Herbal Options: Form Affects Function, by Victoria Jungwirth

herbalism, holistic health in MI's Upper Peninsula, U.P. holistic businesses, U.P. businesses

I’ve received a lot of questions about how to use herbs – what form? How often? What dosage? So I thought I’d devote a whole article to address some of these issues.

Firstly, why choose herbs from the many alternative healing modalities available to us? Everyone will have a slightly different answer to this, but here’s mine: herbs have a long tradition of safe and effective use, and there is a lot of reference material available that spans centuries of use. The word “drug” comes from the Dutch word “droog” that means dried plant, and for centuries, all drugs were made from plant material and many still are. Herbs are inexpensive, easily available and very user-friendly, even for novices. That doesn’t mean they should be used without caution, or without consulting your healthcare provider, if you have one. There are many excellent books at the library.

Secondly, what form of herbal medicine should you use?  Herbs can be used as teas (infusions), tincture, capsules, tablets – a sometimes perplexing array! Teas are very easy to use. There are a lot of herbal teabags on the market or you can buy loose herbs at the co-op and make tea in a pot or with an infuser spoon. Try to buy organic teas whenever possible. You can also pick your own herbs in the summer, and they are easy to dry for winter use. Make tea often, at least three times a day, or if this is impractical for you, make a large quantity in the morning and drink it throughout the day.

Tinctures are more concentrated than tea, easy to carry with you, and have a long shelf life.

They are usually alcohol based, though some glycerin-based tinctures are available if you are avoiding alcohol. The amount of alcohol in an average dose is very small, and alcohol has the advantage of being a good vehicle to the blood stream. Tinctures may be made from a single plant, or a combination of plants. They may be used as tonics to treat long-term health issues when the average dose is thirty drops, and should be taken three times a day. They may also be used to treat the acute stages of an illness, and could be used more frequently until symptoms subside.

Capsules and tablets are also convenient and easy to use and are available in a standardized amount. However, the quality of these products varies hugely, and it’s hard to gauge the quality of something when you can’t see, taste or smell it. Also, in order to standardize doses, the active ingredients in a plant need to be isolated, so the potential benefit of the whole plant is lost. There is often more than one active ingredient in a plant, and sometimes these work in a delicate balance, so much is lost if one active ingredient is isolated. Also, what are sometimes considered “inert” ingredients and are removed in the process, play an important role in this balance.

Herbal medicines don’t act as quickly as allopathic medicine. Be patient and persistent. Create an environment that gives the herbs you use the best chance to be effective. They do not compete well with other drugs, including alcohol and caffeine.  An empty stomach and an active circulatory system enhance the absorption of medicines, and certain herbs such as cayenne or ginger aid in this process. If you are taking other medicines prescribed by your healthcare provider, remember to discuss your herbal medicines with them.

Victoria Jungwirth owns Wilderness Herbs, specializing in local medicinal plants, and also was a manager at the Marquette Food Co-op. She lives in a remote corner of Marquette County where she and her husband build birch bark canoes.

Excerpted with permission from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Summer 2009. Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.