by Lucy Wilkinson
Buying herbal medicines can be a very confusing endeavour, many choices line the store shelves, but often we cannot be sure about their freshness and the exact ingredients that they contain. Many people turn to making their own medicines because they know what is in the pot-exactly. Making your own medicine is like cooking: very rewarding in many ways, but there is a time-consuming prerequisite-learning and preparation. After all, we are calling it a medicine!
The best way to start making your own medicines is to prepare yourself by taking courses and by studying. Then experiment. Choose a preparation you are comfortable with and you can use, such as an infused lavender oil for the bath.
When we choose to make our own medicines consider a few things first. Can I use the plants I grow in my own garden? Of course, you can be sure about their freshness and that no chemicals have been used. You know you purchased your plants and seeds from a reliable source to make sure they are properly identified. And you are experienced and knowledgeable regarding the best way to preserve and use the herbs which you choose to make into medicines. Also you know that you use them in the proper quantities.
If you decide you do not want to use plants you have grown yourself, purchase fresh or dried herbs from a reliable source. This source should be able to give you any information you need about where and how the herbs were grown and how long they have been on the shelf (see Sources.)
Always take herbal medicines under the advice of an herbal professional. Often we make the mistake of thinking that because herbs are 'natural,' any quantity or combination can be used. Many herbs are extremely potent and can be dangerous if taken in high dosages, for a prolonged period, or in combination with other herbs and medicines. Sometimes it is better to take a slightly weaker solution more often, than to take a b dose only once or twice. If you are making a preparation for a child or an elderly person, cut the amount of herbs in half. The effectiveness of the herbs varies in each person. Each body reacts in different ways to constituents present in herbal preparations. And general health is our first concern.
You can prepare herbs for medicines in different ways. The preparation you use can depend on the ailment, whether the herbs available to you are fresh or dry, how you prefer to take your medicine, and in what way each herb is best used (to take advantage of all its medicinal properties). The forms of herbal medicines you can make at home vary: infusions or teas, decoctions, tinctures, powders/capsules, syrups, ointments and creams, compresses, poultices.
Infusions are generally made with flowers, leaves, and upper parts of plants.
A standard measure is 30g dried/75g fresh to 500ml of water.
1.. Allow water to boil, and then remove it from heat immediately. Vigorous boiling disperses volatile oil into the steam.
2.. Put herb in a pot with lid, and pour hot water over. (Use mineral water if you can, and avoid very hard water.)
3.. Leave to infuse for 10 min., then pour through strainer.
4.. Keep in a cool place. Reheat in a glass or enamel pan, or take cool. Infusions do not keep well, so they should be made fresh daily.
5.. A standard dose is 1/2 cup three times daily. You can add a small quantity of honey to make it more palatable.
Some herbs with highly volatile properties are better made as a cold infusions. To do this, soak double quantities of herb in cold water for 8-12 hours.
Decoctions are used when you need a more vigorous extraction of active ingredients. Most often decoctions are used for roots, barks, and some berries. Ask a herbalist before preparing your own. Some herbs are more powerful than others, so you may need to reduce the amount of herb or add more water.
A standard measure is 30g dried/60g fresh to 750ml water which reduces to about 500ml after simmering.
1.. Place herbs in cold water, herbs can be bruised or crushed beforehand.
2.. Heat herb for up to 1 hour. Then let cool to 40degC/104degF.
3.. Strain and add more water to make up 1 litre.
4.. Decoctions can be kept for 2 or 3 days but are best when made fresh daily.
5.. A standard dose is 1/2 cup three times daily.
Tinctures are made through steeping dried or fresh herbs in a mixture of water and alcohol. Any part of the plant can be used. Besides extracting active ingredients, the alcohol acts as a preservative, enabling the tinctures to keep for up to 2 years. Commercial tinctures usually use ethyl alcohol, but many people use vodka since it has no additives. If you do not like the idea of alcohol, when you are ready to take a dose, add a small amount of almost boiling water, and allow it to cool. This will allow most of the alcohol to evaporate.
A standard measure is 200g dried/600g fresh herbs to 1 litre 25% alcohol/75% water mixture.
1.. Put the herb into a large jar and cover with the alcohol/water mixture. Seal the jar and store in a cool place for up to 2 weeks, shaking occasionally.
2.. Strain mixture, and store in clean, dark glass bottles. A standard dose is 5ml 3 times a day, diluted with water, fruit juice, or honey.
These mixtures are for cough medicines, for medicines for children, and for herb mixtures that are extremely unpleasant tasting. They are made with either an infusion or decoction mixed with honey.
A standard measure is 500ml infusion or decoction to 500g of honey.
1.. Bring mixture to a slow boil, stirring constantly.
2.. Allow the mixture to cool and store in a dark glass bottle, preferably with a cork.
3.. Keep refrigerated.
To make syrup with a tincture:
1.. Bring 2 cups of water and 4-6 tbsp. of honey to a slow boil.
2.. Remove from heat, and mix 1 part tincture with 3 parts syrup.
3.. Store in dark glass corked bottles and keep refrigerated.
A standard dose is 5-10 ml, 3 times a day.
You can make powder or capsules by crushing dried plant parts with a mortar and pestle. You can also reduce it to powder in a coffee grinder, making sure that it doesn't run for too long and get too hot.
Powder can be added to food (soups, juices, etc.) or put into capsules.
If you do not wish to grind your own, you can buy powder. Obviously grinding fresh is better because oxygen reduces effects of active ingredients.
A standard dose is 1/2 - 1 tsp. powder in half a glass of water 3 times a day, or sprinkled on food.
OINTMENTS AND CREAMS
Creams can be made in a number of ways. Here is one method:
Use 25g white beeswax, 25g water-free lanolin, 100ml sunflower oil, 25ml glycerin, 75ml water, and 50g dried herbs.
1.. Melt the beeswax and lanolin in a double boiler, and then add the sunflower oil, glycerin, water, and dried herb.
2.. Heat gently for three hours.
3.. Strain the mixture through cheesecloth. Stir constantly until cold. Place in dark glass jars for storage.
Home made creams can last for several months if kept in a cool place, but this cream made with organic oils and fats deteriorates more quickly. You can add 5 drops of tincture of benison or myrrh for a preservative.
Following is a recipe for a simple ointment:
1.. Melt 500g of soft paraffin wax in a double boiler.
2.. Stir in 60g of dried herb, and heat for 2 hours or until the herbs are crisp.
3.. Squeeze the mixture through cheesecloth (wearing rubber gloves, as the mixture is hot).
4.. Pour into dark glass wide mouth jars, while the mixture is still warm and liquid.
HOT AND COLD COMPRESSES
Compresses are used to apply externally to the skin. Hot compresses can be used for muscle injuries, and strains. Cold compresses are good for headaches.
For a hot compress:
1.. Soak a clean cotton cloth in a hot decoction or infusion, and apply to affected area.
2.. Cover with plastic and a towel, or a hot water bottle to maintain heat. For a cold compress, use the same method, but allow it to cool.
Poultices are made with plant parts instead of liquids. They are used to stimulate circulation, soothe aches and pains, or draw impurities out through the skin. They are more active than compresses.
1.. Crush fresh herbs and heat in a pan with a small amount of boiling water.
2.. Smooth oil on skin before applying.
3.. Apply directly on skin, and cover with gauze to hold it in place.
4.. Try this on a small patch of skin first, to see if there is any irritation. If so, apply between two pieces of gauze.
5.. Replace every 2-4 hours if needed.
These simple recipes will give you a general idea of the types of medicine you can make at home. Consult a professional herbalist to find out what are the best herbs to use for different conditions, and what are the best ways to use each herb to get the maximum medicinal value.