THE APOTHECARY'S ART
Making and Taking Herbal Medicines
In the old Apothecary shops, herbal medicines, in various forms, were personally formulated and compounded, as directed by the patient's physician. Simple raw ingredients and/or preformulated standard preparations were mixed together in the right proportions, and in the right form, to produce the desired effect. Not only the herbs or medicines you take, but their dosage, form of preparation, and mode of administration are important to maximize the medicine's effectiveness.
It once looked like the Apothecary's Art was a rapidly dying one, but thanks to the efforts of contemporary herbalists, this art is being revived. Although becoming a full-fledged herbalist or apothecary might be beyond the scope of the average lay person who just wants to use herbs for his/her health, and to find relief from common maladies, an overview of the basics of herbal preparation and administration is highly desirable.
There are two basic kinds of herbal teas that are made: an infusion is made by steeping the herbs in hot or boiling water, and a decoction is made by boiling or simmering the herbs in water for 10 to 15 minutes to half an hour or longer.
When taking herb teas for beverage purposes, a teaspoon or a teabag of the herb or herb mixture to a cup of water may be enough, but for medicinal purposes, we increase the dosage of herbs to a heaping tablespoon per cup, or an ounce to a pint. Aluminum pots or vessels are toxic, and should not be used; stainless steel, glass, enamelware or earthenware is best.
An infusion is best for lighter, finer plant parts: leaves, flowers, buds, seeds, etc... A decoction is more suitable for heavier, thicker plant parts: roots, stems, barks, woods, etc... Ingredients with volatile oils, like Cinnamon, are best infused, as prolonged boiling would dissipate these essences.
Herbal formulas or mixtures with both light/volatile and thick/heavy ingredients can be decocted very slowly, over a very low flame or heat, with the lid on the pot. You may also use an electric crockpot if you wish.
Herb teas for respiratory conditions are best drunk very hot, optimally about 1 to 2 hours after meals, but any time is OK. Teas that are drunk to produce a sweat are also best drunk very hot.
Herb teas for the digestive tract and internal organs like the liver and kidneys are best drunk warm, and ideally on an empty stomach. Most herbs don't upset your stomach the way that most pharmaceutical drugs do, so you needn't fear.
To target the kidneys and urinary tract for a diuretic effect, particularly when taking herbs for urinary tract infections, drink the tea cold or at room temperature, and on an empty stomach. An older method was, to emphasize the diuretic properties of an herb and drain the urine, to decoct it in wine, preferrably white wine.
Another older, more specialized form of decoction is a milk decoction. Take a heaping tablespoonful, or the prescribed dose of the herb or mixture in question and decoct it slowly in a pot with one cup of milk and one cup of water, until its fluid volume is reduced by half. Strain and drink.
Since hot milk induces sleepiness, milk decoctions are good for sleeping potions and nightcaps. Milk is also great to soften excessive astringency in an herb, or teas that would otherwise be too hot, dying and spicy, because the cold, wet qualities of the milk are complementary.
The standard dose for a tea is one cup, three to four times per day, of the standard infusion or decoction. For teas made from very potent herbs, the usual dose is to split a cup of the standard infusion or decoction made from them into two or three parts, with each part being a dose, taken two to three times per day, with a cup being the total daily dose. Teas made from herbs that are very mild in nature nay be drunk very frequently and liberally, instead of water.
Species, or Powders
One of the most powerful and versatile ways to prepare and take herbs is in the form of a powder. Traditionally, powders were called species.
Herbal teas extract only the water soluble constituents of the herbs. When powders are swallowed or taken whole, all the constituents of an herb are ingested and worked on by the digestive tract. On the down side, powders aren't absorbed as quickly as teas, and aren't as good for breaking a sweat or targeting the lungs and respiratory tract as a hot herb tea.
A powder comes into the most intimate and prolonged contact with the GI tract and the digestive organs, which must extract its medicinal constituents. Therefore, powders are generally one of the best ways for treating digestive and metabolic disorders.
Powders are versatile, and can form the base for many other preparations. These include pills, capsules, teas, tinctures and electuaries.
Powders can either be washed down with water or with various herb teas acting as a carrier or vehicle, or they can be made directly into an herb tea themselves. Making a tea from a powder is quick and easy; just put a teaspoonful of the powder with a cup of water into a pot, boil it for one minute, strain and drink. Powdering reduces all plant parts, both thin and thick, to a fine, easily and uniformly extractable medium.
The traditional way of making powders was to grind them slowly with a mortar and pestle. Nowadays, you can use an electric coffee grinder or a heavy duty industrial electric grinder. You can either mix the cut-and-sifted herbs first, and then grind the mixture, or grind the individual ingredients first and then mix their powders in the desired proportions.
Although some herbs grind extremely well, many do not pulverize completely; various herbs have different rates or degrees to which they pulverize. In almost all herbs, the active medicinal consituents will be the most concentrated in the parts that do pulverize. After grinding the herbs as best you can, you then sift the powder to separate out the 'dross" that doesn't pulverize. If you need to be precise about the proportions of the various ingredients in your finished powder, powder and sift the individual ingredients beforehand, then mix them in the proper proportions.
The dosage for powders is one half or one quarter teaspoon to one teaspoon. The more potent the herbs taken, the lesser the dose. Take two to three doses daily.
Pills and Capsules
If a powdered herb or herb mixture tastes too bitter or foul, it's best to take it in the form of a pill or capsule. The simplest method for the home herbalist is to put the powder into gelatin capsules, with two to three capsules, three times per day, being the standard dose.
The simplest way to put herbs into capsules is to put the powder into a round bowl and scoop it into the two halves of the capsule; then assemble the capsule. There are more elaborate encapsulation machines also on the market.
Pills are a more elaborate affair. To make a powder into pills, it first has to be made into a dough, which requires the addition or inclusion of a binding agent. The binding agent is some kind of resin, gum, starch, or mucilaginous ingredient that is either part of the original powder formula, or is added to it.
Examples of binding agents added in are Acacia gum, Karaya gum or Corn Starch. Examples of formula ingredients that can also double as binding agents include Licorice root powder and Myrrh. Myrrh, being a resin, is best dissolved by an alcoholic medium like vodka, which can also be used to make a dough. Usually, the binding agent forms 10 to 15 percent of the dry ingredients of a formula.
After the dough has been mixed and kneaded thoroughly, It's then rolled out into long spindles, which are then cut and rolled into little balls ranging from pea sized to the size of buckshot. Actually, the smaller buckshot size is easier to swallow, and is absorbed more quickly.
The pills are then dried until they're hard. If you wish to speed up the drying process, you can lay the pills out on a cookie sheet and dry them in a half-opened oven at about 150 degrees Fahrenheit (75 degrees Celsius).
If the pills are pea sized, three to four of them are the standard dose; if they're buckshot sized, 6 to 10, with 8 being standard, is the usual dose. Usually, three doses per day are recommended, sometimes only two.
Medicinal Wines and Tinctures
Alcohol is a great medium or base to use for making medicines, for several reasons:
Alcohol is a great preservative. Herbs extracted in 80 proof distilled spirits will keep forever.
Alcohol's volatile, penetrating nature synergizes and maximizes the effect of aromatic herbs extracted in it, and is an effective agent for extracting the medicinal principles of herbs in general. Especially, alcohol is great for dissolving and extracting the volatile essences of gums and resins like Myrrh or Mastic.
Alcohol is a vasodilator that opens the blood vessels and stimulates the heart and circulation; this makes it a valuable carrying agent that quickly disperses the medicinal constituents of herbs all over the body. In particular, alcohol has an affinity for the heart, brain and liver - the body's most important and vital organs.
Alcoholic extracts are of two basic types: medicinal wines and tinctures. A medicinal wine uses wine, or "soft" spirits, whereas a tincture uses distilled or "hard" spirits, usually 80 proof, or 40% alcohol. The proportion of herb or herb mixture to wine or liquor is double the amount used for herb teas - two heaping tablespoons per cup, or 2 ounces per pint.
Traditionally, the herbs are macerated in the wine or liquor, but today you can use an electric blender for this purpose. Or, you can grind the herbs roughly before soaking them for quicker, easier extraction. Soak the herbs in the wine or liquor in a well-stopped jar in a dark, warm place for at least two weeks, preferrably one month.
Many medicinal wines are drunk as aperitifs, or bitter tonics to stimulate the appetite and digestion. Their formula usually consists of bitter herbs with pungent and/or aromatic herbs added. Drink in small jigger glass or shot glass doses.
Tinctures, because their alcohol content is so high, are usually taken only in small doses of anywhere from a few drops to a tablespoon or so, either directly or in a cup of warm or room temperature water; the dosage depends on the potency of the herbs you're taking. Although any herb can be made into a tincture, the best ones to use are fairly potent ones that are powerful and effective even in small doses. Another good thing about tinctures is that they tend to soften the purging or griping effects of harsh astringents, laxatives or purgatives.
Tinctures work great for formulas designed to treat digestive complaints, arthritis and rheumatism, a weak heart or poor circulation, toxicity in the blood and lymph, and to speed the healing of traumatic injuries.
Alcohol also has great power to penetrate the skin and even affect the deep muscles. A tincture that's rubbed or massaged into the skin is called a liniment. Many tinctures, like Swedish Bitters, can be used either internally or externally, as a dressing or liniment.
Vinegar can also be used instead of alcohol to make medicinal extracts of plants, according to the same methods and proportions. These are called acid tinctures or medicinal vinegars. Perhaps the most famous of these is Vinegar of Squills.
Vegetable Glycerine can also be added to alcoholic tinctures, in the ratio of two tablespoons per pint of alcohol. This not only sweetens the resulting extract if bitter herbs are used, but it also broadens the spectrum of medicinal constituents extracted from the herbs.
One of the most potent and powerful ways of taking an herb, if you are able to get it fresh, is to juice it. If you have any doubt about the truth of this statement, just try juicing some fresh Ginger root in a juicer!
More succulent and fleshy plant parts, like fresh roots and fruits, can be juiced in an ordinary juicer. For grassy, herbaceous herbs, juicing in a wheat grass juicer, which squeezes out their juice, is best.
Of course, this is the modern way, and not the traditional way. Traditionally, the fresh herb was first bruised, or pounded into a pulp with a mortar and pestle. Then, the pulp was placed inside a strong cotton or linen cloth, which was folded over and wrung out to squeeze out the juice.
Juices, because they are fresh, are usually drunk fresh, or on the spot. They will spoil, even more quickly than a tea, and especially in hot weather, unless some preserving substance(s) are added. This is usually something sweet, which changes the juice into a syrup.
Syrups are thick and sweet, and about the consistency of molasses. They are a pleasant way to take herbal medicines that would otherwise be too astringent, harsh, sour or bitter. They are also highly desirable when a soothing, coating action is desired, as in a cough syrup. Syrups are a medicinal vehicle that capitalizes on the soothing, emollient action of the sweet taste.
Syrups are basically made from two parts: the medicinal part and the sweetener, or base. According to Culpepper, there are three types of syrups, depending on how the medicinal part is made.
1) Syrups made from Infusions
2) Syrups made from Decoctions
3) Syrups made from Juices
Furthermore, these categories need not be mutually exclusive. A combination of any two, or all three, may be used for the medicinal extract portion.
Because the medicinal portion will be diluted by the base, or sweetener, you should make it very strong. For infusions, which are usually made from the lighter, finer plant parts, use 6 cups, or 3 pints, of boiling water for every pound of herb or herb mixture. A pound would be about 400 gms. of herbs. Or, you may infuse to the ratio of three heaping tablespoons per cup, letting the herbs infuse in a covered vessel until cold. You can even strain off and infuse fresh herbs into the tea two or three times for added strength.
For decoctions, the standard herb to water ratios apply, but decoct them down slowly until only half of the original fluid volume remains. To make it extra strong, you may double the proportion of herbs to water as well.
The sweetener or base usually used in Culpeper's day was sugar, but the usual sugar they had then wasn't as refined as white sugar is today. So, if you're using sugar, try to get authentic raw or brown sugar, or maple sugar (the brown sugar sold in most supermarkets isn't real brown sugar). For infusions, use two pounds of sugar, melted in, for each pint; for decoctions and juices, add one pound per pint (2 cups).
Besides sugar, other sweetening bases may also be used, either singly or in combination. These include honey, molasses and Oxymel, or a honey and vinegar preparation whose recipe is described in the article, Drink to Your Health! in this Therapies section.
Electuaries: Herbal Pastes, or Jams
One of the most pleasant ways to prepare and take herbs is as an electuary, which is an herbal paste, or jam. Of all the various ways of preparing herbs for internal use, the electuary is the most complex.
There are two basic components to an electuary: a powdered herb or herb mixture; and a sweetening and binding agent, which is usually clarified honey. The herbs must be very finely powdered and strained, so no large or hard chunks or pieces remain, and the resulting paste, or electuary, is smooth. And when it comes to mixing the herb powder in with the honey, and with anything else you may add, you must mix all the ingredients exceedingly well.
In its simplest form, an electuary consists of just honey and powdered herbs; however, the recipe may call for several other ingredients, or extras: fresh herb juices; wines, alcohol or tinctures; melted sugar, gums and resins; treacle or molasses; various oils - olive oil, castor oil, or essential oils; syrups, jams or conserves.
The formulas of many electuaries are extremely complex. Galen's Theriac electuary had some 64 different ingredients. Electuaries, if they are well made, and have sufficient sweeteners and preservative elements in them, will keep for a very long time. Many actually mellow out and improve with age, like fine wines.
The standard dose for an electuary is usually a teaspoon, which can be more or less, depending on the electuary's potency. They may be taken with various auxiliary teas and substances as a vehicle, or they may be taken straight.
Simples versus Formulas
A tea or other preparation made from just one herb is called a simple. A medicinal preparation containing two or more ingredients is called a formula.
Whenever possible, keep it simple; if just one herb meets all your needs, take that herb alone as a simple. If no single herb alone meets all your needs, you may have to take a formula. Even here, keep it simple; the simplest formula that addresses all your needs is usually the best. When in doubt, it's best to use an established classical formula according to its indications.
Making an effective herbal formula is a sophisticated art as well as a science. There's much more involved in making an herbal formula than just the crude "shotgun approach" of putting together every herb you know of that treats the ailment under consideration. Traditionally, herbs were selected according to their basic actions, tastes and energetics so that they worked harmoniously together.
There will be more material on how to put together an herbal formula in the Principles of Treatment section.
This is only a basic introduction to the Apothecary's Art, or herbal pharmacy. In this article, I have sought to cover the basic methods and preparations for taking herbs internally. For those of you wishing to learn more about the Apothecary's Art, and to see actual authentic classical medicinal recipes, I highly suggest that you visit the online edition of Culpeper's Complete Herbal at the following link: