by Ana L. Palles
Walk down the aisles of a health food store and sooner or later your tour will take you past shelves filled with small, brown-glass tincture bottles. Standing in neat little rows are brand names like Herb Pharm, Home Grown Herbals, Wish Garden, Gaia, and Zand among others. Some made with wild-crafted herbs and others using glycerin for the alcohol sensitive, each manufacturer features their own lines of single herbs and special blends, some made with wild-crafted herbs.
With such a wide variety of pharmacopeia represented, what exactly are these tinctures and what are they used for? Tinctures are highly concentrated herbal extracts and are often alcohol-based. The alcohol acts as a medium for pulling out or extracting the herbal essence, and also preserving the active ingredients in the herbs.
Herbs have been used for healing for thousands of years. Animals instinctively know to eat certain plants to self medicate, a behavior we can still see demonstrated by domestic dogs who periodically munch away on grasses to help with their digestion.
Cindy Engels documents animal self-medication in her fascinating book, Wild Health: How Animals Keep Themselves Well and What We Can Learn from Them (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002). Cindy provides a number of interesting examples in the book. For example, Desert Tortoises that travel miles to mine the calcium needed to keep their shells strong, and species of animals that rub citrus oils and pungent resins into their coats as insecticides and antiseptics to prevent infected insect bites. Additionally, some birds line their nests with medicinal leaves to protect their chicks from blood-sucking mites and lice.
Cindy writes that “animals try to keep themselves healthy in many of the same ways humans do … much of early human medicine, including many practices being revived today as ‘alternative medicine,’ arose through observations of animals.”
Principles of herbal medicine are often incorporated in a variety of cuisines, and scientists have long studied why certain populations appear to be less afflicted by specific ailments, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease. For example, the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet with an abundance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, olive oil, and a liberal use of garlic, was documented in a four year European study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2004. Benefits cited included reduced risk for heart disease and the inflammation of cells.
Today, we recognize genetic predispositions to a variety of conditions such as heart disease and some forms of cancer. The link between cholesterol levels and genetics has spurred much research. As cited in Heartzine.com, the National Institute of Health (NIH) recently awarded a grant to the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health to research genetic factors and cholesterol levels. “According to principal investigator M. Ilyas Kamboh, Ph.D., professor and acting chair of the department of human genetics at GSPH, blood HDL cholesterol levels are determined both by environmental and genetic factors, with genes contributing more than 50 percent.”
For my sister and me, the clues were always there. About 19 years ago, before we knew of any scientific studies on the connection between cholesterol and genes, we observed what we felt was a genetic link with blood cholesterol levels.
We owned a home-style bakery back then. Our bakery prided itself on the fact that we used butter, whole milk, and eggs in our recipes. We felt that using real ingredients, rather than chemical substitutes, was a wholesome and tasty approach to baking. Our customers certainly appreciated the difference as they often joked that they were our fan club and not actually real customers.
Since we regularly ate the products that we made, it was with some trepidation that my sister and I went in for our annual exams and blood-work. To our surprise, our cholesterol scores hovered around 160. By contrast, we had a customer who came in looking for help with her 6 year old son’s upcoming birthday. She wanted her son to have a tasty and beautiful birthday cake, but the little boy was on a special diet and medication for his cholesterol which had reached 240. She asked us if there was anything at all that we could do, and we suggested using egg whites for a lovely angel cake made into layers and frosted in light meringue.
There was no doubt in our minds that there had to be something more than diet and environment at play in this child’s elevated cholesterol levels. When the child came in with his mom to pick up the cake, we saw a thin, active young boy who was somehow getting overwhelmed with the cholesterol in his system in spite of his mother’s careful control over his diet and the sports he played.
Cultural heritage also contributes to the patterns that manifest in our bodies. Scientists and nutritionists have been studying various ethnic cuisines and possible links between these diet and eating patterns, health and predispositions (or lack thereof) of specific ailments, such as high incidence of diabetes, heart disease or specific cancers.
Many cultures use food medicinally and pass on that wisdom with each generation. Take for example the use of ginger in Asian communities to warm the body. Ginger helps prevent or dispel symptoms of cold, cramping, and menstrual pain. It is very supportive for the body and is often incorporated in winter tonic recipes. In Romance Language countries, garlic and onions in heavy doses are often helpful with the control of infections and viruses. Both garlic and onion reinforce the immune system and cleanses impurities. While appearing counterintuitive in climates already abundant in heat and humidity, hot peppers and pungent spices help purify foods, minimize spoilage, and cleanse the body.
Less exciting than eating a tasty ethnic dish, herbal supplements have been increasing in popularity. The growing population that uses herbal supplementation work under the assumption that prevention and support are worthwhile strategies for overall health. Since herbal supplements are cumulative and their effects subtle and felt over time, often they aren’t a good answer for someone wanting immediate relief. But the toning and healing properties on the body frequently result in fundamental changes and improvements.
A good example of this is milk thistle which improves the liver function. Some studies have also suggested that milk thistle helps rebuild liver cells repairing damage that has occurred from alcoholism or chemotherapy. The Mayo clinic provides information on milk thistle and its uses on their website: www.mayoclinic.com.
My personal routine includes drinking a glass of water with the recommended drops of an herbal tincture upon waking. Depending on what is going on with my body, I might use a feminine herbal tonic or a kidney support. I often use the liver cleanse or support tonic as I have found it improves my overall well-being and keeps me feeling energetic.
Herbal tinctures have an added advantage over pill supplementation in that they generally are absorbed more readily, beginning their assimilation in the mouth and all the way down the throat. Often they are also more concentrated. Favorites of mine include the already mentioned liver and kidney compounds, the adrenal support, and the corresponding gender tonics.
Several companies offer specific formulations for men and women. For example, the male formulas generally work on supporting the prostrate, the adrenal glands and balancing testosterone Saw Palmetto is a popular natural treatment for enlargement of the prostrate. Siberian Ginseng is another common ingredient in male herbal tonics. According to HealthQuest which is dedicated to providing current research in natural and complementary medicine, “Siberian Ginse ng has been traditionally used for centuries as an adaptogen (balancer), which is a substance that regulates the homeostasis of tissue organ systems. Siberian Ginseng particularly stimulates and nourishes the adrenal glands, an important source of energy.”
Women’s formulas often incorporate herbs such as Dandelion which is a good diuretic, supportive of the kidneys, and helps relieve bloating. Black Cohosh – popular because of its estrogenic factors which in conjunction with Chasteberries, or Vitex provides progesterone support – helps the body balance the monthly hormonal mix. Used for over a thousand years in medicine and revered for its almost alchemical effects, Lady’s Mantle is used in some formulas to help the womb contract and regulate the monthly cycle. Shepherd’s Purse herbal tincture is an extremely effective agent that helps with excessive bleeding, although this is not to be used as a long term solution since heavy bleeding must always be discussed with your doctor. Remember that it is important that you consult with your doctor prior to starting any health regimen.
Turmeric is often found in liver support formulas. Turmeric stimulates contractions of the gall bladder and the production of bile in the liver. With a reputation for powerful anti-oxidant and adrenal and liver protective qualities, it is a very beneficial addition to any diet. Curcumin is the active ingredient in this common spice which is used often in Indian and sometimes in Spanish cooking.
Many of us benefit from the use of these herbal tinctures to sustain and help balance our bodily systems, but it is only one of the ways to refresh and support the body. With summer approaching, your local farmer’s market is a wonderful source of nutrition, health, and herbs. You would be hard pressed to go wrong picking one of each from your fresh vegetable stand – parsley, ginger, spinach, watercress, tomatoes, dandelion, kale – all are packed with organ supporting elements.
Try the below recipe as a fun and cleansing tonic. As always, check with your doctor before starting any diet or health regimen particularly if you are on medications, have impaired organ functions, or allergies.
Kidney Cleanse Drink
About 8 sprigs of parsley
½ large beet
2 celery stalks with leaves
1/2 cucumber, keep the peel on unless it has been waxed
4-6 baby spinach leaves
Using a vegetable juicer, process the above. Please remember that Beets are very powerful vegetable for cleansing and support. For more information on juicing and the benefits of different vegetable and fruit juices, the www.juicingbook.com site may be a worthwhile resource.
Don’t forget one of summer’s great treats is sitting on the porch, reading a good book and drinking a pitcher of “spa water.” A lovely pitcher of strawberry or cucumber laced water reminds us of sitting in fluffy bathrobes, fresh out from the steam room awaiting our massage therapist. To make your own “spa” water add sliced cucumbers, oranges or berries to a pitcher of spring or filtered water, and ice as desired. It is a pleasure to drink and a lovely gift for your body.
The Natural Pharmacy, 2nd Ed., Prima Health, 1999.