What is a Tincture?

This is a common question that deserves a moment of explanation. 

Please note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not evaluated any of the following statements to treat, cure, or prevent any disease. 

Tinctures are concentrated herbal extracts that are made with a variety of liquid menstruums (solvents), most notably: alcohol, vegetable glycerin, and vinegar.  Many tinctures have at least some water in the formula.  A tincture is made by immersing plant material in menstruum, often first ground or chopped, and left to extract (macerate) for a certain period of time.  It is then strained to remove the bulk herbal material (marc), which can be discarded or composted.

Tinctures are generally meant to be taken internally, unless otherwise noted, for both acute and chronic conditions.  The menstruum acts as a preservative, and most alcohol-based tinctures can last for years when properly strained and stored- i.e. in a dark, cool,dry place with the cap firmly screwed on.  Vegetable glycerin and vinegar-based tinctures will have a lesser shelf-life, although still around 1-2 yrs.  Tinctures make a convenient alternative to taking quantities of fresh or dry plant material, which is often not available year-round and not always easy to consume in large amounts.  Dosing of tinctures is specific to the person and not a one size fits all.  A licensed health care practitioner or clinical herbalist should be consulted, along with one's own intuition.

Each menstruum has its benefits based on the desired constituents in the herbal material and also based on the end user.  Vegetable glycerin and vinegar are preferred for those who do not want to consume alcohol.  Another way to reduce alcohol consumption is to place the tincture dose in water or juice, wait a minute or two for some alcohol to evaporate,and then consume.  Many tincture formulas may use a combination of alcohol, water and glycerin to maximize the extraction of a range of chemical constituents.  An herb tincture will have the ratio of herb to menstruum (e.g. 1:2) and the percentage of menstruum used (e.g. 55%) on the label.  A high percentage of alcohol does not always equal a better tincture as you may note from the list below, so it is best to consult the experts when making or buying tinctures.* 

See below for common classes of chemical constituents found in herbs and whether they are extracted in each menstruum:

Alcohol: alkaloids, essential oils, glycosides,resins, tannins

Water: alkaloids (slightly), essential oils (barely), glycosides, mucilage, polysaccharides, saponins, tannins

Glycerin: essential oils (slightly), tannins

Vinegar: similar to alcohol (to a lesser degree), can increase extraction of alkaloids

Certain herbs high in polysaccharides, saponins or mucilage will not benefit from alcohol extraction, and in fact can be rendered useless by alcohol in the solution as it will be precipitated out.  Some examples are comfrey and marshmallow- these should only have a small amount of alcohol for preservation or should only be taken as a cold infusion.

While it may seem obvious, it is important to note that high quality herbs will make high quality extracts.  Herbs should be fresh or freshly dried, be sourced from a reputable grower and be free from chemical pesticides and fertilizers.  Many constituents will rapidly degrade after harvest and even more so when an herb is ground or powdered, improperly stored (exposed to light, air or temp fluctuations) or improperly packaged.  Some herbs, many roots included, are better wilted or dried than fresh when tincturing to remove stored water and better control your formula.

If you are interested in specific formulas and more details, consults the masters below.  These authors and books are indispensable sources of information and I can't speak highly enough about them.

 *RESOURCES:

2016. Cech, R. Making Plant Medicine. Herbal Reads. Williams, OR. 4th ed.

2016. Easley, T &. S. Horne. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory: A Medicine Making Guide. North Atlantic Books. Berkeley, CA.

2000. Green, J. The Herbal Medicine-Maker's Handbook: A Home Manual.  Crossing Press. New York.

2003. Moore, M. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Museum of New Mexico Press. Santa Fe, NM. 2nd ed.

1996. Naturopathic Handbook of Herbal Formulas. Herbal Research Publications, Inc. Ayer, MA. 4th ed.

1993. Ody,P. The Complete Medicinal Herbal. Dorling Kinderseley Ltd. London. 1st. American edition.

2008. Wood, M. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books. Berkeley, CA. 

2009. Wood, M. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books. Berkeley, CA.