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Which type of herb is right for you?
By Denise Brusveen, MS
Teas, tinctures, infusions, decoctions, capsules, powder. There are so many options when it comes to herbal preparations! How do you know which one is right for you? Let me break it down for you.
Water-based Preparations (Teas, Infusions, and Decoctions)
Preparing your herbs this way does a good job of pulling out the water soluble nutrients in the herbs. They are also very easily digestible in this form, which is especially great for people with low stomach acid or gut issues. They are also one of the cheapest ways to consume herbs. You can buy a whole pound of loose herbs and then add the amount you need for your daily dose. Nettles, for example, are usually $13-15 for a whole pound on Amazon.
Disadvantages of teas, tinctures, and decoctions is that you have to spend the time preparing them usually daily or every couple days because they spoil easily. The taste of some herbs is another downside, but sometimes it just takes some trial and error to find the right flavor combination. And it can be inconvenient to take them to work. Tea bags make it a bit easier to take with you to work, but teas don’t really provide a lot of nutrition because the dose is so small.
Infusions are basically a much stronger tea that deliver a LOT of nutrition. Susun Weed recommends using an ounce of dried herb, which is approximately a cup. If you’re super particular like me, you can
weigh the herb the first few times to figure out how many cups equal an ounce. For example, an ounce of nettles is actually closer to 1.5 cups. So you put that ounce of dried herb in a 1 quart jar and then top it off with freshly boiled water. Put the cap on, and then let it steep for 4-8 hours. Strain the herbs out and then begin drinking at room temp. or refrigerate. Most herbal infusions don’t last longer than a couple days before they start to go bad, so don’t make more than you’ll drink in that time.
With decoctions, you bring your water to a boil and then add your herb and simmer for at least 20 min. Some people simmer longer for an even stronger drink. You can start with just a couple tbsp. of herb in a quart of water and work your way up to 4-5 tbsp. Decoctions are very nutritious like infusions.
So how do you choose whether to make an infusion or decoction? Infusions are typically made out of the above ground plant parts, including the leaves, flowers, stems, fruits, and aromatic seeds. Decoctions are best for the roots, bark, and non-aromatic seeds because they need the longer direct exposure to the higher heat to pull the nutrients out.
The major nutritional benefit of tinctures is that they can pull out both the water and alcohol soluble nutrients because the alcohol also has water in it. They also have a much longer shelf life (usually several years). Some of the constituents can start to break down in as little as 3-6 mo., but there aren’t enough studies to determine which plants this is most likely to happen with. So it’s best to store your tinctures in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight to help them last longer. If you’re buying from a company like Herb Pharm, they also print an expiration date on the bottom of the bottle.
Another benefit with tinctures is that it’s much easier to carry a small bottle in your purse or even keep it in your desk at work and add a dropperful to some water. I am really loving the even more convenient sprays that herbal companies are now coming out with. It’s so simple to spray a couple sprays of these bitters in my mouth before every meal.
The major downside to tinctures is that they can be pricey. But for simple tinctures, some people buy the bulk herb and make their own.
The alcohol in tinctures slightly increases absorption of many of the nutrients, but some people wish to avoid the alcohol, so they prefer glycerites instead. While glycerites actually slightly decrease the absorption of nutrients, they are a very good alternative to tinctures. They are made with glycerin instead of alcohol, so they are sweeter, which makes it easier to get kids to take them. And because they’re less potent, they’re great for people who are really sensitive to trying new remedies for healing.
The downside is that they mostly only provide the water-soluble compounds, since they don’t contain alcohol to pull out additional nutrients, and their shelf life is shorter than tinctures.
Powder and Capsules
In these forms, the entire herb is presented to the GI tract. In some cases, such as for IBS, it’s important that the herbs have direct contact with the gut. Another benefit of powdered herbs is that they can be relatively cheap, and if you prefer capsules like I do, you can make your own much cheaper than buying the herb already in capsule form. I currently make astragalus, cream of tartar, salt, and cat’s claw capsules. People often ask if they can take nettle leaf capsules instead of infusions. While some is better than nothing, you’re not going to get nearly as much nutritional value out of capsules as you will
One risk with grinding an herb into powder is that the heat from the process can break down the constituents. Once an herb is ground into powder, it can oxidize more easily, so the shelf life is typically shorter than for tinctures. It’s important to try to buy from a reputable company that sells fresh herbs. Companies like Frontier Co-op print an expiration date on their bulk herb bags, so always be sure to check your bag to make sure it’s not close to expiring!