Teas, capsules, tinctures – when it comes to plant medicine, there are plenty of forms to choose from. But when should you take one form over another? And why?
Let’s explore the pros and cons of different forms of plant medicine, and how to take them so that they are most effective.
What are the different forms of plant medicine?
In herbal medicine, teas are either infusions or decoctions. If you’ve ever made a cup of tea, you know how to make an infusion: pour hot water over a teabag or dried/fresh herbs, let it steep and enjoy. This method is great for delicate plant parts like leaves and flowers. For tough plant parts like roots, bark and seeds, decoction is the best choice. Instead of passive steeping, decoction involves active boiling and simmering of herbs to release their medicinal properties.
Herbal capsules are widely available. The capsule itself can be made from gelatin (animal-based) or cellulose (plant-based), and is filled with finely-ground, dried unprocessed herbs, or a concentrated extract in powder form.
Tinctures are liquid herbal extracts, that come in a glass bottle with a dropper. Fresh or dried herbs are steeped in alcohol for several weeks to extract the maximum medicinal properties. The herbs are then strained out, and the remaining medicine-rich alcohol solution is carefully bottled to preserve freshness and potency.
But how do you decide which form to take?
What are the benefits of each form of plant medicine?
When it comes to herbal medicine, there is no one form that’s best for everyone. Each form has its pros and cons. You may even decide to use more than one form, depending on the circumstances.
Here are a few factors to consider:
- Convenience – do you need to take plant medicine on the go?
- Ingredients – are you allergic to certain ingredients? Are you a vegetarian or vegan?
- Pill Hesitancy – are you tired of swallowing pills or capsules?
- Children – what form is easiest for your children to take, and the least stressful for you to give them?
Let’s explore the benefits of each of these forms of plant medicine.
Few beverages are as soothing as a steaming cup of herbal tea. However, many herbs in tea form simply don’t provide a medicinally potent dose of plant medicine. Some herb components need fats or alcohol to draw them out. Steeping or boiling such herbs in water, even for long time periods, won’t release these fat-soluble constituents in the way that capsules and tinctures do.
Avoid teabags made from plastic fibres like nylon, as they can break down into tiny plastic particles during the steeping process. Opt for teabags made of untreated, natural fibres such as cotton or hemp.
Capsules are definitely convenient. Just like pharmaceutical pills or capsules, you can grab a bottle to take with you on the go or use a pill organizer.
Herbs cover the entire taste spectrum. For example, licorice is sweet, valerian tastes bitter, and angelica root has a pungent quality. If a fear of unpleasant tasting herbs is preventing you from exploring plant medicine, try capsules to get all the medicinal benefits with none of the strong taste.
Keep in mind that herbal capsules are not all created equal. The most popular are simply ground up (powdered) herbs, put into a capsule. The problem, is that delicate leaf and flower materials degrade quickly in this format. On the other hand, woody materials like bark, seeds, stems, or mushrooms require extraction because the materials are impossible to digest in their unextracted format. So, if you want the efficacy of a tincture but prefer the convenience of a capsule, then look for powdered extracts in a capsule.
If you have problems swallowing pills, don’t write off capsules just yet. Herbal capsules are not as heavy as many pharmaceutical pills, and thus easier to swallow. Extracts pack a bigger punch in a smaller volume, so only a few capsules per day are typically required. With powdered herb capsules, you may need to take a large number of capsules per day.
Make sure to read the label to ensure that you are not allergic to any of the capsule ingredients. Some capsules contain fillers or additives (like dairy, corn, soy, and gluten) that are common allergens. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, look for terms like vegicap and ingredients like cellulose or hypromellose to ensure an animal-free product.
If you have health issues that impact how much you can absorb, capsules may not be the best choice. We extract nutrients from our food (and supplements that we swallow) in our small intestine. If you have digestive concerns such as an imbalanced gut microbiome, Leaky Gut Syndrome, or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), you may not be able to get the most out of herbal capsules. Other health concerns (such as autoimmune diseases and chronic inflammation) can also significantly impact nutrient absorption.
Tinctures are one of the oldest and widely used forms of plant medicine for good reason.
Tinctures are 100% liquid, making them a great choice for those who struggle with swallowing capsules. A typical way to take tinctures is in a shot glass with water. Afraid of the taste? Try putting tinctures into a bit of juice to mask bitter flavours. Bitter tinctures are completely masked by adding them to grapefruit juice.
Capsules can’t be split. The liquid format and dropper bottle mean it’s easier to vary the dose. With tinctures, you have complete control over how much you take, right down to the drop – and can adjust for each family member.
Where tinctures really shine, is their high bioavailability. Tinctures make it easier for your body to access the medicinal constituents of the plant, when compared to teas and capsules.
What gives tinctures this winning edge?
Tinctures Are Easy to Absorb
Unlike teas and capsules, tinctures don’t rely on the digestive process to work. The alcohol in tinctures means that medicinal plant ingredients get absorbed directly into your bloodstream. In bypassing digestion, tinctures work faster and more efficiently. Glycerin-based tinctures are an alcohol-free option. However, glycerin isn’t as effective at extracting medicinal plant constituents. This means you may have to take higher doses, when compared to alcohol-based tinctures. If you have digestive absorption issues, tinctures are definitely your best format choice.
Tinctures Maintain Potency and Freshness
As ancient people discovered centuries ago, alcohol is an amazing preservative for all types of plants. Once harvested, fresh herbs can quickly be placed into alcohol to preserve the full strength and vitality of the medicinal constituents. For some herbs, dried is better than fresh. These herbs are carefully dried to retain potency, before starting their tincture journey. Dark glass bottles are used to protect the tincture from light exposure, which can degrade medicinal herb components.
Tinctures Capture the Full Spectrum of Medicinal Plant Constituents
Some medicinal plant constituents need water to break them down (water-soluble), while some require fat (fat-soluble). Alcohol breaks down fat-soluble constituents, making tinctures the most efficient way to access and absorb these nutrients.
Different plant parts can have different medicinal properties. For example, we use lavender flowers, mint leaves and licorice roots. Barks and roots are hard and woody, which makes it difficult to get at their medicinal components. Alcohol breaks down these tough plant tissues more effectively than a tea decoction, to reveal the powerful plant medicine within.
How do you take plant medicine so it’s most effective?
Although plant medicine is powerful and effective, herbs typically have a much gentler action than pharmaceutical drugs. Herbs work with the body to support and strengthen our natural healing mechanisms, instead of acting on the body.
This means that you don’t have to follow herbal medicine label instructions quite as strictly as pharmaceuticals. If you miss an herbal dose one day, all isn’t lost. Simply start again the following day and focus on taking it regularly.
For all forms of plant medicine, the most important tip is to take them consistently. Pharmaceutical drugs may provide a quick symptomatic fix because of their harsher action. Herbs take a more holistic approach, by gently addressing both the symptoms and the root causes of illness. This means that herbs need to be taken consistently to work most effectively.
Tinctures can be taken in a wide variety of ways, which only adds to their appeal. Here’s a breakdown of our favourite tincture tips.
Get the Right Dose with the Tincture Dropper
Tincture labels usually state the dose in drops, mLs or teaspoons.
Counting drops isn’t ideal. It’s easy to miscount, and sometimes several drops can emerge from the dropper all at once.
But how do you accurately measure mLs? The tincture dropper has lines that show 0.25 mL to 1 full mL. First, squeeze the bulb at the top of the dropper to empty it out. Squeeze the bulb again, place it into the tincture bottle, and slowly release the bulb to fill it up. Pull the dropper out and check the amount. Squeeze out any excess until you get the correct dose.
You can also use the dropper or pour directly from the tincture bottle to measure your dose into a teaspoon.
Take Most Tinctures on an Empty Stomach
Most tinctures are best taken on an empty stomach – when there is nothing else in your system to compete with absorption. As there are a few tinctures that are best taken on a full stomach, make sure to check the label. What if you take a tincture when you’re full? Never fear – the worst thing that could happen, is that that it won’t be absorbed quite as well.
Take Tinctures Straight Up
Many herbal medicine lovers choose to take tinctures straight up or mixed with a bit of water.
Fill up the tincture dropper to your desired dose. Empty it out under your tongue, hold it there for a few seconds, then swallow. The membranes under your tongue will quickly transport the tincture to your bloodstream.
Another advantage of this method is that you actually taste the herbs. While your goal may be to mask the taste of herbs, some bitter herbs are best tasted for maximum health benefits.
Try using a shot glass. Add a small amount of water, the measured tincture and shoot it back.
Add Tinctures to Foods and Beverages
If you’re concerned about the strong taste of herbs, tinctures can easily be added to pleasant tasting foods and beverages. Yes, it can cut down on the amount absorbed. But it’s definitely better than not taking them at all! Try incorporating tinctures into your existing routines, like your morning smoothie. Kids love adding tinctures to their favourite juices. ‘Savoury’ tasting tinctures (like turmeric), can be added to soups and stir-fries.
There is a form of plant medicine to suit every philosophy, lifestyle, health need, and family preference. That’s why our high-quality plant medicine comes in both capsules and tinctures. At St. Francis Herb Farm, tinctures aren’t just a product. They are an important part of our heritage and philosophy. Drawing upon traditional herbal knowledge, decades of experience and scientific research, we know exactly which extraction method brings out the most potent medicine in each herb.
References available upon request.
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