The Everything Guide to Herbal Remedies: An easy-to-use reference for natural health care

CHAPTER 19

Making Your Own Herbal Remedies

With only a few common tools and a few simple ingredients, which are available at most any herb shop or natural foods store, you can open your own phytopharmacy. And while it’s arguably much easier and a lot less messy to buy your remedies ready-made, many people find that the do-it-yourself, get-your-hands-dirty approach is both rewarding and effective. By making your own remedies, you can control more aspects of the product you’re using, and you’ll gain a greater understanding of the power of plants.

Homemade Healing

Maybe you’re the type of person who thinks everything’s better when it’s homemade. Maybe you love to cook and experiment with recipes. Or maybe there’s just no decent herb shop in your town. Whatever the reason, you’re ready to take the plunge into the world of home-based herbalism. Rosemary Gladstar, a leading herbalist and educator and director of the International Herb Symposium, offers the following suggestions—and recipes—to get you started.

Tools of the Trade

To make most herbal remedies, you’ll need a short list of supplies. It includes:


• Big canning jars for storing herbs and making tinctures

• Cheesecloth or muslin, for straining herbal preparations

• A grater (for grating beeswax)

• A large, double-mesh, stainless steel strainer

• Measuring cups

• Nonaluminum cooking pots with tight-fitting lids


You might want to set aside a coffee grinder to use for grinding the tough spices like licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) root and cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, C. aromaticum) bark that you’ll use in your remedies. Just don’t use the same grinder that you use for coffee—neither your remedies nor your morning cup of Joe will benefit from that blending of flavors.

You should keep your pantry stocked with a few of the staples that are used in many herbal remedies. They include:


• Aloe (Aloe vera) gel, for creams

• Apricot (Prunus armeniaca), almond (Prunus dulcis), and grape (Vitis vinifera) seed oils, for facial creams

• Cocoa (Theobroma cacao) butter, for infused oils and creams

• Coconut (Cocos nucifera) oil, for infused oils and creams

• Honey, for syrups

• Lanolin, for creams

• Natural beeswax, for ointments

• Olive (Olea europaea) oil, for infused oils and ointments

• Sesame (Sesamum indicum) oil, for infused oils


Here are a few things to keep in mind when making your own remedies:


• Herbs and herbal preparations do best when they’re stored in airtight glass jars, out of direct light, in a cool area. Light, oxygen, and heat can degrade them.

• Never use aluminum pots or containers—aluminum can react with the herbs. Stick to glass, ceramic, stainless steel, or cast iron.

• Store all remedies and ingredients—especially essential oils and alcohol-based tinctures—out of children’s reach. Many essential oils are extremely toxic, even in very small doses.


Therapeutic Teas

A tea is, without question, the simplest of herbal remedies to prepare—and use. Even the most inept of homemakers can boil water, and that’s really all it takes to make a cup of tea.

What makes tea?

Technically speaking, tea can mean only one thing: Camellia sinensis, either in its natural state or dried and mixed with boiling water to make an infusion of the same name. But many medicinal herbs, including rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) in South Africa and mate (Ilex paraguariensis) in South America, are regularly brewed up as “teas,” to be enjoyed as beverages as well as therapeutic agents.

Herbal teas can be used for several purposes. First, herbal tea is a beverage, good for socializing and relaxing as well as hydrating. It’s also useful as a topical herbal preparation for your skin as well as your hair.

Tea is an effective vehicle for administering the medicinal components of plants as well. Teas are aqueous (water) extractions of crude herbs or herbal powders. There are a few methods you can use: infusion, which is best for the delicate aerial parts (leaves and flowers), and decoction, which is used with tougher materials (like bark, seeds, and roots).

Making an Infusion

An infusion is what most people think of when they think tea: it’s what you get when you soak a bunch of tea leaves in hot water.

To make a tea with loose herbs, put the plant material into a strainer and into a cup, then fill the cup with boiling water. Cover the cup: The medicinal value of many herbs, including peppermint (Mentha x piperita), is contained in the essential oils, so you’ll want to keep the steam from escaping. You can also make an infusion using a French coffee press; just don’t use the same one you use to make coffee.

When making tea, use about 1 teaspoon of dried herbs per cup of water. Steep for 15 minutes or longer. The more herb you use and the longer you let it steep, the stronger your tea will be.

Making a Decoction

Decoctions are the best way to get the medicinal constituents out of the tougher parts of the plant—like the roots and bark. To make one, put the herbs into a saucepan, add cold water, cover, and increase the heat slowly until it reaches a boil. Simmer the mixture for at least 15 minutes. The longer it simmers, the stronger it will be.

To make a decoction, you’ll need about 1 teaspoon of the herbal mixture per cup of water.

Making Sun Tea

Add a bunch of dried herbs (leaves and flowers) to a large, clear glass container (use the same amounts recommended for infusions or extractions, above), cover tightly, and let it sit in the sun for several hours.

You’ll know it’s done when the water turns the same color it would if you were brewing tea via the infusion or decoction method.

Using Teas

You’ll take a cup of most teas three or four times a day, or as needed. If you’re treating a chronic condition, drink three or four cups a day for several weeks. For more on dosages, see Chapter 18.

Here are some therapeutic teas to try:

Constipation Tea

Ingredients:

3 parts fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) seed

1 part senna (Cassia officinalis, Senna alexandrina) leaf

½ part cascara sagrada (Rhamnuspurshiana) root 1 part licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) root

½ part cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, C. aromaticum) bark

If constipation persists after using this tea, try increasing the cascara sagrada to 1 part and the senna to 1½ parts.

Follow the directions above to make a decoction.

Sore Throat Soother

Ingredients:

2 parts licorice (Glycyrrhizaglabra) root

1 part cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, C. aromaticum) bark

2 parts fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) seeds

2 parts echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) root

1 part marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) root

½ part orange (Citrus sinensis) peel

If you can’t find marshmallow root, you can substitute slipper elm (Ulmus rubra) bark.

Follow the directions above to make a decoction.

Anti-insomnia Tea

Ingredients:

2 parts chamomile (Matricaria recutita) flowers

2 parts passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) leaves and flowers

2 parts lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) leaf

1 part valerian (Valeriana officinalis) root

½ part rose (Rosa canina R. spp.) hips

¼ part lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) flowers

Drink in the evening, at least an hour or two before bed (you don’t want to wake up because you need to use the bathroom). If you want something stronger, you can make this formula into a tincture (see instructions on pages 260–261); take ¼ teaspoon of the tincture at bedtime.

Follow the directions for an infusion or sun tea, above.

Herbal Hair Tea

Combine equal parts of the following herbs (pick one condition to treat at a time):

Equal parts of nettle (Urtica dioica) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinale) if you have an oily scalp. Rosemary and juniper (Juniperus communis) can help clear up dandruff. And nettle (Urtica dioica), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinale), and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) make an effective remedy for hair loss. All of these can be made as infusions.

To give your hair color a boost, try an infusion of chamomile (Matricaria recutita) or calendula (Calendula officinalis) for blonde or highlighted hair or a decoction of black walnut (Juglans nigra) hulls for darker shades. Follow the directions, above. Apply to your hair after shampooing; don’t rinse out.

To boost the effectiveness of the oily hair treatment, add a drop or two of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) essential oil. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oil will increase the effect of the dandruff and hair-loss teas.

Sweet-Tasting Syrups

Syrups are a great way to treat children with herbs. They’re sweet and they go down much easier than other liquid remedies. If properly stored, syrups will last for several weeks.

To make an herbal syrup, first make a quart of an infusion (see page 256) and then simmer it down and mix with honey or another sweetener (like maple syrup or brown sugar). Note that experts advise against giving raw (unpasteurized) honey to children younger than a year because of the risk of botulism. If you’re making syrup to give to a baby, you can replace honey with commercial maple syrup or brown sugar.

Adults should take ½ to 1 teaspoon three times a day for chronic conditions and ¼ to ½ teaspoon every 30 to 60 minutes, until symptoms improve, when treating an acute problem. Children and seniors should be given smaller doses (see Chapter 18).

Here are a few syrup recipes:

Cinnamon-Echinacea Cold Syrup

Ingredients:

1 part dried echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) root

1 part cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, C. aromaticum) bark

½ part fresh ginger (Zingiber officinalis) root, grated or chopped

This is perfect for treating colds and flu—especially in kids.

1. Add 2 ounces (about 8 tablespoons) of the herb mixture to a quart of cold water. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the liquid is reduced by half (leave the lid slightly ajar).

2. Strain the herbs from the liquid and discard, then pour the liquid back into the pot.

3. Add 1 cup of honey (or another sweetener) and heat the mixture through.

4. Remove from heat, let cool, and transfer to glass bottles. Store in the refrigerator.

Heart-Healthy Hawthorn Syrup

Ingredients:

A handful of dried seedless hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna, C. oxyacantha) berries

Apple juice (enough to cover berries in pan)

Honey to taste

Ginger (Zingiber officinalis) to taste, grated or powdered

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, C. aromaticum) to taste

This syrup incorporates hawthorn berries, which are rich in antioxidants and have proven cardiovascular benefits. If the berries have seeds in them, soak and press them through a sieve to remove the seeds before using.

1. Put the berries into a pan with just enough apple juice to cover them. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand overnight.

2. Season with honey, ginger, and cinnamon to taste.

3. Return to heat, add enough apple juice to create a syrupy consistency, and heat through.

4. Remove from heat, let cool, and transfer to glass bottles. Store in the refrigerator.

Tinctures

Tinctures are liquid herbal extracts made by combining the herbs with a solvent. Traditional tinctures are made with alcohol, but you can also use vinegar or vegetable glycerin (available at many health food stores) instead. Tinctures are typically more potent than infusions, decoctions, or syrups.

When you’re making tinctures at home, never use industrial alcohols, such as rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) or methylated spirits (methyl alcohol). Both are extremely toxic. Stick to beverage alcohols, such as vodka and brandy, or use a nonalcoholic substitute like glycerin.

Start with bulk herbs (fresh is best) and chop them finely. Put them into a clean glass jar and add enough alcohol—80- or 100-proof vodka, gin, or brandy—to cover them with about 2 or 3 inches of fluid. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, place the jar in a warm, dark spot, and leave it there for four to six weeks—the longer, the better.

Once a day, shake the jar to keep the herbs from settling at the bottom.

When the time is up, strain the herbs and discard them. Transfer the tincture to a small glass bottle (ideally one with a dropper, which makes it easier to get the right dose). Stored properly, it will keep for two years or longer. Be sure to keep tinctures out of the reach of children.

Brain-Boosting Tincture

Ingredients:

2 parts ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) leaves

2 parts gotu kola (Centella asiatica) leaves

1 part peppermint (Menthaxpiperita) leaves and flowers

1 part rosemary (Rosmarinus officinale)

Take 1 teaspoon of tincture 2 to 3 times daily for at least three weeks. This tincture really does work at increasing memory, but you’ll need to take it for several weeks before you’ll notice a difference.

Follow the directions for making a tincture, above.

Headache Relief Tincture

Ingredients:

1 part California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) seeds

1 part feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) leaves and flowers

1 part lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) flowers

Keep this relaxing, pain-fighting combination on hand for whenever headaches strike.

Follow the directions for making a tincture, above.

Infused Oils and Ointments

Herbal oils can be used alone or as a base for creams or ointments. There are two ways to make infused oils: using the sun or using the stove. You can use many types of vegetable oil as your base—coconut (Cocos nucifera)and almond (Prunus dulcis) are popular choices—and add an equal amount of cocoa (Theobroma cacao) butter to thicken the mixture, if you like (this works best with the stovetop method).

Making Solar-Infused Oils

Place a handful of dried herbs into a clean, clear glass jar and fill the jar with oil (you’ll use about 2 ounces, or 8 tablespoons, of herbs per pint of oil). Cover tightly and place in a warm sunny spot. Leave it there for two weeks. When the time is up, pour the mixture through a piece of cheesecloth or muslin, making sure to wring the cloth tightly and catch every last drop of oil.

When making infused oils, you’ll get the best results with dried herbs. Plant material that contains too much moisture can cause the oil to get moldy. (Your oil can also grow mold if it’s made or stored in a jar with an ill-fitting lid, which can allow moisture to get in.)

Discard the herbs and replace them with a new batch, then let the oil and herbs steep for another two weeks. Transfer to clean glass bottles. Stored correctly, infused oils will last several months.

The Stovetop Method

If you don’t have a lot of sunshine (or a month to wait), you can make your oil on the stove using a double boiler. Put the herbs and oil into the top section, fill the bottom with water, and bring it to a low boil. Let the oil simmer gently for 30 to 60 minutes, checking frequently to make sure the oil isn’t overheating (it will start to smoke if that’s the case). The lower and longer you let it simmer, the better your oil will be.

Here’s one recipe to try:

Calming Massage Oil

Ingredients:

1 part coconut (Cocos nucifera) oil

1 part almond (Prunus dulcis) oil

1 part cocoa (Theobroma cacao) butter

1 part chamomile (Matricaria recutita) flowers

1 part lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) leaves

1 part lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) leaves and flowers

This infusion contains three tried-and-true herbal relaxants, plus three soothing and moisturizing plant oils.

Prepare according to the instructions, above.

Making Herbal Ointments

Ointments, also known as salves, are thick, oil-based preparations used to treat superficial wounds (like scrapes, burns, and insect bites) and soothe aching muscles and joints. Here’s how to make them:


1. Start with an infused oil (see above) that’s been strained. Put the oil into a small pan and add grated beeswax—¼ cup per cup of infused oil. Heat on low, until the beeswax is completely melted, then remove from the heat.

2. Test a small amount for consistency by putting it into the freezer for a minute or two to cool it. If it seems too hard (you can’t spread it easily), heat it again and add more oil. If it’s too oily, reheat and add more beeswax.

3. When you’ve got the consistency you want, transfer the ointment to clean glass jars. Stored properly, ointments will last several months.


Try this recipe:

Burn (and Baby Bottom) Ointment

Ingredients:

1 part calendula (Calendula officinalis) flowers

1 part comfrey (Symphytum officinale) leaves

1 part comfrey (Symphytum officinale) root

1 part Saint John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) flowers

1 part olive (Olea europaea) oil

Beeswax, grated

This is a classic remedy that combines skin-soothing, inflammation-fighting and germ-killing herbs.

Follow the instructions for making an herbal ointment, above.

Beauty Blends

Herbs make a great addition to your personal care routine and can be incorporated into toners and astringents, moisturizers, and powders.

Making Astringent Solutions

Herbs with astringent, or drying, properties can be used to cleanse and refresh the skin and to gently remove excess oil. Here’s how to make one:

1. Pack a wide-mouthed glass jar with dried herbs, leaving a few inches of space at the top.

2. Fill the jar with alcohol (or another solvent) so that there’s an inch or two of fluid above the top of the herbs. Cover tightly.

3. Put the jar in a warm place and leave it there for 3 or 4 weeks.

4. When the time is up, strain the herbs and discard them. Transfer the liquid to a smaller bottle.

Here’s a recipe to try at home:

Bay Rum Aftershave and Astringent

Ingredients:

1 part bay (Laurus nobilis) leaves (fresh if possible)

1 part cloves (Syzygium aromaticum), whole

1 part ginger (Zingiber officinalis), fresh (grated) or ground

Optional: Ground allspice (Pimenta dioica) to give your lotion a spicier scent

This preparation works equally well as an aftershave and facial astringent.

Follow the instructions for making an astringent, above.

Making Facial Creams

Facial creams are emulsions, or mixtures of oil and water. Do-it-yourself herbal creams typically contain aqueous ingredients such as distilled water and/or aloe (Aloe vera) gel or a water-based herbal infusion, plus vegetable oils—you can use apricot (Prunus armeniaca), almond (Prunus dulcis), or grape (Vitis vinifera) seed oils or an herb-infused oil (see above). They also might contain essential oils, which impart a scent and treat specific skin conditions. Some of the most popular essential oils used in facial products include rose (Rosa damascena), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), and calendula (Calendula officinalis).

Some facial creams also contains essential oils. Use one of the following, based on your skin type:

• Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

for all skin types

• Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

for sensitive skin

• Grapefruit (Citrus paradisi)

for oily skin

• Rose (Rosa damascena)

also known as damask rose, rose otto, or Bulgarian rose, for all skin types, especially dry and/or sensitive

Here’s a cream to try:

Rosemary’s Famous Facial Cream

Ingredients:

2/3 cup distilled water

1/3 cup aloe (Aloe vera) gel

1 or 2 drops of essential oil (see above) % cup apricot (Prunus armeniaca) oil

¾ cup coconut (Cocos nucifera) oil or cocoa (Theobroma cacao) butter

¼ teaspoon lanolin

½ to 1 ounce beeswax, grated

Expert herbalist Rosemary Gladstar has been making this cream for over thirty years (it’s a staple in her correspondence course, “The Science and Art of Herbalism”). It rivals any department-store concoction and works as both an emollient (softening agent) and humectant (it helps the skin retain moisture).

1. Combine the distilled water, aloe gel, and essential oils in a glass cup or bowl, and set aside.

2. In a double boiler over low heat, combine the apricot oil, coconut oil (or cocoa butter), lanolin, and beeswax, and heat them just enough to melt the beeswax. Remove from heat.

3. Pour the oil mixture into a blender and allow it to cool completely. When it’s room temperature, turn the blender on to its highest speed and add the water mixture, pouring as slowly as you can, to the oils. Don’t pour the whole amount at once—watch the mixture closely, and when it looks thick and white, stop adding water.

4. Pour the cream into glass jars. Store in a cool location.