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 Herbal Medicine: Herbal Preparations  
Throughout history, herbs have had an important place in the medicine of the people. We have found remains of medicinal herbs in stone-age burial sites (ca. 10,000 BC), and have written records of herbs and their preparations from the ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek and Chinese cultures dating back to 3,000 BC or before.

At first, humans probably used herbs the same way we have observed African chimpanzees to--by eating them. After some experimentation, early people realized that herbs were more effective when picked at just the right season and preserved in a preparation. We know from the most extensive medical record of the Egyptians, the Ebers Papyrus (ca. 1550 BC), that many types of herbal preparations were popular. Salves, ointments, teas and alcoholic extracts were recommended for many ailments, from the wounds of war to a variety of menstrual difficulties.

The use of these many preparations continued, being refined by the Greeks and Romans (450 BC to ca. 100 AD). The great Greek herbalist, Dioscorides traveled and practiced 50 years after the death of Christ. In his monumental work, De Materia Medica (55AD), he gives instructions for many kinds of herbal preparations, including vinegar and alcoholic extracts.

Galen, the renowned Roman doctor (130-201 AD), recommended many different herbal preparations in his writings, including poultices, gargles, pessaries, ointments, oils, cerates, tablets and inhalations. His name is immortalized in the word "galenicals," meaning compound formulations.

The preparations of the ancients were carried on and slowly evolved over the next 2,000 years. An excellent record of the variety of early 17th century herbal preparations can be found in the Pharmacopeia Londonensis (1618), the first official drug book from Great Britain. This influential work lists many different kinds of preparations, including tinctures, salves, ointments and elixirs. Today, many of the preparations available from manufacturers in the U.S. and Europe are directly descended from ancient sources.

As a retailer, knowing the range of dose forms (preparations) available, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each is a great help--both to the customer and the bottom line. Customers ask questions like, "is the liquid or powder better?" and they may not actually say it, but I can bet they are thinking, "What form of preparation offers the best value for my money?" In these uncertain economic times, the price/value ratio will need to be maximized to encourage some customers to buy an herbal product.

In a concise and clear way, this article will present the answer to questions such as these and more.

First, what are the major dose forms for herbal preparations available from American and European manufacturers?

We can begin our investigation by saying that herb preparations are either in extract form, or have not been extracted. The extraction process involves macerating the fresh or dried and powdered herb in various solvents (menstruums).

Unextracted herb forms
In the store, the most common unextracted herb forms are whole dried herbs, sliced herbs, cut and sifted herbs and herb powders. Table 1 shows the advantages of each.

Table 1 Advantages of Dried Herb Forms

Form Advantages Disadvantages

Whole herbs retains potency for needs to be ground up or

up to 2 years, best Cut and Sifted before using

form for storage for tea or encapsulated

Sliced herbs easier to powder for must be powdered for en-

(roots, barks) encapsulation, ready capsulation

for making tea, pre-

serves moderately well

Powdered herbs has the shortest shelf- ready for encapsulation,

life (appx. 1 year) can be used for tea

It is always best to encourage your customers to buy herbs in their whole form and grind them fresh for each use. A Molinex coffee grinder is a handy tool for this purpose, and makes a good item to stock in an herb department or herb store. However, a common kitchen blender is second best and will do the job in most cases.

While slicing, cutting and sifting, and powdering are fair alternatives for heavy herbs such as barks, roots and stems (and sometimes fruits), it is not appropriate for leaves (alfalfa), seeds (fennel), flowers (hibiscus) or flowering tops (St. John's wort). These should be purchased whenever possible by the store in their whole form. The only exception is when the herbs are part of a bulk tea blend, where all the herbs may be in their cut and sifted form. In this case, try to store the tea blends in air-tight amber jars, away from light. When the herbs that the customer finds in your store are fresh, they are much more likely to have the desired effect, and they are more likely to return for more.

A final recommendation about whole herb forms. If possible, consider stocking small live herb plants, if there is a sunny place to display them. Herb plants such as echinacea, lavendar, rosemary, lemon balm and peppermint can provide a first-hand connection with the plants, and interest customers in the ways of healing herbs. Many people will want to grow their own herbs, which, in my experience leads to more herb sales, not less.

Extracted Herbs and Herb Products

The making of herbal extracts is time-honored. As mentioned above, the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans made a variety of extracts for use by their doctors, but also for everyday household use.

While the extracting process has become more involved in recent years, many basic principles still apply.

To make any extract, a solvent is needed. The solvent, or menstruum usually consists of either water or ethyl alcohol, often derived from grains. For many herbs, ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is one of the best solvents available. It efficiently draws polar constituents (compounds that contain hydroxyl [-OH] groups in sufficient quantity and placement to impart solubility in water or short-chain alcohols (methyl alcohol or wood alcohol included). These constituents include saponins (steroid glycosides such as the ginsenosides in ginseng), flavonoids (hawthorn, ginkgo), proanthocyanidins (hawthorn, bilberry), tannins (witch hazel), other glycosides such salicin (willow bark). Fat-soluble constituents, such as the flavanolignins in milk thistle and polybutyl amides (echinacea), though not soluble in water, are soluble in ethyl alcohol.

Alcohol and water are completely miscible, and varying ratios of the two are used, depending on whether the main active constituents to be extracted in a plant are fat-soluble (lipid-soluble) or water-soluble. For instance, flavonoids are mildly water-soluble, but many are more lipid-soluble, so a percentage of 30% water and 70% grain alcohol is used to most effectively remove these important constituents from herbs such as passion flower, ginkgo or hawthorn. Many of these ideal menstruums were worked out years ago for a number of popular herbs, and printed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia and National Formulary, the two "official" drug books in this country. These books can still be found in used bookstores--the best years to look for are from about 1870 to 1930. Today, many herbalists have worked out their own "ideal" menstruums from years of experimentation and practical experience. When I started my line of liquid extracts 6 years ago, I found that by varying the ratios of alcohol and water, and sometimes by adding glycerin, I was able to maximize the potency of the extracts.

The process of making liquid extracts involves grinding the fresh or fresh-dried herbs and soaking (macerating) them in the menstruum for about two weeks. Another process of liquid extract manufacture involves slowly dripping the menstruum through the ground herb, pulling the active constituents out by capillary action as they drip through. This method is called percolation. Which method produces the strongest extract is open to debate, but maceration may be more foolproof.

Tincture Strength

Fortunately, standards for tincture strength are starting to be developed in this country. Even now, tinctures are made to varying strengths, and it is usually impossible to tell what that is by looking at the bottle. Tincture strength usually varies between 1:1 and 1:10. Formerly, a liquid extract that was made by using one part of the herb to one part of menstruum (weight to volume), was called an "extract," and one that was made one part herb to five parts menstruum (which is weaker) was called a tincture. Obviously, the strength of the finished product, and therefore the cost/value ratio very much depends on how much herb was used in a given amount of menstruum. When a menstruum is packed with as much herb as possible, pressed out, and more herb added to the first liquid extract, it is said that the finished product is a "double extraction." Another way of double extraction is to make an alcohol/water extract, take the dry herb that is left over (called the marc) and make a hot water extraction. In this way, any constituents (such as cell wall components, tannins and mineral ions) that are not extracted by the first menstruum will be released into the hot water. The two extracts are subsequently blended together to yield a "double extraction." For both the store owner or buyer and customer, it pays to compare prices, tincture strengths and quality to find the best overal value.

To make things more interesting, European manufacturers have a different philosophy about tincture strength than most American herbalists. In Europe, some homeopathic mother tinctures (extracted at 1:10) are sold as tinctures in this country. The homeopathic philosophy dictates that the weaker an extract is, the more potent effect it can have in the body. Further, Europeans tend to feel that only 5 to 35 drops of a tincture is an adequate dose, whereas many American herbalists traditionally recommend a dose of 40 to 80 drops (1 to 2 droppersful). An American herb company might feel that a 1:10 tincture is excessively weak, but a European manufacturer would take a 1:1 extract as overkill and a waste of herbs. These differing philosophies make for interesting discussions in this country, where both European and American herbal products are commonly sold. Which one is right for you is best determined by giving each a fair trial and feeling the results.

Advantages of Different Extracts

Liquid extracts or tinctures offer many advantages as an herbal delivery system, as presented in table 2. The only disadvantage being that some people are sensitive or allergic to alcohol, or choose to avoid it because they have problems with addiction.

Powdered extracts are a good alternative for such people. Personally, although I have been a tea-totaler for many years, I prefer the liquid extracts because I can actually taste the herbs! This connection is important for me, and I feel it adds to the healing experience. However, powdered extracts offer some of the same advantages as liquids.

To make a powdered extract, the liquid extract or tincture is often "spray-dried" under low heat in a vacuum chamber to remove any moisture and create a concentrated powder. This powder represents the dried "essence" of the herb, with no fiber, cellulose, lignan and other "inert" constituents. While I believe in using herbs in their whole form (adding nothing, taking nothing away), I have sometimes found it difficult to eat enough herbs to take in an adequate amount of the active principles. Plus, ideally, herbs should be picked at their optimum season for best activity. Extracts can be made at this time, preserving this high level of activity for up to 3 years.

One word about quality. The quality of any herb product directly depends on the freshness and strength of the herbs that went into it. Today, it is extremely important to support organically-grown herbs and herb products. To me, it is unthinkable to choose herbal medicine as a healing path, while supporting the addition of synthetic chemicals to the living herbs. Today there are many organic herbs and herb products available to offer on the retail level. In my 23 years of experience, it is also a fair statement that if a company cares enough to pay a higher price for organic herbs, it will also pay extra attention to how the herbs are dried, processed and manufactured.

The following chart presents the major types of extracts sold on the American herb market and their benefits.

Types and Benefits of Extracts
Liquid Extracts "pre-digested" and concentrated, the most quickly and (tinctures) efficiently absorbed of any preparation; herbs can be extracted fresh at the optimum time of year--freshness well preserved (2-3 years); can be disguised in juice or water for children

Powdered Extracts "pre-digested" and concentrated, efficiently absorbed; taste disguised in capsules or tablets; no alcohol; freshness preserved (2- 3 years)

Standardized All the advantages of powdered extracts, but are more

powdered extracts consistent, because active constituents are detected and set at identified levels; original balance of the herb may or may not be altered

Oils, salves, Herbal extracts in an oil or oil and beeswax base (salves), creams, ointments or water-soluble base (creams); excellent for external trauma--burns, bites, stings, cuts, aches and pains; easy to carry, convenient

Syrups, elixirs Herbal extracts in a sweet base; Sweet-tasting, palatable for children (and adults sensitive to strong tastes), can coat and soothe the throat to help relieve coughs; concentrated, fast-acting

Lozenges Herbal extracts in a candy base; sweet-tasting, very palatable for children of all ages; convenient to carry and use for sore throats and upper-respiratory imbalances


Cook, E.F. & E.W. Martin. 1951. Remington's Practice of Pharmacy. Easton, PA: The Mack Publishing Company.

Chadha, Y.R., chief ed. 1952-88. The Wealth of India (Raw Materials), 11 vols. New Delhi: Publications and Information Directorate, CSIR.Chadha, Y.R., chief ed. 1952-88.

Wootton, A.C. 1972 (1910). Chronicles of Pharmacy. Tuckahoe, NY: USV Pharmaceutical Corp.

La Wall, C.H. 1927. The Curious Lore of Drugs and Medicines. Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Co.

Fenner, B. 1909. Fenner's Twentieth Century Formulary and International Dispensatory. Westfield, NY: B. Fenner, Publisher.

Urdang, G. 1944. Pharmacopoeia Londenensis of 1618 Reporduced iin Facsimile with a Historical Introduction. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
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 About The Author
Christopher Hobbs LAc, AHG Christopher Hobbs is a fourth generation herbalist and botanist with over 30 years experience with herbs. Founder of Native Herb Custom Extracts (now Rainbow Light Custom Extracts) and the Institute for Natural Products......more
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