What's so great about liquid herbs?
One of my favourite things about being a naturopath is being able to mess around to my heart’s content with liquid herbs. And chances are if you have seen me for an appointment at some time, you have headed home clutching a small bottle of dark, mysterious-looking mixture, with specific instructions to take a teaspoon (or thereabouts) morning and night.
Herbal liquids are basically the end result of raw plant material that has been soaked in a mixture of water and alcohol, in a particular ratio, so that all the goodness from the herb diffuses into the fluid. The resulting fluid is called an ‘extract’ or a ‘tincture’, depending on how strong it is. Usually 'extract' refers to a very strong liquid (for instance, 1ml of the fluid might be equal to 1g of the original herb), and a 'tincture' is more diluted (it might take 5ml of the liquid to equal 1g of the plant material).
Using herbs in this way is one of the ages-old, ‘grass-roots’ ways of using herbal medicine, and one that I am thankful has stood the test of time. And for a few good reasons:
- Herbal mixtures can be completely individualized. Walk into any health food store, pharmacy or grocery store these days, and you can find a million and one different herbal combinations. And while many of these are great, they are still a pre-formulated, mass-produced product – and one that may or may not suit your particular needs. Using a herbal liquid means that your individual requirements are taken into account. Not only are the herbs used in your mixture chosen ‘just for you’, a herbal liquid allows different adjustments for dosage. For instance, you may benefit from a higher dose of one herb, and a lower dose of another. Everyone is different, and your particular mixture can be adapted to suit you.
- There's a little thing called synergy. This is a concept that I believe is unique to medicinal herbs, and one factor that really stands out when comparing herbal medicines to pharmaceuticals. Research conducted on herbs often focuses on determining which of the natural compounds are responsible for the therapeutic benefit, so that the compound can be replicated (and therefore, mass-produced with a large profit) in a laboratory. However, nature is smarter than we are. In many cases the therapeutic effect of a medicinal herb is not down to just one compound – it is the result of many different compounds (some of which have yet to be identified) working in tandem. The concept of synergy can also be applied to times when several herbs are being used together. It is believed that herbs have the ability to work together to provide an enhanced effect that is greater than the sum of the individual herbs, and this is a common practice in both traditional Chinese herbal medicine and the Ayurvedic medicine practiced in India.
- Using herbal liquids means there are simply so many more herbs to choose from. Most of us are familiar with the more popular herbal medicines. It is usually very easy to find a supplement containing Echinacea, Olive Leaf, Astragalus, Vitex (Chaste Tree) or Dandelion. But what about some of the lesser-known (but just as wonderful!) herbs, such as Maritime Pine, Devil’s Claw, or Elecampane? Using liquid herbs provides many different options for supporting optimal health and healing.
- They are strong. By using a 'Practitioner Only' herbal liquid prescribed by a qualified naturopath or herbalist, you can be assured you are getting a good, strong dose. I have assessed many common supplements and herbal tablets that I have come across in stores, online, or through multi-level marketing companies and I’ve been astounded at how common it is for supplements to contain only very small doses of the herb that they are advertising on the front of the bottle. In some cases the quantity is so far under what I would class as a 'therapeutic dosage' that I actually wonder how the manufacturer gets away with selling it. The trouble is, unless you have extensive training in herbal medicine, how are you going to know how much of that herb you need? In most cases, even a small amount of a professionally prescribed herbal liquid will be many times stronger than an over-the-counter product.
- Your body can absorb them easily. The fact that tinctures and extracts are in liquid form means that your body can absorb them easily. They don’t need to be broken down first, and the fact that they have been made simply by soaking the herb in fluid means that they are quite close to the original natural product, with minimal processing involved. Which is always a good thing!
- You get more bang for your buck. When you take herbs in the form of a herbal tea, you need to steep the herb (dried or fresh) in some hot water, and then drink the strained liquid. Whilst this is a great (and inexpensive) way to reap the benefits of using certain medicinal herbs, only the compounds that can dissolve in water are able to be absorbed into the tea (and therefore, your body when you drink it). However, many herbs contain beneficial compounds that are not water-soluble, and therefore get thrown out with the leftover leaves when you've finished the tea. Soaking herb material in a mixture of alcohol and water, the technique by which herbal liquids are produced, allows for a greater array of the active constituents (the parts of the herb that are responsible for its medicinal effect) to become available for your body to absorb. Each herb has its own ratio of alcohol to water that researchers have determined allows for the highest level of active constituents to be absorbed into the liquid. The end result of this process is a more potent (and therefore, potentially beneficial) medicinal herbal medicine.
So there you have it – liquid herbs, the best way to get your health back on track.