HERBAL DECOCTIONS VERSUS HERBAL TINCTURES: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Turns Out, Small Differences Have Major Results
Ever wondered what the difference between herbal tea, decoction, and tincture is? Well, the difference is pretty minor. But that small difference can have major results. Here’s what you need to know about herbal tinctures, decoctions, and everything else in between.
Herbal Decoctions: A Fancy Word For Tea?
Herbal decoctions and tea have pretty much the same ingredients: herbs and hot water. The only real difference is that an herbal tea or infusion is made by steeping an herb in hot water, while a decoction is made by simmering herbs in water. Decoctions can break down tougher herbs than infusions thanks to the hotter water. While infusions are great for more delicate plant parts like flowers and leaves, decoctions are great for tougher plants, like mushrooms, roots, bark, berries, and seeds.
If you’re making a decoction, wash the plant or herb and then simmer it for 30-45 minutes or so. While it’s simmering, stir the mixture a few times. Once the decoction is ready, you can strain the herbs and enjoy!
Decoctions work by extracting water-soluble chemicals and nutrients from the herbs. The heat of the water helps to draw out the active ingredients and healing properties from herbs. Plus, it usually makes a delicious warm beverage!
Decoctions have been used around the globe for centuries as a form of natural medicine. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), decoctions are the most popular way for patients to consume herbal medicine prescribed by their practitioner. Fun fact: TCM decoctions are made in clay or ceramic pots, but less often in a metal container unless it is stainless steel.
Decoctions aren’t unique to TCM. In Ayurveda, decoctions, sometimes known as Kashayam, can be made with hot or cold water, depending on what they’re used for. For instance, a decoction meant to balance out the excess heat of pitta dosha should be made cold, while hot decoctions are best for evening out too much cold vata dosha. Ayurvedic decoctions are always left to simmer without the lid on, as many believe that covering the pan makes the decoction harder to digest.
Some herbs aren’t good for being made into decoctions. They might be too delicate to stand up to the simmering water, or they might contain active ingredients that are damaged by water or are not water soluble, like resins and alkaloids. For these herbs, it’s best to make tinctures.
An herbal tincture is a liquid like vinegar or alcohol that has been heavily infused with a particular herb for many weeks. After being washed, the herbs are soaked in the liquid in a sealed, airtight jar. As the herbs soak, the active compounds are removed from the plant and infused into the tincture. The longer it soaks, the more concentrated the tincture will be.
You can soak any combination of bark, berries, roots, and leaves to make your tincture. Just remember to give it a shake every week or so. After six weeks have passed, you can strain out the plant remnants and enjoy your tincture.
Many people take it sublingually (a fancy word for under the tongue) because it absorbs quickly into the bloodstream. You can also mix your tincture with some hot water to help activate the compounds, but dropping some in a smoothie works too.
Whether you’re making your own tincture or buying it from a store, it’s important to remember that herbal tinctures are monitored by the FDA differently than medications, under Good Manufacturing Practices. Though many natural herbal tinctures are safe and proven to be effective, some are not. In fact, some can even make you sick! So before you start taking any tincture, make sure you evaluate the quality of said tincture and talk to your doctor, pharmacist or trained herbalist if you have any specific concerns or questions.
Tinctures and TCM
Tinctures are occasionally prescribed by TCM practitioners because they’re strong, easy to take, and simple to store. Plus, they’re a great option for people who don’t like taking pills. In TCM, both formulas and single herbs are made into tinctures. Some common ones are:
- Dit dat jiao (Trauma liniment , Die de jiu,) This is a topical tincture or liniment made with frankincense, myrrh and others, but it’s usually a secret formula. You can practically see bruises disappear and feel muscles recover swiftly. Dit dat jiao is helpful if you are training at the top of your game, but need to recover quickly.
- Propolis tincture: Bee’s don’t only make honey; sometimes, they make propolis. When bees come in contact with sap from evergreen trees, they combine it with beeswax to make propolis, which has been used as a medicine since the ancient Greeks. Propolis is a pretty powerful substance, and the tincture can speed up wound healing (including cold sores) and even help slow down the spread of cancer.
- Snakes and scorpions in rice wine are a familiar sight in old fashioned Chinese pharmacies. The snakes are used for throat conditions, and scorpions are used under the rubric of “Let toxins treat toxins,” but you can skip them and go with water-soluble plants or classic formulas instead.
- Turmeric tincture: Turmeric is a bright, spicy herb that tastes good and has even better health benefits. However, curcumin, the active ingredient that makes turmeric anti-inflammatory, good for your skin, and a next-level brain food, has low-bioavailability in raw turmeric. That means it’s hard for our bodies to soak up the benefits of curcumin on its own. But tinctures, especially those with black pepper added, help boost the bioavailability of curcumin, so it’s a great way to reap the benefits of this powerful yellow spice. Cucurmin is primarily fat soluble, so fat boosts bioavailability as well.
Sometimes, navigating the terms and vocabulary of non-western medicine can be hard. Many of us aren’t used to hearing words like tincture and decoction. But these are powerful and effective forms of medicine, so it’s important to know the difference between the two. Have you ever tried an herbal decoction or tincture? What did you think?