Thai Herbal Medicine: Traditional Recipes for Health and Harmony

Chapter 5. Internal Thai Herbal Medicine Therapies

Methods of Preparing Herbs

In this chapter, we discuss how to make infusions, decoctions, powders, and pills with herbs. The translation in Appendix 1 lists many methods for preparing and administering herbal medicines, including pickling, herbal soaks, oil preparations, suppositories, smoke inhalations and much more. We have chosen a handful of the most useful methods to share in more detail.

First, some preliminary notes and definitions:


If you intend to explore Thai herbal preparations, you will want to invest in a good mortar and pestle. The small marble ones commonly available in Western herb shops are not adequate. These are mortar and pestles for apothecaries, and are designed for crushing small pills. They were never intended for kitchen use, and they simply will not suffice for Thai cooking or herbal preparation.

Visit an Asian food market and look for a large stone mortar and pestle. (Clay ones are good for most food preparation, but are likely to break if used to break up tough nuts, barks, and heartwoods.) You will be delighted with your new crushing tool, both for cooking and herbal preparations.


In all formulas given, parts are by weight, so you may also wish to invest in a digital kitchen scale.


Sometimes, herbs are mixed with a second medicinal herb that complements the main ingredient. Adjuvant herbs may have beneficial secondary effects, may lessen certain side effects of the main ingredient, or may make the taste more palatable.

For example, senna is a powerful laxative used for acute constipation, but it often causes intestinal cramping when used alone. In combination with ginger, though, senna has less pronounced side effects. In this case, ginger can be said to be an adjuvant, or “helping herb” for the main ingredient, senna.


Vehicles are a type of adjuvant. These are herbs or bases that help direct the primary herb to the right place and assist it in doing its proper job. For example, lime moves the effect of the formula to areas of mucus, salt moves it to tissues and permeates the mucus membranes, flowers move it to the mind, honey moves it to the tissue and cuts through obstructions, and alcohol moves it to the sên.


Many of the herbal formulas discussed in this book call for a sweetener, which acts as an adjuvant or vehicle. However, the efficacy of most medicinal formulas will be altered with the addition of anything not in the original formula, including sweeteners; therefore, we recommend that you make the formulas as described here, without adding or subtracting any ingredients.


An herbal tea or infusion is made by steeping plants in hot (never boiling) water for 2−3 min. Generally, infusions are made from delicate plant parts, such as flowers, leaves, shoots, or stems, which damage easily and therefore require a short exposure to heat for maximum benefit. They can also be made from many sturdier plants, such as ginger, licorice root, or cinnamon bark, which require a slightly longer steeping time. Some teas may be made by dissolving dried powders in hot water.

For herbal infusions, the dosage often varies depending on the age, strength, and severity of illness of the patient. Unless otherwise noted, the rule of thumb is to use one handful (about 1 oz or 30 grams) of fresh herb in one cup (8 oz or 250 ml) of boiled water. Halve that amount when using dried herbs. In any case, it is important to use enough of the herb to give the tea a strong flavor, but not so much that the consistency becomes thick.

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A gentle traditional remedy for indigestion and stomach cramps. Also great for clearing up colds, congestion, fever, and flu.

–  1 handful fresh basil leaves, flowers, and stalks

–  1 handful peppermint

–  1 tsp long pepper or black peppercorns

Steep ingredients in hot water for 3−5 min before drinking.

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This tea is good to drink 15 min before receiving massage as it will assist in softening the muscles and fascia. Massage therapists may wish to keep a batch made for clients. Note: All herbs in this recipe are dried, and parts are by weight.

–  2 parts Chinese hawthorn

–  1 part clove

–  1 part fennel

–  1 part lemongrass

–  1 part nutmeg

–  1 part haritaki

–  1 part cinnamon

Crush, but do not powder, the herbs with a mortar and pestle. Mix together. Place 1−2 tbs in a cup and cover with freshly boiled water. Steep at least 15 min before drinking.

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This can be drunk moderately throughout the day to alleviate pains associated with menstruation.

–  3 parts fresh lemongrass

–  2 parts fresh ginger

–  1 part fresh Asiatic pennywort

–  Small pinch of salt

Place all ingredients in cup or teapot, and pour boiled (but no longer bubbling) water over them. Allow to steep for 10 min.

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To stimulate digestion, cure flatulence, constipation, and indigestion; to decongest lungs, sinuses, and bronchi due to cold or allergies; to encourage regular menstruation; and for a general tonic and aphrodisiac.

–  One 3-inch length of ginger root

–  One 3-inch length galangal root

–  10 ml ginseng extract

–  1 tbs honey or bee pollen

–  Juice of ¼ lemon

Boil ginger and galangal in 4 cups water for 10−15 min. Strain. Add ginseng, lemon, and honey before serving.

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For a vitamin C boost and detoxification. For smokers, drinkers, and those who live in polluted environments.

–  2 oz roselle or hibiscus flowers

–  20 clover blossoms

–  4 lemongrass stalks

–  1 tsp dried grated lemon or mandarin orange rind

–  3-inch cinnamon stick

Boil lemongrass, lemon rind, and cinnamon in 4 cups water for 10−15 min. Strain. Add hibiscus and clover, and steep for 2−3 min.

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A soothing remedy for irritable bowel, stomach or intestinal cramps, indigestion, gastritis, and menstrual cramps. Gentle enough for children. Use honey or bee pollen as a sweetener.

–  2 tsp chamomile flowers

–  4 anise stars

Steep ingredients in hot water for 3−5 min before drinking.


Decoctions create a much stronger medicine than infusions. There are two ways to make medicinal decoctions. The first method presented here takes more effort, but produces a medicine that builds in strength over the course of several days of consumption. This not only results in a very powerful medicine but also allows your body a period of adjustment while receiving it. The second method is a simple and straightforward shortcut, if you are pressed for time or supplies.

Method 1:

Place the herbs in a large pot and cover with water 1 inch above the top of the herbs. Place lid halfway on the pot. Bring to a boil for 5−10 min, then reduce heat and simmer for another 15−30 min. Pour 1−3 cups of liquid through a strainer, to be drunk that day. Store the rest of the liquid and herbs in a jar in the refrigerator.

The next day, put the herbs and liquid back into the pot, adding water until it again reaches 1 inch above the herbs. Repeat the boiling and simmering process and again separate out the liquid that you will drink that day. Each day repeat the process, until the ninth day. After this do not boil anymore; simply drink the remaining liquid, one dose per day, until gone.

Method 2:

Place herbs in a large pot and add a large volume of water, perhaps 3 liters. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until only about 1.5 liters remains. Strain and use. In addition, any of the powder formulas discussed in the next section can be taken as decoctions. Buy whole dried herbs and loosely crush them to break them up instead of powdering them. Then, make a decoction according to the methods mentioned below.

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This herbal decoction is beneficial for stagnant blood, bruising, and internal injuries. It is also good for strengthening the heart and the liver, prevents the accumulation of toxins that lead to disease, and improves the body’s strength. Parts of plants are given in the traditional method.

–  1 handful Asiatic pennywort

–  1 thumb-length of galangal

–  7 slices of ginger

–  Black pepper, as much as can be picked up between the thumb, index, and middle fingers

–  5 heads of lemongrass

Use the second decoction method, using 1 gal. (4 liters) of water to begin with, and simmering until there are 3 qts (3 liters) left. Strain out the herbs and store the liquid in the refrigerator. Drink 1 cup, three times a day. If using for internal injuries, add approximately 1 tbs of tasteless white alcohol (such as vodka) to each dose.

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This tried-and-true formula is incredibly effective for stopping colds if taken at the onset, before the cold anchors in the body. Once a cold has set in, it must run its course. However, even in that case, this remedy will help the body to speed up the recovery process. Take at the first sign of sore throat or other cold symptoms. Credit for this formula goes to Ajahn Prasaht, a TTM practitioner in Northern Thailand.

–  ½ lime, juiced (with or without pulp)

–  7 whole, dried black peppercorns

–  1 shallot, roughly chopped

–  1 clove garlic

–  Pinch of sea salt

In a mortar and pestle, crush the peppercorns into powder. Add the shallot and garlic, and mash. Add lime and sea salt, and continue mashing. Eat the entire formula, but do not eat first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. If taking at onset of sickness, make the formula fresh and consume once or twice a day until certain that the illness is vanquished.

If already sick, make fresh and consume two or three times a day until well. Do not substitute onion for shallot, and do not add sweeteners. Because this formula tastes like a condiment, people are often tempted to combine it with rice or toast. This will make it less effective, as traditional medicine is based on the strength of the taste. For this reason it is important to ingest this formula (and all formulas) just as they are presented.


Many remedies that use dried seeds, nuts, or bark call for making a powder. This is traditionally done by grinding finely with a mortar and pestle. For the modern at heart, a coffee grinder works equally well, and you may want to reserve one for this particular purpose. Some powders (such as myrrh, for example) are almost impossible for the modern herbalist to make at home, but are readily available from herbal supply stores and Chinese pharmacies.

Making the powdered formulas below is very simple. Render each herb into a fine powder, then mix them all together. Following are some tips that will make the process go smoothly:

•  Always use dried herbs.

•  Whether using a mortar and pestle or an electric grinder, powder your herbs one at a time in small quantities. Remove powder before adding more of the herb to be crushed. Putting too much in at once seems like a time-saver, but ultimately makes the job of getting a fine powder more difficult.

•  When using a mortar and pestle, don’t be afraid to really have at it. New herbalists often have trouble simply because they are holding back their strength. Bash those herbs!

•  If using an electric grinder, it is very important to stop and rest frequently in order to prevent the motor from heating up and thereby changing the properties of the herbs.

All of the formulas below are mentioned in the translation in Appendix 1, but we’ve given instructions on how to prepare them here.

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BENJAGOON เบญจกูล (“Five Families” Element Balancing Formula)

There are many variations of this remedy, which is said to correct the imbalance of the Elements and to cure any associated illnesses. (Benjagoon is a phonetic pronunciation that is helpful for pronunciation, but you may find this formula transcribed as “benchakun.”) This formula should be taken during the transitional time between seasons, when people are most susceptible to Elemental imbalances and illness. Each herb in this formula is affiliated with a particular Element, and the measurements relate to the number of body parts associated with that Element. Herbs are listed in order from Earth to Space:

–  20 parts dried long pepper fruit (if unavailable, use dried nutgrass rhizome as a substitute)

–  12 parts dried wild pepper leaf

–  4 parts dried plumbago root (if unavailable, use dried black peppercorn as a substitute)

–  6 parts dried sakaan vine (if unavailable, use dried galangal as a substitute)

–  10 parts dried ginger

Powder and mix all ingredients. Mix 1 tsp of the powder with ½ cup of warm or hot water and a small spoonful of honey (when going into the cold season), jaggary (for rainy season), or rock sugar (for hot season). Take twice a day for 3−5 days. Do not take if overheated or feverish.

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TRIPHALA ตรีผลา (“Three Fruits”)

Triphala, trikatuk, and trisan are sister formulas that are well known in Ayurvedic medicine. They made their way to Thailand from India long enough ago to be mentioned in most traditional Thai medical texts, and are deeply integrated into Thai culture. Triphala is taken in the hot season, and regulates Fire Element.

–  Equal parts bibhitaki, haritaki, amalaki

Powder and mix all ingredients. For general usage, take 1 tsp of powder with a little hot water.

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TRIKATUK ตรีกฏุก (“Three Pungents”)

Like triphala and trisan, this formula originates from India but has been used in Thai medicine for a very long time. It regulates Wind Element and is used primarily in the rainy season.

–  Equal parts long pepper, ginger, black pepper

Powder and mix all ingredients. For general usage, take 1 tsp of powder with a little hot water.

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TRISAN ตรีสาร (“Three Strong Medicines”)

Trisan, like triphala and trikatuk, is the third of the sister formulas from India found in traditional Thai texts. The Indian formula typically uses cubeb (Piper cubeba) while the Thai substitutes sakaan, a different plant in the Piper genus. (In the West, either can be used, based on availability.) A “cold season medicine,” this is a warming formula used to raise the body temperature and drive out winter chills. It regulates the Water Element.

–  Equal parts plumbago, sakaan, wild pepper

Powder and mix all ingredients. For general usage, take 1 tsp of powder with a little hot water.


Pills are made by mixing powdered herbs together, and then combining with an adjuvant or vehicle. This can be as simple as water, or it might be honey, tea, lime juice, floral water, or rice water (to name a few). A pill is formed by either hand-rolling, or using a traditional tool. The pills are then dried and stored. Making herbal pills takes time and patience. Thai healers often spend this time chatting with friends or chanting healing mantras over the medicine they are making.


These pills are a gentle medicine that is good for inflammation, Wind in the abdomen, and liver support.

–  7 parts powdered turmeric

–  ½ part powdered black pepper

–  1/8 part sea salt

–  Local raw honey

Mix the powders, then add just enough honey to be able to roll the medicine into pills. Too much honey will make it difficult for the pills to hold their shape, and will extend the time needed to dry the pills. Lay out the pills on a screen, and place in the sun or in a very low-temperature dehydrator until dried. Keep in an airtight container. Take approximately 4 pills, two or three times a day.

Shelf Life of Herbs

The shelf life of a prepared herbal remedy varies depending on the substance and the method of preparation. The following guide is based on the climate of Thailand, which, due to the heat and humidity, causes some formulas to have short shelf lives. If you live in a cooler climate, your remedies will likely last longer than this.

Herbal tinctures in alcohol and essential oils

Up to 2 years

Dried barks

6−8 months

Dried seeds

6−8 months

Dried roots

6 months

Dry powders

3−6 months

Fresh herbs and liquid extracts

3−5 days (up to 7 days, if refrigerated)

With fresh herbs and liquid extracts, it is crucial to monitor shelf life carefully. Fresh plants lose their medicinal values rapidly, and it is important to keep in mind the length of time the herbs sat on the shelf before they were purchased. For example, “fresh” items bought at a typical supermarket may already be well past the 3−5 day period. Fresh herbs are always most effective when picked directly in a field or garden and used immediately, and most herbalists keep gardens at their homes for this purpose.

Our Thai Herbal First Aid Kit

In addition to common items such as bandages, isopropyl alcohol, iodine, and the like, our first aid kit at home includes many Thai remedies. Some of these are single herbs or compounds found in this book, while others are formulas that must be purchased. Homemade herbal preparations tend to be best, as the quality of mass-produced products is generally fairly low. However, if you are not able to acquire the herbs to make your own, or haven’t yet found the time, having some ready-made formulas can be useful. With a little effort, you will find most of these online or at a local Asian market—although, whenever possible, we mention Chinese alternatives that are easier to locate in the West.

•  COOLING BALM OR LINIMENT for inflammation, sprains, and other acute injuries. The formula is provided in this book, or you can easily find the Chinese equivalent, White Flower Liniment, at most Asian food markets and Chinese herb shops. Both cooling and heating balms and liniments will often state that they are useful for insect bites, inflammation, sprains, muscle pain, cramps and more. In general, cooling formulas will be better. Do not use these products on open wounds.

•  HEATING BALM OR LINIMENT for sore muscles. A formula is provided in the previous chapter. There are many mass-produced heating balms available online if you search for “Thai balm.” Many Asian food and herb shops in the West carry a gentle Thai warming balm called Monkey Holding Peach. If the balm states that it has ginger, cassumunar ginger, zingiber, pepper, or lemongrass, it is likely a heating balm. Do not use these products on open wounds.

•  PURPLE ALLAMANDA CAPSULES OR TEA BAGS for poison. Poisoning can result from the overconsumption of alcohol, the consumption of any foods that one has an allergy or intolerance toward, or the consumption of harmful substances such as poisonous berries and mushrooms. While this is a rather benign herb, it should never be taken if you also take prescription medicines as it will clean them, along with the poison, out of your system.

•  ANDROGRAPHIS capsules for oncoming sickness, such as a cold or sore throat. Andrographis is readily available in the West through health food stores, supplement shops, and online herb distributors.

•  HONEY for sore throats and coughs caused by mucus. Best to use unfiltered raw honey if available.

•  GINGER for upset stomachs. Young fresh ginger is best for children as it is mildest. Ginger can be made into tea for easy ingestion.

•  TURMERIC for wounds and digestive issues. Turmeric can be found in bulk herb sections of Asian markets or in capsules.

•  HERBAL INHALER for dizziness, faintness, brain fog, emotional upheaval, and clearing the sinuses. Use one of the formulas provided in this book, or purchase in a Thai market or online. Look for the ones that come in little silver- or brass-colored vessels.

•  LIME COLD-CURING FORMULA. Keep limes, shallots, peppercorns, garlic, and salt on hand. The combination will stave off many a cold.