Homemade Medicine

Guide to make your own simple, effective herbal remedies

Making our own herbal medicines and body care products can save money and improve our health, and it’s much easier than you may think. If you already make herbal teas, then making infusions, decoctions, tinctures, salves and poultices can quickly become part of your repertoire, too. Don’t worry if they sound confusing; you’ll soon discover how to prepare a variety of plants to make a range of simple but effective herbal medicines.

One very important note before you begin making herbal medicines: Always make sure you are using the correct plant (check the Latin name) and the correct part of the plant (flower, leaf, roots), as some parts may be toxic if used internally.

Internal Medicines

Tea Time

Making herbal tea may seem fairly straightforward, but to reap the greatest medicinal value from herbs, we need to do more than dunk a tea bag in hot water. There are two main forms of herbal tea: infusions and decoctions.

Infusions: Infusions are the commonly known form of herbal tea, in which herbs are literally infused in hot water, usually one heaping teaspoon of dried herb (or one teabag) per cup of hot water for 10 to 20 minutes. This is the ideal method for extracting the medicinal compounds in most berries, flowers, and leaves. You can also use fresh herbs, but because of their higher water content, you usually need to double the amount of herbal matter per cup of water (two teaspoons per cup of water instead of one).

Decoctions: To extract the medicinal compounds from seeds, roots or stems, you’ll want to make a decoction, which involves boiling the herbs and allowing them to simmer for about an hour, usually allowing one heaping teaspoon of dried herb per cup of water. Note that this method is less suitable for berries, flowers, and leaves because it tends to destroy many of the delicate medicinal compounds they contain. As with infusions, you can use fresh herbs, but you typically need to double the amount of herb matter per cup of water.

What if you want to make a tea from some combination of roots, berries, seeds, stems, flowers and leaves? Start by making a decoction with the roots, seeds or stems. Bring it to a boil, then reduce to a simmer to continue brewing for an hour. Turn off the heat and add any berries, flowers, and leaves. Allow the mixture to steep for an additional 10 to 20 minutes. Now you’ve extracted the best medicinal compounds from all of the herbal components you’re using.

Tinctures

Tinctures are alcohol extracts of fresh or dried herbs. They’re highly effective at preserving a plant’s active constituents. You can make a tincture from roots, leaves, seeds, stems or flowers.

To make an herbal tincture, finely chop the fresh, clean herb you are using. You can also use dried herbs. Either way, the idea is to chop the herb as much as possible, to give the alcohol as much surface area to act upon as you can. Some herbalists recommend grinding dried herbs in a coffee/spice grinder before making a tincture.

Place the chopped or ground herb in a half-quart or quart-sized glass jar. Fill the jar with as much plant matter as possible to ensure the medicinal value of your tincture, keeping in mind that you’ll need enough alcohol to completely submerge the herbal matter. Top with vodka or pure grain alcohol, making sure all of the plant matter is submerged in the alcohol to prevent mold growth. Note that different kinds of alcohol will produce different kinds of tinctures. Visit Mountain Rose Herbs for more information. Date and label the jar, and allow the mixture to sit for two weeks, shaking daily to encourage extraction. After two weeks, strain the contents through a cheesecloth-lined sieve. After most of the liquid has gone through the sieve, pull up the corners of the cheesecloth and, using clean hands, carefully wring out any remaining liquid. Store the herbal tincture in a dark glass jar or dropper bottle away from heat or sunlight to preserve its healing properties. Tinctures will usually keep for a few years. You can make an herbal tincture out of any medicinal or culinary herb that can be used internally. A typical tincture dose is 30 drops (about one dropper full) three times daily, but we recommend looking up specific dosage recommendations for the herbs you use. Avoid tinctures if you are pregnant or nursing, or if you have liver disease, diabetes or alcoholism.

Skin-Healing Medicines

Infused Oils

Infused oils are made by infusing herbs in oil, rather than alcohol as in tinctures. The infusion technique works to transfer the healing properties of herbs to oils. Infused oils are excellent for massage; as skin or bath oils; or as a basis for balms and salves, which I’ll explain in the next section. Never ingest these oils.

Infused oils are easy to make. Choose any type of vegetable or carrier oil, other than petrochemical-based oils such as baby oil or mineral oil. It is also best to avoid oils that break down quickly when exposed to heat, such as flaxseed oil. I prefer olive oil or sweet almond oil, which can be warmed to encourage the transfer of healing compounds from the herb matter to the oil.

You can make many types of infused oils, but two of the most common are St. John’s wort and calendula oils. St. John’s wort oil, made from the flowers of the plant, can be used for treating bruises, swellings, hemorrhoids, scars and sprains. It is also recommended as a topical treatment for eczema. Avoid sun exposure for a few hours after using this oil on your skin as it can cause photosensitivity. Calendula oil, also made from the flowers of the plant, aids wound healing and alleviate various skin conditions.

Making herbal infused oils is particularly suited for the delicate flowers and leaves of plants. Simply add fresh flowers or leaves to a jar and fill it with oil, such as sweet almond oil, apricot kernel oil, almond oil or olive oil. You’ll want enough plant matter to ensure the medicinal value of the infused oil, but not packed so tightly that the oil cannot penetrate the plant material. The plant material must be completely submerged in the oil to prevent mold from forming. Label and date the jar, including the herb and the oil used. Allow the infusion to rest for two weeks, shaking the bottle periodically to encourage the infusion process. After two weeks, strain the herbs from the oil, squeezing out any remaining oil with clean hands. Cap and label the jar, and store away from light and heat.

Salves

Salves are basically herbal balms or ointments made by thickening herbal oil infusions with melted beeswax. Most health-food stores sell plain beeswax, which can be shaved with a potato peeler or grated with a cheese grater and then melted over low heat. You can also buy beeswax pastilles, which are ready to melt. Be sure to avoid other types of wax, as they are made of petroleum byproducts.

Allow two tablespoons of shaved, melted beeswax to one cup of infused oil after the herbal material has been strained off. Melt the oil and beeswax over low heat, preferably in a double-boiler, to prevent overheating. Stir regularly. Remove from the heat as soon as the beeswax is melted and well-incorporated into the oil. Immediately pour into small, shallow jars, tins or lip balm containers. Let cool undisturbed to allow the ointment to set. Use for skin irritations and other skin conditions, and for dry or chapped lips. Similar to herbal infusions, calendula, and St. John’s wort is excellent choices to use in salves.

Poultices

A poultice is a paste made with herbs that are applied to the skin. It is typically applied while hot or warm, except when made with herbs that are naturally chemically hot, such as chilies or ginger. To make a poultice, fill a natural-fiber cloth bag with powdered or chopped fresh herb matter. Tie it closed, and then place it in a bowl of hot water just long enough to soak and heat the herb. Remove it from the water, and apply to the affected area until the poultice has cooled and until you experience some relief. Reheat and reapply the poultice. It is best to use a fresh poultice each day.

Poultices are particularly effective in soothing aching or painful joints or muscles, as is the case with ginger. Calendula helps bruises and damaged skin, while echinacea boosts the immune system to help heal long-lasting wounds.

Some of My Favorite Healing Herbs

All of the herbs listed here are safe and effective. However, before making specific remedies of your own, make sure to research the herb you plan to use to ensure you’re using the right parts and amounts, as well as contraindications that may apply specifically to you and your circumstances.

• Calendula (Flowers): Skin healer extraordinaire
• Chamomile (Flowers): Relaxant and dental antimicrobial (use tea as a mouthwash)
• Dandelion (Roots or Leaves): Osteoporosis preventer and anticancer powerhouse
• Echinacea (Roots): Immune booster
• Feverfew (Flowers and Leaves): A headache and migraine alleviator
• Garlic (Cloves) Amazing germ buster
• Ginger: (Root): Muscle and joint pain healer
• Horsetail (Leaves): Nail, teeth and bone builder
• Juniper (Berries): Urinary tract antimicrobial
• Lavender (Flowers): Anxiety and depression alleviator
• Licorice (Root): Chronic fatigue syndrome solution
• Nettles (Leaves): Allergy remedy
• Oregano (Leaves): Antimicrobial antidote
• Peppermint (Leaves): Headache remedy and sinusitis aid
• Red Clover (Flowers): Relieves menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes
• Rosemary (Leaves): Memory booster
• St. John’s Wort (Flowers): Anxiety antidote and anticancer therapy; skin healer
• Thyme (Leaves): Cough and antibacterial medicine

Let’s Create Some Herbal Medicine – Tinctures.

tincture1Just as you can make a tea and extract your herb’s medicinal constituents with hot water, you can do the same with a cool liquid – alcohol. You can grind and soak your fresh or dried herbs in an alcoholic liquid or solvent {such as Vodka}, then strain out the herbs. The resulting liquid is called a tincture.

Alcohol is an excellent solvent {meaning that the medicinal constituents of herbs dissolve in it very well}. In our opinion, alcohol is second only to water. For most herbs, a hot tea will make the best herbal preparation, but in a few cases, tinctures can be an excellent choice.

Why make a tincture instead of a tea? One reason is that alcohol will pull out the active constituents of the herbs as a cool liquid instead of as a hot one, which will better protect certain delicate constituents that can be boiled or steamed away by hot water {such as the oils that contribute to peppermint’s lovely scent, or valerian’s heat-sensitive active compounds}. Alcohol carries the healing components of the herbs into your bloodstream quickly when you drink a tincture. In addition, alcohol is a very good preservative, so tinctures stored away from heat and light remain medicinally active for a year or more {and, depending on the herb, can sometimes remain viable for 2 to 3 years or longer}. Tinctures are also portable and convenient – you can carry a small bottle with you and take it directly by mouth or by adding a few droppersful to water.

Tinctures are made by grinding or finely chopping up fresh or dried herbs, adding them to a solution of alcohol, letting the mixture stand for 2 to 3 weeks, and straining out the herbs. It’s that simple!

You will need to pay attention to the strength of your alcohol, because different herbs extract somewhat differently. Alcohol’s strength is known as it’s “proof,” and proof is written as twice the percentage of alcohol in the liquid. Some herbs need a higher proof alcohol to extract all of their medicinal constituents, while other herbs will yield their components better when the level of pure alcohol is lower. If the herb you want to tincture needs a very high alcoholic percentage, you will need to use a higher proof alcohol, for other herbs, you can use a spirit with a lower level of pure alcohol, or you can dilute a high-proof alcohol with water to change its strength. When you are making a tincture, the alcoholic liquid is technically called the “menstruum,” and the herb, when you strain it out at the end, is called the “marc.”

Finding the Right Solution:

To obtain the correct level of alcohol for a menstruum, you have several choices. You can make your tincture with 100-proof vodka {50 percent pure alcohol}, 160-proof vodka {80 percent pure alcohol}, or 190-proof pure ethyl alcohol {95 percent pure alcohol}. Ethyl alcohol is the strongest alcohol you can purchase, but it is restricted in some states; if you can obtain it, pure ethyl alcohol is often superior to vodka as a solvent. Traditionally, brandy has been used as a menstruum {it is 40 percent alcohol by volume}, but modern brandy may contain pigments, flavoring compounds, sugars, and other components that diminish its ability to draw out the medicinal components of the herbs. We recommend using vodka or pure ethyl alcohol when available.

Basic Tincture:

tincture bottles littleA basic tincture is made with an herb {by weight, given in ounces}, and a menstruum {by volume, given in liquid ounces}. This recipe will make a little more than 1/2 cup of finished tincture.

2 – 3 ounces ground or finely chopped fresh or 1 ounce dried flowers, leaves, bark, seeds, or roots

5 liquid ounces vodka or ethyl alcohol

In a clean glass jar with a lid, combine the herb and the alcohol, making sure that the herb is completely submerged in the menstruum. If it’s not, add more alcohol until the herb is completely covered by about 1 inch of liquid. Many herbalists recommend whirring the herb and the alcohol in a blender or food processor until pureed to make sure that lots of surface area is exposed on the herb. Cover the jar and store it in a dark place, shaking it daily for 2 to 3 weeks. Do not allow the herb to float above the level of the alcohol or the tincture will spoil; add more alcohol if necessary to keep the herb submerged. When the tincture is finished, filter it through cheesecloth, a coffee filter, or a fine-mesh strainer. Then put the herbs into a muslin bag, square of cheesecloth, or even a length of clean hosiery, draw the sides together, and squeeze out the last drops of liquid from the herbs. {You can even buy special herb presses that do the job well.} Compost the herb, pour the tincture into amber bottles, label the bottles with the contents and date, and store.

Dosage: 2 to 4 droppersful tincture, every 2 to 3 hours.

Echinacea Tincture:

tincture bottles littleYou can take this tincture when you feel a cold coming on, or if you’re treating an infection.

12 tablespoons fresh or 6 tablespoons dried ground or finely chopped echinacea root

2 cups 160-proof vodka {if using fresh herbs} or 100-proof vodka {if using dried herbs

In a blender or food processor, combine the echinacea and alcohol. Blend or process until pureed. Pour the liquid into a clean glass jar with a lid, making sure that when it settles, the herb is completely submerged in the menstrumm. If it’s not, add more alcohol until the herb is covered by about 1 inch of liquid. Cover the jar and store it in a dark place, shaking it daily, for 2 to 3 weeks. Add more alcohol if necessary to keep the herb submerged. When the tincture is finished, filter it and then squeeze out the last drops of liquid from the herbs. Compost the herb, pour the tincture into amber bottles, label the bottles with the contents and date, and store.

Dosage: 2 to 4 droppersful tincture, every 2 to 3 hours.