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What is a tincture?
To those unfamiliar, a tincture is a strange word that may conjure images of apothecaries of old and of mysterious, perhaps even witchy, concoctions and spells.
This article explains what a tincture is, why and how we use them and what are the alternatives.
The truth is the word tincture refers to a specific form in which medicine can be taken - in alcohol.
Tinctures are created by steeping (macerating) plants in a mixture of alcohol and water for a specific amount of time, before filtering off the plant material. This leaves you with a liquid that contains the active ingredients of the plant, which can be used as medicine.
Why use tinctures?
There are many ways to give and take herbal medicine – as food, tea, vinegars, glycerites, powders or creams - each with their own benefits.
Specific active ingredients
Tinctures can give us access to some active ingredients that other forms of herbal medicine cannot. Alcohol breaks down the cell wall in plants, which can be particularly useful when using fresh herbs. Using tinctures also means that we can be very specific about the active ingredients we want to use from the plant. By using a precise mixture of alcohol and water as a solvent, we can extract a specific range of active ingredients.
The benefit of a tincture is that some active ingredients dissolve better in alcohol.
Water extracts water soluble (polar) constituents where as alcohol extracts fat soluble (non-polar) constituents that cannot be extracted from water. For instance, terpenes, essential oils, resins and saponins all extract well in alcohol. This means tinctures work particularly well for bitters and aromatic herbs that are often used to aid the gut and digestion, as an example. Think gentian or bitter orange. Glycosides and many other constituents are also more stable in the presence of alcohol.
Some herbal examples:
Percentage of Alcohol
Resins, sterols, alkaloids, Vitamin E, fats and oils.
Because alcohol itself is “warming” and promotes vasodilation, tinctures can also work particularly well with circulatory stimulants and ‘hot’ and ‘warm’ herbs. Ginger, yarrow or hawthorn are great examples of this, but of course there are many others. It may indeed be due to tinctures affinity with warming and stimulating herbal remedies that they are so popular in the UK, where our cold damp climate tends towards a variety of conditions where these actions are helpful.
In the UK, tinctures are the most common form of herbal medicine
However, sometimes a cooling action is required. In these instances it is best to choose a herb with a considerable cooling effect, such as gentian or wormwood, as this will not be lost in tincture form. Or, an alternative preparation may be preferred, more on this later.
Great shelf life
Tinctures are also wonderful for their long shelf life. Alcohol is bacteriostatic, meaning that tinctures are unlikely to go off, particularly if they have a high alcohol content. 25% alcohol is the minimum tincture strength to ensure preserving.
They are also very easy to take…
How to take a tincture?
This is the easy bit, you just drink it!
A herbal practitioner can advise what tincture to take, at what alcohol content, for which condition. They will also advise the dosage of tincture to take to see the best results.
Some tinctures can be taken as-and-when you like, others may have a culminative effect and taking them throughout the day over a period of time will have the best results. Always check what it says on the bottle or ask a herbal practitioner if in doubt.
Tinctures can also be mixed with other tinctures in almost any combination. This is how we create our compounds and prescriptions. They can also be mixed with other liquid preparations within reason, such as in our immunity tonic, which uses a mixture of tinctures and glycerites, making it slightly sweeter.
Too strong? Just add water...
There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a tincture neat, but if this feels a bit strong there is also absolutely nothing wrong with adding water to make it more palatable. This will not affect the quality of the medicine at all. The key is just to get it in you!
Understanding the label
On our labels you will see the common name of the plant or the compound name and latin name of all plants used. You will also see a ratio and percentage.
The ratio refers to the amount of herb (marc) to the liquid portion (menstruum) when the tincture was being made; before the menstruum was filtered off and bottled. A ratio of 1:3 refers to 1 part marc to 3 parts menstruum. Lower ratios such as 1:1 or 1:2, will thus be higher in potency. 1:3 to 1:5 ratios are most commonly seen as this is governed by how much alcohol it takes to cover the plant material.
The percentage refers to the percentage of alcohol in the menstruum. A percentage of 45% would have 45ml pure alcohol and 55ml water in 100ml of liquid.
Are there alternatives?
Although there are many benefits, taking tinctures may not be right for everyone.
There are times when alcohol may not be preferred or may negatively affect current health conditions. For example, some religions eschew alcohol. Recovering alcoholics and those suffering from liver and kidney disease would benefit from avoiding it. Also, alcohol may exacerbate gut dysbiosis, where there is an imbalance in the biome in the gut, or it may be irritating to some people’s stomach or skin. Tinctures also tend to break down polysaccharides, which may be the sought active ingredient in the medicine.
Mixing medicines enables us to use a range of herbal actions to treat a specific or multiple conditions simultaneously. Herbalists can use the synergy between herbs to better treat the condition or make sure it's going to the right place in the body. For these reason, prescriptions given often contain multiple herbs.
If you are interested in a bespoke prescription or treatment plan, please contact us to discuss what would work best for you.