Click here to sign-up for the Health911 eNewsletter that includes information about seasonal health conditions, links to our latest articles, alerts to our monthly product specials, health tips, and wellness programs. Sign-up today!
Make a Suggestion!
Share your health and wellness suggestions. We want to build the Health911 community around the interests of our viewers and customers. Click here
All Local Guides
General Health Articles
Making and Preparing Herbal Remedies
Natural medicine relies heavily on remedies made from herbs and herbal preparations. In most cases these are not difficult to make, but there are distinctions that create different compounds sometimes made from the same ingredients.
Bear in mind that the source of the ingredients is very important because the strength of commercially produced herbs and spices is usually weakened by processing and length of time in the bottle. Look for organically grown and produced herbs, or wildcrafted herbs. Wildcrafted herbs are picked in the wild and considered to be the strongest of all, but cannot be certified organic because their growth is uncontrolled.
Many organic herbs are grown on biodynamic farms, ones that treat the farm as a whole organic system. Special fertilizers are used, made from compost derived from other herbs and minerals to replenish nutrients in the soil, and only herbal and mineral-based fungicides and pesticides are used.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine decoction is the principal method used for herbs. It is also much more concentrated than the standard recipes used in the West.
This is the same method used for making tea and involves pouring water that has just gone off the boil over the leaves or other compounds being used.
• The amount of time depends on the herb being infused, but usually between 3 and 10 minutes
• Most infusions are equally effective when drunk hot or cold
• Most infusions are best when used the day they are made because they do not preserve the compounds that come out in them, but this varies depending on the herbs used
This is a two-step process that involves finely cutting or chopping, and sometimes crushing and powdering, woody herbs and hard seeds before steeping them for anywhere from 1 hour to several hours in water, then removing them and reducing the liquid (letting it continue to lose water by steaming) to make it more concentrated. Besides herbs this method is also useful for bark, roots, and some berries. The word is from Latin and means 'to boil down.’
• Begin by preparing the herbs, roots or seeds to be used. Many seeds need to be crushed, and most leaves and other plant parts need to be cut into small pieces
• Always begin with cold water
• Slowly bring the water and herbs to a boil, then simmer for the time specified in the recipe you are following
• When finished, strain the liquid through a cheesecloth and wring out all remaining liquid
• Further reduce this liquid over heat (do not boil). This process concentrates the beneficial compounds in the liquid
• Pour the liquid into jars and seal them tightly
• Most decoctions require refrigeration, or at very least storage in a very cool place
• Like infusions, some decoctions should be used the same day they are made, while others may keep for extended periods. This depends on the herbs used, and this information will be given in specific recipes
• Dandelion wine is one of the best known decoctions and has many differing recipes, but usually involves wine yeast being added to a water base with sugar, citrus peels and other spices
This method involves steeping the herbs at room temperature in a solution of alcohol and water, usually for around 2 weeks. Vodka is often used for the alcohol, and the recipes vary, some suggesting a 50/50 mix, others 25% to 37% alcohol. Do not use rubbing alcohol, methyl alcohol or others that are not made for consumption; again vodka (unflavored) is the best choice, although brandy and rum are also used. Also note that some compounds are only able to be extracted by alcohol.
• Prepare the herbs you are going to use, bruising and or crushing the ones that require this, such as hard seeds, and cutting leaves and roots into smaller pieces
• Seal the jar and store in a cool place for a week to several months, depending on the specific recipe. Some recipies require being shaken periodically as well
• Pour the liquid into a bowl through cheesecloth, and wring out the remains of the herbs to extract all the liquid
• Pour the contents of the bowl into a jar with a tightly fitting sea
• Alcohol will preserve the compounds being extracted, but the amount of time varies depending on the specific herbs used: some will last for only a few weeks and others for up to a year
• If the alcoholic content of the tincture is too strong you can dilute it with water or fruit juice
• Tinctures can also be made without alcohol, usually from distilled water, glycerin, or vinegar. The process is pretty much the same.
• When using vinegar, only use apple cider vinegar, not the distilled variety
• Glycerin can also be used for tinctures and is easier on the stomach than alcohol. Because the essential oils do not dissolve fully in glycerin it is important to grind seeds and cut leaves and roots to release as much of them as possible
• Follow the instructions for alcohol-based tinctures but make sure to shake a glycerin tincture a few times a day while it is steeping
• Syrup can be used to preserve infusions or decoctions, by adding them to melted honey or raw sugar
• Syrups are usually used for sore throats and for cough medicines, but should not be taken often because large quantities of sugar are bad for you (see our Sugar article)
• Syrups that are made from herbs with strong or unpleasant flavors can be disguised by making an Oxymel, a combination of 5 parts honey to 1 part vinegar. This is boiled until it forms a thick syrup, and the particular herb to be used is added depending on the recipe. This is often used for garlic-based remedies
Oil infusions can be made both hot and cold. They are useful both internally and externally, and as the basis for a cream, ointment or massage oil (see below). Many beneficial essential oils are difficult to extract and purify, but can be bought from specialists. Others can be used by infusing them in another oil (the carrier) which picks up the beneficial compounds, but at a lesser concentration. Carrier oils that are best depend on the herb being used, but many use olive, almond, sunflower, and other vegetable oil as long as its cold-pressed (it will say this on the container if it is).
• To make an oil infusion by either method, finely cut or chop the herbs in your recipe; make sure they are completely covered by the oil and keep them in a warm place like a sunny window. The liquid will need to be filtered through a cheesecloth and then stored in a cool place and preferably stored in a dark glass jar with a tight seal
• Hot infusions are suitable for herbs like comfrey, rosemary and chickweed. Use a glass or enamel pan to hold the herbs and oil over another pan of water on the stove, and heat on low for about 3 hours. Allow to cool and strain through cheesecloth, making sure to squeeze the cloth
• Cold infusions, suitable for herbs like St. John's wort and marigold, should be put in a glass jar and exposed to the sun for 2 to 3 weeks. Strain through cheesecloth
Creams and Lotions
• A cream mixes water with oils and fats, and is usually used as a treatment for the skin
• A lotion is similar, but usually more liquid
• Add herbs to the melted oils, fats or waxes in a glass bowl, preferably over a pan filled with water, and allow to steep for 3 hours
• You can buy an emulsifying ointment, which blends with water, to use as the basis of your cream
• Strain the mixture through cheesecloth and put in suitably sized jars
• Creams will last for several months, depending on what they're made from, but should be stored in a cool place or refrigerated
• Alternative bases to creams and lotions can be made from white beeswax, sunflower oil and glycerin
Ointments and Salves
Ointments and salves are made with oils and fats, and not with water. They are usually semi-solid and meant to form a protective layer over the skin, unlike creams which soak in. The beneficial properties of the herbs enter the skin from outside, with the ointment or salve acting as a carrier.
• Lanolin used to be the most common basis for ointments, but now non-animal compounds like paraffin wax and petroleum jelly are used. Lard was used extensively, but goes bad quickly, and many object to animal-based products
• A decoction can be the base for an ointment by losing its water and transferring its essential oils to a more solid base: follow the steps below but combine the fat or oil base with the decoction. Simmer until the water from the decoction has evaporated, leaving just the essential oils it once held in the new oil base. Do not over-heat the oil: when it stops bubbling the water is gone. At this stage you can add further thickeners like beeswax depending on the consistency required
• To make an ointment or salve, melt the oil, fat, wax or jelly in a glass bowl over a pan of water and add herbs. Most recipes say to heat your mixture for 10 or so minutes, and some require boiling, but make sure to follow the directions for your specific recipe so you achieve the desired result. Remove the remains of the herbs by straining through a sieve or cheesecloth
• Other oils can be added depending on what healing properties your ointment or salve needs
• Strain through cheesecloth and squeeze the cloth into a glass pitcher, and pour the hot liquid into storage jars before it cools
• Alternative bases to ointment can be made from white beeswax, sunflower oil and glycerin
Compresses are made with the liquid from herbal extracts. A cloth is soaked in a decoction or infusion and applied directly to the affected area, changing it every time it cools down.
• A compress is used to help the healing of a wound or treating pain in a problem area. It is a usually a folded cloth pad that has been soaked in an herbal infusion, decoction or tincture
• The time a compress is applied depends on the strength of the remedy and the specific ailment
• Some are used hot and some cold, again depending on the ailment and remedy
A poultice is essentially the same as a compress but the whole herb or compound is used, usually warm or hot. Fresh or dried herbs can be used
• Poultices are often used to draw out infections and the products of infection like pus from the wound area or place of irritation
• Most often chopped fresh herbs are used, because their oils are at their strongest. They are sometimes boiled lightly first
• When dried herbs are used they are usually mixed with water or apple cider vinegar and placed on a layer of cloth on the wound or area to be treated, although some can be put on directly
Foot Baths, Soaks and Herbal Baths
• Both foot baths and soaks work on the same principle: that the beneficial properties of the herbs added to the bathwater go in through the skin to have their effect
• One of the oldest soaks is made from Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate), which has been used since ancient times. Epsom Salts (see our Epsom Salts article) have been used to reduce swelling, clean minor wounds, treat insect bites, and soothe feet. A natural sedative, they can be used in a bath, to wash your face in addition to your usual soap, and can also be used in rough handfuls to remove dead skin, being careful to rinse fully afterwards
• There is a large number of herbs and compounds that work well with this method, and many remedies involve a soak, especially for conditions associated with skin and skin irritation (see Nail and Feet sections)
• Usually the oils of herbs, small drops from concentrate, are mixed in a pitcher and added to the bath water, although some people put flowers directly in
• Using your own herbs, put them in a cheesecloth, bring them to a boil, steep for 30 to 50 minutes, strain them into a pitcher and pour the liquid into your bath
• The classic foot soak for pain and fatigue is made with Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate), but you can add other oils to it. It is also used to cure skin ailments and conditions, especially fungal infections (see Feet section). But note that people with diabetes, cracked skin and open wounds should consult a physician before using any herbal soak or remedy
• The steam from freshly poured boiling water can convey the beneficial properties of herbs. Place the herbs you want to use in a broad bowl, pour in the boiling water, and put a towel over your head and around the bowl to capture as much of the steam as possible. Breathe deeply.
• This is an ideal treatment for sinus problems, as well as colds and throat infections
• This is one of the methods used in Aromatherapy (see our Aromatherapy section)
• This is another way to process the beneficial compounds in herbs by using a blender or food processor
• A large quantity of the herb you want to juice must be used, because herbs produce very little liquid
• This is best when processed by professionals who can powder the herb without heating it in a kitchen grinder, because heat changes the chemical properties of the beneficial compounds
• You can buy powdered herbs and put them in prepared capsules (which usually contain gelatin, although vegetarian ones are also available) and store them short-term for ready use
Many natural remedies are based on herbs and herbal extracts that can irritate the skin. Because of this, other oils, called carrier oils, are used to transfer the beneficial qualities of the herbs through the skin with bothering it
• The carrier oil most often used is sunflower oil, but they can be made from the nuts, kernels and seeds of many vegetables, which involves pressing the fatty (inner) part to extract the oil