Medicinal herbs – how they are used

Herbs have become a very popular way for people to treat their aches and pains, and with very good reason.

Natural versus synthetic

Natural growing herbs differ from synthetic compounds, as the natural herb contains many ingredients and compounds that work together and in most cases produce a synergistic effect.

A good example is Meadowsweet, which contains salicylates, which is like aspirin, but at the same time contains other
healing compounds that would, in this example, help to buffer and protect the mucous membranes from the corrosive effect of the salicylates – something that you do not get with synthetically produced compounds. With this in mind it makes perfect sense to rather use natural materials, since they are more “whole” – treating the problem and preventing unwanted side effects – as in the salicylate example cited.

The compounds in herbs are powerful, and because of this, herbs must be taken and used in formulations in moderation, as excess, just like the pure extract of the active component, can have a hazardous effect.

Just because it is natural does not mean that it is always safe – and due care must be taken.

When looking at using herbs, keep in mind that the entire plant cannot always be used. This varies from plant to plant, where some types allow the entire plant to be used, and other types, only selected parts, such as leaves or flowers, can be used.

A point in case is Elderflower – the flower has some wonderful therapeutic properties for internal use such as relieving mucus etc., yet the leaves and raw berries can be poisonous when
taken internally. The leaves can however be used externally for burns and the ripe berries are used in juices and sauces.

People at risk

Pregnant mothers, the elderly, babies, people with medical conditions or on certain medication, must first consult their health practitioner before using herbal compounds to treat illnesses.

For more information on herbs that must be avoided during pregnancy and lactation, please click here.

Drug interaction

Never mind how miraculous some medicinal herbs are, they can interact / interfere with certain drugs, and with this in mind we have compiled a simple table to use as a guide. To access this information regarding medicinal herb and drug interaction, please click here.

We refer to any drink made by infusing botanic material (be that leaves, seeds, flowers, roots etc) as a “herbal tea“.

To be totally correct you would break this down to

  • tisane (or ptisan
  • decoctions
  • infusions

A tea is a tisane (infusion) made from the tea bush (Camellia sinensis) and any herbal infusion is then really a tisane or ptisan.

A herbal tea can be made from fresh or dried botanic material – be that leaves, flowers, seeds or roots and is made by pouring boiling water over the material and letting it steep for a few minutes.

The seeds and roots normally require the mixture to be boiled to release the ingredients. The “tea” infusion or tisane is then strained, sweetened with honey if so desired, and served.

A decoction normally involves mashing the botanical material first and then boiling it in water to extract the organic compounds and differ from tisanes or herbal teas in that they are normally boiled.

Different ways to use herbs

  • Compresses
    • A compress is made by soaking a clean cloth in a herbal infusion, decoction or a diluted tincture.
  • Decoctions
    • They are made by using 2.5 oz (60 g) of fresh herbs or 1.25 oz (30 g) of dried herbal material and simmering it in 18 fl oz (500 ml) of water for atleast 20 minutes. Bark and root are very suitable types of material to use when making a decoction.
    • The decoction must be used the same day it is made and excess should be discarded.
  • Infusions (herbal teas)
    • Prepare an infusion by pouring 18 fl oz (500 ml) near-boiling water over 3 oz (75 g) fresh herb or 1.25 oz (30 g) dried herb and let it steep for 5 minutes. Flowers and leaves are suitable when making an infusion.
    • The infusion must be used the same day it is made and excess should be discarded.
    • For more on herbal tea.
  • Liquid extracts
    • These are made by using one part alcohol to one part herbal material to create pharmaceutical grade concentrates.
  • Macerated / Infused liquid
    • This can be made by steeping 1 oz (25 g) dried herbal material in 18 fl oz (500 ml) water at room temperature for at least 12 hours and then straining it.
  • Macerated / Infused oils 
    • Oils can be made from herbs, using fresh or dried material. Heat 18 fl oz (500 ml) oil over boiling water – bain-marie style (NOT directly on an electric plate or gas, and while doing this, ensure that there is always water in the pot underneath, heating the oil).
    • To this oil you should add 27 oz (750 g) fresh, or 9 oz (250 g) dried herbal material – and keep it heated for 3 hours.
    • After cooling the plant material is strained. Take a jar and fill it with fresh herbs and use enough of the oil to cover the material, and then leave for 3 weeks to diffuse.
  • Ointments
    • They can be made by heating solid fats or petroleum jelly over boiling water (as above with the macerated oils) and adding 2.5 oz (60 g) dried material to 18 fl oz (500 ml) of fat/petroleum jelly.
    • This mixture must be warmed over the boiling water for 3 hours and then strained and decanted into jars.
  • Poultice
    • This is made by making a paste from dried or fresh herbal material (finely chopped) and/or powdered material by mixing it in water and heating it to a temperature where it is still bearable to apply to the skin.
    • The poultice is applied to the skin without burning the skin, and replacing when cooled down.
  • Powdered herbs
    • Herbs can be powdered when dry, to mix with fluid when taken, but since the taste is not always acceptable, this process is often used in the supplement/pharmaceutical industry for making pills and capsules.
  • Syrups
    • These are infusions or decoctions mixed with sugar to promote a more palatable taste. This also helps to preserve the herbs. It is normally created by using 18 fl oz (500 ml) fluid to 18 oz (500 g) sugar.
  • Tisanes
    • These are herbal teas, and are infusions normally made from aromatic herbs such as fennel, chamomile, peppermint etc. They are taken without milk, but depending on personal taste, sugar or honey may be added.
  • Tinctures 
    • The same process is followed as when making macerated oils, but instead of oils, a water/alcohol mix is used to extract the active ingredients of the herb in question. This is an effective way to extract the constituents. Tinctures are stronger than infusions or decoctions and are made by using one part herbal material to four parts alcohol.

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