Create Your Own Apothecary
Herbal Tinctures for Health and Well-Being
Crafting stellar herbal remedies in your kitchen that surpass anything you can buy in stores is easy and fun. The basic method simply entails packing herbs in a jar, covering them with something, such as alcohol, vinegar, or honey and then straining them after a few weeks. Alternatively, they can be simmered on the stove and then strained.
Here, we’re going to talk about tinctures, a liquid extract made with alcohol. Alcohol is as good as water, and sometimes better, for extracting most plant constituents, and it makes a far more concentrated product. Instead of drinking a whole cup of tea, you take just 1/5 to 1 teaspoon of the tincture. Dilute your tincture in a little bit of water (or whatever drink you like) when you take it because the high alcohol content can burn your mouth. Alcohol extracts have a long shelf life — 5 to 10 years! — and they do a fine job preserving fresh plant properties that get lost in the drying process. They absorb rapidly into the body, bypassing digestion.
In typical doses of 1 to 3 milliliters, you’ll get very little alcohol effect from your herbal tincture. However, some people with alcohol issues (including addiction, allergy/sensitivity, special diets, and religious concerns) may want to avoid alcohol entirely. Instead of tinctures, herbal remedies including glycerites, vinegar, oxymels, powders, capsules, and teas all are effective ways to make use of plant medicine.
The alcohol proofs (percentages) offered in my recipes work as a general rule for most herbs (see Making Sense of Proof and Alcohol Percentages). However, some herbs and constituents require different treatment. Research individual plants for specific recommendations, but here are some general exceptions and considerations:
Mushrooms: Polysaccharides (the complex starches in mushrooms that support the immune system) extract better via hot water decoction than in a typical tincture. You can cheat the system by doing a double-extraction tincture. This is ideal for mushrooms, which have an additional confounding factor of chitin fiber blocking the availability of many useful constituents; several hours of hot water extraction helps break that chitin down to release the mushroom’s constituents.
Resins: Resins repel water and require high-proof alcohol of 70 to 95 percent (151- to 190-proof) for optimal extraction. Pure resins include pine resin/pitch, Boswellia, and myrrh. Pure resin tinctures are finicky in blends, sometimes precipitating out into a resin glob at the bottom of the bottle. High-resin herbs (which are not quite so finicky but still do best with relatively high alcohol extractions) include evergreen needles, poplar buds, and turmeric root.
Mucilage: Mucilage repels alcohol and extracts best via cold water, though hot-water extracts also work. High-mucilage herbs include marshmallow and slippery elm. I usually use tea or powder rather than alcohol extracts of these herbs, though a low-alcohol (30 percent or less) tincture or syrup offers some benefits for formulation.
Minerals: Alcohol doesn’t extract minerals, though a double-extraction tincture would. Double extraction simply means straining the marc (the dregs or leftover herb), decocting it, and then adding the tea to the tincture. Alternatively, some herbalists make a separate decoction and tincture to blend together. Vinegar is a better solvent for minerals, and so are super-infused or decocted tea and food forms. Mineral-rich herbs include nettle leaf and oat straw.
Tannins: Tannins provide astringent, tightening, and toning activities. They love to bind to alkaloids, minerals, and other constituents, precipitating out into chunks and making your tincture gloppy and less effective. Add 10 percent food-grade glycerin to high-tannin plant tinctures (or formulas that include high-tannin plants), such as most barks, bacopa, and yellow dock, to stabilize them and improve their shelf life. High-tannin tinctures and formulas still have a shorter shelf life, but the glycerin extends it from a few months to as long as a few years.
Holy Basil: Tinctures and Beyond
Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum or tenuiflorum), part of the mint family (Lamiaceae), is a delicious, aromatic herb that excels at relaxing the mind and body, improving cognition, and lifting the spirits. In addition, it also helps lower blood sugar, modulates cortisol, decreases inflammation, improves digestion, and helps strengthen the immune system to protect against common pathogens. It’s best in tea, tincture, vinegar, honey, capsule, glycerin, hydrosol, water, and seltzer.
Holy basil (also called tulsi) jumps for joy when everything else in your garden bows in submission to hot-as-Hades midsummer temperatures, and begins rapidly producing useful medicine, provided you’re watering it enough in good, well-drained garden soil. This plant comes from India, and several cultivars are used somewhat interchangeably. ‘Kapoor’ or ‘Temperate’ tulsi thrives and produces best in temperate gardens. If your seed catalog offers one type and doesn’t specify the cultivar, it’s probably ‘Kapoor,’ which may also self-seed. Some types are perennial in warm zones or if brought indoors. Also called sacred basil and O. tenuifolium, ‘Kapoor’ tulsi produces nonstop flowers, which you can trim regularly to use for tea, water, and medicine, and to encourage growth.
Inhaling and consuming this aromatic herb reminds me of doing yoga, meditating, or surrounding myself with incense. The intense, sweet flavor includes hints of clove, mint, and basil. As an adaptogen and nervine, holy basil both calms and energizes the spirit, quells anxiety and grief, and brings clarity and focus to the mind. As a cortisol modulator, it not only eases stress but also lowers blood sugar, bad cholesterol, and triglycerides, and reduces sugar cravings. As an anti-inflammatory COX-2 inhibitor, it helps fight many chronic diseases and eases pain, especially when combined with other anti-inflammatory herbs, such as turmeric, ginger, rosemary, and ashwagandha.
Holy basil is associated with the Hindu god Vishnu and is used for medicinal protection in Ayurveda. It fortifies the immune system to fight infection, increases digestive function and juices, and protects against ulcers and radiation. It may stimulate anti-cancer activity, and it fights both oxidative stress and inflammation with its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Holy basil could take a spot in almost every garden — it’s that kind of plant. As a flower essence, it brings sacred sensuality.
Safe for Most People
Holy basil is safe for adults and children and rarely interacts with medications, though some may find its digestive effects too stimulating. If you’re prone to hypoglycemia, take it with meals or lightly sweetened with honey. A few people paradoxically feel anxious with holy basil, or simply don’t like it.
Harvesting, Preparing, & Using Holy Basil
Regularly trim the top 1/2 to 2/3 of the flowers and leaves, which will keep the plant happy, producing more vital growth. Use fresh or dried.
- Part Used: Aerial in flower.
- Tea: 1 teaspoon dried herb per cup, 1 to 3 cups daily.
- Tincture: 1 to 3 milliliters, 1 to 3 times daily, solo or in a formula. The fresh 1-to-2 ratio in 95 percent alcohol (best) or dried 1-to-5 ratio in 50 to 60 percent alcohol.
- Honey, Oxymel, Glycerite, Syrup: 1 teaspoon as needed (heavenly!).
- Capsules/Powder: 500 to 2,000 milligrams crude herb daily.
- Other uses: Cordial, infused water, seltzer/soda, hydrosol.
- Holy basil and lemon balm: Calm energy, mood lift, anti-anxiety, great for workaholics to de-stress and before bedtime
- Holy basil and rose: Gladden the heart, ease stress, lift spirits
Holy Basil Beverages
Holy basil’s fabulous flavor and nerve-soothing, stress-busting properties make it a favorite beverage herb. Use it dried in tea. Fresh sprigs (including those blossoms you trim off to encourage growth) can be steeped in hot water, cold water, or seltzer — one of the great joys of summer! Try holy basil solo, or consider these delightful garden blends:
More Ways to Use Calming Herbs
Simple tinctures: All these plants make excellent simple (single-ingredient) tinctures, ideally from the fresh plant material, which is far more potent. Choose the one best suited for you, or blend them into a formula. Fresh plant vinegar, oxymels, or glycerites can also be used. For calm energy, also consider ashwagandha or milky oat seed. For gentle sedation, try passionflower, blue vervain, or low-dose lavender.
Additional teas: Along with holy basil beverages, consider chamomile, lemon balm–mint, or lemon balm-linden tea.
Aromatherapy: Lavender or rose essential oil, hydrosol, glycerite, or potpourri helps bring things down a notch when diffused, left to waft through the air, or rubbed on the skin.
Flower essences: Use betony, blue vervain, dandelion, lavender, lemon balm, skullcap, valerian, and others. Take a few drops on the tongue, add to water or tea, mix into tinctures, apply topically, or spray in the air.
Making Sense of Proofs and Alcohol Percentages
Proof % Alcohol Examples Best For
190 95% Ethanol Fresh plants, resins
(grain, grape, (preferred), diluting with
sugarcane) water for other % alcohol
151 75% Grain alcohol, Fresh plants, resins
100 50% Vodka Dried plants, acceptable
for fresh plants
80 40% Vodka, brandy Topical liniments, acceptable
for dried and fresh plants
Tinctures, which are easy to take and readily absorbed by the body, are plant medicines made most often from herbs steeped in alcohol or an alcohol-and-water mixture. Alcohol is efficient at extracting an herb’s active constituents and preserving them; tinctures can be stored for as long as two years, preferably in dark bottles and away from sunlight.
Tinctures are readily available for purchase at health-food stores and some drugstores and supermarkets. They may also be prepared at home using grain alcohol of at least 80 proof, such as vodka. Do not use methyl alcohol, denatured alcohol or rubbing alcohol because all are either toxic or unpalatable (avoid all contact with methanol). Although most tinctures are made with vodka, you can also use other spirits, such as whiskey, rum or gin. For an alcohol-free tincture, you can use glycerin or vinegar to extract the plant properties.
To make a tincture, use 4 ounces finely chopped or ground dried herbs. Put them in a container that can be tightly sealed. Add 1 pint of 80 proof vodka or other grain alcohol and tightly seal the container. (If you use fresh herbs, such as a whole plant, use 190 proof grain alcohol, otherwise, the water in the fresh herbs will dilute the tincture too much.) Store in a dark place for two weeks, and shake well each day. Then, pour the mixture through a wine press lined with a muslin bag, and press into a jug. Pour the strained liquid into dark, sterilized bottles. Label the bottle with the name of the herb and when you made it. If you like, you can include information such as part of the herb used, whether it was fresh or dry, and what percentage of alcohol was used.
You can tincture many herbs. To get started, take a look at what is in your garden. It makes sense to start with herbs that are easy to get and have varied medicinal uses. Lemon balm, for example, is an antiviral and mood-elevating herb. You can also tincture peppermint, spearmint, lavender, echinacea, skullcap, and many other herbs.
Did you know? The usual ratio for tincturing is 1 ounce of dried herbs to 5 ounces of alcohol. Sometimes a 1:10 concentration is used instead.
Tinctures may be taken straight or added to a cup of hot water with a little honey or fruit juice if desired. You can also just pop a dropperful in your glass of water, or, if the taste repulses you, put it inside a capsule. The standard dosage is 1 teaspoon of the tincture three times daily but check with your health-care provider if you’re unsure about doses.
Many herbalists believe that tinctures—or liquid herb extracts—are more quickly assimilated by the body than other herb forms. But when you take tinctures can affect how well they work. In most cases, it’s best to take them between meals, when absorption isn’t slowed by food.
There are a few exceptions, however. It’s better to take bitter herbs just before meals to improve digestion and to take sleep-aid herbs before going to bed.
• Barberry: Before meals
• Gentian: Before meals
• Ginseng: Between meals
• Milk Thistle: Between meals
• Peppermint: After meals
• St. John’s Wort: Between meals
• Valerian: Before bed
Sage Tincture Recipe
Sage has antiviral properties. You can gargle with the tincture, or you can take it at the first sign of a cold. This sage tincture recipe is a simple folk remedy to try at home with your herbal harvest. Don’t overthink it: Grab some herbs, bring them inside and try it out.
• Sage leaves
• 190-proof alcohol
1. Gather a few handfuls of sage leaves from your garden. Bring them inside, wash and dry them. When you think the leaves are dry, spread towels on the countertop, cover with a layer of sage leaves and let air dry for a few hours or overnight.
2. Chop up the fresh sage, and place the herb in a clean, dry 1-pint glass jar. Cover the herb with the alcohol.
3. Put the lid on, and place in a cool, dark place (like a kitchen cabinet) for 2 weeks, shaking thoroughly every day.
4. Remove the jar from the cabinet, take off the lid, cover the top of the jar with cheesecloth and strain out plant material as you pour the tincture into a colored glass container. (Cobalt blue or amber glass keeps out harmful sunlight.) A bottle with a dropper attached to the lid makes it easy to administer your tincture.
Echinacea Tincture Recipe
Echinacea is an antiviral effective at fighting colds and flu and promoting healing of infections. Take this tincture when fighting an infection or traveling, or apply it topically to minor inflammations such as hangnails and bug bites.
Echinacea Tincture Recipe
• 1 cup fresh echinacea buds, flowers, leaves and stems rinsed, chopped and pounded
• 1 cup 190 proof ethanol alcohol (Everclear) and 1 cup distilled water
1. Place the prepared herb in a clean jar. Cover with the solution of alcohol and water. Keep in a cool, dark place, shaking twice daily, for 48 hours (these delicate plant parts require less time than many others).
2. Filter tincture through a food-grade screen. Pour the finished tincture into a brown glass bottle and label.
Fresh Plant Tincture Recipe
If you have fresh plant material available, go with that for a tincture rather than using dried herbs. It’s almost always better, and in some cases, it’s really the only way to go.
I love making fresh plant tinctures. With minimal preparation time, you’re rewarded with a fantastic extract, and you really experience your plant. High-proof alcohol sucks the water out of the plant and makes a better extract, but if you don’t have access to it, see the note for alternatives. Here are the materials to get started:
- 1 part by weight fresh herb
- Scissors or clippers
- Jar with a tight lid
- 2 parts by volume 190-proof alcohol*
1. Coarsely chop your plant material with clippers or scissors, weighing it out as you chop.
2. Shove the material into the jar — for leaves and flowers, squeeze in as much as is humanly possible. For best results, use a jar that exactly fits what you need without extra space.
3. Cover to the top of the jar with alcohol (it’s more important to keep it covered). You may need to hold the plant material down as you fill the jar, and use a knife or chopsticks to remove air bubbles. Secure the lid, but no need to shake. Store the jar in a cool, dark place. Open the jar a few days later to top off the contents with a little more alcohol.
4. After at least 1 month, strain the mixture through a cloth. Squeeze out as much extract as you can with your hands. A potato ricer, wheatgrass juicer, or hydraulic tincture press will also work well here.
5. Pour into a dark glass bottle and store in a cool, dark, dry spot. The tincture will keep for 3 to 10 years.
*Note: 190-proof vodka is sold in some states as ethanol or grain alcohol, though you can purchase food-grade organic grape and sugarcane ethanol online. Some states have banned 190-proof but offer 151-proof grain alcohol or vodka in stores, which will suffice. If this is not available, substitute 100-proof vodka, 80-proof vodka, or 80-proof brandy. The higher the proof, the stronger the extract.
Dried Plant Tincture Recipe
We usually tincture dried plants when fresh ones aren’t available; for example if you buy rather than grow them. For most plants, fresh is preferred, but dried will do. However, a few plants are actually best tinctured when dried. Elderberry, elderflower, cherry bark, and alder bark have mild toxins and/or nauseating properties that are eliminated in the drying process. Many adaptogenic roots, such as ashwagandha, are traditionally dried first to enhance potency.
- 1 part by weight dried herb
- Jar with a tight lid
- 5 parts by volume 100-proof vodka*
1. If desired, grind herb coarsely in a blender or crush with a mortar and pestle. This improves extraction but isn’t absolutely necessary. Place the herb in a jar.
2. Cover herb with alcohol. Secure the lid and shake well. Store jar in a cool, dark place. Shake regularly, every day or so.
3. After at least 1 month, strain the liquid through a cloth. Squeeze out as much extract as you can with your hands. A potato ricer, wheatgrass juicer, or hydraulic tincture press will also work.
4. Pour into a dark glass bottle and store in a cool, dark, dry spot. The tincture will keep for 3 to 10 years.
*Note: Vodka, preferably 100-proof (50 percent alcohol), works well for most dried plants, but 80-proof brandy or vodka (40 percent alcohol) works in a pinch. Or mix 60 percent 190-proof ethanol with 40 percent filtered or distilled water to get approximately 60 percent alcohol in your finished tincture. As noted earlier, use 10 percent food-grade vegetable glycerine with your alcohol for high-tannin plant material.
Mellow Me Glycerite Recipe
Consider this blend a daily tonic or an effective drink when you just need to chill out but still function during the day. It has calming, mildly energizing, heart-gladdening, and cognition-enhancing properties. While you could easily make this blend as a tincture (it would actually be a little stronger medicinally), it has a more pleasant, sweet flavor as a glycerite. Thank herbalist Steven Horne for this fast medicine-making technique! Feel free to skip an herb if you don’t have it or don’t like it. For an 8-ounce canning jar, you’ll need about 2 ounces of total prepped herbs by weight and 5 ounces by volume of glycerin.
- 2 parts fresh holy basil flowers or aerial parts, chopped
- 2 parts fresh milky oat seeds, whole
- 2 parts fresh lemon balm aerial parts, chopped
- 1 part skullcap or passionflower aerial parts, chopped (optional, for added sedation)
- 1 part rose petals
- Canning jar with a two-part lid
- 100 percent vegetable glycerin
- Combine and tightly pack the herbs in your jar, not quite to the top.
- Cover with glycerine, leaving a little headroom as you would for canning.
- Cap it, and submerge it in a large pot of water. Bring to a boil, and then let simmer for 15 minutes.
- Allow cooling enough to handle before straining, squeezing as much liquid as possible. Store in a cool, dark, dry spot. Take 1/2 to 1 teaspoon (3 to 5 squirts) twice daily or as needed.