Herbal Medicine Making - Using Different Menstruums for Extraction
First to define the word Menstruum.
From the Merriam-Webster dictionary: "a substance that dissolves a solid or holds it in suspension".
Menstruums used in herbal medicine include ethyl alcohol (in varying strengths), isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol), glycerine (for those who prefer not to use alcohol or for some specific preparations), vinegar, oil (or lard, butter, ghee, etc.) and of course, water for teas.
Water. This is the most commonly used method of extracting plant properties but it is limited in that only water soluble constituents are extracted. A tea is infused in boiled water usually for 5-10 minutes. A nourishing herbal infusion is a larger amount of herb, steeped for a longer amount of time, usually 4-12 hours (extracting more of the water soluble minerals). A decoction is simmered in water for a longer period of time (for harder plant materials; roots, barks, etc.).
Ethyl Alcohol (drinking alcohol). Alcohol is required to dissolve the alkaloids in plants (such as the berberine in barberry or Oregon grape root) as well as resin components, glycosides, bitter principles and organic acids. Reference a good pharmacopeia to determine the strength of alcohol required for the specific plant part(s). Alcohol extractions are called tinctures and are the most shelf stable of all herbal preparations.
Isopropyl Alcohol (rubbing alcohol). This type of alcohol is only used for topical (external) preparations, usually liniments. Make sure any preparations made with rubbing alcohol are clearly marked "for external use only".
Glycerine. Used as a substitute for alcohol when there is an objection to using alcohol (sensitivity to alcohol, alcoholics, very young children, certain medical conditions, etc.), although glycerine is not as effective at extracting properties as is alcohol, particularly for the resin and volatile oil components. Called glycerites, these preparations have a bit of a sweet taste, so are good in combinations to be used in or added to syrups.
Vinegar. This is the best option for mineral extraction (although the long steeping time of nourishing herbal infusions will extract all of the water soluble ones). Vinegar will also extract antioxidants, vitamins and other trace elements. Raw apple cider vinegar is the primary choice for medicinal preparations but any vinegar could be used if making a "food medicine". Vinegar based preparations are sometimes called acetums.
Honeys. Syrups. Honey and sugar based syrups extract water soluble properties along with minerals, flavonoids and resins. Honeys are usually made by infusing herbs in honey. Syrups are made by concentrating (reducing) herbal teas and then adding sugar or honey as a sweetener and preservative.
Oil. Most types of plant based oils can be used for making herbal preparations but some animal fats can also be used (lard, tallow). Oils have an affinity for extracting resins, flavonoids and volatile compounds. They are usually used for topical skin preparations such as salves or massage oils, but could also include recipes for "food medicine" (herbal flavoured salad dressing oils).
Essential Oils. These oils are obtained by steam distillation and capture the aromatic and volatile components of plants. They are highly concentrated and should only be used topically, diluted in a carrier oil, or in some type of diffuser for inhalation purposes. There may be other uses (including internal) but these should only be under the supervision of a trained aromatherapist.
Alcohol. When you are using anything less than 100% alcohol you are using a watered down version hence the reason that some recipes for tinctures will specify higher or lower percentage of alcohol based on the amount of alcohol soluble components vs. water soluble components. Willow bark is one (surprisingly enough) that you can tincture in a 25% alcohol because more of its components are water soluble.
Essential Oils. These are very often combined with other preparations. EOs can be added to liniments or salves. Added to salves they may help with preservation (preventing rancidity) as well as adding their own medicinal properties.
Oyxmel. This is a honey-vinegar preparation. They can be made by combining honey and vinegar as the menstruum for the herb(s). Alternatively, they can be made as individual honeys or vinegars and then combined following extraction. Shrubs (or switchels) are types of oxymels. Fruit is steeped in vinegar and then honey or sugar is added.
Elixir. Similar to an oxymel but this is a honey-alcohol preparation. Combining alcohol with honey increases the shelf life.
Cordials. These are usually sweetened herbal & fruit preparations but also may refer to sweetened herbal & fruit alcohol blends.
Dressings. Even a salad dressing can be thought of as a combination extract for food medicine, such as a raspberry vinegar with all its minerals and antioxidants combined with a herbal infused oil and a touch of onion or garlic infused honey added for sweetness.
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