As a naturopathy student and advocate for living a holistic lifestyle, I think it is important we all have access to the knowledge and information available, about natural preventative and remedying practices. In this mini series I will be explaining some naturopathic terminology around preparing herbal remedies - so that you can have a better understanding of their purposes. After talking about the basics of each preparation I will be uploading my own recipes for you to try yourself ( super simple, common ailment recipes - nothing crazy or for serious illnesses). In this particular post we are talking about the water based extracts, including infusions ( teas ), decoctions, washes, baths and more !
I hope you find this series to be interesting, useful and of value to you in some way.
Note: If you have any current conditions, or are taking any medication please consult with a naturopath first before trying anything new, these posts are more about providing you with information.
Starting with one of my favourite herbal extracts - infusions ( better known as herbal teas ) are aqueous extracts made by steeping your preferred herbs in water ( either hot or cold depending on the type of herbs you are using ) in order to dissolve the soluble parts of the herb. The herbs we use for infusions are usually the more ‘delicate’ parts of the plant, such as leaves and flowers; you also want to make sure the active constituent you are trying to extract is water soluble.
You can use both dried or fresh herbs to make an infusion, but if you use fresh you will either need to add less water or more herbs due to the water content in these. A standard ratio for dried herbs is 30 grams of herb : 600 ml of water. When using fresh herbs ( maybe some mint from your garden ?) you would need 60 grams of herb : 600 ml of water.
I mentioned before you can also use cold water for an infusion. Cold water can extract constituents such as gums, mucilage, bitters, sugars, mineral salts and colouring matter. This means if you wanted to create an infusion that is; for example healing for the gut lining you would use a cold infusion in order to extract the plants mucilage which can improve gut lining integrity. It is also better to use a cold infusion when the herbs you are using contain inert starches - these provide food for microbes which may make your infusion mouldy ( These starches are readily extracted in hot water, but less so in cold ).
Similar to that of an infusion, however decoctions are generally made by pouring cool water over your chosen herbs and brining it to the boil or to a simmer. This method of extraction is used when the herbs you are using are dense or woody - like bark, roots or seeds. Herbs with a volatile oil content ( ones that smell really good like lavender for example ) are not suitable for this type of extraction as volatile oils are heat sensitive and will not be retained ( however your house will smell amazing ! ) You can minimise these effects by using a double boiler.
The reason we bring the plants and water to the boil together rather than just pouring boiling water over them ( like you might in an infusion / tea ) is because this denser plant material contains proteins called albumin, which can coagulate and form a sort of seal over the herb, meaning the rest of the constituents wont be extracted properly.
Decoction doses are similar to that of an infusion ( 30 grams of herbs to 600 ml of water as the end result ) so you’ll want to start with around 700 - 900 ml of water to allow for some to evaporate whilst simmering. You may want to check the specific dosage recommendations for each herb you use as they can vary.
Washes & Baths
Another of my favourite ways to use herbs is in my self care bathing rituals. Benefits from bathing with herbs are seen not only on the outside of the body ( perhaps by using skin softening plants like oats or chickweed ) but also internally through the inhalation of volatile oils ( Think a restorative thyme or lavender bath ) and also possibly through the absorption of these oils through the skin whilst it is soaking in the bath.
Bathing as a form of healing may be done in cold or hot water, depending on the effect you desire. A cold water bath is invigorating, stimulating and can aid in calming inflammation, to encourage vasoconstriction which is useful in both haemorrhoids or varicose veins. Whereas a warm bath is relaxing, produces vasodilation and may help with things like muscle spasms.
To make a bath therapeutic with herbs, you can add them in several ways; whether it be by first making an infusion or a decoction, a tincture or fluid extract ( we will get to these in a later post ), with a powder, essential oils, or simply dried or fresh herbs.
A wash is made the same way in which you would make a therapeutic bath - however is applied to a confined area rather than bathing in it ( and essential oils are generally not used). For example, an eye wash that one might use for conjunctivitis.
Douches & Sitzbaths
For the women readers, if you have ever suffered from a vaginal infection or inflammation, these might be something you consider using instead of reaching for over the counter medications. Douching is simply vaginal ‘irrigation’ or flushing. A sitzbath can be used when experiencing period pain, may be benficial for endometriosis, also after childbirth and can also be an alternative to douching when combined with pelvic floor exercises.