Herbal Remedies and Their Preparation: Essential Insight for the Aspiring Herbalist

James R. Coffey By James R. Coffey, 5th Nov 2010 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Health>Home Remedies

Evident by the growing number of herb-related articles appearing on Internet content sites like Factoidz, Associated Content, Triond, Bukisa, and Wikinut, there is currently an almost phenomenal resurgent interest in herbs and natural curatives. But what is not made clear in these articles, is that consuming an herb without knowing how it functions and how to properly prepare it can have serious consequences. Here's what you need to know.

The Fundamentals

The return to choosing herbal remedies over synthetic or pharmaceuticals is not just a trend towards healthy options, but acknowledgment that nature provides botanical (as well as zoological) options for most--if not all--of humankind’s physical as well as mental ills.

But as any experienced herbalist will be quick to point out, treating ailments with herbs is not as simple as just obtaining an herb you’ve read about online and deciding, “Hey, I’m gonna try that.” The practice of herbology involves learning to relate symptomology to diagnosis, knowing when and when not to choose a particular herb, acquiring the correct part of the plant, and of course, having it prepared in a manner that best allows the body to utilize its healing properties.

And just like modern pharmacology, herbology involves specific tools and methodology, as well as a clear understanding that like modern synthetic drugs, herbal remedies can also have negative (even harmful) consequences if not handled with insight and experience. Because while tradition has long classified the use of herbs as an “art,” make no mistake about it, this is science. Hard science involving the laws of chemistry, physics, and biology.

Generalities and a Rule of Thumb

Next to buying prepared herbal capsules, brewing teas at home is the most popular way herbal remedies are taken today. Depending on the herb and part of the herb being utilized (roots, stem, bark, flowers, pod/hips, seeds, leaves), the two most common preparation methods are infusion and decoction. And while these two techniques are quite similar in approach, they are not interchangeable and do, in fact, serve two completely different functions, with two completely different results.

One of the first things an herbalist must understand is that any given plant has a variety of properties, each centered in the plant’s various parts. (If an aspiring herbologists is not familiar with the anatomy of a common plant, he or she should make a study of it before attempting to prepare any herbal remedy.)

The properties and preparations relating to the leaves of a plant, for instance, can be quite different than those of the stem. And because of the way the healing components are concentrated in those various plant parts and must therefore be extracted, a method that is appropriate for the leaves, the part most valuable with, say, spearmint of the lamiaceae family, is highly inappropriate for utilizing the bark of the cramp bark shrub of the adoxaceae family. In short, there are several variables that must be considered before preparation if you want to control the end result and achieve what you set out to--with all the healing properties intact.

Spearmint leaves, which while having a number of very useful properties, are nonetheless of a volatile and unstable nature, meaning that when touched by boiling water, their chemical properties become toxic. Cramp bark, on the other hand, requires a water temperature right at the boiling point to draw out its much more stable and saturated properties. In general terms, these two herbs demonstrate a good rule of thumb for the aspiring herbalist. 1) Never allow boiling water to touch the leaves of any plant, while 2) bark (as well as roots) almost always requires much hotter temperatures. It is this type of distinction that leads to the simpler method of property extraction, infusion.

Infusion: Method and Insight

Infusion is the most familiar technique people know to brew common tea, as well as prepare healing herbs. This is commonly accomplished by putting a tablespoon of leaves, pods/hips, or flowers in a cup and simply pouring boiling water over them, letting them steep for 3 to 5 minutes, straining and consuming. Many people use a tea bell (or ball) to contain the tea so that it can easily be removed once the infusion process is complete. This method, however, is inherently dangerous if you apply it to every herb. Like spearmint, there are a number of herbs that will produce toxic levels of the chemicals you’re seeking to extract, which can wreak havoc on your liver and kidneys when consumed, and make your condition considerably worse instead of curing it. On the other hand, this method is far too passive to reap the health benefits of a plant like cramp bark, which as I’ve pointed out, requires water at nearly boiling temperatures. (And be aware, metal tea balls will leach minerals into the water when boiled.) This leads to the second-most commonly used method of extraction, decoction.

Decoction: Method and Insight

Decoction is the method of choice for extracting the deeper essences of harder and courser herbs whose healing properties are centralized in the stems, bark, and roots. This is accomplished by covering ¾ cup of herbs in a clean sauce pan (glass is preferred) with water and simmering on low heat uncovered until the water has reduced by 1/3 through evaporation (this should take between 10 and 20 minutes). If your herb(s) begin to scorch or the water evaporates too soon, discard contents, refill herbs with double the amount of water, and turn the heat slightly lower.

One exception to this method is that when dealing with especially dense herbs like Valerian and Burdock, it will be necessary to simmer them in a covered pan for 10 to 20 minutes to extract their medicinal properties. But never is it wise to actively boil any part of any plant unless you know specifically that’s the only way to extract the healing components.

Final thoughts: I grew up in a household where herbs were the prime source of curatives. I was nearly tens years of age before ever having to resort to a synthetic antibiotic. The advocacy of herbal cures has been a life-long project for me. But my life of herbal use has also exposed me to the damage herbs can cause when not used with caution and experience. While I would never dissuade anyone from using herbs in general, their value lies in proper usage. Therefore if you do not intend to make a study of their proper application, I would suggest that you consider not using them at all. Misuse, as I've attempted to explain here, can have highly damaging results.

A Modern Herbal, M. Grieve
Back to Eden, Jethro Kloss
Culpeper's Herbal
Images via Wikipeiia.org

Related Articles:
Classic Herbals
Preparing Poultices and Salves
Choosing Natural Curatives Over Artificial



Botony, Decoction, Infusion, Natural Curatives, Natural Cures, Natural Healing, Natural Medicine, Natural Remedies, Plant Bark, Plant Flowers, Plant Pods And Hips, Plant Roots, Plant Seeds, Plant Stems

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author avatar James R. Coffey
I am founder and head writer for James R. Coffey Writing Services and Resource Center @ http://james-r-coffey-writing-services.blogspot.com/ where I offer a variety of writing and research services including article composition, ghostwriting, editing...(more)

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author avatar Jerry Walch
5th Nov 2010 (#)

Interesting and informative, my friend.

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author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
5th Nov 2010 (#)

well timed with the trends being on high!

People need to not rush into following trends, or they tend to crash quick, however taking tips from these things is excellent way of slowly getting into more a healthy lifestyle.

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author avatar James R. Coffey
5th Nov 2010 (#)

Thanks Jerry and Mark. Appreciated!

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author avatar Pinkchic18
5th Nov 2010 (#)

Great tips and tricks! I would like to try this sometime, so thank you for sharing!

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author avatar aden kendroemen
6th Nov 2010 (#)

It is good to see that people are trending back towards natural remedies for their ills, thank you for this piece, and stressing the inherent danger of uneducated use. I would hate to see this fall by the wayside due to ignorance. Thank you for once again feeding our minds.

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author avatar James R. Coffey
6th Nov 2010 (#)

As always, it's my pleasure to contribute to a more enlightened world.

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author avatar Angelique Newman
8th Nov 2010 (#)

A well written, in depth article; you did a great job in putting it together.

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author avatar oka
8th Nov 2010 (#)

Very useful and interesting article, thank you.

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author avatar Denise O
17th Nov 2010 (#)

Well put together my friend.
I have been using herbs for years. Great info as always.
Thank you for sharing.:)

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