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Understanding Tinctures

Posted by Ryan Wade on 5th Feb 2014

herbal medicine tinctures

Becoming More Informed about Tinctures

Tinctures are one of the most popular methods in the West used to consume plants as herbal medicine. In fact, the first herbal preparation I ever bought and took was a tincture (feverfew, Tanacetum parthenium, used to prevent migraine headaches) almost 20 years ago.

There are very compelling reasons to use tinctures, but for the most part, I find that tinctures are misunderstood and many of the tinctures sold are pushed for profit over the usefulness of tinctures and the medicines they contain. The more you known and understand about tinctures, the better able you will be to select--and make--quality tinctures. A quality tincture is a potent herbal medicine, but--unfortunately--sometimes our best discretion is needed in finding which tinctures are worth our money (and our health) and which exists mainly to pad the pockets of those selling them.

So What Exactly is a Tincture?

A tincture is a liquid extract of a medicinal plant (or fungi). While alcohol is the most common liquid used for extraction, any safe solvent can be used, and it is not uncommon to find tinctures in a base of apple cider vinegar or even glycerin. The goal is to soak the plant in a solvent so that the phyto-chemicals--the medicinal compounds--are extracted and become part of the solution (which is called the menstrum). Then, after the extraction takes place (usually over the course of fourteen or more days), the mixture of plant and solvent is pressed and the plant material (now called the marc) is discarded. At this point, all of the desired compounds have been extracted from the plant, and the solid material that remains is the now "useless" plant cellulose, fiber, and lignins What is left is a solution of alcohol (or another substance) with the desired compounds from the plant dissolved in it.

Many people have concern about the gluten content of tinctures made from grain alcohol. As the majority of USP alcohol is grain alcohol, this is a very understandable concern. The process of distilling alcohol (link to the Wikipedia entry on distillation) removes any impurities from the alcohol, including gluten. As such, USP grade alcohol, the type of alcohol used in professional tincture manufacturing, is gluten free. As far as I know, all "hard" alcohol, that is all alcohol that has been distilled, is 100% gluten free.

An alcohol tincture provides a very stable method for preserving herbal medicines. In fact, I have heard stories of 300+ year old tinctures here in New England being analyzed for potency and they retained almost all of their original strength (as compared to freshly made tinctures).

One caveat to mention in writing about tincturing in alcohol is that tinctures are never made with just alcohol. A 50:50 alcohol:water ratio is the preferred standard for tincturing. This is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, certain compounds that are not readily extracted by alcohol are by water, and vise versa, so using this combination (which is also written as being 100 proof alcohol) is able to provide as full of an extraction as possible. Secondly, the high concentration of alcohol (as opposed to using something like wine, which is around 12% alcohol or less) acts as a preservative for the tincture, so that there is no risk of the tincture spoiling or becoming rancid, because the level of alcohol in the final product is high enough to prohibit any kind of microbial growth.

The Three Main Benefits of Tinctures

herbal medicine tinctures

1. Preserving the Harvest

In the past, one the of major benefits of tincturing plants was to preserve the harvest for the rest of the year (and for years to come). Now that we have the benefit of a fairly ready supply of herbs through industrialization and globalization, preserving them is not as much of a concern as it once was. Additionally, for dried plants, the methods used for processing herbs and preserving herbs has increased greatly from what it once was. So while a main benefit of tinctures was to preserve the active compounds in medicinal plants and fungi, I would argue that this is no longer a huge concern for most people. Exceptions would be for people who are wild-harvesting and/or growing their own herbs and want to preserve those herbs into the future. For people purchasing their herbs, it is just as easy in many cases to purchase a tincture as it is a powdered extract, a whole herb, or whatever form you desire.

2. Reliable Dosages and Administration

A second main benefit of tinctures is the ability to administer known quantities of plants. But this only applies to correctly made, standardized tinctures. The problem with this is that many people--including many manufactures--do not measure their inputs (or at least do not publish them), so it is impossible to know how much of the original plant went into the extraction. It is not enough to "just add herbs to a jar and cover with vodka." Especially if you are selling your tinctures.

A properly prepared tincture, and any tincture you are spending money on and hoping for a beneficial effect from, will have listed on it the extraction ratio. This extraction ratio informs you of the ratio of herb (including fungi) and alcohol that went into making the tincture. This information also tells you the equivalent of whole, fresh herb in the bottle.

Some standard extraction ratios you might see are 1:4, 1:5, or even 1:10. These represent one part of herb to four, five, or ten parts alcohol, respectively. So there is four, five, or ten times the amount of alcohol than herb in the tincture. This is where it is common to see money get the best of people, when either the extraction ratio is not listed, or the extraction is very weak. Of course, people may argue that some plants are very potent and warrant a lesser extraction ratio, but I would argue that the dosage should compensate, not the strength.

As a shameless plug, at RAW Forest Foods, we offer all of our tinctures as a 2:1 extraction. This is two parts herb for each part alcohol, or eight times the strength of a 1:4 tincture, ten times the strength of a 1:5 tincture, and twenty times the strength of a 1:10 tincture. In a RAW Forest Foods tincture, each dropper of tincture is the equivalent of 2.4 grams of fresh herbs.

3. Tinctures go "Right to the Bones."

herbal medicine tinctures

A third benefit of tinctures makes them especially important and interesting, especially when extracting (and consuming) plant which contain phyto-androgens (plant hormones), like with a Pine Pollen tincture. Alcohol tinctures are prepared in a solvent that is highly permeable to cell walls. Cells have a very complex phospholipid bilayer with a network of proteins and other molecules which regulate almost everything that goes into them. However, alcohol crosses this membrane very readily (this is why consuming large quantities of alcohol is so dangerous, and why the effects of an alcoholic drink are felt so quickly).

This is by far my favorite quality of tinctures, and the main reason why we carry tinctures at RAW Forest Foods.

With regards to tinctures, when the active compounds in plants have been dissolved into alcohol, they too pass freely into cells, where they then can enter the general blood supply of the body. When you take a tincture, you never digest that tincture--it bypasses your digestive system. This has the benefit of quick effect, but also the benefit of not exposing the plant medicine to the highly acidic and enzymatic environment of your digestive system. Many people today, especially as we age, have impaired digestive capacity, so taking herbs in tincture form is a perfect way to compensate for that loss is digestive quality and begin the path to better health.

In traditional and other classical methods of Chinese medicine, it was thought that alcohol based herbs went " right to the bones." While alcohol tinctures are unknown of in ancient China, there was (and is today), heavy use of herbal infused wines. While by today's standards, alcohol might not go "right to the bones," we do know that it absorbs very quickly and readily into the body. Possibly the ancients were speaking of this, or possible they were speaking to the way that the plants and the medicines made of them felt as they reached very deeply, into the foundation of the body--which is my experience taking many tinctures.

So, the main three benefits of tinctures are: preserving the plant compounds almost indefinitely, providing an accurate measurement of the plant (when made correctly), and offering a quick method to ingest the herbal medicine you are taking.