What is a Tincture?
You’ve seen all those little amber bottles with eyedroppers, right? Some people walk in to an herbal apothecary and wonder what they are. Others mistake them for essential oils.
Well, most of those little bottles are filled with tinctures. Tinctures are concentrated herbal extracts—a traditional and effective form of herbal medicine that holds its own in a world of hi-tech, highly processed supplements.
Tinctures are by definition alcohol based extracts. Alcohol acts as the solvent that draws the therapeutic compounds out of the plants, just as water is the solvent in an herbal tea. The alcohol also acts as a preservative, so most tinctures have a long shelf life. Most tinctures use a blend of alcohol, distilled water, and sometimes glycerin.
Today, the best tinctures use organic alcohol. When I first started making my own tinctures twenty years ago, organic alcohol was simply unavailable unless you where distilling it yourself. Times have changed, but the efficacy of tinctures has not.
The tincture bottle you see on the apothecary shelf may contain the extract of a single herb or a blend of herbs. Some practitioners, including Herbalists and Naturopathic Doctors, custom blend tinctures to meet the unique needs and healthcare goals of the individual.
Tinctures are usually taken two to three times daily in a small amount of water. They can also be added to a cup of tea or prepared as a tea simply by adding hot water. The hot water will also evaporate some of the alcohol.
Some people are concerned about the high percentage of alcohol in some tinctures. However, the total amount of alcohol consumed in a single use is very, very small. Consider that a single dose is usually less than a single teaspoon, and more often quantities for a single dose range from a few drops to ½ teaspoon. That said, some people abstain from alcohol completely—those in recovery, and others for religious, health, or personal reasons. For these individuals, tinctures are not the form of choice.
Glycerites are liquid herbal extracts made with glycerin, that share many of the same properties as tinctures. Glycerites can be an effective alternative for alcohol intolerant individuals. Their sweet taste also makes them a good choice for children.
Why Choose A Tincture?
When it comes to using herbal medicine, there are many choices—teas, powders, capsules, essential oils, flower essences, and tinctures. I am often asked, “which is best?” Well the answer, is “it depends.” All forms have their purpose and place. In general, the best form is usually the one you are most likely to use consistently. Still, you might choose a tincture over another form for its convenience, taste, shelf life, or because it really is the most effective form for the herb you want to use.
Some people are not likely to make investment of time it takes to make a tea—think busy Moms who are home schooling their children, or people in their 50’s juggling work, teens, and caring for aging parents. For people who don’t have time to make a tea, tinctures can be an excellent choice. In other words, tinctures are more convenient for some people. I also like the convenience when I’m travelling and don’t have ready access to my hot water or my teapot.
Another reason you might choose a tincture over a tea is flavor. Some herbs simply don’t taste good. Drinking a cup of foul tasting tea three times a day means some people are not likely to take their herbs as frequently as needed. If you don’t take them, they don’t work. Right! On the other hand, it’s much easier to swallow a dropperful of tincture in a small amount of water, even if it doesn’t taste good, than to down a whole cup of tea.
You might also choose a tincture because it has a long shelf life, meaning it won’t go bad or lose its potency for a long time—at least three years and probably longer if properly stored. If you’re buying a tincture for your cold symptoms, odds are you’re not going to use it all up this cold season. The tincture however, should still be good next cold season. So, for herbs that you want to have on hand in your home medicine chest, but only use occasionally, the tinctured form is a good choice.
Finally, and this gets a little more technical here, you might choose a tincture over a tea, powder, or capsules because the tincture is more effective. Some herbs lose their potency when dried. For these plants, Herbalists prefer to prepare a tincture using the fresh plant. Good examples are Milky Oat Pods, Skullcap, and Feverfew. The tincture of the fresh plant is best for herbs like this. There are other medicinal herbs, Milk Thistle Seed for example, with therapeutic compounds that are not water soluble. For herbs like this the tincture will be more effective than a tea. (Another option is to ingest the whole powdered herb in a smoothie or added to food.) If you’re not sure, ask an Herbalist.
The next time you visit an apothecary and see all those little eyedropper bottles on the shelf—they’re TINCTURES—an convenient, stable, efficacious, and traditional form of herbal medicine.