Plasters, Compresses, and Poultices
These are ways of applying herbal remedies directly to the skin. Plasters and compresses are cotton bandages soaked in infusions or decoctions and wrapped around the affected area or held on with pressure. Compresses are also warm.
Poultices are made by moistening herbs, placing them on the skin, and holding them there with a bandage. Moistened and warmed herbal tea bags also help soothe and heal. Try using chamomile tea bags to relieve the itching and inflammation of insect bites and eczema.
Powders are dried herbs ground to a fine consistency. You can sprinkle them over food, stir them into a liquid such as juice or water for tonics, or add them to soup stocks. You also can take them in capsule or tablet form.
Salves, Ointments, and Creams
These preparations combine a medicinal herb with an oily base for external use. Creams are light and slightly oily, to blend with the skin’s secretions and allow the active ingredients to penetrate the skin. The heavier and oilier salves and ointments apply protective remedies to the skin surface.
Syrups are used to improve the taste of bitter herbal formulas and to administer soothing cough or throat medicines. Herbs often taken in syrup form include wild cherry, marshmallow root, and licorice.
Teas, Infusions, and Decoctions
People have been consuming herbal teas for as long as they have known how to heat water since well before recorded history. Unlike green, black, and oolong teas, herbal teas can be made from virtually any plant, and from any part of the plant, including the roots, flowers, seeds, berries, or bark. There are some herbs, such as echinacea, ginkgo leaf, saw palmetto, and milk thistle, that are not effective at healing when taken in tea form because their active components are not water soluble, and the concentration needed for medicinal potency is so high it can be obtained only from an extract, pill, or capsule.
Different herbal teas, which sometimes contain thou-sands of beneficial active compounds, have their own distinctive healing uses. According to Varro Tyler, Ph.D., professor emeritus of pharmacognosy (the study of natural drug properties) at Purdue University, herbal teas are very good for relieving mild to moderate ailments such as upset stomach, sore throat, coughs, stuffy nose, and insomnia.
Many herbal teas are available in tea bag form. They can also be prepared from the raw herb. To make an herbal tea, gently crumble leaves and flowers and break roots and barks into pieces (cutting the herbs causes the essential oils to dissipate) and place them in a ceramic or glass container. Cover the herb parts with boiling water (do not bring the herbs themselves to a boil), and allow them to steep. Most herbs should be steeped for four to six minutes, although some herbal teas, such as chamomile, need to be steeped for fifteen to twenty minutes in a covered container in order to deliver their full therapeutic effect. Other herbs, such as ginseng roots, can be boiled. Astragalus can be lightly simmered for several hours. In fact, in Asia, ginseng root, astragalus, dong quai, and other herbs are added to chicken broth to make a tonic soup that is both food and medicine.
Infusion is simply another term for tea. This is the easiest way to take herbal remedies. To make an infusion, you simply boil water and add leaves, stems, flowers, or powdered herbs plant material whose active ingredients dissolve readily in hot water then steep, strain, and drink the mixture as a tea.
A decoction is a tea made from thicker plant parts, such as bark, roots, seeds, or berries. These also contain lignin, a substance that is difficult to dissolve in water. Thus, decoctions require a more vigorous extraction method than infusions.
Plant components that are either insoluble or only partially soluble in water can be extracted with solvents such as alcohol or glycerol. The herb is soaked in the solvent for a period of time, then pressed to render the tincture. Tinctures can preserve extracted ingredients for twelve months or more.
Herbal vinegars can serve as both medicines and salad dressings. To make an herbal vinegar, add the herb or herbs of your choice to raw apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar, or malt vinegar. Allow the herbs to steep for four days (agitate the container daily), strain, and then press through a straining cloth and bottle in a dark glass container.
Steeping herbs in wine is a novel and pleasant way to use them medicinally. Wine does not keep as long as the stronger alcohols, so refrigeration is a good idea.