Liquid Herbal Tinctures

—How safe and effective are they?
Klaus Ferlow, HMH—09/2007
Liquid herbal tinctures have significant health advantages over corresponding encapsulated herbs, yet the latter dominate the market because they are much cheaper to produce.

IT IS INTERESTING TO NOTE that there are only a handful of herbal tincture manufacturers in North America, but you have many companies manufacturing herbal products in capsules. Why is that? The simple answer is money. Most large Corporation are interested to create products in large volumes in the shortest possible time with the lowest cost prices and the highest selling price and the highest profits for their share holders. It is therefore understandable that these "Big business" companies are not interested getting involved in manufacturing herbal tinctures. The process developing tinctures is completed and can take between 6-8 weeks before the product is ready to hit the marketplace.

Herbs are considered food for the body. Throughout history extracts from herb plants, roots, tree bark, leaves and flowers have proven effective in restoring and maintaining health. For every disease we know, Mother Earth provides a herb to grow!

Herbs can provide energy and good blood circulation which enable the body to eliminate toxic accumulation and congestion that cause disease! Herbs aid digestion, assimilation, and proper elimination. Herbs can be used in teas, for cooking, in a bath, as extract in skin care products (creams, lotions, shampoo, sprays, tinctures, toothpaste, juice, oils, in medicine chests, perfume vials, cosmetic bowls, culinary spice jars etc.). They have a remarkable history of increasing the healing power of the human body and maintaining good health when properly used. Most herbs in their natural state are safe and do not leave residue in the body that produces negative side effects.

What about the safety and effectiveness of herbal tinctures?

The medicinal effectiveness of herbs can vary considerably from one batch to the next. A herb's potency depends on many variables, such as the soil it is grown in, the time of harvest, methods of drying and conditions of storage. To assure uniform potency, standardized herbal extracts are being produced. Standardization is achieved by concentrating herbal extracts until their known active ingredients reach a certain level of potency and it started in Europe, particularly in Germany, where medicinal herbs are studied extensively and 70% of medical doctors regularly prescribe herbal medicine. It is now gaining wide acceptance in North America.

Standards of potency come from modern Europe pharmacopeias, and recent scientific studies. Gingko biloba, for example, is now commonly standardized to contain 25% gingko flavon glycosides and 4% total terpenes lactones. This standard potency has been proven safe and effective in studies conducted in Germany, where gingko biloba is one of the most prescribed herbal medicines for Alzheimer's and other conditions affecting memory and blood circulation.

Standardized extracts can be said to combine science and nature to optimal advantage. It is important to understand that after the active ingredients are brought up to a standard potency, they are added back into the whole herb extract. Herbalists know from long experience that whole herbs work synergistically; that is, even their minor constituents often play a significant role in such functions as enhancing absorption or preventing toxicity. Pharmacologist and physicians who prescribe herbal medicines advocate this type of standardization because it makes treatment more predictable while preserving the holistic aspects of herbal medicine. For some herbs, standardization is absolutely necessary to make them effective at all. Horsetail, for example, has extremely unstable active constituents that are easily destroyed in processing of any kind. Horsetail is used for its content of silicon, a mineral involved in the formation of skin, nails, hair, bones, cartilage and connective tissue. Although silicon is abundant in the environment, he body has difficulty absorbing and utilizing this mineral. In horsetail herbs, silicon is bound to organic matter, which allows the body to assimilate it with relative ease.

Standardization is foremost a consumer protection issue and allows the buyer to make an informed choice and be sure of obtaining medicinally active ingredients and it guarantees that the product is made from good quality, unsubstituted, correct species of  plants with no contaminants. Quality extraction companies take additional precautions with their herbs to ensure the highest quality final product. The quality of their raw material is based on taste, smell, microbiological analysis, pH ratings, solubility and appearance, in addition to standardization. With the aid of modern scientific methods, the substances contained in each plant can be isolated, analyzed and tested for their effect. Standardization and guaranteed potency have made it possible to validate the efficacy of herbal preparations, which is the first step towards scientific acceptance.

Herbal medicine is becoming more accepted and popular science verifies its medicinal actions, as new herbal cures are found, and as people search for alternative health treatments that will bring lasting health and well-being. Fortunately, it is now becoming recognized that the entire healing and nutritive complex found in botanical plants provides a better medicine than isolated ingredients. Prescription drugs on the other hand may be extracted using single isolated ingredients, most of them are however are not plant derived and synthetically, chemically developed in laboratories, but when plants are not used in their natural state it can result in harmful side effects!

Herbal extracts are the medicinal properties, or the active ingredients of the plant. They support the body's ability to heal itself by cleansing and strengthening the tissues. They also catalyze certain body actions, such as diuresis (urination) and diaphoresis (sweating). Extracts are quickly assimilated by the body, and are best used to support and maintain the body's own efforts to defend itself from disease and therefore play an important role in PREVENTATIVE medicine.

Of the hundreds of beneficial herbs used to prevent and treat injuries to the musculoskeletal system, several can be ingested daily or at least on a regular basis to keep the system in a state of optimum health. Poor health occurs when processes become unbalanced. Blood pH for example cannot vary more than a few tenth of a point in either direction form normal without resulting in life-threatening disease.

The highest quality physician grade high potency herbal tinctures begin by using premium quality certified organic, organic, or wildcrafted herbs, tested by an independent organization to make sure that the herbs have been grown on soil without chemical fertilizer and no herbicide and pesticide spraying on them was done. "The inner life" is pulled out of the plant in a process creating a liquid form of the plant essence combined with very exact amounts of purified water and grain alcohol. No heat is used in the extraction process, therefore, the volatile oils and healing properties of the plants are preserved. Alcohol is an important part of the extraction process and also serves as a preservative. Some confusion exists with respect to the terminology of extracts and tinctures. Generally speaking, the plant essence is pulled out, the end product is called an extract. These extracts take two similar processing paths. One is to become a tincture that is a liquid product consisting of one or more extracts and varying amounts of alcohol (some herbs are used fresh, other dried to get the highest potency out of them) and purified water. Conventional tinctures for consumer use have an alcohol content between 25 – 55%. When tinctures are used in teas, the alcohol quickly evaporates in the hot water, this is important for people that are allergic to alcohol. Some companies offer as alternative herbal tinctures with glycerine instead of alcohol. However, the alcohol is necessary in the preservation of the products for its shelf life.

Another product in use is a much more concentrated form of tinctures and is used mainly by Naturopathic doctors and Homeopaths. These herbal extract are a more concentrated preparation than tinctures, with a fuller range of herbal medicinal properties. They have a lower alcohol content of usually 6%, contain some sediments and need to be refrigerated after opening and their shelf life is only 6 month.

Tinctures versus Capsules

There is a significant advantage in using herbal tinctures as opposed to capsules since it could take 20 capsules to equal a dose of 1½ teaspoons or 75 drops of tincture. Capsules can take from 20 – 30 minutes or more just for the system to break it down so the body can start assimilate the content. Most capsules are still made from gelatine, derived from animal bones and bone marrow. Some people have difficulties to swallow them. Tinctures on the other hand have a bitter taste (that's what your body needs and NOT refined sugar) and are assimilated with your saliva within 1-4 minutes into your bloodstream. If you take them early in the morning on empty stomach before breakfast it will do you good for the whole day. Start with a low dosage and increase, if you want to within month and your body will tell you, if the dosage you are using is okay. The good thing is also you will not get addicted to tinctures. Besides tinctures are easier to swallow and cost a fraction of the price compared to capsules.  Determining the correct dosage is often difficult as the potency between tinctures can vary. Individual dosages are subject to the variation in personal metabolism, dietary habits, stress levels, and other vagaries. Nevertheless, dosage guidelines are important. When selecting herbal supplements, consult your health care practitioner.

Herbal – Drug Interactions

Herbal medicines are an integral part of the healthcare and healing practises in many ethnic and cultural communities today. In addition, a growing number of people are turning to herbal medicines when Pharmaceutical medicines do not meet their needs. While a significant number of reference documents exist which identify medicinal plants and their uses, there is no comprehensive resource tool that compiles information interactions between herbal medicines and Pharmaceutical drugs. More information about the handbook Herbal – Drug Interactions can be obtained by purchasing it from Mediscript Communications Inc.,, email:, Tel. 1-800-773-5088, Fax 1-800-639-3186

I would like to close my article by introducing to you Chris Kilham, the medicine hunter. He is an explorer and works for many years with aboriginals from around the world to increase their standard of living and he himself is in residence at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he teaches ethnobotany. I attended in 2005 his lectures at the Public health shows in Vancouver and Victoria and here is what he said:

"There are over five billion people today using natural botanical herbal remedies for healing and there are thousands of scientific studies confirming the healing power of herbs. Therefore when Medical doctors are telling you there is no scientific proof that herbs really work and it is quackery and hokuspokus, don't believe it! Furthermore only 1/3 of all prescription drugs have some kind of scientific studies provided by the Pharmaceutical industry, 2/3 have none!"

The educated consumer has a choice. Ayurvedic medicine with a history of almost 6000 years, traditional Chinese medicine of several thousand years and aboriginals have used herbs from Mother Nature, the medicine man, for centuries, that's why I call it traditional and not alternative complementary medicine (see also the comment by Dr. Carolyn Dean, MD, ND in her book: "Death by Modern Medicine").




Encyclopedia of Natural Healing, alive books

Culpeper's Medicine, Graeme Tobyn

How Natural Remedies Work, Jo Serrentino

Herbal Healing, Michael Hallowell

Herbs & Things, Jeanne Rose