When Not to Use Elderberry: An Example of Using Discernment in Your Formulation

I’ve been struggling with how to start this next installment on viral illness and then I found the following statement on a website. 

“Elderberry also upregulates IL-6, IL-8 and TNF, suggesting an indirect effect on viral immune response in the body. Interestingly, elderberry was shown to have this effect but not its major bioactive compound, cyanidin 3-glucoside.”

To begin with, I don’t consider that anthocyanin to be the major bioactive compound of this plant.  I only use elderflower for influenza, and I consider its major bioactive constituent to be pectic polysaccharides, but that’s absolutely not important to this conversation.

Also, none of this is meant to say you should never use elderberry. I am just using it as an example to illustrate some of the questions you should be asking yourself about every herbal adjunct you use.  How does it work, when shouldn’t a person use it, and are there safer alternatives?

Basically what I have decided concerning the use of elderberry is that while I can’t  prove that any of these things will be a problem, I can’t prove that they won’t  be.   That should be a deciding factor of any  risk-benefit analysis.

Continue reading “When Not to Use Elderberry: An Example of Using Discernment in Your Formulation”

How I Make Tinctures

I suppose I should start this out by saying that I am not mad about fluid extracts or tinctures. The term “folk tincture” bugs me because it implies that at some point “the folk” used tinctures when they are in fact, a standardized, industrial product of pharmacy.   In all the folk knowledge I inherited from my family and my first teacher, not once was the word tincture mentioned.

I much prefer getting herbs into my clients using methods that the folk used such as a hot diaphoretic infusion or a cold mucilaginous Irish moss lemonade.  I recommend broths, hydromels (syrups/cordials), oxymels (shrubs), or even just a good old-fashioned wine decoction or a hot toddy.

Steams, chest rubs and poultices are the kind of medicine my people used. External preparations (especially those made with saturated fats) work better to bring relief to avascular parts of the body.

There are times though, especially in today’s “take this pill and get back to work” society when these preparations are useful, especially for a clientele who are conditioned to TID type prescriptions and are unlikely to go to the extra work to make the medicines I have listed above.

Although even when I make a formula, my base is likely to be some sort of homemade syrup.  I am kind of known for my tart cherry cordial base. I make it with cherries I grow myself and it’s pretty damn good.

I mentioned my spreadsheet in a group the other day and then got kind of self-conscious about sharing it, because my tinctures are quite a bit different than a lot I see for sale at conferences these days.

This is partly to do with my early training away from the “herbal community” that I am a part of today and the fact that some of my teachers at school were trained in the UK.    So I thought I would just offer some background about my methods.

I am not at all invested in people agreeing with my approach, nor are people likely to change my mind about it.  It’s been working for me for a very long time.

US Method vs. UK Method

Here in the US herbal extract making is often approached with a “go big or go home” attitude which has been very much influenced by pharmacologists in the profession, such as the Eclectic physicians.

The goal of today’s apothecary is often to extract large amounts of the most biologically active constituent in a plant, but how can we be sure that in this process we aren’t missing out on the synergistic effects of a preparation that might capture a more complete chemical profile of the plant?

British tinctures aren’t quite as bracing. Take a barberry tincture made by Baldwins in England which starts with 45% alcohol and a 1:3 plant ratio.   A lot of Americans will tell you that a preparation of barberry (or goldenseal) made this weak is inferior, because it fails to extract as much pure berberine and of course pharmacists have isolated that constituent as being the one we “want” from the plant.

Most Brits seem to think their weaker preparations work just fine.  I should point out that they though they do use larger doses, which is more affordable when you use less booze.

I know its not as pretty, but the only way you will be able to get to my ratios is to grind your plant material as finely as you can.

Fluid Extracts

A fluid extract is a hydroethanolic extract made at a 1:1 ratio.  1 ml of a fluid extract  = 1 gm of the dried herb. Fluid extracts are useful because they are somewhat standardized and help to deliver large daily doses of plant constituents in a concentrated form.   You use equal amounts of dried plant material and strong ethanol.

Originally these were produced by cold percolation, although there is a cheater’s method I will mention below.  I sometimes dread making percolations because I think there is a lot of waste involved. I usually make fluid extracts with my percolation cone, and then press the marc out in my press when I am done.

My British physick garden curator friend who gets me all the fun seeds, says that hardly anyone in the UK makes percolations, probably because the process entails using stronger booze than they can easily get their hands on.   This is a cheat he taught me that I use sometimes, because I might harvest small amounts of a plant several times over the course of the summer.

 Cheaters Fluid Extract

Macerate 125 g of dried herb in 500 ml of alcohol. If you grind your herbs well and have a good press you won’t lose much. It is usually just short of 500 ml of 1:4 tincture. You can top it off if you would like. Use this tincture to macerate a further 125g of herb and you are at 1:2. Do this until at the end, you have macerated 500 g of dried herb in 500 ml of alcohol.

Why Tinctures?

So, if we have fluid extracts which deliver a uniform-ish amount of concentrated plant constituents every time, what is the purpose, or usefulness of making tinctures?   I was taught that tinctures are useful in sampling a more complete profile of a plant. Making a tincture is a process that recognizes that we can’t catch all the useful constituents of a plant, with high-potency alcohol nor is it necessarily desirable.

Also, when I am making tinctures, there are a couple of tricks I use to save money on alcohol, while at the same time making more potent preparations.

Recycling Tinctures

You can use the previous year’s tincture as a menstruum for this year’s batch of tincture.  (You can do this with a percolation, for that matter.) This does not produce a uniform preparation from year-to-year. If the first year you have a 1:4 ratio, the second year you will have a 1:2 ratio.

So, you must keep good records to adjust your dosing strategies.  Most people don’t want to bother with this, but it can save money for people on a budget due to running a free clinic, or working on sliding fee scales.

Secondary Extracts

You can also use a spent marc to make a secondary extract that will be used as the menstruum for next year’s primary extract or for a percolation of the dry plant material if you run out during the winter.

If you are going to do this, I recommend getting a proofing hydrometer so you can test the potency of your preparation and bump it up if necessary, before using it.   Proofing hydrometers take so much math out of medicine making.  Another thing to keep in mind is that canning jars are not air tight, so if you are using them to store tinctures, your alcohol is evaporating away.  There’s an idea out there that you can’t use a hydrometer to test solutions. I talked to a friend who owns a distillery and he said that’s but that’s absolutely not the case, they have to test all liqueurs sold on the market before they are marketed this way and they all have dissolved solids in them.

Proofing last year’s calendula tincture. It’s probably too far down to be bumped up again, but at least I know its still good!

I guess I take a kind of middle of the road approach based on what I learned in phytochemistry and years of fiddling around.  I work mostly with fresh herbs I’ve grown myself. Often, I fresh wilt my herbs for 24 hours because I can’t buy 95% alcohol in Iowa.

If you don’t see something on here it is likely because I only make it as a fluid extract OR I don’t make an alcohol preparation with certain plants such as marshmallow, astragalus, Irish moss,  and so on.  An d I work with all resins pretty much the same way.

There are also some plants on there that you might be surprised to see.  I work with historical herbs,  I don’t advise that people without advanced training make these tinctures,  or use them.

That was a whole lot of talking to say here is a link to an Excel spreadsheet that you can download and take a look at.  Feel free to change it up and use it yourself.  It’s the one I give my students in my year-long program, so they have a little more background as to why I do some of the things I do, but it’s kind of self-explanatory.

I print this off as my Master Formula File list to keep in my lab log book.  For people who don’t have Excel you can look at that.



Instant Gratification: Dried Tea Powders

The title of this article is misleading, because there is really nothing quick about the procedure I am about to describe, but you do end up with a nice instant tea.

The powders are also a valuable way to quickly incorporate more herbs and foods into your diet, once you get through the process,  which I will explain below.

I first came across a recipe for dried tea extracts on Christopher Hobb’s website and as I am always looking for  new projects, I decided to give it a whirl.   The first time I did this I did it with nettles looking for a tolerable way to choke them down.  I’ve messed with the recipe a bit after a lot of trial-and-error experimentation and after having a chance to pick Thomas Easley’s brain about the process at TWHC,  I have landed on this method.

6 cups of water: 3 cups of chopped fresh herbs


8 cups water: 2 cups ground dried herb

Bring this mixture to a boil and simmer it until the liquid has been reduced by 1/3 . This takes a long time-maybe give yourself a facial or start another project because you are going to need 2-4 hours depending on the day.

Strain the liquid and allow it to cool. Press the marc (I used my tincture press), then weigh it after pressing. Return 1/2 to 1/3 of the solids to the liquid. I blend the mixture with my immersion blender at this point.

dried tea extract

Bring this liquid to a boil and simmer some more. When the mixture has reduced by again 1/3 and become sort of a slurry, I dissolve one tablespoon of arrowroot powder in some cold water and blend it in. This step is optional, but helps to keep the slurry from running off the dehydrator’s fruit leather tray or sticking to it.

Dry this at 100ºF to 120ºF until the mixture becomes brittle and then break it in to pieces and grind them into a fine powder.

Then sift the powder.  If you don’t grind the leather, you can suck on it like hard candy. I am storing that in the back of my mind for future experimentation.

It is true that a single herb dried extract of nettles might be easier to choke down in this form (Yes, I am a bad herbalist who doesn’t like nettle infusions) but why would I do this when I could just make have a nice nettle chai, or maybe a creamy nettle soup that I would actually enjoy?

I think herbal preparations should actually taste good. Especially if you are trying to get them into children, or people whose taste buds have grown accustomed to the standard American diet.

I don’t think I would recommend this method of herbal preparation for  aromatic herbs.  The length of cooking time seems to have evaporated away most volatile constituents.

I tried a hawthorn chai blend, but I found that the final product didn’t retain enough flavor even though I used a goodly amount of corrigent spices.  This probably explains why I’ve seen it recommended to add some peppermint extract or some other corrigent, right before putting the mixture on the dehydrator tray.

Raspberry Hibiscus Dried Tea Extract

The next time,  I moved away from aromatics and started with with a raspberry leaf/hibiscus blend that I enjoy to see how that handled reducing.

I also used the trick of adding some of my orange flavored honey and some cinnamon extract right before I dumped it on the dehydrator tray. That seemed to work a bit better.

The result is a pleasant little instant tea that I could happily have two cups of a day.   I mix one teaspoon of the powder with a cup of hot water. According to Dr. Hobbs, each teaspoon is the equivalent 6-8 teaspoons of the herb.

Those who know me know that I am rarely content with following  directions and I started thinking of uses for the powder other than as a dosing strategy.

I started thinking about cooking and suddenly the light came on. I could use these powders to flavor food.

I made  powdered kale “tea” to sneak into sauces,  dips, or smoothies and a mixed vegetable powder that I will use to  thicken stews.  Really the possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

From a practical point of view, this makes good sense.  These powders take up less room and may even have a little bit longer shelf life than conventional dehydrated vegetables-lasting up to a year.

Experiment with the method and see what you come up with.  I haven’t even gotten to fruit yet, but a dried apple powder is next on my list.

Herbal Formulation

f8efbb589614a1901813a047b44ea809I have used my own formulation method for some time now and I thought I would share it here on the blog as I am laying it all out for one of my professors right now.

My method has certainly been influenced by other teachers, but in the end I have my own ideas about things and thankfully I go to a college which supports critical thinking and self-direction, so they haven’t tried to impose some textbook method of formulation on me.

There are some basic things to keep in mind when formulating:

1. Keep a list of what you have on hand in your apothecary and try to work from there. Most of my herbal colleagues agree that you can cover most of your bases with 20-25 herbs made into various preparations, if you pick your bioregional herbs allies wisely.

2. Have some sort of  interaction reference available and dosage references.

3. Keep in mind that the most artfully crafted formula is not going to work if you don’t focus on the diet and lifestyle sections of the program AS much as you focus on the herbs.

4. Continue adjusting for consistency and efficacy. Even if you find the perfect dosage and use the same source for your herbal preparations from year-to-year, the chemical composition of the plant will vary due to growing conditions.

5. Record every formula you make for every client and keep it in their records. Don’t assume you will remember even the simplest of formulas.

6. Formulating is sometimes a drawn out trial-and-error type affair. You have to be up-front about that with your clients. In the end, it results in a better match between the plants and the person, but it promotes a trusting relationship with your client if you are honest from the start.

7. As your client’s situation  improves, you need to adjust your formulas.  What was necessarily drying a few months ago, can become too drying as their tissue state balances out.  As their digestion improves you may need to lower dosages.

The first thing you have to decide is the type of preparation you are going to use.  Hydroethanolic extracts (tinctures or percolations) tend to draw out stronger stimulating constituents. If you are dealing with an acute  situations that needs immediate attention, these are probably your best bet.  I don’t recommend the daily use of tinctures. Ideally I recommend two weeks on and one week off.

For prevention and chronic imbalances,  I rely on infusions, decoctions, tea concentrates. syrups, oxymels and of course, broths and food.   There are also times when I stick to these recommendations for acute things.   There is a great deal of benefit to preparations that hydrate and nourish.

The following formulation method can easily be adapted to any type of preparation,  but it was developed based on using tinctures and the rationale that if a practitioner is giving 2.5 to 5 mL of a tincture of a formula three times per day, a formula containing more than there herbs won’t reach the dosage recommendations in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia of 1983 which is considered the standard reference text by some herbalists, even today.  The E/S/C/O/T monographs are another.  So, I try to keep my formulas to three ingredients to make sure that people are getting enough of each ingredient.  Although sometimes my corrigents will be one of my favorite spice blends, so I suppose that’s cheating.

Herb 1 – Condition  Specific Choose an herb that is  known to be useful in addressing the presenting imbalance or presenting tissue state.

Herb 2 – System Specific Pick an herb that is soothing, nourishing or otherwise supportive of the affected body system.

Herb 3 – Corrigent   A corrigent is “a substance added to a medicine to mollify or modify its actions.”  Basically these are to make it taste good, but they have their own actions as well.  A lot of times they are warming herbs that boost metabolic processes and improve circulation.  Sometimes,  I sneak a syrup in here when I am working with children, but they still have a purpose.  Pomegranate syrup astringes the intestines.  Lemon syrup can be cooling.

Sometimes the first and second herbs are the same herb or you can choose to use two herbs that are supportive of both the body system and the condition and add a corrigent for balance.  If I am really on my game, I can pull that one perfect herb out of my hat that meets all three criteria.

While you use less of a corrigent, it is an important ingredient. Corrigents may be herbal stimulants that improve the circulation and consequently the uptake of the formula. They can also be a means of energetically balancing a formula. I usually have to warm things up for myself and make sure they aren’t too drying.

Corrigents can also be herbs that improve flavor.  Many herbalist find themselves wanting to add many flavorful herbs to formulas, especially tea blends,  which is fine as long as the proportions remain the same. I always make sure that my corrigent enhances the actions of my other herbs.  You wouldn’t want to use something for flavoring that counteracts the other herbs in the formula.

The percentage of herb varies depending on the client’s needs. An acute formula goes a bit heavier on the condition specific herb. While chronic formulas focus more on the system specific herb.

Acute:   50:40:10
Chronic:  40:50:10

On a rare occasion, usually when the corrigent is meant for energetically balancing a formula or I think there is a lot of stagnation or lack of metabolic fire, I will use the following percentages.  40:40:20

As an example,  say someone comes to you with a primary complaint of hypertension.  While you are going to work to address the underlying lifestyle factors that might be contributing to this issue, it is also prudent to address the specific complaint.   So for my condition specific herb I might pick yarrow as a vasodilator and hypotensive.   My second herb would be hawthorn which also has an affinity for the cardiovascular system and has clinical support (even Mayo grudgingly admits it) for lowering blood pressure.   Now for my corrigent–these are pretty bland herbs so I might add cinnamon because it is tasty and there is some clinical support out there that it lowers blood pressure, as well.  Or perhaps nutmeg.

Another example of this would be my Lemon Balm Elixir.   I specifically came up with this elixir thinking of calming a nervous stomach or viral gastroenteritis because sometimes it is hard to tell what you have going on right away.  The Lemon Balm is both a nervine (system) and an antiviral (condition),  but it is also a little vata enhancing for me.  So I added the fenugreek and cardamom as warming, grounding corrigents that both taste good and balance that out for me, a bit.