing about these herbal preparations, compared to some of the others I’ve covered in this series, is that they’re more convenient. Of course that’s probably a matter of opinion; however, not only are they stronger and therefore the daily dosages are smaller, but they’re easy to take with you on the go and have a longer shelf-life. To me, that is convenient, and when it comes to using herbs as medicine, I’ll take convenience where I can get it!
Herbal tinctures are made when you infuse herbs into alcohol for a certain amount of time. The end result is an extract that is concentrated with the herb’s chemicals. Smaller dosages are usually taken more frequently for acute issues where larger dosages can be taken less often for chronic, ongoing conditions.
Herbal glycerites are made the same as a tincture except that instead of using alcohol you use glycerin. Glycerin is a vegetable oil by-product (commonly palm, soy, and coconut). So why use glycerin over alcohol? Well, glycerin tastes sweet so kids will take it easily, and it can really improve the flavor of some of the grosser tasting herbs. Have you ever tried a yellow dock tincture to boost your iron levels? It works great, but tastes oh so terrible! Another benefit to glycerin is that it doesn’t affect your blood sugar so if that’s a concern, glycerin can be a good fit. If you don’t know much about glycerin, you can learn more from Global Healing Center.
Herbal vinegars are also made similarly to tinctures and glycerites, but they’re used more for their nutritional benefits than medicinal (although they can be used that way). We’ll talk more about what each of these menstruums extract from the herbs below, but herbal vinegars have a variety of uses from skincare to haircare to using in your foods.
Fresh Vs. Dried Herbs
Fresh and dried herbs can be used to make herbal tinctures, glycerites, and vinegars, but there are a few things to keep in mind.
- You’ll need less dried herbs in your jar than you will fresh herbs.
- When using dried herbs, don’t fill your jars too full as they will swell after soaking in your menstruum.
- Fresh herbs need to be washed and chopped up as finely as possible. This increases their surface area and allows the constituents to be extracted easier.
- Fresh herbs sometimes need to be extracted with a stronger percentage of alcohol to prevent spoilage because they contain water.
What Kind Of Alcohol, Glycerin, or Vinegar?
When it comes to using alcohol in your tinctures, you have a lot of choices. I’m not going to in detail on alcohols today since these Using Herbs posts are for beginners, but just know that this is a topic you can research further if you’d like.
Different alcohols not only taste different, but they have different amounts of water in them which will affect the plant constituents they extract as well as the dosage.
For example, Everclear (or pure grain alcohol) is a 190-proof alcohol. It contains 95% alcohol and 5% water. It will extract and preserve really well, but it will be very strong tasting. Also, your dose for tinctures made with this alcohol may be smaller than your dose for a tincture made using brandy. Brandy has a great flavor and is a 80-proof alcohol. This means it contains 40% alcohol and 60% water. Brandy tinctures won’t taste as strong, and they’ll have higher dosages. It’s important to know that these are not hard and fast rules. Some brands of alcohol have different proofs.
When using glycerin with herbs, make sure that your source your glycerin from a trusted company that offers non-GMO, food-grade glycerin. This type of glycerin has been approved for internal use.
The best vinegar to use with herbs is raw apple cider vinegar that contains the mother. This is my favorite brand.
If you’re in a pinch you can use kombucha that has finished fermenting. Honestly, I’m not sure if it’s as effective at drawing out constituents as raw ACV is, but I’ve read that you can use it in place of ACV if you need to.
Lastly, plain ACV from the store can be used as well. The only downside is that it doesn’t contain all the live enzymes that the raw vinegars do.
How Much Herb to Liquid?
Another thing that affects tinctures, glycerites, and vinegars are the amount of herbs you use compared to the amount of liquid. This is called the “ratio,” and it is written as follows: 1:1, 1:2, 1:3, etc.. The ratio of herb to menstruum can be complicated for beginners so I’m not going to go into too much detail in this post. For our purposes today, I’ll be showing you how to make your preparations using the “folk method”. If you’re interested in learning how to use the ratio method in your preparations, my Making Herbal Infused Oils guide goes into detail on how to do it.
The folk method (also known a “simpler’s method”) is not only easy to make, but it does make effective tinctures that work. This is the method I first learned and used, and it’s often my go-to if I’m in a hurry or if I don’t need to be exact with my end results. The only downside to folk preparations is that you have to titrate your doses to find what works. Most herbalists will give you dosages based on preparations made using the ratio method because they tend to provide more consistent or standardized results.
There are several extraction methods to making tinctures, glycerites, and vinegars. This is something else I go into detail on in Making Herbal Infused Oils, but basically, extraction methods come down to two things.
- Time (cold-processed)
- Temperature (hot-processed)
You can mix your herbs and menstruum and let it set for 2-6 weeks before straining to get a great quality preparation or you can let your mixture sit in a warmer environment for a shorter amount of time to get the same results. Again, I’m not going to detail these methods in this post, but it’s always something you can do more research on if you want.
Which method is best? I honestly don’t know. I’m not sure if there’s any science behind which method is best, but every herbalist has their preference. I use both depending on what I’m making, but I prefer to make cold-processed methods following moon cycles if I have time. I don’t know why, but I feel like it provides a better quality end-product. Either that or I’m just old-fashioned!
What Plant Properties Are Extracted In These Preparations
The following information is from herbalist Rosalee de la Foret in her post – What’s Chemistry Got To Do With It.
- Alcohol – alkaloids, glycosides, saponins, flavonoids, tannins, resins
- Glycerine – tannins, some minerals, trace minerals, alkaloids, and acids
- Vinegar – alkaloids, minerals, trace minerals
As you can see… alcohol will pull out the most properties from a plant, and this is why I prefer to use it; however, the menstruum you choose will ultimately depend on what you want your tincture to do and which constituents you want to extract.
Alcohol & Kids
One question I’m commonly asked by moms who want to use herbs with their kids is, “Are alcohol tinctures safe to use with my children?”
The short answer is “yes,” but this is totally a matter of preference.
Like I said earlier, tinctures are stronger preparations and therefore have lower dosages which are based on a child’s weight. This means that your child isn’t going to get drunk from you giving them doses of an alcohol tincture around the clock. Really. First of all, if your child has food on their stomach, they absorb the alcohol more slowly than if their stomach is empty. Next, the adult liver metabolizes one ounce of liquor in one hour, and you won’t be giving your child anywhere near that amount. (Brown University, n.d.)
The only worse-case scenario that I can think of with alcohol tinctures and kids is if your kid somehow drinks a whole bottle of a tincture. This is highly unlikely as alcohol tinctures don’t taste that great. If they did drink a whole bottle of a tincture, besides the amount of alcohol they consume, I’d be concerned about the effects of that much herb at one time. Again, it’s not that likely that your kid is going to down a bottle of tincture. It’s more likely that they’ll drink a bottle of a glycerite because it’s sweet. Just remember, herbs have effects on the body… put them up and out of reach like you would any other medicine.
Now, if you still have an aversion to using alcohol with your kids, or even yourself, that’s totally fine. You have other options. You can use herbal teas, infusions, and decoctions, herbal electuaries and powders, herbal glycerites and vinegars, or herbal syrups, honeys, and oxymels which I’ll be talking about next week. Aren’t you glad you have lots of options when it comes to using herbs? I sure am!
What About Evaporating The Alcohol Out Of A Tincture With Hot Water?
Many people will say to boil water, pour it in a cup, and drop their tincture drops in there to evaporate the alcohol off, but did you know that this is a misconception? Yeah, it is! Only a small amount of the alcohol will evaporate this way (around 15%). Alcohol disperses in water, and it’s very difficult to separate them. Plus, when you add tinctures to hot waters you can lose some of the essential oils and other constitutes in the tincture. (USDA, 2007)
How To Make Herbal Tinctures, Glycerites, & Vinegars
Below are the basic steps to making a cold-processed herbal tincture, glycerite, or vinegar using the folk method.
- Take a clean glass jar and fill it 1/3 full of your herbs. (Be sure to chop fresh herbs finely if possible.)
- * Glycerites only – Pour a small amount of boiled water over your dry herbs to moisten them. This will help to extract more properties from them than glycerin can do alone.
- Next, pour your menstrum (alcohol, glycerin, vinegar) over the herbs, filling the jar up 1 inch from the top.
- Put your lid on, label, and shake to mix herbs and menstrum well.
- Place jar in a cool, dark cabinet to sit for 2-6 weeks. Harder herbs (seeds, roots, barks) will need to sit longer than soft herbs (flowers, leaves). Shake daily if possible.
- After 2-6 weeks, pour tincture through a cloth. Compost herbs and bottle tincture. Be sure to label properly and store it correctly. It should last 2+ years!
- Alcohol & your body. (n.d.). [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.brown.edu/Student_Services/Health_Services/Health_Education/alcohol,_tobacco,_&_other_drugs/alcohol/alcohol_&_your_body.php
- De la Foret, R. (2008, September 19). What’s chemistry got to do with it? [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.methowvalleyherbs.com/2008/09/whats-chemistry-got-to-do-with-it.html
- USDA table of nutrient retention factors. (2007, December 1). [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.ars.usda.gov/SP2UserFiles/Place/80400525/Data/retn/retn06.pdf