Tinctures have been in existence since we started distilling alcohol, and ancient texts — including the Bible — mention the use of plants for healing, stating, “fruit of it shall be for eating and leaf of it for healing.”
Various parts of the plant – including the leaves – are used as an alternative healing method for many acute and chronic ailments. Indeed, they are the main component of tinctures, but what exactly are tinctures and how do you use tinctures effectively?
Depending on the herb used, tincture medicines can work to reduce anxiety, improve digestion, and balance hormones. These are just some of the benefits of using tinctures on a regular basis, so let’s dive into the many healing perks of making tinctures your go-to regimen.
What are Tinctures?
Tinctures are a potent concentration of herbal extracts that are used as plant-based medicine in herbalism, homeopathy, and Ayurveda. They are powerful extracts of herbal components meant to be directly absorbed into the bloodstream. This means they can have an almost immediate effect after usage or may take up to half an hour to be effective.
Tinctures are made by soaking various parts of a plant or herbs, such as leaves, flowers, bark, roots, rhizomes, or berries in alcohol, vinegar, glycerine, water, or honey for about a month or longer (the longer, the better). These liquids ‘pull’ the active nutrients from the plant and produce a potent extract that is used to treat various conditions.
Alcohol is considered to be the best solvent for making tinctures, as it is easily absorbed into the bloodstream and works as both a preservative and as a solvent. Alcohol also absorbs substances that are not water-soluble, such as resins and alkaloids.
Most tinctures are categorized as supplements according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Although there have not been any comprehensive studies about the effectiveness and safety of tinctures, they offer numerous benefits depending on the nature of the plant used, the dosage that is administered, and the frequency of doses.
Tinctures are medicines that are truly ideal for the modern world, especially for those with a busy life. They are convenient to use compared to other medicinal supplements, and they are also easy to transport.
History of Tinctures
By understanding the history of tinctures, you can have a better understanding of how to use them. In fact, tinctures were used as herbal medicine before the advent of pharmaceuticals.
According to Dr. Jeff Kennedy from the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, “Tinctures are one of the oldest preparations of medicine known to man.” In fact, tinctures were also mentioned in one of the first documents involving plant medicine, The Al-Qanoon fi al Tibb, i.e., The Canon of Medicine, that dates as far back as 1025. This document was used as the basis of teaching medicine — including how to use tinctures — between the 12th and 17th centuries.
These discoveries and teachings were the main reason that the use of distilled alcohol became common practice in the modern Western world.
Ancient Egyptians have likewise used herbs soaked in alcohol to make medicinal tinctures, while China, Turkey, and Israel all have the tradition of making tinctures since 200 BC.
Because tinctures were first made when we discovered how to distill alcohol, it wasn’t common in Europe until the 1400’s, when distillation was perfected. By the 1500s, the use of tinctures was common practice, and by the Victorian era, tinctures were used routinely for health ailments.
Also known as an opium tincture, laudanum refers to any mixture of alcohol and opium. The 19th-century laudanum was used to improve sleep, relieve irritation, and induce drowsiness. At the time, opium was the most effective treatment available for certain conditions and was used to treat meningitis, colds, yellow fever, and cardiac illnesses.
Until the 1970s, laudanum was still used as medicine, especially to treat children. Currently, opium tinctures are rarely used and are seldom prescribed for dysentery, pain, or neonatal syndrome.
Given the public’s interest in holistic treatments, the desire to know how to use tinctures has surged in popularity once again, given that tinctures are available widely in most health food stores.
And while tinctures have populated the commercial markets, so has individuals’ desire to make the medicine at home. The folk methods of creating the medicine vary slightly according to culture and medicine potency, but let’s dive into the most common way to make tinctures.
How Do You Make Tinctures?
There are various methods of making tinctures, and the best part is that you can make your own tincture relatively easily! But before you begin, an important tip from the energetic/spiritual perspective is to make your tinctures during the new moon cycle when the planetary energy is most conducive to supporting the successful creation of new projects.
Likewise, the best time to strain the tincture is during a full moon, which supports the energy of completion and bodily detoxification. Waiting for three or four full moon cycles (1.5 to 2 months) before preparing and consuming your tincture medicine is truly advisable.
Based on a folk method used by herbalists across different cultures, here are the steps to take to make tinctures at home:
- Choose your herbs, and pick the part you want to use (remember, the whole plant has the most healing qualities). These include the bark, berries, roots, and leaves of your chosen herbs. You can mix various different herbs, but make sure the herbal mix is not harmful or dangerous.
- Thoroughly wash and coarsely chop fresh herbs (organic is always preferable due to the purity and potency of the plant).
- Place them in an airtight glass container. It is advised to fill the container up to ⅓ of the way up.
- Pour your liquid of choice into the container, preferably the best quality vodka. Leave about two inches between the herbal concoction and the top of the jar.
- Seal the jar, shake it thoroughly for one minute, and leave it to soak for two to six weeks, depending on the potency you desire (as mentioned, the longer the soak, the more potency you assure).
- Make sure to label the bottle with the herbs you used, the type of alcohol, and the date you made the solution.
- Shake to bottle daily and store in a warm, dry place but away from direct sunlight.
- Strain the concoction and add it to a dropper bottle to be used for consumption.
Previously, tinctures were made according to a ratio of 1:5 (1 gram of plant material per 5 ml of solvent liquid). However, this has since changed over the past 20 years, and currently, tinctures are made using 1:3 or 1:2 ratios for a more potent extract.
To ensure your tincture is of the highest quality possible, you will need to use high-proof alcohol, preferably high-grade vodka with a less distinctive taste.
How to Use Tinctures
There are a few ways you can use tinctures. The best way to take them in a larger quantity is to add a dropper or more to a hot herbal tea. This way, much of the alcohol content can evaporate, while the heat helps to stimulate tissues and organs.
This method of tincture usage is most advisable for individuals looking to heal from a specific ailment and those requiring a more potent intervention when it comes to healing.
Another way to take tinctures in a lower quantity is as part of a daily health regimen. In this method, tinctures are administered as drops from a dropper placed underneath your tongue.
For best results, you should keep the medicine in your mouth for 30 seconds before swallowing, although many users have found it beneficial to hold the liquid underneath the tongue as long as possible to ensure better absorption rates. After swallowing, you can rinse your mouth with water or drink a few gulps of water to get rid of the bitter taste.
This is the best way to consume tinctures, as the medical compounds go straight into your bloodstream through the oral mucosa in your mouth. This works by bypassing your digestive system, where medicines that can be absorbed can be filtered out before they enter the bloodstream.
If you decide to take tinctures under your tongue, it is advisable not to take more than two drops from the dropper at any given time. However, this dosage can slightly vary depending on your age, size, and sensitivity.
There are also other kinds of tinctures out there, such as benzoin, that are inhaled for maximum effect. Another form of using tinctures is through an application on the skin, such as iodine tinctures.
Cannabis tinctures can be used with a mixture of water to dilute the effect of the THC or CDB. When using cannabis, or any other type of tincture, start off with a very small dose and slowly increase your dosage with frequency of usage.
This will help the body slowly acclimate to the substance and help you avoid side effects such as increased heart rate, paranoia, or anxiety. Along the way, make sure to note down any effects on your body – both positive and negative. Some medications can interact with certain herbs, so it is advisable to consult your healthcare professional before using tinctures.
Are There Risks to Using Tinctures?
Granted, tinctures have very many benefits, but like all medications, there are some risks involved with ingesting anything that contains active compounds. Foremost, always know the effects of plants you are using, and preferably follow a tincture recipe that has already been proven effective.
Some plants can be toxic and can have unpleasant side effects. That is why it is important to start with a low tincture dosage and increase slowly with time if you experience no side effects.
Some of the adverse effects involved with taking tinctures include:
- Some people may experience allergies, such as fatal anaphylaxis.
- Swelling of your liver and kidneys after long-term use of tinctures.
- Some tinctures may cause rapid drops in blood sugar, and pressure and abnormal blood clots.
- Swelling of your tongue and closing of airways.
- Dandelion tinctures may cause headaches, light sensitivity, and dizziness.
- Very high doses of milk thistle and goldenseal can be highly toxic and even cause death.
- Frequent use of tinctures may cause ulcerations in your mouth or stomach.
- Milk thistle may increase estrogen levels and is dangerous for women with breast and uterus cancers.
- You may experience negative interactions with medications, making them useless or exaggerating their effects.
- Some tinctures may cause intestinal problems such as bloating gastritis, constipation, and excess gas.
- Other adverse effects of using tinctures are heartburn and nausea.
Best Herbs To Make Tinctures & What They Treat
So what are tinctures used to treat? Different herbs have unique medicinal qualities and unique properties, some of which include:
Chamomile has numerous health-promoting capabilities and is used as a part of complementary and herbal medicine. This herb contains bioactive compounds which have a calming effect that relaxes your nerves and can reduce pain.
Other uses include:
- Easing menstrual cramps
- Improving digestive health
- Relieving headaches
- Soothing stiffness and pain from arthritis
- Fighting inflammation
- Improving sleep
- Easing colic pain in infants
Cannabis is currently a popular herb that can be eaten, smoked, or tinctured. Tinctures, however, act faster than edibles and last longer and are not as acidic to the body as smoking the herb.
Cannabis tinctures are made by soaking the entire plant; hence when consumed, you receive numerous benefits – and not just the THC/CBD effect. Some of these include:
- Treating insomnia
- Improving daytime wellness
- Relieving stress
- Improving appetite
- Reducing chronic pain and inflammation
Dandelion is often considered a stubborn weed, and many people simply pull it out of the yard. But did you know it has been used as part of traditional medicines for centuries? Dandelion leaves can be cooked or eaten raw and are a great source of vitamins such as Vitamin E, C, K, and A. Tinctures made from dandelions can help you stay healthy by:
- Supporting blood sugar management
- Stimulating your heartbeat
- Boosting skin health to reduce wrinkles, work as an anti-aging treatment, minimize the effects of acne, and treat chronic skin conditions
Other herbs used to make medicinal tinctures include:
Ginseng root – Used to improve immunity & provide beneficial psychological effects.
Nettle leaves – Act as an all-body tonic to reduce chronic inflammation.
Echinacea – Boosts immunity and helps to shorten the length of cold and flu symptoms.
American or Chinese ginseng – Helps support adrenal gland function and boosts the body’s overall vitality.
Ginko leaves – Can treat asthma and tinnitus and boost brain function.
St. John’s Wort flowers and leaves – Can ease the symptoms of depression.
Valerian root – Is known to improve nervous system overactivity and sleep quality.
Alcohol vs. Glycerine Tinctures. Which is Better?
Traditionally, alcohol tinctures have been the most popular base for tincture creation, and while also common, glycerine tinctures or glycerites are also widely available but are often labeled as infusions.
So, what are the differences between alcohol and glycerine tinctures, and which one is the better solution for your healthcare needs?
- Alcohol is an effective base as it cuts through the plant matter, so maximum medicinal compounds are extracted into it.
- It helps the tincture solution enter the bloodstream more effectively compared to glycerine or other oil-based tinctures.
- Do not use alcohol used in cocktails. Rather, use grain alcohol with proofs as high as 190, such as vodka.
- Alcohol tinctures use very little alcohol, so they will not affect people with alcohol sensitivities.
- For those who do not want to ingest alcohol, you can add tinctures to a cup of hot herbal tea, and the alcohol will evaporate.
- Alcohol tinctures can be mixed with water for decreased potency.
- Glycerine-based tinctures are less potent than alcohol-based ones.
- Glycerine is a type of sugar alcohol made from plant oils like coconut.
- It, however, does not bind to plants as well as alcohol.
- It has a sweeter taste than alcohol and will not irritate your mouth.
- They are ideal for people who do not drink alcohol (such as children) but will still give you the benefits of a tincture.
Once you read the different benefits of alcohol and glycerine-based tinctures, you can decide which one is best for you. As professional herbalists, we prefer alcohol-based tinctures.
They offer the highest potency level and you don’t have to take a large amount to get adequate results, since the medicine is easily absorbed into the body. They also have a long shelf life (five times longer than glycerine tinctures), so they are ideal for preservation purposes.
However, if you are working with a child or with anyone with alcohol sensitivities, glycerine tinctures are a wonderful alternative that may take just a bit longer to showcase the results you’re looking for.
As someone who has been using tinctures regularly for about four years, I can attest to their power and potency. Whenever I work with herbal medicines like tinctures, I notice the effects that they have on my body and adjust accordingly. Over time, they’ve helped me strengthen the function of my elimination organs and endocrine glands, helping to regulate my hormones and achieve more vitality.
Usually, when tinctures are used as part of a detoxification protocol, the effects can be a bit unsettling due to the detox symptoms or a healing crisis that occurs as the body is rapidly unleashing acids, chemicals, and toxins into the lymphatic system (its sewage system) to be purged by the kidneys.
With detoxification, it is important to know that feeling a bit worse temporarily before getting better long-term is a normal pattern of healing and should never be the cause of concern.
Now that you’ve learned how to use tinctures to achieve better health goals, I truly suggest you read more about the body detoxification process. Indeed, I recommend tinctures as part of an effective healing protocol, and my step-by-step guide to body cleansing can help you navigate the process safely and gently. Let mother nature’s medicine enrich your life and help you overcome any health challenge that comes your way!
This article was written in collaboration with Wanjiku Kimani.