Beginner's Guide to Herbal Tinctures

Beginner’s Guide to Herbal Tinctures

Tea and herbal tinctures are two of the oldest herbal medicine delivery methods in history, dating back thousands of years – long before indigenous shamans and healers had access to the fancier stuff like capsules and pills.

While pretty much everyone worldwide is (hopefully) familiar with tea, sadly most people outside of the holistic health bubble aren’t yet aware of herbal tinctures. 

(Even among many of those who do know that tinctures exist, it seems that cannabis is usually top of mind. And I’d like to change that! Speaking as a western clinical herbalist, call me biased but there’s just so much more to herbs and tinctures than cannabis. *Sigh.*)

In efforts to bring tinctures into mainstream conversations and medicine cabinets of more households worldwide, I’m going to pull back the curtain and introduce you to the wondrous world of herbal tinctures – so you and your loved ones can start making more informed choices about your health.

Affiliate disclosure:  This article contains affiliate links*. As an affiliate for Mountain Rose Herbs* & Starwest Botanicals*, and as an Amazon Associate, I will make a small commission on qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you!

What’s a tincture?

A tincture is a type of herbal extract somewhat parallel to tea.

  • While tea is a water extract of herbs, a tincture is an alcohol extract of an herb. (Tinctures, however, are needed in much lower doses, compared to tea!)

In a tincture, alcohol is the medium or “solvent” which serves to extract, hold, and deliver medicinal constituents from a plant into systemic circulation, through the digestive tract of any mammal.

You can make a tincture simply by submerging a specific quantity of herb or its medicinal plant parts in a glass jar full of alcohol (in the proper ratios), and letting it marinate for about a month or so.  

  • 30 days is considered the “gold standard” amount of time it takes to make a tincture, but you can also technically make a somewhat weaker, less potent tincture if needed in just a few weeks’ time.

Tinctures are stored in small amber-tinted glass bottles (to help preserve potency) and they’re taken as medicine in drop doses via a dropper.

Mountain Rose Herbs - Nettle Leaf Tincture and Tea - Affiliate Link to Mountain Rose Herbal TInctures

Tinctures vs extracts

All tinctures are an extract; however, not all extracts are tinctures.

  • For example, tea is a water extract of an herb, a glycerite is a glycerin extract of an herb, and essential oils are highly concentrated extracts of the aromatic, volatile oil constituents of herbs.

Benefits of taking herbal tinctures

Effective and bioavailable

Tinctures are generally considered one of the most effective and efficient ways to extract and deliver herbal medicine, from a plant to the person. 

Herbal tinctures are also typically very “bioavailable” – which means the medical constituents within tinctures are well-absorbed and easily utilized by the body when taken properly.

This is because alcohol as a solvent has the unique ability to extract certain specific types of medicinal plant constituents (like alkaloids), which we can’t get through steeping or simmering a plant in hot water, or by swallowing a non-extracted herb in a capsule or powdered form.  

Versatile

From adaptogens to nervines, nootropics to antimicrobials and alteratives, almost every category of herbal medicine can be effectively administered and taken as a tincture. 

There are a few exceptions…

Convenient and user-friendly

Tinctures are relatively user-friendly, convenient, and fast-acting.  My clients who can’t or don’t want to swallow pills love that tinctures are an alternative to capsules! Plus, a small tincture bottle can fit easily into a coat pocket or purse.

Tinctures are only needed in drop-doses. This is simple and user-friendly for people who are requiring therapeutic doses of a particular herb. 

  • For example, it takes only about 20 to 30 drops of a tincture to provide the same amount of herbal medicine contained within 8 ounces of a standard herbal tea infusion / decoction!

Shelf-stable

Unlike tea, which can only last up to 3 days in the fridge when properly stored (once the tea has been prepared), tinctures are very shelf-stable. 

While potency will decline over a few years’ time, a tincture can anecdotally remain shelf-stable without going “bad” for at least a decade – as long as the herbal materials are 100% submerged under the alcohol (which sterilizes and makes it unfavorable/unlikely for microbes to grow).

Downsides of tinctures

Not very palatable

Unfortunately, tinctures don’t taste very good!  Having worked with tinctures in clinical practice since 2018, I’ve come to realize some people don’t mind the taste of tinctures, while others can’t stand it.  

The alcohol (even in drop doses) can also sometimes burn the mouth or throat for some people.

If you find it difficult to stomach the taste or acidity of the alcohol in tinctures, you can dilute your tincture dose by mixing it into a dixie cup of water or juice.

You may also want to look into cordials or elixirs which are made via alcohol extraction much like tinctures, but they’re sweetened with honey and seasoned with yummy stuff like cinnamon/cacao/cloves, etc., so they taste quite delicious! (Mary Poppins was right… a spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down.) 😉

Can’t extract certain medicinal constituents

As I mentioned earlier, there are also certain types of nutritional / medicinal constituents in herbs that don’t extract well in alcohol.

  • Tinctures aren’t very good at extracting a plant’s minerals, mucilage (the slimy, slippery stuff that helps support mucous membranes of the body), or the polysaccharides found in nutritive herbs, demulcent herbs, and adaptogenic mushrooms, respectively.

Made with alcohol

While the small quantities of alcohol in tinctures aren’t inherently bad, this also isn’t in alignment for everyone.

Some people can’t tolerate even very small quantities of alcohol, while others may be avoiding alcohol for religious purposes, medical reasons, or as part of their recovery from alcohol abuse.

  • If you’re nodding your head at any of the above, I’ve made sure to include some alcohol-free alternatives to tinctures in this article.) 😉

Types of tinctures

Tinctures can be made using fresh or dried herbs (aka edible and/or medicinal plants).  

While some plants are versatile in that they can be tinctured in fresh or dried form, there are special exceptions in which certain plants need to be tinctured fresh, or vice versa – for optimal potency and/or safety reasons.

Fresh plant tinctures

A “fresh plant tincture” is what it sounds like: a tincture made using a fresh (versus dried) medicinal plant.

Since the cell walls of fresh plants are still intact, it’s necessary to use a very-high proof alcohol such as Everclear, if you have access to it- if you’re making a fresh plant tincture.

Traditionally, in a calculated fresh plant tincture, the ratio of plant material to alcohol is 1:2 (one part fresh plant material by weight, and two parts alcohol by volume). 

Dried plant tinctures

A “dried plant tincture” is a tincture that was made with dry plant parts and lower-proof alcohol (since it will be easier to extract the plant’s medicine compared to when working with its fresh counterpart).  

100-proof alcohol (50% alcohol by volume) is considered the gold standard as the solvent for a dried plant tincture; however, since this isn’t as readily available in stores, you can also use an 80-proof alcohol (such as brandy or vodka) and it will still work!

  • In a pinch, I’ve also been taught to use 190-proof Everclear and cut it with 100% filtered water by volume, to make a 50% alcohol-by-volume solvent.

The ratio of dried plants (by weight, in ounces) to alcohol (by volume, in ounces) of a dried plant tincture is 1:5, versus a fresh plant tincture which is 1:2 (one part plant by weight, to two parts alcohol by volume).

Single herbal extracts

This means you’re only getting ONE herb in your tincture.  Usually it’s pretty clear on the label.

Formula extracts

These are fun! It could be any combination of herbs, whether customized to you or for supporting a specific organ system / clinical goal.

  • For example, a “focus” formula may include a combination of nervines, adaptogens, and nootropics such as lemon balm, bacopa, rosemary, and gotu kola.

How and when to take a tincture: step-by-step

Part 1 – How to take a tincture

To take a tincture, you’ll first need to open the tincture bottle and squeeze the dropper on the top of the bottle.  This will fill the dropper about halfway (with ~20 drops, or 1 standard “serving”).

Next, you’ll need to hold the bottom of the dropper over your mouth, and squeeze the top of the dropper to release the tincture droplets into your mouth.  (Usually this is on or under the tongue.)  

  • If you find the alcohol and overall taste of herbal tinctures to be too strong/repulsive (like many of my clients), you can wash this medicine down with a glass of water, or you could also dilute your tincture in a small dixie cup of water or 100% juice.

Part 2 – How much?

A standard dose of most herbal tinctures is ~20-40 drops up to 3 to 4x daily. 

However, this is not the case for all tinctures, so it’s important that you work with a clinical herbalist and/or a holistic and functional dietitian nutritionist or a naturopathic doctor, to receive custom guidelines around herbal tinctures pertaining to your individual needs!

Part 3 – When to take a tincture

Tinctures can be taken daily as a tonic, or they can be taken as-needed, when symptoms arise.

Depending on the particular herbal extract contained within the tincture, some tinctures should also be taken at a certain time of day and/or only during a certain time of each month.

  • For example, chaste tree berry (“vitex”) tincture is most effective when taken in the morning, since it directly impacts the HPA axis which regulates hormone balance, and it should be taken only during the luteal phase (week leading up to the menstrual cycle) in most cases.
  • Digestive bitters are most effective when taken ~20 minutes before a meal, to help optimize digestive secretions aiding in digestion.

How to make herbal tinctures

There are several different ways to make herbal tinctures – the “folk method” and the “measured method”. 

The folk method

This is a simple tincturing method that herbalists often use when wildcrafting and making a fresh plant tincture, or any time you don’t have measuring tools on-hand. 

(This is also how people used to make tinctures before we had access to modern-day measuring tools!)

How it works

  • Stuff a mason jar with fresh chopped medicinal herbs, as full as it can get.  
  • Then, pour alcohol over the herb until the alcohol has reached the top of the jar.  
    • Make sure to press the herbs down so they are completely submerged under the alcohol. 
    • Use a fermentation weight* if needed. 
  • Let it marinate for about a month before straining and bottling.  (Don’t forget to label and date your tincture!)

The measured method

This method is more standardized, and considered best practice when it’s feasible to go this route. (I find when doing the folk method, it’s very difficult to reach a 1:2 ratio of fresh plants by weight to alcohol by volume!)

As I mentioned above, when discussing the differences between a fresh plant tincture vs a dried plant tincture, the types of alcohol (proof) and the ratios will be slightly different.  

When making a fresh plant tincture:

  • Use a food scale* to weigh and measure (in ounces) the amount of herb that you can fit into your mason jar, before transferring it into the jar.
  • Double the weight in ounces, and that’s the amount of 190-proof alcohol (by volume, in ounces) you’ll need for your fresh plant tincture!

When making a dried plant tincture:

  • First measure the amount of dried herb by weighing it on a food scale* (in ounces).
  • Next, multiple that number (weight in ounces) x5, and that’s the amount of 80-100 proof alcohol you’ll need (by volume, in ounces) to make your dried plant tincture.

For the rest of the recipe, keep reading!

Materials & ingredients

In order to make an herbal tincture, you’ll need each of the following:

The step-by-step process

Gather

Gather all the materials and ingredients.

Prepare 

When working with fresh plants: make sure to peel, chop and prepare the herb parts for tincturing, as needed.

Measure

Measure out your ingredients (the herbs and alcohol) – if using the “measured method”. (If not, proceed to step 3.)

Transfer

Transfer the herbs into a clean mason jar, and pour the alcohol into the mason jar, over the herbs. 

Submerge

Make sure to submerge the herbal material completely under the alcohol. 

  • Use a spoon or fork as needed to press the herbs down under the alcohol. 
  • Use a fermentation weight* as needed to keep the herbs submerged under the alcohol.

Separate

Before sealing the jar, cut a square piece of wax paper and lay it over the top of the mouth of the jar. 

(The purpose of this step is to separate the metal lid from the contents of the jar, since metal elements from the lid could otherwise potentially seep into your tincture over time.)

Seal

Make sure to the mason jar lid tightly and securely.

Shake (Optional)

Gently shake the tincture to mix everything thoroughly, if you’re making a dried plant tincture with a dense-enough herb that will sink and settle to the bottom after you’re done shaking it.

Label

If you don’t label your potion, it will be difficult to recall these details down the road!

I recommend including the following information on the label:

    • The plant name and plant parts (if applicable) – for example, . “Vitex berries” or “dandelion root”
    • Whether the plant is fresh or dried
    • The source of the plant (i.e. “backyard” or “Mountain Rose Herbs”)
    • The type of alcohol used
    • The ratio of plant material (by weight, in ounces) to alcohol (by volume, in ounces)
    • The date you made this tincture 

Store

For best practice, store your tincture preparation in a cool, dry, dark place (such as a kitchen cabinet), since heat and light degrade the medicinal potency faster.  

  • Have you ever taken an herbal tincture from a local health food store and felt like it “didn’t do anything”? This could be because it had been sitting on the shelf, in direct light, for too long before you purchased it!

Wait

The standard amount of time for a tincture to “marinate” before it’s ready (from a clinical/medicinal standpoint) is about 30 days minimum. 

However, in a pinch, if you leave it marinating for at least two weeks, it will still “work”!

Strain it

This is the part where you transfer the herbal alcohol extract (tincture) from the mason jar into the bottle.  

You may want to use a sturdy, resusable unbleached cotton nut milk bag* or clean dish towel as the strainer, so you can ring out as much of the liquid as possible.

Bottle it

You’ll need amber glass dropper bottles* and a small stainless steel funnel* for this part.

Pour the herbal tincture through the funnel, into the tincture bottles.

If you don’t have enough dropper bottles, you can keep any extra tincture in a labeled mason jar (sealed, with wax paper separating the metal top from the mouth), ideally in a cool, dark cabinet.

Where to buy herbal tinctures

Mountain Rose Herbs Tinctures - Affiliate Link

What to look for

When it comes to purchasing a tincture, know that not all tinctures are created equal! The key quality standards you’ll want to look for are:

  1. Organic (so you aren’t extracting pesticide and herbicide residues into your medicine)
  2. Ethical and sustainable harvesting practices (having reverence and respect for our planet which is generously providing us with these amazing resources)
  3. Not too old – aka not sitting on a shelf for years (since tinctures lose potency over time)
  4. Optimal temperature and lighting storage practices (stored in a cool, dark place, versus on a shelf under direct light or heat, which degrade potency)

Online herbal apothecaries

I stopped ordering my herbs on Amazon once I realized that there are no regulations around proper storage practices.  I’ve also discouraged my clients from ordering their herbs on Amazon, and instead like to order herbal tinctures directly from the company website to ensure optimal potency.

I’m a proud affiliate for Mountain Rose Herbs* and Starwest Botanicals* which are organic online apothecaries which meet and exceed my high quality standards mentioned above.

My favorite go-to online apothecaries for ordering herbal tinctures include:

Local herbal apothecaries

If you’re lucky, you may even live close enough to an herbal apothecary so you can purchase this stuff locally! (It’s so much fun to explore a real herbal apothecary.)

Here are a few brick-and-mortar apothecaries that I know, love, and trust after having visited them in-person:

There are apothecaries all around the world. I plan on continuing to explore and visit more, and will update this post each time I visit another herbal apothecary!

Alcohol-free alternatives to tinctures

If alcohol isn’t your jam, but you’re super intrigued by the idea of making or taking herbal tinctures as part of your holistic lifestyle, you may want to give glycerites a try!

Glycerites are an alcohol-free alternative to tinctures. It’s pretty much the same thing, except instead of using alcohol to make the tincture, you’ll use vegetable glycerin as the solvent.

There are slight differences in how well the medicine extracts, but this method is great for aromatic herbs like lemon balm, rosemary, and most others. 

In addition to being alcohol-free, herbal glycerites also taste much sweeter and don’t raise blood sugar like honey does, so they’re friendly for people with diabetes or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).

You can also get your herbal medicine via tea, capsules, or other herbal medicine delivery methods.

Learn more

Okay, so now that you know how to get started working with herbal tinctures, you may be feeling eager to learn more where that came from!  If so, I’ve got you covered. 

Please feel free to check out any or all of the following resources, and don’t forget to share these articles with your herb-loving friends! 

Conclusions

Whether you’re a tincture novice or farther down the rabbit hole as an herbalist, working with herbal tinctures can be a fun and empowering way to naturally and easily improve your health and to help others improve their health, too.

Once you know which herbal allies are the best fit for you (and how to take them), making a fresh or dried plant tincture by submerging medicinal herbs into alcohol and letting it marinate for about a month is the standard way to make an herbal tincture.

You can also buy organic and/or wildcrafted herbal tinctures online by checking out my favorite stores which use ethical, sustainable harvesting and best-practice storage methods.

If you’re unsure and would like more guidance, you may want to consider reading some herbalism books for beginners, and/or hiring mentors who can help you on your journey.

Sharing is caring!

Thanks for reading my content! If you found this article helpful, please make sure to share it with your plant-loving friends 🙂

XO – Jenna

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