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Putting Your Knowledge to Use

Key Herbal Medicine terminology

  • Tinctures: Tinctures are created by macerating the plant matter (fresh or dried) in a calculated ratio of alcohol and water, for a minimum of 2 weeks. This provides the longest shelf life of herbal preparations and alcohol is one of the best solvents used to draw out a variety of chemical constituents from the plants.
  • Fluid Extracts: Extracts are more concentrated then tinctures, with generally one part of volume of the fluid extract being equivalent to one part by weight of the herb (1:1).
  • Standardized Extracts: In standardization, the one chemical believed to be the active constituent in the plant is isolated and used as a marker to determine quality control. If the chemical levels in the plants do not meet the requirements, then the chemical is altered or ‘topped up’ in a laboratory, thus altering nature’s ratios of the plant. Researchers are finding that the once determined ‘active ingredient’ of some plants may not be the one ingredient used for the plants reputed healing powers. As there are hundreds of chemicals in one plant, one benefit of using the whole plant is that the chemicals work in synergy, buffering the more potent chemicals while working towards creating the desired action in the body. Isolating one perceived active ingredient and making it unusually strong is simply creating a form of plant medicine that is very similar to a pharmaceutical drug, which is also one active constituent made very potent. Any active chemical introduced in to the body in high amounts will be more likely to cause adverse side effects. More standardized products are appearing on natural health product shelves, however many clinical herbalists do not use standardized products, instead choosing tinctures, teas and extracts.
  • Syrups: A tasty way for children or adults to take herbal medicine. The herbs are mixed with a sweet base, creating a palatable edible medicine.
  • Glycerin Based Medicines: Glycerin is a clear colorless liquid of a thick syrup consistency; it is a common constituent of many fats and oils. Ensure that you purchase vegetable glycerin (derived from vegetable oils) rather then ones from animal fats (generally extracted by using harsh chemicals, as a byproduct of the soap industry). Glycerin has half the solvent strength compared to alcohol yet is gentler on the digestive tract than alcohol, though does not draw out as many chemicals as the former solvent.
  • Dried Herbs Prepared as Teas: Both infusion and decoctions are used. An infusion is used for preparing the more delicate parts of a plant, such as the flowers, leaves, aromatic seeds and fruit. Decoctions are generally used for extraction of chemicals from heavier plant material (roots, bark, nuts, and non-aromatic seeds); with a few exceptions. A decoction is generally more potent than an infusion and used to pull out mineral salts and bitter principles of the plants.
  • Dry Sock Treatment: Thick cotton socks, soaked in a strong tea blend are put on while the liquid is still warm and covered with dry wool socks. This is an effective way to treat, while not administering herbs internally.
  • Liniments and Body oils: Most commonly used for tired and stiff muscles or dry skin conditions and rashes. This is an ideal way to moisturize the skin while applying therapeutic herbs or essential oils for absorption.
  • Steaming: An ideal therapy for any respiratory infection, clearing out bacteria and viruses and for stimulating the immune system. Loose herbs, fresh or dry can be added to a bowl of hot water and covered for 10 or 15 minutes or alternatively, a few drops of essential oils can be added into the water. The face is then placed over the bowl and covered with a towel. Steam repeatedly.
  • Creams and Salves: A cream is generally a water-based preparation in which the herbs and medicinal properties are mixed allowing for absorption from the surface of the skin. A salve is an ointment, which has been made from a heated mixture of oil and beeswax. Any mixture, which moistens the skin, will allow for penetration of healing properties through it. A topical mixture will be effective and allow for healing to occur as long as the skin is kept moist. Thus an oil-based salve will be longer lasting in terms of effectiveness and absorption, compared to a water based preparation.

Putting Your Knowledge to Home Use

The art of preparing herbal medicines at home is very similar to the art of cooking. Both include some basic tools, a few general rules and each allows for your creative mind to transform and strengthen a recipe. General types of herbal preparations:

Preparing Herbal Teas

For individuals who are just beginning to use herbs medicinally, preparing and drinking herbal teas are excellent first steps in familiarizing oneself with plant medicine. When preparing an herbal tea for medicinal use, there are two types of preparations: infusions and decoctions.

Herbal Infusions

Herbal Infusions are similar to preparing a pot of earl grey tea. Simply pour boiling water over the herbs and steep. This process is used for preparing the more delicate and aromatic parts of a plant, such as the flowers, leaves, fruit, and aromatic seeds. An infusion is best when preparing an herbal tea for its high nutrition (mineral and vitamin) content.

Remember: General measurement for teas is 1 tsp. of the herb for every cup of water, steep for 15 minutes.

Method 1. Place the herbs in a container with a tight fitting lid and pour freshly boiled water over the herbs. Cover the container and allow it to steep for 10-20 minutes. The length of sitting time depends upon the chemical constituents in the plant.

Method 2. Let the tea steep overnight and reheat in the morning. Store the tea in the fridge and reheat or a thermos in a convient way of keeping the tea hot for hours.

Herbal Decoctions

Generally used for extraction of chemicals from heavier plant material (roots, barks, nuts, and non-aromatic seeds). A decoction is generally more potent than an infusion and used to pull out mineral salts and bitter principles of the plants.

Method 1. Bring the water to a boil, add the herbs, cover and simmer gently over low heat, for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat, strain and drink.

Method 2. Add the herbs to cold water, place over low heat and slowly bring to a boil. Simmer gently over low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, keeping the lid on.

These herbs can be reused 2 or 3 times before discarding.

Remember: Always use glass or enamel containers and do not use microwaves, aluminum, cast iron pots that may affect the quality of medicine.

External Herbal Applications


Where a fomentation uses the application of a flannel or cloth soaked in and strained from a decoction or infusion; a poultice involves placing the herbs themselves onto the body. Their uses are vast, by supplying heat and moisture to an area, they provide healing and regeneration to tissues, stimulate circulation, improve organ functioning, used for eruptions, abscesses, for enlarged or inflamed glands; to reduce inflammation and help pull foreign bodies or substances from an area.

If using powdered herbs, add just enough moisture to make a thick paste. If fresh plants are being used, chop them finely before use. A poultice can be applied directly to the skin or wrapped thinly with gauze. Covering the skin, initially with vegetable oil will protect the skin and make removal of the herbs easier.


Fomentations are either infusions or decoctions, depending upon which part of the plant is being used, in which a cloth is soaked into (to absorb liquid) and then applied to the ailing body part. A fomentation’s uses are varied and will provide relief from congestion, will stimulate circulation, and help to heal and soothe irritated tissues. Typically, bitter herbs are used and steeped in water or apple cider vinegar; adding cayenne powder to the mixture will encourage more circulation and warmth to the area. Fomentations of apple cider vinegar, alone, will provide relief from aching joints, rheumatism and arthritic pain.

How to prepare a Fomentation:

  1. Steep the selected herbs in liquid (1 part herb to 3 parts liquid) until the tea is quite strong. Strain the tea.
  2. Submerse a thick cloth into the hot tea (cotton, wool, linen, towel, gauze or even a diaper, being imaginative, will work).
  3. Wring the cloth out (just enough to keep the liquid from running off the body) and test the heat before placing on the body. The cloth should be as hot as possible, without causing blistering.
  4. Once placed on the body, keep the fomentation moist and warm by covering. Towels or saran wrap work fine.
  5. When the cloth has cooled, remove from the body, soak it again and reapply.

Remember: Wet enough that no liquid runs off the body, large enough that the cloth covers the entire affected area, keep damp and warm and change periodically.

Ginger and Cayenne Fomentations

Ideal for cramping, intestinal, menstrual or muscular spasms and clearing for sinus

1 cup fresh, grated ginger root
1 tsp. cayenne powder
2 liters of distilled water

Boil fresh ginger in water on the stove for 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat. Strain away the ginger and mix in the cayenne. Continue with the preparation steps (see above).


The herbal compounds are absorbed thru the skin while the body is submersed in water. Any herb, which can be taken internally, can also be used in the bath. Excellent for children, herbal baths are useful for encouraging sleep and help with relieving fevers and cold/flu symptoms.

Method 1. Infuse or decoct ½ liter of herbal tea, steep till it is quite strong. Strain and add to bath water.

Method 2. Fill a muslin bag (or even a clean sock or nylon) with herbs, close the top and suspend from the hot water tap while running the bath water. A very fresh infusion will be created as the water flows thru the bag.

Herbal Baths

Relaxing/Sleep Promoters: Lime blossoms, Chamomile flowers, Lavender flowers, Rose petals, Lemon Balm leaves.
Revitalizing/Stimulating: Rosemary leaves, Basil leaves, Peppermint leaves.
Fevers: Yarrow leaf and flowers, Boneset herb, Elderflower, Ginger root

Sitz Baths

Used in conjunction with a balancing health program. The theory of hydrotherapy is to draw fresh blood to the pelvic area. Applications of hot and cold water are used to constrict blood vessels (forcing blood from the abdominal region) then to dilate blood vessels, (sending fresh blood rushing to the pelvic area). This pumping action of the blood removes stagnation and blocked energy from the abdominal region.

What You Need: 2 large buckets, large enough to hold your hips in comfortably, or 1 large bucket and a bath tub. Fill the bathtub with VERY hot water (herbal tea can be added), the other bucket is filled with cold water and ice cubes, the water should be filled high enough to cover the abdomen completely. Submerge your body in the uncomfortably hot water for 2 -5 minutes, then move to the cold tub. This will be shocking for a moment. Repeat this 5 or 6 times, for a duration of about 20 minutes, several times per week.

Sitz baths are used to stimulate pelvic circulation, toning up the bowel muscles, bladder and uterus. Useful for any chronic stagnation or blockages in the abdominal region.