Do Herbal Supplements Work?

Herbalism isn’t rocket science, but it is science. Our ancestors knew a lot more about health and the human body than popular culture gives them credit for, and the practice of herbalism is the collected wisdom of centuries of trial and error. There are still some aspects of herbalism we haven’t yet explained with science, but it’s not “magic.” 

Herbalists work with plants because the vitamins, minerals, and organic chemicals that plants create to keep themselves healthy can keep humans healthy, too.

Because herbs are so complex, it’s not accurate to think of them as “weak” or “gentle” drugs. They fit into a complete system of health care that is not the same as the mainstream Western model. The holistic herbal model prioritizes early preventive care, and when illness happens, it focuses on supporting and strengthening the body’s own response mechanisms.

Just because herbalism is a different system doesn’t mean you have to choose one or the other. Think of it like fusion cuisine—taking the tastiest parts of one type of food and blending them with another to get an exciting, delicious new style. Most strategies we include here can be complementary to other treatments you’re receiving.

Step One: Learn What You Need

Herbs are suited to different bodies and different purposes, but they’re all multitalented. If you find yourself working with a herb that doesn’t taste good to you, it’s okay. You can choose another herb and see if that suits your taste better. 

There are many ways to define the “best” herb for your body, but it always comes down to one very practical guideline: “The best herb is the one you’ll actually take!”

A Holistic Approach to Healing

You can make herbal tea out of just one herb and get all the benefits of that one herb. Or, you can blend several herbs into a formula for a synergistic effect that is greater than any one of those herbs on its own.

The same is true of health. You could take an herbal approach, adding a herbal tea or tincture blend to your daily routine. And you can expand that to a holistic approach—you might add more unprocessed whole foods to your diet, find time each day to go for a walk or meditate, and make an effort to get an extra hour of sleep each night. 

Sure, simply adding herbs into your daily routine is a great step toward a healthier you, and sometimes, in this busy life, it’s all there is time for. But those herbs can be even more effective when they’re part of a whole “formula” of healthy habits.

In our school and clinic, we consider four areas when trying to help people build their health: sleep, food, stress, and movement. Why these four? Because in our modern lifestyles, these are areas that usually need some support: 

Our lives are busy and stressful, which means most people don’t get as much sleep as they need and don’t have the time for wholesome, home-cooked meals every day. As many people work in offices, there isn’t always the chance to get enough movement throughout the day, and, with all that’s going on, it can be difficult to manage stress well. We find that when we can make any positive change in any of these areas, it greatly enhances the work we’re doing with herbs.

We don’t necessarily do it all at once—that can be overwhelming. Instead, we like to place each area on a compass and just keep going around the circle: Is there anything we can improve here, either by adding herbs or with lifestyle changes—or both? If so, great, and if not, we move on to the next. 

Not everything has to be perfect, but the more we can move in a positive direction, the more momentum we build and the stronger we get. Herbs can be the first step in that direction or part of a holistic protocol for a healthier life!

How Herbal Energetics Affect Their Applications

The fundamental basis of the system of herbal medicine is energetics—an old word that basically means “how we categorize what herbs do, and what your body needs.” 

Long before we invented laboratory testing, we needed a system to determine what was ailing the body and what actions should be taken to address it. Over time, people learned to categorize symptoms and illnesses based on things that could be determined with the senses: hot or cold, damp or dry, tense or lax. 

Our five senses were our original scientific tools! Although it’s simple, this system still holds up today. We can talk about inflammation, for example, as heat: Imagine you’ve been stung by a bee, and you have a red welt where the sting was. 

That welt is warm to the touch. There’s a benefit to that warmth—blood rushing to the area will carry away the bee’s venom, and, assuming you’re not allergic, the issue is resolved reasonably quickly. 

But that flood of warmth—that inflammation—is problematic if it runs out of control. In that case, it needs to be cooled down, so we would look for herbs with cooling effects, such as rose. And you may have done just that without herbs: Ice on a bee sting is very soothing! No one had to teach you to put ice on it; it was intuitive. Your senses told you that ice would cool down that hot, irritated sting.

ENERGETICS

HOT Inflamed, irritated tissue, including fever and burns. Anything that literally feels hot, agitated, or overly fast (such as palpitations or racing thoughts).

COLD Slowness of function, whether that’s circulation, digestion, or thought. This includes depression, hypothyroidism, and anything that literally feels cold.

DAMP Too much fluid anywhere in the body, such as a swollen sprained ankle, edema, rheumatism in the joints, and bloating.

DRY Not enough fluid anywhere in the body, including dry mouth, “frayed” nerves, and all types of dry skin.

TENSE Too much tightness anywhere in the body, including muscle tension, pinched nerves, and tension headaches.

LAX Not enough tension anywhere in the body, including any kind of prolapse, diarrhea, and even wrinkled aging skin.

For another example, let’s say you’ve sprained your ankle. There’s inflammation, which is heat—you see the redness and you feel the warmth of the blood rushing in. But there’s more: There’s also lymphatic fluid rushing to carry away the damaged cells so new cells can be built.

All that extra fluid makes your sprained ankle puffy and swollen—it’s damp. You can feel the extra fluid inside, and that extra fluid becomes uncomfortable—you want it to drain away. You might elevate your foot to help with that drainage, which is a great idea. 

You can also work with drying, or astringent, herbs to help “squeeze out” the fluids through the lymphatic system.

We can identify health issues by these aspects—a fever is hot, or a headache might be a result of tension. We can also put herbs into these same categories by their effects—ginger and cayenne are warming herbs, for example. 

There’s a third aspect here, called “constitution,” meaning “your normal state.” Maybe you’re a person who is always warm —for example, you consistently feel comfortable in a T-shirt in winter. 

We can say you have a “hot” constitution. Or you might be the opposite—the first person to put on a sweater, and always dressed in layers. We can say you have a “cold” constitution. Your constitution might have more than one aspect: 

You might run cold, and you might also have slow circulation, which makes you prone to edema or varicose veins in your legs. We can say you are “cold and damp.” No one constitution is ideal, or better, than any other—it’s just your body. The key is to keep it from swinging too far out of balance.

Knowing your constitution is quite handy. Let’s say you’re a person with a strong tendency toward dryness—a dry constitution. When you read about all the great ways nettle can help and nourish, you might be very excited to try it. 

But nettle is drying, and if you drink a lot of it, you might find your natural dryness is exaggerated, which can be uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean you can’t have nettle tea—it just means that when you work with drying herbs over the long term, you’ll need to add a moistening herb, such as linden or marshmallow, to balance the dryness.

Not sure? Don’t worry, your body will tell you! If you start drinking nettle tea every day and you have a damp constitution, nettle’s dryness will help drain some of your dampness, which will probably feel good. If you have a dry constitution, you might see benefits from the nourishment of nettles but also feel extra dry. 

Your body is telling you what to do—just add a moistening herb and continue on your way! The herbs we include in this book are very forgiving, so feel free to experiment, and if you need to make an adjustment along the way, you can.

Choosing the Best Herbs for Your Needs

Based on this energetic information, you can choose the best herb for your situation, even if you don’t know the medical diagnostic name for what’s going on. You may not know why, for example, you have a runny nose, but you do know that it’s damp and lax (flowing), so you might consider a drying, astringent herb to help dry and tighten the mucous membranes.

At first, thinking this way about health may seem a little awkward—it’s not how most of us were raised to think about our bodies. But learning to identify health issues this way gives you the independence to start applying the herbs you learn about even to things that aren’t in this guide. 

To help you with that, we define each ailment with its energetic terms, so, as you study each one, you’ll start to see how they fit into the herbal energetic system.

We’ve done the same for each herb, too. Many herbs are quite obvious, such as ginger—definitely hot. But some herbs are more subtle, and it takes a while to learn exactly how to categorize them. That categorization can usually be felt on your tongue—just like you can taste the astringency of an unripe banana—so the more you practice, the better you’ll get at it!

Single Herbs versus Herbal Blends

It’s always okay to work with one herb at a time, but sometimes you want to blend herbs together. For example, there may be more than one herb helpful for your situation, and you may want to try them together. 

Or you may want to balance an herb that is very warming or drying with herbs that are somewhat cooling or moistening to align with your constitution.

Working with herbs is very much like cooking, and you won’t know if you like it until you try it. If you like your recipes very precise, use the formulas in part 3. If you prefer to just “eyeball it” when you cook, use that same approach to herbal formulation, keeping the basic energetic principles in mind.

As you go through the guide, you might be inclined to think that every herb is exactly the herb you need—right now! Don’t worry, this feeling is normal and happens to us, too: It’s just so exciting to see so many helpful plants that we want to try them all. 

But it’s a good idea to keep your immediate goal in mind, and focus on it. Start with a target of three to five herbs in any formula—for example, if you want to make a formula for anxiety, even though there are a lot of great herbs that can help, pick the three that seem most applicable to your situation, and start with those.

Just like cooking and baking, start with a small batch to make sure you like it. If you do, make a larger batch and enjoy it over time. You might like to keep a “recipe book” of all your herbal experiments, so you can recreate the ones you like best whenever you want.

And if all that feels too difficult, just stick to one herb at a time. It’s still a very effective way to work with herbs, and it allows you to get to know each herb in depth.

Step Two: Source Your Medicinal Herbs

The quality of your herbs matters! When you shop for fruits and vegetables, you are careful to choose the ones that have vibrant colors and no bruising or “bad spots.” The same applies to your herb selection: Always look for vibrant colors, aromas, and flavor from your herbs.

Herbs come in several forms. You can purchase dried herbs whole or in “cut and sifted” form, which basically means the dried plants are chopped up like confetti. This is a great way to blend herbs for tea or to make tinctures. 

You can purchase herbs fresh from local farms or even grow them in your garden, which is great if you’re planning to make tinctures or oils. Fresh herbs can also be made into tea and, of course, added to food. 

You may already be familiar with powdered herbs from the spice section of the grocery store: They’re in small containers because once an herb is powdered, it loses its potency more quickly. And, of course, some herbs are sold as food, such as candied ginger, cayenne peppers, garlic, etc.

The Herbalist’s Philosophy

We like to avoid the word “use” in reference to herbs whenever possible. To “use” something implies exploitation. We view herbs as teachers, allies, and friends, not mere resources to be exploited. We don’t use our human friends to help us move or plan a party—we work together with them.

We feel the same way about plants, and try to reflect that in the way we speak and write about them. This is one small aspect of an ongoing effort to respect plants as living, independent organisms with their own needs and desires. While plants don’t perceive or act on the world the same way we do, they are nevertheless alive and responsive to their environments.

It’s our responsibility as stewards and caretakers to make sure we take only what we need, minimize waste, and actively restore plant habitats and populations so these beings can continue to share their gifts with us for generations to come.

Shopping for Your Herbs

High-quality herbs are high-quality herbs, regardless of their source. Where you live, that might be a local health food store, a small local farm, or even your neighbor’s garden. You may even have an herb shop in your town. You might be surprised to find that your grocery store has good-quality herbs, too, especially those frequently sold as produce. 

Or you may live somewhere with limited access to herbs, in which case you’ll find reputable online retailers in the Resources section.

You’ll also find that the price of herbs can vary greatly, depending on where you purchase them. Cheaper is not usually better! Local small producers often have to charge more for their herbs and herbal products, but the quality is also often much higher.

Experiment with small batches first, so you learn which producers have the best quality; that will help you know whether it’s worth the money.

Ethical Sourcing and Protecting At-Risk Plants

Some herbs should be avoided altogether, because they are at risk of extinction from overharvesting and habitat destruction. Many plants, especially woodland plants, require healthy forests to grow in and can’t be cultivated. 

Some of these plants, such as goldenseal, osha, and black or blue cohosh, are very popular and are still being sold. However, just like vegetables, there are many herbs with similar qualities, so there’s no need to purchase these at-risk plants. You can learn more about at-risk herbs and those that should be avoided at the United Plant Savers website, https://unitedplantsavers.org/.

Some popular herbs should also be avoided because their sale exploits the people and communities they come from. In general, when there’s a new trendy “superfood” from some far-off place, we avoid it. 

Maca is an example: Touted as a plant that will give you more energy, and that is also quite delicious, people flocked to it. But maca is a subsistence food for the indigenous Peruvians living at high altitudes, and the more that industrialized nations purchase, the more expensive it becomes: Local people can no longer afford to eat it.

Issues like this are complicated, but when it comes to exotic superfoods, it’s always good to remember we have our own superfoods right here. Plants such as cranberries, nettle, and dandelion leaves don’t have the exotic appeal, but they’re every bit as super!

How can you know if your herbs are sustainable? Buy them as locally as possible, and know your farmer. If there’s an exotic herb you’re interested in, research it and find fair-trade sources. And always be on the lookout for local herbs that can do the same work! In this way, we can do our part to make sure herbalism remains a sustainable and healthy practice, not just for our own bodies, but for the body of the whole earth as well.

What to Avoid

There are a few things to keep in mind when sourcing herbs: soil quality, growing practices, and how the herbs are dried or processed.

If the soil where the herbs are grown is contaminated with heavy metals or other pollution, this is likely to be in the plant matter. It’s important to know where the herbs were grown, so you can determine whether the soil was clean. 

This can be a problem for herbs grown anywhere, but especially those grown in places that don’t have regulations about soil pollution. Some larger herb retailers, such as Mountain Rose Herbs, test their herbs to make sure they are free of soil- based contamination.

You might be disinclined to purchase herbs grown in urban farms, but don’t write them off: Talk to the producers and ask about their soil. Most urban farms bring in clean soil and use water filtration to make sure their produce is safe.

Growing practices are also important. How were insects managed? What kind of fertilizer was used? Were the herbs grown in a greenhouse or outdoors? Were they grown hydroponically or in soil? All these things have pros and cons, but the bottom line is the result: If the herbs have vibrant color and strong aromas and flavors, then the quality is good.

The drying and processing step can be tricky, too: High-quality herbs can be ruined if they’re dried at too high a temperature or stored improperly. You’ll know this is the case if there is significant browning in the dried herbs. 

This is the same browning you would see on a living plant that had a brown, dried leaf—it looks un-vital. Let’s use St. John’s wort as an example: This plant should have some brown when it’s dried, but its brown color is a deep-red mahogany. That’s very different from the brown-black color of basil leaves that have gone bad in your refrigerator. The latter is the one to avoid.

The bottom line is, know who you’re buying your herbs from. Ask about their growing practices, about the soil and water, and about their processing practices. Not only does this help you make good choices, but it also helps build community between the people who grow our herbs (and food) and those of us who consume them. When we understand more about where our herbs come from, we value them, our farmers, and our environment more.

Ideas for Growing, Wildcrafting, and Harvesting Herbs

It’s always okay to purchase (vs. grow) your herbs, and in today’s busy lifestyle that’s often the easiest way to get herbs into your life. But it’s also lovely to develop a relationship with the herbs you love while they’re still alive—whether you grow them in your garden or find them in the wild. 

Even if you don’t harvest them at all, getting to know your herbs as living plants brings a new dimension to your practice of herbalism.

Herb Garden

No matter how urban your surroundings are, you can grow your own herbs. There are many herbs that will grow happily in a pot near a sunny window —you don’t even need a yard! If you’ve never grown any kind of plant before, or if you’ve ever described yourself as having a “brown thumb,” don’t worry: Growing plants is just like any other thing you want to do.

Spend a little time on it each day, and soon enough it will seem easy. Some herbs are definitely easier to grow than others. Mint, catnip, sage, and yarrow are easy ones to start with and can be found as seedlings or seeds at your local garden center. Mint and catnip are very easy to grow indoors as well. 

All are perfectly happy to live in pots if you don’t have a yard or if you don’t have safe soil to grow in. You can have your soil tested with your local Extension Office—they’ll send you a testing kit and provide results about soil safety as well as tips about the best type of fertilizer to use with the type of soil you have—all for about $10. 

Your local Extension Office also offers classes and advice about gardening in your area, as well as many other services, for free or at a low cost. (You can search “county extension office” to find the one near you.)

Just like with herbalism, the best way to get started growing herbs is just to start! Buy a seedling, put it in a pot with some good dirt and a little water, and check on it every day. Plants are living beings, and you’ll learn to “hear” your plant’s communication in the same way you learn to understand what your cat or dog is trying to tell you!

Wildcrafting

Although it’s alluring to think about hiking out into wild places and harvesting your own herbs, most times, the best advice we can give is, actually, not to do this.

There are some very abundant and fairly safe herbs to wildcraft, but overharvesting is a serious problem for our wild herbs, and when so many can be organically cultivated, it is really much better to do that instead of taking plants from the wild.

However, it is very rewarding to find wild plants and work with them, so here are some guidelines for doing so safely—for you, for the plants, and for the ecosystem they are a part of!

Identify the plant. Before anything else, it’s important to know what you’ve found. 

Learning to identify plants accurately takes time, but, if you practice, you will be able to do it just as easily as you recognize your friend across a crowded room! There are some excellent books on plant identification in the Resources section. 

We also recommend attending local plant walks. These walks, usually offered by local herbalists, typically include looking at the plants where they grow and learning how to identify and work with each plant. They are a great way to test your plant ID skills.

Get permission to harvest. If you find some plants you want to harvest, obtain permission from the property owners. Depending on where you live, wild land may be public or private—either way, there may be people there who harvest herbs already. If the land is private, ask the owners, and if the land is public, try to find out if anyone is already harvesting there, including wild animals. And, of course, make sure the location is protected from environmental hazards—for example, along the side of a road is not a good place to harvest plants, although you will find many growing there!

Harvest responsibly. Herbs are more than just medicine for humans: They are part of the complex, interconnected, living world we share. Sometimes those plants are healing the ecosystem they live in, and their medicine is not for us. The plants we call herbs are also often food and medicine for many species of animals in the area, from the smallest pollinator to the largest mammal. Twenty years ago, herbalists used to teach: one-third for the herbalist, one-third for the animals, and one-third for seed—but that rule does not work well for wild harvesting anymore. First, there are a lot more herbalists today, and if every herbalist takes one-third, eventually there will be none left. Also, many plant species struggle in our current climate, so they are just not as abundant as they once were. Animals struggle, too, and depend on the plants to survive. Today, better guidelines might be: If this plant literally grows as far as you can see, it is safe to take a small amount, and harvest in such a way that it looks like you were not there. These guidelines help us be more aware of our impact.

Be aware of a particular area over time. Perhaps you find what seems like a lot of a certain plant, but because you may not have seen it in previous years, you don’t realize it is in decline. Plants have years of abundance and years of difficulty, just like people. It is a good idea to visit an area where you’d like to harvest over several years to get a feel for the health of those plants and their ecosystem over time. If it’s a tough year, there may not be enough of that plant to sustain the animals who depend on it and to allow the plant to reseed for next year if we

herbalists also harvest some. The time you spend building this relationship with the ecosystem is well spent: You will learn far more than just what kind of year the plants are having. This kind of relationship to place used to be an integral part of being human—rebuilding it can be extremely nourishing and medicinal, even if you never harvest a single plant!

Harvesting

When you harvest plants, whether grown yourself or found in a sustainable wild place, it’s important to process them appropriately so you don’t waste the plants. If you’re harvesting roots, wash them well and cut them immediately: Roots can become very difficult, or even nearly impossible, to cut once they’ve dried. 

You can make a tincture or oil with them immediately, or dry them for tea or tincturing later. Dry them in a dehydrator if you have one. If not, dry them in a brown paper bag put in a warm, dry place, and check often for mold. If mold develops, remove the moldy pieces and find a drier location.

If harvesting aerial parts (leaves, stems, flowers—anything that grows aboveground), you can make an oil or tincture with them immediately, dry them for tea or tincture later, or just eat them as food. Unless they are visibly dirty, we don’t typically wash aerial parts: 

Adding water just makes them more difficult to dry and more likely to mold. Dry them in a dehydrator, if you have one, or in a brown paper bag put in a warm, dry place, such as an attic. If you live in a humid region, be very attentive to mold.

Make sure your herbs are thoroughly dried before storing them in airtight glass containers.

Step Three: Make Your Herbal Medicine

Making herbal medicines is easy and fun. With a few simple tools and ingredients, you can transform your herbs into all manner of delicious and effective remedies.

It doesn’t take fancy equipment or rare, expensive ingredients to make high-quality herbal preparations. Most of what you’ll need is probably already in your kitchen.

Essential Tools and Equipment

Mason jars. These are the herbalist’s best friend. Because they’re made of heat-resistant glass, you can pour boiling water right into them to make tea. They’re also handy for making tinctures, storing herbs, and more. Quart- and pint-size jars are the most versatile, though for storing dry herbs you may want larger jars. Many store-bought foods (sauerkraut, salsa, etc.) come in mason jars—just hand wash or run them through the dishwasher and dry to reuse them.

Wire mesh strainers. For straining tea or pressing out tinctures, you’ll want strainers of various sizes. Start with a few single-mug strainers for making one cup of tea at a time, as well as a larger, bowl-size strainer for filtering larger amounts of herb-infused liquids.

Cheesecloth. This is handy not only for straining and squeezing herbs you’ve infused into liquid but also for wrapping the herbs in a poultice.

Measuring cups and spoons. Cup, tablespoon, and teaspoon measures are all helpful, as well as some graduated measuring cups with pour spouts, which allow you to measure down to a quarter ounce.

Funnels. A set of small funnels is extremely helpful for getting tinctures and other liquids into bottles with small openings.

Bottles. For storing tinctures long term, amber or blue glass bottles are best. The “Boston round” type is a favorite for tinctures and other liquid remedies, but any shape will do. Get in the habit of saving and reusing any colored glass bottles you come across—there are a number of kombucha brands that come in amber glass, for instance. One- and two-fluid-ounce bottles are most convenient for dose bottles, while storage bottles are usually 4 to 12 fluid ounces. For storage, use plain bottle caps, but you’ll need dropper tops for dose bottles.

Labels. Label your remedies as soon as you make them. Address labels are sufficient for most purposes—even a bit of masking tape will do in a pinch.

Blender. For mixing lotions, breaking down bulky fresh plant matter, and other purposes, a standard kitchen blender will serve just fine.

Nice-to-Have Equipment

These tools make it easier to integrate herbs into your life, especially if you have a busy schedule, but they’re not as necessary as those preceding.

French press. This is our favorite tool for making herbal infusions. It allows the herb material to float freely in the water and exposes a lot of surface area for extraction (you just press down to easily dispense filtered tea), and it is simple to clean.

Thermos. When traveling or bringing your tea to work, a good thermos is an asset. There are versions that include a filter built directly into the lid, so you can put the herbs and water directly into the thermos together from the start.

Press pot. This is an insulated pot with a lever you press to dispense. People usually put coffee or strained tea into these, though we’ve found you can usually get away with putting herbs directly into the pot, pouring in boiling water, and letting it infuse in there. It’ll stay hot all day, and you just dispense it by the cup. (Hold a little mesh strainer under the spout to catch any herb bits that pass through the tube.)

Herb grinder. A simple, small coffee grinder served us well for many years, but if you plan to make a lot of herb powders you may want a larger, dedicated machine.

Helpful Ingredients

Herbs and water alone will serve for a great many remedies, but some preparations require additional ingredients.

Alcohol. Tinctures are mixtures of herb extracts and alcohol. We usually use vodka or brandy.

Apple cider vinegar. Always use this, rather than distilled white vinegar, for herb-infused vinegars, oxymels (a blend of vinegar and honey), and topical applications.

Honey. Choose local honey whenever possible, unprocessed/unfiltered if you can get it. Beware that some big-brand honeys have been found to be contaminated or even contain high fructose corn syrup. Liquid honey is easiest to use in herbal honey infusions, while thicker honey can be more manageable for first aid and wound care.

Oils. You can use olive oil for most purposes, though in some instances you’ll want a lighter oil, such as grapeseed or almond, or a thicker oil such as shea butter or cocoa butter. You can even use animal-derived oils, such as lard, tallow, or lanolin.

Beeswax. Salves require wax to thicken them. You can buy beeswax in rounds or chunks and cut it down for each use. You can also buy beeswax pellets, which can be easier to work with.

Witch hazel extract. Look for a witch hazel extract made without alcohol, as this is most versatile—especially for first aid or wound care.

Rose water. Traditionally used for skin care, though also as a food ingredient. Rose water from the “ethnic foods” section of the grocery store is just as good as the higher-priced stuff in the health and beauty aisle.

Sea salt and Epsom salts. For baths and soaks as well as nasal sprays and gargles, a bit of salt improves the medicine.

Gelatin capsules. The “00” size is most frequently used when working with herbal powders to make homemade herb capsules.

Safety Precautions and Best Practices

Making and working with herbal remedies is very safe. Still, it’s important to keep a few common-sense guidelines in mind to ensure you get the most out of your ingredients and your time.

Safety Tips

Label everything. If you don’t know what you’re taking, you can’t be sure it’s safe. Include details about all the ingredients in the remedy, as well as the date it was made.

Start small. Begin with small test batches and small doses when working with a new remedy. You can always scale up or take more later, but if an herb or preparation doesn’t agree with you, it’s best to discover that with a small amount.

Be cautious with pharmaceuticals. Herbs and pharmaceutical drugs (including both prescription and over-the-counter medications) can interact in many ways. Sometimes this is beneficial—positive herb-drug interactions may allow someone to reduce the dose of a drug or minimize its side effects—but it is a complicated subject and should be handled very carefully.

We identify the major interactions to watch for in the notes that accompany each remedy, but it’s always best to consult with a practicing herbalist familiar with this topic, or your health care provider, especially if multiple drugs are taken simultaneously.

Best Practices

Use your senses. Look at the herbs you’re working with, and your finished product. Check for mold in your jar of infused oil, check for bits of packaging material in your shipment of dried herbs. Smell and taste your herbs and remedies to get a sense of their potency, and dose accordingly.

Make only what you need. If you get great results from a particular remedy and you want to have it on hand every day, great—go for it. But no one needs a gallon of nasal spray solution, and it’ll go bad before you even get around to using it. Make only those remedies you need, and only as much as you need.

Begin with what’s abundant. In this guide, we focus on herbs that are highly prevalent in the wild or grown commercially on a large scale. As you branch out into working with other plants, keep your focus on those that are local to you, and neither at risk nor endangered. Don’t be tricked into thinking a rare, exotic herb will be the only one to solve your problem—it’s vanishingly rare for that to be true.

Get the herb to the tissue. Herbs need to be in contact with the affected tissue to help it. We can’t always just drink some herbal tea and get good results. Choose a delivery method that helps your herbs get where they need to act.

A few examples: If you’re working with a respiratory problem, go with a steam; if you’ve got something on the skin, apply a soak or poultice; if it’s trouble in the lower intestine, swallow some powder so it’s intact when it gets down there.

Infusions

If you think of making tea, you probably picture an infusion. It’s the simplest, most fundamental way to work with herbs, and is our preferred method in most circumstances. Infusions can be prepared in a variety of ways, but these are the most common:

Hot infusion. Like using a tea bag, a short, hot infusion means pouring boiling water on your herbs, letting them steep for a few minutes, and drinking as soon as tolerably cool. This method is best for herbs with aromatic or volatile constituents, which will evaporate if left to infuse too long.

Cold infusion. This method is used for demulcent, or mucilaginous, herbs, such as marshmallow—those that increase the water’s viscosity as they infuse, rendering it first “velvety,” then slimy. This only happens in cold water; hot water doesn’t release the constituents responsible for this effect.

Long infusion. When trying to extract mineral content from nutritive herbs such as nettle, a long infusion is required. When done in a tightly sealed jar, this method also allows us to combine the quick-release aromatic constituents of one herb with the slow-release mucilage from another, as the initially hot water cools over time.

Administration and Dosage Guidelines

Infusions are generally drunk as they are. They may also serve as an ingredient in another remedy (bath, soak, compress, syrup, lotion, etc.). Each infused herb or formula has its own dosage ranges, but, for most in this guide, it is normal to drink a quart of infusion daily, sometimes more.

Shelf Life and Storage Guidelines

Dry herbs blended for an infusion can keep for years if they’re stored in airtight containers. Once water is added, infusions are generally only good for 1 or 2 days; if kept refrigerated, this could extend to 3 days.

Trust your tongue: If the tea tastes “skunky” or otherwise off, best to make a new batch.

Necessary Tools, Equipment, or Ingredients

  • Herbs
  • Water
  • Teacup, teapot, mason jar, French press, or other container
  • Mesh strainer

Preparing Remedies: Step-by-Step Instructions

1. Unless otherwise specified, use 2 to 3 tablespoons of herbs per quart of water. (If making only a single cup of tea, use 1 to 3 teaspoons of herbs.)

2. Combine the herbs with the water and let steep:

  • Hot infusion. Pour boiling water over the herbs, cover, and steep for 20 minutes or until cool enough to drink.
  • Cold infusion. Pour cold or room-temperature water over the herbs and steep for 4 to 8 hours.
  • Long infusion. Pour boiling water over the herbs, cover tightly, and steep for 4 to 8 hours or overnight.

3. Once the herbs have steeped, you may strain the liquid and compost the marc (leftover herb material).

Pros

Easy to make. Hot water, herbs, and a container are all you need.

Versatile. Infusions can be employed in a variety of ways, depending on need.

Potent. Each infusion method extracts a broad spectrum of constituents from the herbs, giving a good reflection of their full potential.

Hydrating. Drinking enough water is important for good health; infusions count as water intake.

Cons

Taken in quantity. When you drink an infusion, you need at least a teacup or two for beneficial effects. Not all herbs taste good, and some can be unpleasant to drink in that quantity.

Short shelf life. Once made, consume infusions promptly.

Additional Considerations

A press pot is a handy way to make infusions—you can steep them inside for a long time while still keeping them hot. 

For long infusions, you can also use a drip coffee maker: Put the herbs into the carafe (not the filter basket), turn it on, and let the water drip down onto them. They’ll stay warm on the hot plate, shortening the amount of time you need to infuse them. (If it was ever used for coffee, though, this’ll make your tea taste like it.)

Decoctions

Another method of making tea, decoctions are necessary when working with roots, barks, seeds, and other hard or woody plant parts. These require more time exposed to high heat to release their benefits into the water.

Administration and Dosage Guidelines

Like infusions, decoctions are generally drunk as they are. They may also serve as an ingredient in another remedy (bath, soak, compress, syrup, lotion, etc.). Each decoction has its own dosage range depending on the herbs used, but, for most in this book, it is normal to drink two cups to a quart of decoction daily.

Shelf Life and Storage Guidelines

Dry herbs blended for a decoction formula can keep for years if they’re stored in airtight containers. Once water is added, decoctions are generally only good for 1 or 2 days at room temperature; if kept refrigerated, this could extend to 3 days.

Necessary Tools, Equipment, or Ingredients

  • Herbs
  • Water
  • Quart- to gallon-size pot
  • Mesh strainer

Preparing Remedies: Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Unless otherwise specified, use 2 to 4 tablespoons of herbs per quart of water.
  2. Put the herbs and water in a lidded pot on the stove, cover, and bring to a boil.
  3. Once boiling, reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
  4. Strain the liquid for consumption and compost the marc.
  5. Or, you may also choose to ladle out a teacupful at a time, leaving the water and marc in the pot until you strain off the last cup.

Pros

Easy to make. A stove, herbs, water, and a good pot are all you need.

Versatile. Decoctions can be employed in a variety of ways, depending on need.

Potent. Decoctions can be quite potent, as the simmering process extracts a majority of the herbs’ available constituents.

Hydrating. Decoctions count as water intake.

Cons

Take time to make. Decoctions require a bit of time to prepare, so they’re not great for resolving something quickly, like a bee sting or an asthma attack.

Taken in quantity. When you drink a decoction, you need at least a teacup or two for beneficial effects. Not all herbs taste good, and some can be unpleasant to drink in that quantity.

Short shelf life. Once made, consume decoctions promptly.

Additional Considerations

Generally, each herb is either infused or decocted, depending on what kind of plant part it is:

  • Leaves, flowers, and stems are usually infused.
  • Roots, seeds, and barks are usually decocted.

If you want to include both types of herb material in one drink, first decoct your hard herb parts. Then strain that liquid while still hot, and add your lighter plant bits to it for infusion. Strain one more time and it’s ready to drink.

Sometimes decoctions are made in an open pot, allowing evaporation to reduce the volume of water. This concentrates the decoction’s strength. For example, Elderberry Syrup—the herbs are first decocted, the liquid is reduced to half, and then it is mixed with honey.

Steams

Herbal steams are excellent for addressing issues in the lungs and sinuses, the face, and eyes. The evaporating steam carries light chemicals from the herbs, including some with antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, relaxant, and immune-stimulating effects. These get into direct contact with the respiratory tract and skin, exerting their effects strongly.

Administration and Dosage Guidelines

Administer a steam whenever you want to stimulate the surface or respiratory tissues with moist heat. For acute illness, it’s best to steam at least twice a day. For ongoing skin or respiratory support, once a day is sufficient.

Shelf Life and Storage Guidelines

Steams are made on an as-needed basis; they are not stored.

Necessary Tools, Equipment, or Ingredients

  • Herbs
  • Water
  • Gallon-size or larger pot
  • Towel or blanket

Preparing Remedies: Step-by-Step Instructions

1. On the stove, boil 1⁄2 to 1 gallon of water in a covered pot.

2. Once at a full boil, remove from the heat and place the pot on a heat-proof surface.

3. Make a tent by draping a blanket or towel over your head.

4. Remove the lid from the pot and add 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup of your herb mixture to the water.

5. Position your face over the steam and remain there for 5 to 20 minutes, catching the steam with your tent.

6. For respiratory issues, inhale the steam as deeply as you can so the medicated steam gets deep into your lungs.

7. Keep a handkerchief nearby—the steam will clear your sinuses and make your nose run.

Pros

Delivers the medicine where it’s needed. Particularly for antimicrobial effects, steam is the most direct method for getting the herbs in contact with the respiratory tract tissues.

Stimulating but soothing. The warmth and moisture of steams help activate immune function in the mucous membranes and at the same time relieve irritation and calm a cough or ease difficult breathing.

Cons

Takes time. Between preparation and execution, it can take at least 30 minutes to conduct a good, effective steam.

Not portable. Steams require some space and a stove to make effectively, so they’re mostly done at home.

Additional Considerations

After steaming, you can use the leftover liquid—it’s essentially a hot infusion. Drink it, soak your feet in it, soak a cloth and make a compress, or employ it in some other way so nothing is wasted. If nothing else, let it cool and feed it to your garden or houseplants—plants like tea, too.

You can also make a good steam using essential oils. Simply boil water and set up your steaming station as directed, but instead of adding dry herbs, tap in 10 to 30 drops of essential oil. (Do not drink the leftover liquid when done steaming; just pour it down a drain.)

Baths and Soaks

Bathing or soaking part of the body in an herbal tea is a great way to get the herbs in contact with the affected part. These are good for infected skin or wounds, burns, rashes, and all manner of topical troubles.

Administration and Dosage Guidelines

You might make a whole-body bath with herbs, or you may just soak a particular part (as with a foot bath or sitz bath). Keeping the water as hot as tolerable is best, as this facilitates absorption of the herbal medicines. For most issues, it’s effective to soak for 15 to 20 minutes, 1 to 3 times per day.

Shelf Life and Storage Guidelines

Baths and soaks are prepared on an as-needed basis; they are not stored.

Necessary Tools, Equipment, or Ingredients

  • Herbs
  • Water
  • Salt (optional)
  • Vinegar (optional)
  • Bathtub, dish basin, or other soaking vessel

Preparing Remedies: Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Prepare the water extraction (infusion or decoction) of the herbs.
  2. Pour the extraction into a dish basin or similar container. For a whole- body bath, fill the bathtub with hot water, and pour in the herbal tea (at least one full quart).
  3. If using vinegar, salt, or additional water, add it now. Stir to incorporate and dissolve. Test the heat with your hand, and submerge the affected body part.
  4. Soak for a minimum of 15 to 20 minutes.

Pros

Delivers the medicine where it’s needed. Baths and soaks are great for skin conditions and wounds. They work quickly for topical issues where internal use would be very slow or ineffective.

Cons

Not everything fits. Some body parts don’t fit well into a soaking vessel, or are hard to soak separately (shoulders, for example). Use a compress in those cases.

Takes time. Between preparation and execution, it can take at least 30 minutes to conduct an effective soak.

Not portable. Baths require space and privacy, so they’re usually done at home.

Additional Considerations

If your town or city chlorinated its tap water, it is best to use a chlorine filter on the water you bathe or soak in. Inexpensive filters can be found online; we prefer ones that use vitamin C cartridges or tablets, as this takes care of chloramines as well.

Warm, moistened skin is more absorptive; after a good soak, follow up with salve or other topical applications. They’ll work even better than usual.

Poultices and Compresses

A poultice is a mass of warm, wet plant matter applied directly to the skin or a wound. A compress is simply a tea-soaked cloth or bandage applied similarly. Used for similar functions as a bath or soak, these can be applied to a specific area more easily and precisely.

Administration and Dosage Guidelines

Once you have the poultice or compress in place, keep it there for 5 to 20 minutes. Repeat 1 to 3 times per day.

Shelf Life and Storage Guidelines

Poultices and compresses are prepared on an as-needed basis; they are not stored.

Necessary Tools, Equipment, or Ingredients

  • Herbs
  • Water
  • Washcloth, rag, bandana, etc.
  • Cheesecloth

Preparing Remedies: Step-by-Step Instructions 

Start by gently cleaning the affected area.

1. For a poultice:

  1. Place 4 to 6 tablespoons of the herb mixture in a heat-proof dish.
  2. Pour boiling water over the herbs, just enough to fully saturate them —not enough so they’re swimming. Let the herbs soak for about 5 minutes.
  3. Scoop the herbs out of the dish onto a piece of cheesecloth or a bandage and give it a squeeze (like you would a teabag when you take it out of the water).
  4. Apply the mass of herbs, warm and wet, to the affected area. (You may prefer to wrap the herbs in a layer or two of cheesecloth to keep them contained.)
  5. Cover with a cloth and keep in place for 5 to 20 minutes, then gently dry.

2. For a compress:

  1. Prepare the water extraction (infusion or decoction) of the herbs you’ll be working with, and strain.
  2. Soak a cloth in the hot tea, holding it by a dry spot and allowing the cloth to cool in the air until hot but comfortable to the touch.
  3. Lay the wet cloth over the affected area. Cover with a dry cloth.
  4. Get comfortable and let it soak in for 10 to 20 minutes.

3. Clean the area again, and bandage or cover if appropriate.

Pros

Delivers the medicine where it’s needed. Poultices and compresses can be used to deliver herbal medicines to areas that are hard to soak. They work quickly for topical issues where internal use would be very slow or ineffective.

Soothing and stimulating. These preparations stimulate local circulation in the skin and underlying tissues, which helps speed healing. At the same time, they relax tension that prevents healthy, fluid movement.

Cons

Messy. It’s easy to get herbs or tea all over yourself and your furniture when applying a poultice or compress. Lots of towels and secure wrapping help.

Takes time. Between preparation and execution, it can take at least 30 minutes to prepare and administer a poultice or compress.

Not portable. Poultices and compresses are usually only done at home.

Additional Considerations

Don’t use the same compress cloth twice in one sitting—use a new cloth for each dip into the tea. (This is most critical when dealing with infected wounds, but make a habit of it in all situations.)

You may want to prepare a hot water bottle when setting up your poultice or compress, to lay on top and keep the application warm longer.

Be sure to clean the affected area both before and after using your compress and especially when using a poultice. Don’t leave any little bits of herbal material on the irritated skin or in the wound.

Tinctures

Tinctures are among the most important methods of herbal medicine you can learn, because of their potency, versatility, portability, and long shelf life. Fortunately, making a good tincture isn’t much harder than making a nice cup of tea.

Administration and Dosage Guidelines

Tincture doses are measured by the dropperful, with the assumption that you’re working from a dose bottle that is 1 to 4 fluid ounces in size and has a dropper top. 

Squeezing the dropper and allowing it to fill as much as possible makes 1 “dropperful,” even though the entire glass dropper won’t be filled to the top. Measured strictly, this will be about 1 milliliter of liquid per dropperful. Most tinctures are taken in doses of 1 to 4 droppersful, 3 to 5 times per day.

If you don’t have any dropper tops on hand, use a teaspoon. One teaspoon is equivalent to about 5 milliliters, so if the remedy calls for a dose of 2 to 4 droppersful, you can use 1⁄2 to 1 teaspoon and it’ll be close enough.

Shelf Life and Storage Guidelines

Tinctures should be stored in colored glass bottles, or kept in a dark place, to prevent degradation from light exposure. For long-term storage, use a bottle with a flat cap rather than a dropper top—the rubber in the dropper will degrade over time if exposed to alcohol fumes.

If stored properly, tinctures will retain full potency for 5 to 10 years, or even longer.

Necessary Tools, Equipment, or Ingredients

  • Herbs; if using fresh, let wilt for a half day or so spread out on brown paper bags or a clean tabletop (some water content will evaporate). Then chop or run through a blender before you put in the jar and add the alcohol.
  • 80 or 100 proof (40 to 50 percent alcohol content) alcohol (vodka, brandy, or other)
  • Mason jars, various sizes, for maceration
  • Dose and storage bottles
  • Strainers
  • Funnels
  • Labels

Preparing Remedies: Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Fill a mason jar half to three-fourths full with the herb you want to tincture. If using roots, which tend to swell in liquid, stay on the half-full side; if using leaves or flowers, fill to the three-fourths mark.
  2. Fill the jar to the top with alcohol. Close securely and label the jar, including the date you started (“Chamomile tincture in vodka, 50 percent alcohol, 1/3/2018”).
  3. Macerate (allow the herbs to infuse in the alcohol) for 4 weeks. Shake the bottle every day or so to encourage maximum constituent release. Otherwise, keep in a cool, dark place.
  4. Strain, re-bottle in colored glass, and add the finish date to the label.

Pros

Small amounts are effective. For herbs with unappealing flavors, you can get an effective dose without having to drink a pot of tea.

Versatile. Tinctures can be taken as they are, blended into formulas, or mixed with other ingredients, as in elixirs and liniments.

Portable. Tincture dose bottles can be carried easily in a bag or stashed in a drawer at work, and are ready to take as soon as you need them.

Long shelf life. Tinctures can last decades if properly stored.

Cons

Contain alcohol. Tinctures cannot be used by those who cannot consume alcohol (e.g., due to liver problems, being a recovering alcoholic, religious reasons, etc.).

Preparation time. Tinctures made by maceration take at least 2 weeks, usually 1 month, to be ready. You’ll have to plan ahead.

Additional Considerations

There is some variation in tincture-making processes, and more precise methods use weights and measures to arrive at a standardized ratio of plant matter to menstruum (the solvent), often seen on a tincture bottle as a ratio, such as 1:5, indicating that each 5 milliliters of tincture carries the equivalent of 1 gram of herb material. The simple maceration method described here will suffice in most situations.

You can use any alcohol you like for tincturing. A student of ours made an excellent catnip tincture in tequila, and we tincture herbs intended for the urinary system in gin because it already contains juniper, which is a urinary antiseptic herb.

Some plants require more alcohol, some more water. The vast majority of plants are fine to tincture in vodka or brandy (40 to 50 percent alcohol). When extracting resins, consider using grain alcohol (95 percent). When extracting mucilages, use water with just enough alcohol to prevent moulding (20 percent of the total). 

For shelf-stable preservation, 20 percent alcohol is the minimum.

You can tincture herbal powders; they just require a lot more shaking to extract well and are a bit more difficult to strain at the end.

Practically speaking, you’ll make larger amounts (pints to quarts) of individual plant tinctures, then blend them together in small amounts (2 to 8 fluid ounces) of formulas. As time goes on, you may find a lot of help from a particular formula and want to have more on hand, but wait until you’ve worked through your first few ounces (to make sure you like it or know better how much you need) before you do that.

It’s also okay to tincture more than one plant together right from the start, rather than tincturing them all individually and then blending the tinctures.

Herb-Infused Vinegars

Vinegar is a useful menstruum (solvent) for herbal extracts. Its acidity helps draw out certain constituents called alkaloids, which are often some of the most potent chemicals in an herb. It also helps dissolve plant cell walls and release mineral content. Apple cider vinegar is standard in these preparations.

Administration and Dosage Guidelines

Herbal vinegars may be useful as remedies in their own right, such as Fire Cider, or they may be combined with honey to make an oxymel. Herb-infused vinegars are frequently taken in doses of 1⁄2 to 1 fluid ounce at a time.

Shelf Life and Storage Guidelines

Like tinctures, store herbal vinegars in dark, light-blocking glass bottles in a cool, dry place. Vinegars will last at least 6 months (and up to several years).

Necessary Tools, Equipment, or Ingredients

  • Herbs; if using fresh, let wilt for a half day or so spread out on brown paper bags or a clean tabletop (some water content will evaporate). Then chop or run through a blender before you put in the jar and add the vinegar.
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Mason jars, various sizes, for maceration
  • Dose and storage bottles
  • Strainers
  • Funnels
  • Labels

Preparing Remedies: Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Fill a mason jar half to three-fourths full with the herb you want to extract. If using roots, which tend to swell in liquid, stay on the half-full side; if using leaves or flowers, fill to the three-fourths mark.
  2. Fill the jar to the top with apple cider vinegar.
  3. If using a mason jar with a metal lid, insert a piece of wax paper under the jar lid before screwing down the ring. The vinegar fumes will degrade the coating on the underside of the jar lids. If you like, use plastic lids instead to avoid this issue.
  4. Close securely and label the jar, including the date you started (“Nettle-infused vinegar, 1/3/2018”).
  5. Macerate (allow the herbs to infuse in the vinegar) for 4 weeks. Shake the bottle every day or so to encourage maximum constituent release. Otherwise, keep in a cool, dark place.
  6. Strain, re-bottle in colored glass, and add the finish date to the label.

Pros

Vinegar’s innate benefits. Taken internally, vinegar stimulates digestion and can help with blood sugar control. Topically, it has antimicrobial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory effects. Adding herbs enhance these benefits.

No alcohol. Vinegar extracts can be given in place of tinctures for those who can’t consume alcohol, though they’re not quite as strong.

Cons

The acidity. For some people who have heartburn or ulcers, vinegar’s acidity can be too irritating to tissues already tender and inflamed.

Preparation time. Infused vinegars take at least 2 to 4 weeks to prepare.

Additional Considerations

Always use a high-quality, preferably raw, apple cider vinegar—not distilled white vinegar. Raw apple cider vinegar has probiotic content that can be helpful in some circumstances, like when making a digestive formula as a vinegar extract.

Herb-Infused Honeys

Herbal honeys are profoundly medicinal—and they taste great. When herbs are infused into honey, the honey absorbs all the water-soluble components of the herb and all the volatiles (essential oils), as well. This yields an excellent extraction of the herb’s complex chemistry and preserves it very well.

Administration and Dosage Guidelines

For internal use, herb-infused honeys can be taken as they are. More often, though, they’re used as ingredients in composite remedies, such as elixirs, oxymels, or syrups. Herbal honeys are also applied topically for skin blemishes, wounds, burns, etc.

If taken straight up, teaspoon and tablespoon doses of herb-infused honey will deliver an effective dose of herbal constituents.

Shelf Life and Storage Guidelines

Finished herbal honeys should be stored in sealed glass jars, away from light and heat. They will retain their potency for many years.

Necessary Tools, Equipment, or Ingredients

  • Fresh herbs
  • Honey
  • Wide-mouth jars
  • Wire mesh strainer
  • Labels

Preparing Remedies: Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Coarsely chop your fresh herbs and allow them to wilt for a few hours before infusing.
  2. Put your herbs into a wide-mouth jar and fill half to three-fourths full.
  3. If the honey you’re working with is a liquid consistency, simply pour it into the jar up to the shoulder. If it’s solid or semi-solid, gently warm it to get it runny—set the honey jar in a pot of hot (not boiling) water for 10 to 30 minutes. The honey will soften and become easier to pour.
  4. Using a chopstick or spoon, stir and work the herbs around in the honey.
  5. Close securely and label the jar with the date and the herbs used.
  6. Place in a warm area (like on top of the refrigerator) and leave to macerate for 4 weeks.
  7. Gently warm the closed jar in a pot of hot water until the honey has a liquid consistency, then strain into a new jar. Press the marc against the strainer to express as much honey as you can.
  8. Label the finished jar of infused honey and store in a cool, dark place.

Pros

Honey’s innate benefits. Even before infusing with herbs, honey is an excellent wound healer and antimicrobial agent with a long history of use.

Long shelf life. Honey is an incredible preservative. You can expect your infused honey to last for years and retain its effects.

Delicious. Getting someone to take honey medicine never seems to require much bargaining, even with kids and those who have picky palates.

Cons

Sweet means sugar. Herbal honeys taken alone are not ideal for those with insulin resistance, diabetes, or other blood sugar regulation problems. (When mixed into an oxymel or elixir, though, this concern is minimal.)

Potential fermentation. Because we’re infusing fresh herbs into honey, there’s the possibility that the water content of the herbs will thin out the honey, making it sufficiently liquid to allow it to ferment spontaneously.

Preparation time. Infused honey takes 1 month or more to prepare.

Additional Considerations

Choose local honey whenever possible. Aside from supporting local beekeepers (and local bees), honey made in your area will help you acclimate to pollen and reduce seasonal allergies.

Raw, unfiltered, unpasteurized honey has the most medicinal efficacy, but don’t worry too much if you can’t find this in your area. Most studies on honey as a wound dressing have been done with processed and irradiated honey, and it’s still very effective.

Do be aware that some “honeys” sold in stores have been found to contain high fructose corn syrup or other adulterants. Make sure your honey is actually honey!

Syrups

Syrups are often made using sugar, but we vastly prefer to work with honey because of its innate benefits. While the finished product is not shelf stable, it keeps well refrigerated.

Administration and Dosage Guidelines

Syrups are taken by the teaspoon or tablespoon, straight up, or stirred into tea.

Shelf Life and Storage Guidelines

Kept refrigerated, a honey-based syrup will last for several months. Light- blocking storage bottles are best, but as the syrup will be in the dark refrigerator most of the time, they’re not as critical as they are for tinctures.

Necessary Tools, Equipment, or Ingredients

  • Herbs
  • Water
  • Pot, for decoction
  • Wire mesh strainers
  • Honey, plain or herb infused
  • Funnels
  • Storage bottles
  • Labels

Preparing Remedies: Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Prepare a tea with your herbs and water—either an extra-strong infusion (use twice as much herb as usual) or a concentrated decoction. If making a decoction, allow the water to evaporate as it simmers, reducing the original volume of water to half or one-fourth the original amount.
  2. Strain and combine the concentrated decoction with an equal amount of honey, warming gently as you stir to mix thoroughly.
  3. Bottle, label, and refrigerate.

Pros

Delicious. Syrups are appealing to almost everyone because of their sweetness.

Multiple extractions. If you use an herb-infused honey, your syrup contains both honey and water extracts of herbs, maximizing the extraction of a broad array of plant chemicals.

Cons

It needs refrigeration. This makes the syrups less portable.

Potential for mold. Always examine your syrup when you open the jar to take a dose. If there’s any sign of mold growth on the surface, discard it and make a new batch.

Additional Considerations

Some recipes for herbal syrups call for sugar, as this creates a shelf-stable product. Instead of adding honey, you would add twice as much sugar as you have tea—so, for 4 cups of tea add 8 cups of sugar.  That’s a lot of sugar—the major reason we don’t prefer this method.

You can make a honey syrup shelf stable by adding an equal amount of tincture to your syrup once it’s made. So, for 2 cups of finished syrup, add 2 cups of tincture. This could be the same herb(s) used in your syrup —again increasing the range of constituents extracted—or complementary plants, creating a synergistic formula.

Oxymels and Elixirs

An oxymel is a blend of vinegar and honey. The vinegar releases minerals from the herbs, whereas alcohol really doesn’t, and offers a substitute for those who avoid or don’t want to use alcohol. “Plain” oxymel is an ancient remedy that lends particular support to the digestive and respiratory systems.

An elixir, broadly speaking, is a tincture combined with any sweetener. Honey is our preferred sweetener, though occasionally we use maple syrup or molasses, or even just tincture our herbs in a sweet liqueur (like rose petals steeped in St. Germain elderflower liqueur).

Administration and Dosage Guidelines

Elixirs and oxymels are generally taken by the dropperful, like tinctures, though they can also be taken in teaspoon or even tablespoon doses, as they are somewhat less potent than straight tinctures.

Shelf Life and Storage Guidelines

Oxymels and elixirs should be stored just like tinctures, in amber or blue glass bottles kept in a cool, dry place. Use flat caps on storage bottles and dropper tops on dose bottles. They’ll keep for 6 to 12 months.

Necessary Tools, Equipment, or Ingredients

  • Alcohol or vinegar
  • Honey
  • Mason jars, various sizes, for maceration
  • Dose and storage bottles
  • Wire mesh strainers
  • Funnels
  • Labels

Preparing Remedies: Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. You can blend tinctures or vinegars you’ve already made with honey (either plain or herb infused) to create your oxymel or elixir, or you can macerate your herbs in the honey and alcohol, or honey and vinegar, at the same time.
  2. If you’re macerating the herbs in honey and alcohol or vinegar at the same time, proceed as if making a tincture (see here) or herb-infused vinegar (see here), but fill the jar only halfway with one of those liquids. Then add honey to fill the rest of the way.
  3. Cover, label, and macerate for 4 weeks.
  4. Strain, bottle, and label.

Pros

Effective in small doses. Oxymels and elixirs exert noticeable effects in dropperful and teaspoon amounts.

Portable. These are shelf stable and can be easily carried in a pocket or handbag.

Good tincture substitute. Oxymels are preferred for those who can’t consume alcohol, can be nearly as potent as tinctures, and extract a broad range of constituents; they’re better than infused vinegar alone.

Cons

Preparation time. If you’re starting from scratch, it’ll be 1 month or so before your oxymel or elixir is ready to use. (If you’re blending premade tinctures, infused vinegars, and honeys, this isn’t a problem.)

Additional Considerations

For elixirs: You might use equal parts honey and alcohol as described previously, or you might use as little as 1:3 (that is, the final mix will be one-fourth honey and three-fourths alcohol). You could include less honey, but below that ratio you’ll start to lose the honey’s medicinal contributions (separate from the herbs carried in it).

For oxymels: Equal parts honey and vinegar is standard, but a 1:5 ratio (1 part honey and 5 parts vinegar) will still get good effects. Feel free to combine alcohol, vinegar, and honey all in one.

Herb-Infused Oils

Oils extract a very different set of chemical constituents from herbs than do water or alcohol. Infused oils can be consumed—think of a nice rosemary-infused olive oil with vinegar on a salad—though most often we work with them in topical preparations.

Administration and Dosage Guidelines

Infused oils may be employed directly as massage oil, conveying their effects into the skin and underlying tissues, or mixed with other ingredients to make a liniment (see here) or lotion (see here). If you melt wax into an oil and let it cool and harden, you’ve made a salve (see here).

For most purposes, apply the infused oil liberally to the affected area, 1 to 5 times per day. Massage it into the tissue as much as possible; don’t just wipe it over the surface. Work it in for a few solid minutes to encourage absorption and get the best effects.

Shelf Life and Storage Guidelines

Herb-infused oils should be stored in dark, light-blocking bottles in a cool, dry place. They will retain their potency for about 1 year if stored well.

Necessary Tools, Equipment, or Ingredients

  • Herbs, fresh or dried
  • Oil: olive, coconut, grapeseed, almond, etc.
  • Oven-safe dish
  • Mason jars, various sizes, for maceration
  • Wire mesh strainers
  • Cheesecloth
  • Funnels
  • Storage bottles

Preparing Remedies: Step-by-Step Instructions

When working with fresh herbs, we use a heat method, which allows the water to evaporate and helps prevent mold:

  1. Chop the herbs coarsely and place in an oven-safe dish. Pour in enough oil so the herbs are submerged.
  2. Put the dish in the oven and turn it to its lowest setting—ideally, 180°F or lower. If your oven doesn’t go that low, set up a double boiler on the stove, use a simmer burner or hot plate, or use the “warm” (not “low”) setting on a slow cooker.
  3. Leave the herbs and oil exposed to heat for 8 to 12 hours. This doesn’t have to be consecutive—you can turn the oven on for a few hours, then turn it off, as long as the total heating time is completed within 3 days.
  4. Strain the oil and wrap the marc in cheesecloth. Squeeze out the last drops of oil from the marc.
  5. Bottle in light-blocking glass and label. Use within 1 year. When working with dried herbs, you may use the same heat method, or this no-heat method:
  • Fill a mason jar half to three-fourths full with the herbs you want to infuse.
  • Pour in enough oil to fill the jar. Cover and label.
  • Allow to macerate for 4 weeks.
  • Strain and wrap the marc in cheesecloth. Squeeze to express the last drops of infused oil from the marc.
  • Bottle in light-blocking glass and label. Use within 1 year.

Pros

Great for topical needs. Herbal oils are soothing, restorative, and hydrating to the skin. They also help herbal constituents penetrate into the tissue to do their work.

Innate benefits of oils. Each oil has its own beneficial qualities. Coconut oil is antifungal, olive oil is extra moistening and highly anti-inflammatory. Remember that the menstruum matters at least as much as the herbs we put into it.

Cons

Potential for mold. Examine your oil at least once a day while infusing. If there’s any sign of mold growth on the surface, you can usually skim this off with a spoon without losing the entire batch. If there’s mold growth at the bottom of the jar, though, the batch is lost. This is primarily a problem when infusing oil with fresh herbs and is the reason we use the heat method.

Preparation time. A heat infusion can be ready in 1 or 2 days, but a cold infusion takes at least 2 weeks.

Messy. Oils tend to leak out of their bottles, no matter how securely they’re closed. If you keep some infused oil in a first aid kit or travel bag, enclose it in a resealable plastic bag as well.

Additional Considerations

Olive oil is the standard for infusions today, but only because it’s so widely available. In the past, animal oils such as lard, tallow, and lanolin were the go-tos for these preparations. They’re extremely well absorbed by human skin, and are worth consideration. 

For some purposes, it’s preferable to use a lighter oil, like grapeseed or almond; other times, you want a thicker oil like cocoa butter, shea butter, or castor oil. 

Try different oils to see which you prefer. Whichever you choose, make sure it’s made by a cold-press process. Cold-pressed oils are better quality than solvent-extracted oils, which are more likely to be rancid, plus there is solvent left in the oil, and many times those solvents, like hexane, are toxic.

Note: An herb-infused oil is not the same thing as an essential oil. Essential oils are created by a distillation process and are extremely concentrated and potent. Never apply them directly to the skin without diluting in a carrier oil first, and do not take them internally.

Liniments

We define a liniment as a blend of herb-infused oil with tincture, intended for topical use only. Some liniments also include essential oils. This combination of alcohol and oil allows us to get a full constituent extraction from the herbs, and it has both quick-acting and slow-release qualities in one.

Administration and Dosage Guidelines

When applying a liniment, massage it in until your hands no longer feel oily. Work the liniment into the tissue; don’t just lightly rub it onto the surface. Liniments should be applied 3 to 5 times per day, or more as needed.

Shelf Life and Storage Guidelines

It’s better to store liniments in bottles with flat caps rather than dropper tops, as the oil can degrade the rubber on exposure. Simply tip a little into your palm when you want to use it. Liniments are shelf stable and will retain potency for at least 1 year.

Necessary Tools, Equipment, or Ingredients

  • Tinctures
  • Infused oils
  • Essential oil (optional)
  • Funnels
  • Bottles and caps
  • Labels

Preparing Remedies: Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. In your storage bottle, combine the tincture and infused oil.
  2. If using essential oils, add at a ratio of 10 to 30 drops of essential oil per ounce of liniment.
  3. Cap the bottle and label it, including Shake well before each use.

Pros

Double action. The tincture is rapidly absorbed and begins to work quickly, while the oil is absorbed more slowly and releases its medicine over time.

Safe essential oil use. Essential oils disperse nicely in a liniment, making this a safe way to work with them for topical purposes.

Cons

Messy. While not quite as troublesome as simple infused oils, liniments have a tendency to leak from their bottles. If you travel with a liniment, enclose the bottle in a resealable plastic bag.

Additional Considerations

Some herbalists define a liniment as a tincture made in rubbing alcohol or another substance that cannot be consumed, intended for topical use only.

Salves

A salve is an herb-infused oil with beeswax melted into it. Once cooled, it assumes a consistency somewhere between petroleum jelly and hard lip balm, depending on the amount of wax added and the ambient temperature.

Administration and Dosage Guidelines

Apply a liberal amount of salve to the affected area at least twice a day. Salves are best applied when the skin is hydrated and the pores are open, like after a shower or a soak.

Shelf Life and Storage Guidelines

Salves can be stored in glass jars, metal tins, or nonreactive plastic containers. Choose wide-mouth vessels that are not too deep, so you can reach to the bottom easily. Salves are very stable, but should be used within 1 year for best potency.

Necessary Tools, Equipment, or Ingredients

  • Herb-infused oil
  • Beeswax, chopped, grated, or pellets; 1 ounce of wax for every 6 to 8 fluid ounces of oil
  • Essential oil (optional)
  • Small pot
  • Shot glass
  • Storage vessels
  • Labels

Preparing Remedies: Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. In a small pot over low heat, warm the oil gently and slowly—do not boil.
  2. Add the beeswax. For a softer salve, use less wax. This is helpful when it will be applied to sensitive skin, or if used in cold climates. For a harder salve, use more wax. This is better if the salve will be used in hot climates or as lip balm.
  3. Stir continuously until the wax melts.
  4. Spoon some wax into a shot glass and freeze for a few minutes; it will set to its finished hardness. Take it out and test it with your finger to see if it is the consistency you want.
  5. Add more wax to the pot if you want to harden the salve; add more oil if you want to soften it.
  6. Add the essential oil (if using):
  • If you’re pouring the hot salve into a single storage vessel, add the essential oil after doing so, stir quickly, and close the vessel so the essential oil does not evaporate.
  • If you’re pouring the hot salve into multiple small vessels, add the essential oil before pouring, stir quickly, pour, and close the vessels immediately.
  1. Label your vessels.

Pros

Portable. Salve is a good way to take a messy oil infusion and make it much more manageable.

Cons

Not for use on wet or open wounds. Salves should not be used on a fresh burn, weeping rash, open lacerations, or puncture wounds. The oil and wax form a seal that prevents airflow and can allow bacteria to grow in the wound. 

In the case of a burn, that seal prevents heat from dispersing. Use poultices or compresses until the wound closes up and dries out, and for a burn, until the skin begins to itch.

Additional Considerations

Clean your pot and utensils with paper towels, newsprint, or a dishrag while the salve is still hot and liquid. If it sets, use very hot water to melt it and wash it away. You can buy empty tubes and pour hot salve directly into them to make your own lip balm.

Lotions

Lotions are what you get when oil and water mix. The trick is finding a way to keep them in suspension. Most instructions for making lotions call for water and herb-infused oils, but this yields a very thin, runny lotion that is more likely to separate. 

We find that working with salve instead of oils makes a thicker lotion more likely to stay mixed. If you prefer thick lotions, use salve. If you prefer thin lotions, use oil. If you prefer something in between, use half salve and half oil.

Administration and Dosage Guidelines

Lotions are used topically for dry conditions, such as eczema and dermatitis. You can use them any time as part of your daily skin care routine. Lotions are excellent for later-stage healing of burns. Apply lotions frequently for best results—2 to 4 times daily, depending on the issue.

Shelf Life and Storage Guidelines

Lotions should be used within 1 to 3 months. If you live in a hot climate, keep them refrigerated.

Necessary Tools, Equipment, or Ingredients

  • Rose water, nonalcoholic witch hazel extract, tea, or water
  • Herbal salve or herb-infused oil
  • Blender
  • Storage container
  • Labels

Preparing Remedies: Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Make sure all ingredients are at room temperature—if any are warmer or cooler than the others, they may not emulsify.
  2. Measure equal amounts of salve and water (plain water, tea, rose water, a water-based witch hazel extract, etc.)—no more than 1 cup each. (Blenders can usually handle 11⁄2 to 2 cups of lotion total.)
  3. Put the water in the blender and blend for 1 to 2 minutes until frothy.
  4. Use a fork to stir the salve to soften it. With the blender running, slowly add the salve, a forkful at a time. If using oil, slowly pour it into the blender. Continue to blend for a few minutes; it will form a suspension and your finished lotion.
  5. Bottle the lotion, cap the bottle, and label it, including Shake well before each use. If your lotion separates, shaking temporarily re-emulsifies it.

Pros

Emollient. Soothing for dry skin conditions.

Can be applied to burns. Once the skin starts to itch, lotion can provide relief and can be made with herbs that speed new skin growth, such as calendula.

Homemade is better. You can add any scent you like, and you know there are no preservatives or chemicals.

Cons

Tricky to make. It may take a few tries to find the best ratio of water to salve or water to oil. If your lotion is too thick, next time add more water.

If too thin, next time add more salve. It is okay to put a lotion back into the blender to add more water or salve/oil—experiment until you get it the way you like it. Keep good notes so you can reproduce it next time.

Short shelf life. Make lotion in small batches so you can use it all before it molds.

Additional Considerations

If you adjust the recipe to increase the yield, blend it in small batches so there are no more than 2 cups total in the blender at one time. Most blenders can’t emulsify more than 11⁄2 to 2 cups at a time.

Capsules

Teas, tinctures, vinegars, and all other “solvents” extract only some of the herbs’ constituents, but in powder form, you get everything the herb has to offer. This makes powders a very effective form for taking herbs. 

You can simply stir powdered herbs into hot water, broth, or tea—it’s not the most appealing prospect, though, especially if you don’t like gritty textures. Most people prefer to encapsulate them instead.

The Capsule Machine is a handy, inexpensive, manual capsule-filling device that makes it much easier to make your own capsules. (Encapsulators can be purchased at herbal supply retailers; see Resources)

Administration and Dosage Guidelines

Capsules are pretty straightforward—just swallow them with lots of water or tea. Doses vary depending on the herb involved, but are usually between 1 and 6 capsules taken 1 to 3 times daily.

Shelf Life and Storage Guidelines

Powdered herbs should be enclosed in airtight containers and kept away from heat and light.

Because powdering exposes so much more surface area, they don’t stay potent as long as whole dried herbs do. Once ground, it’s best to use the powdered herbs within 2 weeks, or 1 month at most. 

This isn’t mitigated by encapsulating them—the clock still counts down. Order powders in small batches—or, even better, grind them fresh each time.

Necessary Tools, Equipment, or Ingredients

  • Powdered herbs or dried herbs and herb grinder
  • Capsules
  • The Capsule Machine (optional, but extremely helpful)

Preparing Remedies: Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. If starting with cut and sifted dried herbs, use an herb grinder to render the dried herbs into a powder.
  2. Using The Capsule Machine (or lots of patience), fill the capsules with powder and close them up.

Pros

Full-spectrum. With any powder-based preparation, you get all the water-, alcohol-, and fat-soluble constituents the herb has to offer.

Portable. Capsules are handy when traveling.

Deep delivery. Capsules dissolve as they move through the digestive system, releasing their herb material when they get to the stomach or small intestine. You can buy special enteric-coated capsules (which will not dissolve in the stomach) to reach even farther down, enabling you to target the large intestine.

Cons

Sometimes hard to swallow. The “00” size capsules are fairly large and can be difficult for some people to swallow. Smaller capsules can be used, but the amount of herb each delivers then also decreases.

Lots of capsules equals not much powder. It takes 3 to 4 capsules to equal 1 teaspoon of powdered herbs. For some herbs, you’ll want to consume tablespoons of powder for strong effects; to get doses that high from capsules requires swallowing an unreasonable number.

Short shelf life. Whether homemade or store-bought, use capsules within 1 month. They are much less stable than other forms of herbal medicine.

Additional Considerations

Homemade capsules are simply powder in a shell. Commercial capsules could contain powder, but these days they’re often made with a dried liquid extract instead. This means the herb was extracted in a liquid medium and dehydrated to produce a resinous concentrate.

Commercial capsules can thus attain a much greater potency than homemade, so not as many are required to get a medicinal effect.

Honey Powder Pastes

Aside from capsules, there are other ways to take powdered herbs. A honey powder paste, or electuary, is a particularly nice way to take them, and it preserves the herb material very well, too.

Administration and Dosage Guidelines

You can stir the honey powder paste into tea or hot cereal, or just eat it off the spoon. For medicinal effects, take 1 to 3 teaspoons 2 to 3 times per day.

Shelf Life and Storage Guidelines

You can store honey powder paste in a glass jar for a year or more. As with other herbal medicines, it is best to keep it away from heat and light.

Necessary Tools, Equipment, or Ingredients

  • Powdered herbs (You can grind your own, but the texture will be grittier, so we recommend starting with store-bought powdered herbs.)
  • Honey
  • Small, wide-mouth jars
  • Small pot
  • Water
  • Stove or hot plate
  • Labels

Preparing Remedies: Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Use a ratio of 1 part powdered herbs to 5 parts honey (for example, 21⁄2 tablespoons of powdered herbs to 3⁄4 cup honey.)
  2. Measure the honey and place it in a jar. It’s best to use a squat, wide-mouth jar, as this will also be the container for your finished honey powder paste.
  3. Warm the honey gently by placing the jar in a small pot of hot (not boiling) water on the stove or on a hot plate. (Don’t let water get into the jar; keep the water level in the pot 1 to 2 inches below the jar’s mouth.)
  4. As the honey warms, it will transition suddenly to a thin, watery consistency. When this happens, remove it from the heat and stir the powdered herbs into the honey. Stir very, very well, making sure to break up any clumps of powder. Continue stirring for a few more minutes after you think it’s all stirred in, so it will not separate or clump up. The paste will thicken as it cools and even more over time.
  5. Close the jar and label it.

Pros

Long shelf life. When suspended in honey, the herb material is protected from oxidation and breakdown. Even powdered herbs will maintain their potency for years when they’re preserved in honey.

Full-spectrum. With any powder-based preparation, you get all the water-, alcohol-, and fat-soluble constituents the herb has to offer.

Delicious. While some don’t like the grittiness of honey paste, the sweetness is very popular.

Cons

Sweet means sugar. Herbal honey powder pastes are not ideal for those with insulin resistance, diabetes, or other blood sugar regulation problems.

Gritty. Especially if you grind your own herbs at home, your paste may have a gritty texture that some don’t enjoy. Commercially made powders are much finer and more consistent in texture, and yield a smoother paste.

Additional Considerations

In the Ayurveda medical tradition of India, it’s common to make a similar preparation using ghee (clarified butterfat). It’s not as sweet, but it can be employed in the same way as a honey powder paste.

Nut Butter Morsels

These tasty treats are a great way to introduce herbs to those who are skeptical about less familiar methods such as tincture or who just don’t like to drink tea.

Administration and Dosage Guidelines

Nut butter morsels can be made simply for pleasure or as an intentional way to increase your intake of phytonutrients (beneficial plant chemicals).

Eating 1 to 4 daily equals a medicinal dose of herbal material. 

Shelf Life and Storage Guidelines 

Once made, keep nut butter morsels refrigerated in an airtight container; consume within 1 week.

Necessary Tools, Equipment, or Ingredients

  • Powdered herbs
  • Powdered spices or cocoa powder, for flavoring and coating
  • Nut butter of choice
  • Honey (optional)
  • Unsweetened dehydrated shredded coconut (optional)
  • Mixing bowl and spoons
  • Airtight container

Preparing Remedies: Step-by-Step Instructions

A standard batch of nut butter morsels will use:

  • 1 cup powdered herbs
  • 3⁄4 cup nut butter
  • 1⁄2 cup honey (if using; if not, increase the nut butter to 1 cup)
  • 1⁄4 cup powdered spices (cinnamon, ginger, cayenne), unsweetened shredded coconut, or cocoa powder

1. In a medium bowl, combine the powdered herbs, nut butter, and honey (if using). Mix to form a thick dough.

2. Roll the dough into 20 to 24 (1-inch) balls.

3. Place the spices, cocoa, or coconut in a shallow dish and roll the balls to coat.

4. Refrigerate the morsels in an airtight container.

Pros

A good snack. With a decent amount of protein and very few carbohydrates (especially if you reduce or eliminate the honey), these make a great treat.

Full-spectrum. With any powder-based preparation, you get all the water-, alcohol-, and fat-soluble constituents the herb has to offer.

Cons

Nut allergies. Try sunflower seed butter or tahini instead. Short shelf life. Keep refrigerated and consume within 1 week.

Additional Considerations

If your morsels seem to “melt” or ooze out all their oil while in the refrigerator, it simply means you needed a little more powder in the mix. Including honey reduces the likelihood for this to happen, helping everything stick together.

Additional Herbal Preparations

A number of other simple herbal preparations are included with the ailments they help address in part 3. There, you’ll find recipes for herbal mouthwash, skin toner, broth, wound wash, and more.

Due to costs involved, time to prepare, or difficulty of execution, we don’t cover some remedies you may learn about as you continue to study herbalism. Here are a few worth mentioning:

Percolation tinctures. Based on the same principle as a drip coffee maker, a percolation involves powdering the herb, moistening it, packing it into a glass cone, and dripping alcohol through it. The alcohol absorbs the herbal constituents and drips out the bottom as a finished tincture. This is a very handy procedure, as it gives you a completed tincture in just days, rather than weeks.

Double extractions. For medicinal mushrooms and certain herbs, it’s important to combine both alcohol and water extractions from the same plant matter.

Fluidextracts. A fluidextract (yes, that’s all one word) is a special kind of concentrated tincture made in a multi-step process. These were popular among the Eclectics, nineteenth-century herbal physicians who had status equivalent to “regular” doctors in their day—“regular” meaning standardized in training and equivalent to our medical doctors today.

Teapills. Mostly associated with traditional Chinese medicine, teapills are made by condensing a decoction into a very thick liquid, blending it with herbal powder, and rolling the mixture into small, hard balls. Sometimes referred to as “patent medicines,” referring not to a legal patent but to the standardization of classic formulas.

Step Four: Work Safely with Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine is very safe. It is rare for serious complications or negative effects to occur when working with herbal remedies. Even so, there’s always potential for an herb to be incompatible with an individual person, for an allergic response to be triggered, or for the herb to be otherwise unhelpful. 

By following a few simple safety guidelines, we can avoid many of these issues, and the baseline safety of herbalism can be bolstered even further.

Dosages and Protocols

Herbs do not act the same way drugs do. This doesn’t just mean herbs aren’t as “strong” as drugs—they are not simply “weak drugs,” as people often think. In contrast to the isolated chemical of a pharmaceutical, each herb is a complex of dozens or hundreds of different active constituents. 

These work synergistically, in the sense that various compounds work through independent mechanisms that all contribute to an observable effect.

There’s also the importance of the body’s response to the scent, flavor, and other sensory qualities of the herb or herbal remedy. When we smell an aromatic herb or taste a few drops of bitter tincture, there’s a cascade of effects that moves through the entire body, one often far greater in magnitude than expected from the amount of chemicals that have been inhaled or ingested.

Because herbal medicines are so different in their mode of action from pharmaceutical medicines, their dosing amounts and protocols are quite different, too.

Dosage Recommendations

The most important thing to know about dosing herbal medicines is there is a great degree of individual variation. Each person’s body will react slightly differently to each herb or remedy. View all dose recommendations in this book as a starting place only.

Each type of herbal preparation included in step 3 (starting here), and each remedy listed together with an ailment profile in part 3 , includes baseline recommended doses. In our experience, people respond to anywhere from one-fourth as much to four times as much of these baseline doses.

Some things that might indicate you need a higher dose include:

  • Cold or damp constitution (see here)
  • Slow metabolism
  • Larger body size
  • Slow circulation
  • Sluggish digestion
  • Low sensitivity to pharmaceuticals

Some things that might indicate you need a lower dose include:

  • Hot or dry constitution (see here)
  • Fast metabolism
  • Smaller body size
  • Young or old age
  • High sensitivity to pharmaceuticals
  • Strong or multiple allergies or chemical sensitivities
  • Impaired liver or kidney function

In the end, your direct experience with the herbs will be your best guide. Start on the low end of our recommended dosing ranges, and progress to higher doses if necessary.

Practical Protocols

Dose refers to the amount of an herb or remedy taken at one time. Protocol refers to the regimen or schedule according to which the doses are administered. When it comes to herbalism, they’re equally important.

Very frequently, taking a single large dose of an herb is less effective than taking several smaller doses spread over the course of the day. In most cases, a single dose doesn’t do it—herbs influence the body gently and work best when taken regularly over a period of time. Consistency and persistence won the day.

The herbs we cover in this book are almost all appropriate for long- term use: months, seasons, or years of consistent intake. (The exceptions are noted in the herb’s profile and in any remedies which include it. Ones to consider carefully are St. John’s wort, uva-ursi, and wild lettuce.)

“Long-term use” doesn’t necessarily mean taking the same dose of the same herb every day for the rest of your life: We generally prefer to make a couple weeks’ to a months’ worth of a given formula, work with that until it’s gone, and reassess. It may be appropriate to continue with the same herbs, or adjustments may be made to account for changes in your body that occur in the intervening time. 

An herb that played a major role when you first started working with it may shift to a support role later on, or vice versa. Sometimes it’s appropriate to stop taking an herb for a period of time, to determine whether it’s still necessary to keep your ailment at bay or if the need has passed. The point is to stay present, checking in regularly to ask, “Is this the right herb for me right now?”

For some purposes, particular timing strategies are required to produce the best effects. For instance, when giving herbs to support sleep, we often recommend “pulse dosing”—taking a small dose several times in the hour before bed, rather than taking a single large dose at bedtime. 

Another example is the use of bitters before meals as a digestive aid, which is most effective when taken 10 to 20 minutes before you eat. We’ve made notes about these kinds of details wherever relevant.

Aside from these ideas about timing and frequency, the idea of a health protocol also involves all interventions being undertaken to resolve an ailment or improve health. This could include rational changes to diet, sleep habits, movement patterns, and stress management strategies—the four pillars of good health. 

Remember, herbs work best when they’re not working alone: Aligning your habits with your intentions for the herbal remedies will make for the most pervasive and lasting positive changes to health.

For example, some herbs and spices have been shown to boost metabolism, enhance fat burning and promote feelings of fullness. With minimal effort, you can easily increase weight loss by diversifying your spice cabinet.

To get the most bang for your buck with weight loss, you might combine herbs such as funugreek, ginger and tumeric with a well-rounded diet, a balanced lifestyle, and regular exercise.

To reap the benefits of herbs for weight loss in a more convenient way, you might also consider taking herbal supplements. Zotrim is a popular weight loss supplement that contains guarana (seed extract) and damiana (leaf extract), which have both been shown to support weight loss in some studies.

However, you might want to read some Zotrim reviews before making a purchase. 

Remember that you should always consult your doctor before taking any herbal supplement, especially if you are pregnant or taking medication. 

Tracking the Remedy’s Effects

How can you know if an herb is working? And how can you tell what change made the difference? The answer is simple and difficult at the same time, because it means developing an awareness of your body that doesn’t necessarily come naturally. 

It’s natural to notice when something is “wrong,” but when everything is going well and you’re feeling good, you’re not always aware of it, or you may just think it’s “normal.” And when things do go wrong, you don’t always have a clear understanding of why, because by the time you notice, the cause is already in the past. 

Developing this kind of awareness takes time—be patient!

One of the best tools we’ve found for keeping track of the effects of your work with herbs is journaling. Whether you use an app, a spreadsheet, or just a notebook and pen, it’s handy to build a habit of noticing what’s going on in your body and how you are responding to your environment.

We typically advise writing down everything that goes into your body: food, drink, supplements—anything you put in your mouth. This isn’t about counting calories, so there’s no need to quantify what goes in—just a simple list of ingredients is sufficient. Some other things that count as “input” are sleep, emotions, media, and personal and community events—anything you have to deal with emotionally, because those emotions often affect your physical health.

Then, keep track of everything that comes out, the “results,” including things like a headache, constipation, or feeling run-down. Or maybe you felt energetic—anytime you notice any kind of result, make a note. 

You don’t have to know why you feel that way, just make a note that you do. Over time, you’ll start to see patterns emerge. For example, one client who knew she had hypothyroidism started adding seaweed and nettles to her daily routine and started checking her temperature every morning when she woke up. 

Over the course of the next six to nine months, her baseline temperature increased by a whole degree, which showed she was experiencing a positive reaction in her thyroid health. Not all results take so long to see, but as you start to build new awareness about your states of health, you’ll be more easily able to see your successes. 

Plus, over time, you’ll build a very handy record: Let’s imagine you have a certain time every year that is stressful at work. By keeping data, you will have a record of what worked best for you this year when that stressful time comes around again next year.

Sometimes, herbs don’t have the effect you’re looking for. That’s okay! You should start to see enough results after a week to 10 days of consistent intake to know whether you’re on the right track, even if everything isn’t fully where you want it to be. If you’re not getting the results you were hoping for, no problem: Try another tactic! 

Bodies are different, and what works best for one body isn’t always what’s best for another—that’s why we list so many different herbs for each ailment. Be as detailed as possible as you think about your symptoms, because that will help you make more precise choices.

For example, we might both say we have “digestive upset”—but our bodies are very different. When Ryn has digestive upset, he’s usually experiencing some nausea or heartburn-type feelings. When Katja has digestive upset, she’s usually experiencing lower gut cramping and constipation. The same herb will not necessarily address both problems.

This is a case where Ryn might reach for catnip, and Katja might reach for chamomile, because, even though we started with a problem that sounded the same, it turned out that the symptoms were actually different.

Helping the Herbs Go Down

It’s true—some herbs are bitter. But many herbs are actually quite tasty, and making a delicious cup of tea is sometimes just as easy as pairing an herb you love, like ginger or peppermint, with a less-tasty herb you want to work with.

Other times, the bitter flavor is actually the point, such as when addressing many types of digestive issues. But just because it’s bitter doesn’t mean it can’t be fun—blending bitters can create interesting new flavors. 

Mixing in herbs with strong flavors, such as fennel or angelica, can really spruce up an otherwise boring bitters blend, and when the flavor is interesting, we often discover the bitterness is not unpleasant!

Herbs don’t always have to be taken as tea or tincture! Consider:

  • Herbs in wine, chocolate, and cocktails
  • Herbal honey, elixirs, and oxymels
  • Herbs in the bath and your skincare products
  • Herbal sprays, incense, and “perfume” oils
  • And, of course, herbs in your food!

Storing Herbal Medicines Well

Although you may have seen pictures of old homesteads with dried herbs hanging from the rafters, these days we have better storage methods to ensure your herbs stay fresh and last a long time.

Storage and Shelf Life Guide

The universal standard for storing basically any herbal product is mason jars. Whether dried herbs, tinctures, salves, elixirs—likely as not, herbalists put it in a mason jar. They come in all sizes; they’re widely available, airtight, and inexpensive. 

The only thing they lack is color: dark-colored glass, such as amber or cobalt, prevents light from affecting the quality of the product you’re storing. But those containers are more expensive, and, realistically, clear glass is fine as long as it’s not in direct sunlight.

If stored in glass with a tight-fitting lid, you can expect dried herbs to last 1 to 5 years, and tinctures might last as long as 10 years. Oils and salves have a shorter shelf life, because oils go rancid eventually—they may only last 6 months to 1 year. 

Lotions have the shortest shelf life, because when you mix oil and water, you have a perfect medium for mold. Lotions may only last 1 to 3 months, but you can extend their life by refrigerating them.

The best way to detect if dried herbs or herbal products are still good is to use your senses: If it still smells strongly of the herb, if it still has bright vibrant color, if it still has potent flavor, it’s still good.

Troubleshooting

I want to work with herbs, but I don’t have much time.

Start with something very simple and build on it as you have time. There’s no point in planning a complicated protocol you won’t have time to implement. Just pick the thing that seems easiest and start there: Your success will build on itself!

A few simple tools can make the job faster and easier. A French press makes tea making and cleanup much quicker. Good-quality tea bags are easy to take with you on the road. Tinctures can be stashed in your bag or in a pocket and don’t require any preparation to use. Although it’s great to have a nice, relaxing, slow cup of tea, what really matters is getting the herbs into you, whatever way is easiest.

I keep forgetting to bring my herbs to work with me.

Make sure you have a supply of the herbs you want to work with at home and at work, in a convenient form. That way, you don’t have to remember to bring them with you every day. If you’re planning to take a bitter tincture before meals, for example, keep a bottle of tincture

at home and at work. To cover all your bases, have one in your bag or briefcase, too—then you know you’re always prepared!

I don’t like the flavor, so I just don’t ever take it.

The best herb for you is the one you’ll take—so, if you don’t like the flavor of an herb you’re working with, switch to something you do like.

Even if it’s not the perfect herb for the health changes you’re trying to make, it is the perfect herb for helping you build new habits into your lifestyle. Once you develop the habit, you can switch up the herbs you’re using—and you might be surprised to find your tastes have changed along the way. If all else fails, cover the flavor with something tastier, such as ginger or peppermint.

I tried, but it didn’t work out. I don’t think I can do this. 

Learning new ways to keep your body strong and healthy can be challenging, but you don’t have to get it right on the first try. Take it step by step; if one thing doesn’t work, try something else. 

Start with the most enjoyable thing and work slowly. There’s no one right way, so just incorporate what works best for you. I’m nervous about taking herbs because I also take prescription medicines.

You don’t have to take herbs internally to experience their benefits— consider putting herbs in your bath, in a foot soak, in a lotion, or other topical application. For example, if you have a headache but don’t want to take herbs internally, you can put warm chamomile tea on a clean washcloth and lay it on your forehead while you rest for 10 to 15 minutes. This way, there is no concern about drug interactions, and you can still enjoy practicing herbalism. That being said, if you feel anxious about taking herbs, talk to your primary care provider or physician just to be safe.

I’m not sure where to get safe, good-quality herbs.

Check the Resources section for a list of our favorite herb suppliers. The suppliers listed all test their soil and/or their herbs to make sure there are no contaminants, grow their plants organically or ethically wild harvest them, and are mindful of their impact on the earth.

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