Capsule, Tea, Oil or Extract: A Guide to the Many Forms of Herbal Medicine
Understanding the forms of herbal medicine is crucial for helping you make informed decisions when choosing herbal products. Almost daily someone comes into Nectar and gazes with awe and wonder at the extensive array of bottles and jars. Many people think that all the little bottles contain essential oils, but that’s only one type of herbal medicine you have to choose from. There are also bulk herbs and tea, liquid herbal extracts (called tinctures or glycerites), and herbal capsules. You can also choose herb-infused oils and salves or flower essences. Each incarnation of plant medicine has unique advantages and disadvantages. Which form is best for you depends on a variety of factors.
Learning how to evaluate herb QUALITY deserves our full attention too, so I’m going to leave that important issue for another day and another post. That said, I do recommend choosing the highest quality organically grown herbs you can find. Old herbs and poorly dried or poorly processed and prepared herbs will not yield the results you are looking for.
Which Form of Herbal Medicine is Best?
First, know that an individual herb can be used in many different forms. Take German Chamomile for example. You could use it in a “loose leaf” or “bulk herb” form, as a liquid extract from a small eyedropper bottle, or as an essential oil. Consider another common medicinal plant like Milk Thistle and you’ll find whole seeds and powdered seeds in bulk, liquid extracts and capsules. When faced with this array of choices, I am frequently asked, “which form is best?” Well, it depends. Different forms of an herb are suitable for different people and different circumstances. To make an informed decision, you need to know the herb and know yourself. By simply acknowledging your likes and dislikes, preferences and predilections, you can choose the form of herbal medicine that is right for you. This is how it works.
You’re probably already accustomed to reading labels on food products. Herb and supplement labels require the same careful scrutiny. First and foremost, the label should tell you what’s actually in the bottle. And, whether you eventually decide on a bulk herb, liquid extract, capsule or other form, make sure what’s in the bottle or jar is really the herb you’re seeking. This may seem obvious, but it’s important to know which part of the plant you want to use. Different parts of a plant may have different medicinal properties. Dandelion is a good example. Both the root and leaf are used medicinally, but they offer somewhat different properties. An experienced herbalist or a good herb book can help you identify the correct plant part. You should also know the botanical or scientific name of the herb and look for that on the bottle, since common names can be misleading and confusing.
Let’s take German Chamomile again as an example. Most people refer to this common herb simply as “Chamomile.” The sweet, delicate flowers of this plant relax the nervous system, calm digestive imbalances, and possess anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine properties. Its scientific name is Matricaria recutita. So, if you’re looking for German Chamomile , look to find this scientific name somewhere on the jar or bottle. If the scientific name reads Anthemis nobilis, guess what? It’s Roman Chamomile, not German Chamomile. You might even encounter a lesser known Chamomile relative, Ormenis multicaulis, commonly referred to as Moroccan Chamomile. Sometimes herbalists use different species of a plant interchangeably if their medicinal properties are very, very similar. While German Chamomile and Roman Chamomile share many of the same properties, each has a unique composition of medicinal compounds. You can read more about the similarities and differences, here. Common names also vary among different countries and cultures. So, even though the common name of the plant may appear front and center on the jar or label, keep reading until you find the scientific name. There’s other important information to be gleaned from herb and supplement labels discussed below, but it all starts with the correct name of the plant and the correct plant part.
Now, once you’ve found the correct plant and realized you could purchase it in many different forms, how do you choose? Let’s look at the different forms, their advantages and disadvantages, and how your plant knowledge and self-knowledge come in to play.
In most apothecaries, you’ll find dried herbs in large jars. The plant parts, whether roots, leaves, flowers or some other part, are typically cut up into small pieces sometimes even powdered. Again, make sure the jar label describes the correct plant part and confirm the scientific name. If the herb is available in bulk, you have the option of preparing it as an herbal tea. Most herbs can be prepared as a medicinal tea, though it’s important to prepare the tea correctly in order to optimize the therapeutic benefits. If you’re new to herbal teas, check out this post to learn how to prepare loose leaf herbal tea. If you like to drink tea and the herb makes a pleasant tasting tea, this may be an excellent choice. Dried powdered herbs can also be incorporated into smoothies or stirred into other soft foods like yogurt or applesauce.
Don’t let the simplicity of an herbal tea dissuade you. Herbal teas have been a mainstay in herbal medicine for thousands of years and offer profound health benefits. Making tea does require a greater time commitment than some other forms of plant medicine. But most people, myself included, benefit from slowing down and allowing time in their day for the soothing self-care ritual of making tea. When it comes to preparing bulk herbs as tea or incorporating powdered herbs in smoothies or other foods, know yourself. If you’re finicky about new flavors or unlikely to allow time in your day to brew tea or make a smoothie, choose another form.
In general, while most herbs can be prepared as a tea, there are some exceptions. Let’s look at our Milk Thistle example again. First, the seed is the part used medicinally and the botanical name is Silybum marianum. Milk Thistle seed is a potent liver protectant and restorative, especially useful as part of an occasional cleanse or detox or for various liver conditions. The seed is often sold whole or powdered, in liquid extract and in capsules. Unfortunately, for tea drinkers, the potent medicinal compounds in this little seed do not extract well in water. In fact less than 10% of a key compound known as silymarin is extracted in tea. If you want the benefits of Milk Thistle seeds, you’ll do well buying in bulk, but you’ll need to incorporate the ground seeds in food or smoothies to get the therapeutic effects. You can also choose Milk Thistle in capsules or liquid extract.
When it comes to knowing the plant and preparing it as a tea, water solubility is only one issue. It is also important to understand the difference between the dried plant and a fresh plant preparation. Some plants lose much of their medicinal potency when dried. Milk Oats (Avena sativa), Skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia) and St. John’s Wort (Hypericum performatum) are good examples. While these plants are often available dried, tea prepared from plants like this will not be as potent as a fresh plant preparation. Fresh plant preparations are available in liquid extracts and sometimes in capsules. Again, know your plant.
In general, liquid herbal extracts come in two forms—tincture and glycerite. By definition a tincture (pronounced, ˈtiNG(k)(t)SHər) is an extract created using alcohol and water. I recommend using tinctures made with organic alcohol. A glycerite is an extraction made with glycerin and water. Glycerin is a sweet, thick substance typically derived from vegetable oil. Though sweet tasting, it has very little impact on blood sugar. You’ll find tinctures and glycerites in small amber bottles with eyedroppers. They can be ingested under the tongue or added to a small amount of water, tea or other beverage. The dose is of course specific to the herb and individual, but may range from a few drops to upwards of a teaspoon. Like the water used to make a tea, alcohol and glycerin both have unique solvent properties, meaning that they differ in their ability to draw the medicinal compound out of a plant and into solution. Like herbal teas, tincture and glycerites also have unique advantages and disadvantages. For a more in-depth discussion about why you might choose a tincture, check out this post.
Liquid herbal extracts are quick and easy to use. They may be a very convenient choice for you if you’re loathe to prepare several cups of tea per day. The alcohol and glycerin also act as preservatives in the finished product. As such, tinctures and glycerites have a much longer shelf life (2-5 years) than dried herbs. So, if you want to keep herbs on hand that are only used occasionally, like herbs for colds and flu, stocking a cold-curbing tincture or glycerite in your medicine chest may be a better choice than a bulk tea blend. As discussed above, if the plant you desire does not hold its therapeutic properties when dried, a tincture made with the fresh plant is desirable. Likewise, herbs like Milk Thistle seed, with compounds that are more alcohol-soluble than water-soluble, are better prepared and taken in tincture form. The sweet taste of glycerites makes them a natural choice for kids or anyone else with a very sensitive palate. There are also disadvantages to liquid extracts, like the alcohol. Though the alcohol in a standard tincture dose is not enough to be inebriating, for people who abstain from alcohol entirely (whether for health, social, or religious reasons) tinctures are not an option. Herbal teas, glycerites or capsules may be a better choice.
When you pick up a bottle of encapsulated herb, read it carefully. Of course, you’re going to confirm the botanical name, but you need to look further. What’s inside those little capsules may be dried powdered herb or a dried, concentrated extract of the dried or fresh plant. Or, it might not be an herb at all. It may be asingle compound that has been extacted from the herb, but not the whole herb. Turmeric is a good example here. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a popular spice and medicinal herb used to promote a healthy inflammatory response. It contains more than two dozen compounds that promote a healthy inflammatory response , but one compound in particular, called curcumin tends to get top billing. If you’re looking for Turmeric, someone might try to sell you curcumin, the single isolated compound rather than the whole herb we call Turmeric. There are advantages and disadvantages to isolated compounds. However, as an herbalist, I prefer the whole plant with all its therapeutic compounds and the beautiful complexities provided by nature, which we have yet to fully understand or duplicate. This can get confusing, so read carefully and ask an herbalist if you’re unsure.
If you’re still wandering curiously through an apothecary or supplement store, you’ll likely encounter small bottles that are neither tinctures nor glycerites. What are all those tiny bottles? They might be herb infused oils, essential oils or flower essences. Look closely.
An herb infused oil is somewhat similar to a tincture or glycerite. However, to create an infused oil, a fixed oil (like Olive or Almond oil) is used to extract the therapeutic compounds from an herb, instead of alcohol or glycerin. Infused oils are typically prepared with plants used topically for skin conditions and musculoskeletal issues. Herb infused oils are often the base for herbal salves—ointments and thick creams for topical application.
Essential oils are yet another category of tiny bottles filled with plant medicine. Also referred to as “volatile oils,” essential oils are highly concentrated aromatic extracts, most often obtained through a process of steam distillation. Like other forms of plant medicine, essential oils have a wide range of therapeutic properties, from relaxing the nervous system to promoting immune function. Because they are so very potent, essential oils should not be ingested unless you are guided by a professional aromatherapist or other practitioner trained in ingestion. Even used topically, most essential oils should be diluted with a fixed oil. Essential oils can also be used through simple inhalation or environmentally, using a diffuser. As always, know the botanical name of the plant you’re seeking and expect to see that information on the essential oil bottle.
Flower Essences occur at the opposite end of the plant medicine spectrum from essential oils. Flower essences are subtle, vibrational and extremely safe. Flower essences also come in tiny eyedropper bottles and are most often used to address emotional and spiritual imbalances like fear and anxiety, anger, resentment, insecurity and low self-esteem. The typical dosage is four drops four times per day. Though they contain a small amount of alcohol as a preservative, they are extremely safe and can be used by very young children, elderly people, and even dogs, cats and other pets.
Next time you’re faced with rows and rows of little bottles, pick one up. Study the label. What’s inside? How was it prepared? Maybe you can even smell it, taste it, observe the color and texture. The closer you look with all your senses and consider your individual needs, the more you’ll learn and the better decision you’ll make.