We're surrounded by it everyday, it has an answer for every aliment, and it's absolutely stunning! Botanical medicine is the use of plants or plant extracts for medicinal purposes, and it's the most ancient form of healing documented.
For a while, we moved away from the healing power of plants when the booming pharmaceutical model gained momentum. Now, we are coming back full circle, understanding that by isolating a single chemical within a plant destroys the inherent intelligence of the whole to work in brilliant complexity.
Botanical medicine can come in many forms such as herbal preparations like tinctures, glycerites, capsules, infusions, and extracts for treating specific aliments. Medical herbalism uses many parts of a plant for specific conditions such as the leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, wood, bark, roots, and rhizomes depending on which active constituent is to be extracted or action is needed.
So, how do we know when to use each form?
Essential Oils: you're probably used to the top players such as lavender, peppermint, tea tree oil, and eucalyptus which are all distilled. These wonderful oils are usually applied topically or inhaled. For example, tea tree oil has potent anti-fungal properties and can be used topically for tinea and athletes foot. Aromatherapy is a pleasant way to stimulate the olfactory nerve (which sends messages to the brain's limbic system (important for memory, learning, and emotions) to trigger physiological responses like, for example, lavender creating a feeling of relaxation. Essential oils can be toxic (or even fatal) when taken internally and you should only take them internally under the supervision of a physician. So, how do you distill a plant? Depending on the plant you use either the flowers, leaves, wood, bark, roots, seeds, or even the peel and you put that raw plant material into a distillation apparatus (alembic) over water. Then the water is heated and the steam passes through the raw plant material which vaporizes the volatile compounds. Finally, the vapors flow through a coil, and condense back to a liquid which is then collected and used!
Tinctures: this is a liquid herbal extract that is made by soaking the raw plant material in a solvent like pure grain alcohol which helps to extract the active ingredients from the herb. Then, the liquid is pressed out and the plant is discarded. Tinctures can be made with only one plant or a combination. I love to use tinctures when I need a more concentrated dose of an herb, like when I feel a cold coming on. Making medicinal tinctures involves real chemistry! Constituents of specific plants are best extracted with a certain % of alcohols and some even other plants don't do well as tinctures based on their composition (like milk thistle).
Infusions: this is a fancy name for tea! An herbal infusion involves heating the water to the perfect temperature for that plant and simply pouring it over the herb! Let the infusion brew for the desired time and potency, then drink. Don't forget to cover your infusion while it's brewing so the medicinal volatile oils don't escape.
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