*Herbal Medicine - Part 1*

Gaining Skills and Knowledge for the Present and the Future
By: Haumana
27 July 2003

Staying healthy and regaining one’s health after an illness, injury, or other insult (e.g. less than optimal lifestyles) are prime topics of concern. As survivalists, we often concentrate on how to deal with acute illnesses and injuries and that is important. It is no less important that we spent a great deal of our time looking at our preparations for dealing with life in general, because without staying as healthy as possible, one’s chances of survival are reduced.

After that introductory paragraph, you’re probably expecting an article on healthy lifestyles and preventive medicine. Maybe some day we can go there, but this time let’s start looking at alternatives to synthetic/pharmaceutical medications. Let’s look at medication that we can either grow or harvest from the wild…plants and herbs.

Why should we go this route? Well, a quick review of mortality (deaths) and morbidity (sickness) due to herbal medications versus pharmaceutical medications shows us something about the safety of each class of "drugs." Tens to hundreds of thousands of cases of pharmaceutical medication adverse reactions and deaths occur each year, while only tens, yes 10s, of herbal medication deaths occur each year. This staggering difference must be placed in context, but even allowing for variables, herbal medications have a better safety record than pharmaceutical medications.

How about efficacy? There certainly is a historical basis for advocating herbal medications. Now there is increasing scientific evidence that herbal medications are effective in treating and in preventing illnesses.

Therefore, as folks who are preparing for the likelihood that pharmaceutical medication may not be readily available to us for various reasons or that such drugs may not be preferable, we should be well-versed in procuring, preparing and using herbal medications.

Plants used to prepare herbal medications may be cultivated or harvested from the wild. Given the variability of locating specific plants in certain areas and in sufficient quantities, using cultivation to produce sustainable supplies of herbs is the way to go. In later articles, I hope to help you plan your herbal medicine chest and steer you toward sources for seeds/plants. In this article, let’s focus on how to use the herbs. Yes, this is putting the cart before the horse, but this information will be needed in subsequent articles.

Parts of plants that are often used in concocting herbal medications include the flowers, the leaves, the stems and bark, the fruits and seeds/nuts, and the roots. From these parts, we can make compresses, poultices, infusions, decoctions, tinctures, oils/lotions, ointments/salves/balms, capsules, etc. If we make the extra effort, we can also distill essential oils which have multiple uses.

Here are some basic techniques for compounding some of these herbal preparations:

1. Infusions - Infusion is another term for a tea. The general formula is to place about ounce [30 grams] of dried herb in a pre-warmed, covered ceramic or glass container and add 1 pint [or 500 milliliters] or nearly boiling water. Steep for 5 - 20 minutes and strain and reserve the liquid for use.

2. Decoctions - Like an infusion except that about 3 cups [750 ml] of cold water is added to 1 ounce [30 grams] of dried herb on a non-aluminum pan and this mixture is brought to a boil and then simmered until it is reduced in volume by 1/3. Strain while warm and reserve liquid for use.

3. Syrups - Are made by bringing 1 part of infusion or decoction and on part of honey or sugar to a boil and cooking until the mixture is thickened to syrup. Store in dark glass bottle. Using a bottle with glass or cork stopper avoids the sticking of threaded lids.

4. Tinctures - Are alcohol extractions of chemicals from plants. In a jar with a tight lid, place one part dried or chopped herb with five parts of a 40% ethyl alcohol solution (e.g. 80-proof vodka). Seal the lid and let stand for 2-3 weeks. Shake well each day. Some alcohol extractions will require that initially the jar be left open to allow fermentation of the mixture to occur; these are the exception and not the rule. Strain through cheesecloth, squeezing out as much liquid as possible. Store this tincture in dark glass bottles in a cool, dark place.

5. Vinegar (apple cider vinegar) and glycerine tinctures may also be made. The vinegar tincture is prepared in the same manner as the alcohol tincture. To make the glycerin tincture, use a 1:1 solution of glycerin to water for dried herbs and a 3:1 glycerin to water solution for fresh herbs (due to the higher water content of the fresh herbs).

6. Oils (not pure essential oils) - are cold extractions/infusions that are made using the same technique as tinctures. Olive oil, almond oil or sunflower oil are used in place of alcohol in a tightly covered jar with finely chopped herb. The mixture should sit in the sun or a warm place for 2-3 weeks and should be shaken daily. It should be strained through cheese cloth and stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place (this slows the oxidation of the oil).

7. Ointments - There’s the simple way and the slightly more involved way to make ointments. The simple way is to simmer 1-2 tablespoons [15-30 grams] of herb in about a cup of petroleum jelly for 10-15 minutes. Allow to cool enough to not damage the wide-mouthed storage container/jar before pouring. A more involved way to make an ointment is to mix 3 ounces [90 grams] of almond or olive oil with 3 ounces [90 grams] of lard in a double boiler/water bath and heat until the lard melts and the oil and fat are well mixed. Add 1 pint [500 ml] of herbal infusion or decoction to this oil-fat mixture and simmer until the water has evaporated. At this point, stir in 2-3 ounces [60-90 grams] of beeswax (or white wax) until it is melted and is incorporated. Some sources recommend adding 6-8 drops of tincture of benzoin to prevent the lard in the ointment from going rancid. Pour into a wide-mouth container/jar.

8. Lozenges - These useful delivery systems can be made in two ways. One way is to proceed from the syrup-making recipe to a candy. The other way is to make a mucilage using Acacia, Comfrey root or other thickening substance and add pure essential oil(s) or finely powdered herb and sugar. This mixture should be the consistency of a paste and should be spread about ¼ - ½ inch thickness on a cutting surface that has been coated with powdered sugar. Cut into lozenge-sized pieces and dry until very firm. Wrap in waxed paper and store in a cool, dry place.

9. Suppositories - Selecting a base is going to vary depending on what herbs are to be delivered, so this will need to be addressed as we tackle specific treatments. However, a good generic recipe is 10-12 parts of gelatin, 15 parts glycerin and 35-40 parts of infusion, decoction or tincture. Simmer these three together until the water is evaporated. The better evaporated the mixture is, the firmer the suppositories will be. Think about how you are going to mould these jewels. Black powder bullet casters beware…your moulds may be MIA. Seriously, aluminum foil should be shaped into moulds.

10. Capsules - Empty capsules are available in gelatin and vegetarian forms. They are filled with powdered herb. Just put the powder into a pan take one half of each capsule in each hand, and scoop them towards each other, filling them with the powdered herb, and put the halves together. Wouldn’t count on having these in TEOTWAWKI scenario, but they are great while they last.

11. Compresses - These are external applications of infusions and decoctions that are made by soaking pieces of cloth in the herbal solution and then laying them on the skin. If they are warm compresses, cover them with plastic wrap and wrap with towels, hot water bottle or heating pad.

12. Poultices are chopped and "bruised" fresh herb or a paste of dried herb that is either applied directly to the skin or has a thin layer of cloth, e.g. gauze, between the herb and the skin. If it is a warm poultice, don’t forget the hot water bottle (if you don’t have two or more good quality hot water bottles in you medical supplies, remedy that oversight ASAP).

This covers the basic delivery systems for herbs. One that was not mentioned, but that should be utilized as often as is possible, is to include herbs in your diet.

Making pure essential oils is a bit of an art form. If you’ve got a still built to make "medicinal" alcohol, you’re almost there. The only difference is that the first stage in an essential oil distillation system is a steam generator that puts steam though a second stage herbal container and then this infused steam extracts oils and goes to the third stage, a condenser. The oil stays on top of the distillate that drips from the condenser and is siphoned off and bottled for use. This setup requires some know how and attention to detail for safety and quality assurance, so get more information before you consider trying it.

Now that you have techniques for delivery systems for herbal medications, we’ll examine some herbs that are readily available and/or that can be cultivated. If you want to get a head start on this, here are a few resources (some of them were used to write this article):

The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman;

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Healing Remedies by C. Norman Shealy;

Herbs That Heal by M.A. and J.A. Weiner;

The Family Book of Home Remedies by Michael Van Stratten;

Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, 2nd ed. by M. Murray and J. Pizzorno;

The Review of Natural Products by Drug Facts and Comparisons.


Ya ka waste ite, Brothers and Sisters.

All materials at this site not otherwise credited are Copyright © 1996 - 2003 Trip Williams. All rights reserved. May be reproduced for personal use only. Use of any material contained herein is subject to stated terms or written permission.