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The World of Herbs



 



The greatest pleasures of our senses of smell and taste and the purest preventive measures & remedies for the daily ailments we are all subject to would not be had if it were not for herbs. Mother Earth's apothecary and the treasure chest of the world's greatest chefs, herbs are prolifically used in a myriad of ways. The use of herbs dates back to the earliest recorded moments in mankind's history. Whether in Neanderthal times, Ancient Egypt, China or the tribes of Native American Indians, herbs have been at the center of a spiritual, medicinal and culinary heritage that continues strong to this day.

Although largely pushed aside by an imbalanced use of modern day, synthetic medicines and the entrapments of powerful drug companies, a surge in the medicinal use of herbs - especially in the western world - has been taking place in the new millennium. Largely due to a growing interest in ancient Chinese medicine and "alternative" medicines like acupuncture and the Ayurvedic tradition, this increased demand for medicinal herbs is primarily fueled by the practice of herbalism, aka, medicinal botany.

Natural herbs are the source for over 25% of derived pharmaceuticals used in the United States, and according to the World Health Organization, nearly three-quarters of 119 modern pharmaceuticals derived from plants/herbs are modernly used to treat disease and ailments in the same way in which they were traditionally used amidst non-industrialized environments. And to think that only 10% (12,000) of the secondary metabolites of herbs (the organic chemical compounds that herbs primarily use for natural defense and reproduction, provide therapeutic effects for humans) have been identified, there is no wonder that drug manufacturers are now combing the world's rainforests searching for new pharmaceuticals.

Some of the most widely used modern drugs today have been derived from plants and herbs. Morphine and codeine come from the poppy plant, digoxin (which is used to treat heart failure) comes from digitalis purpurea, aka Foxglove, and acetylsalicylic acid comes from salicylic acid, which is obtained from the bark of willow trees. It stops to make you wonder about the true meaning of the word drug, which is etymologically derived from the Swedish word "druug", which literally means "dried plant".

Herbal therapy

Herbal therapy is primarily espoused in Europe and Asia, and is undertaken via several avenues, including Herbal teas, tinctures, fluid/solid extracts, herbal poultices, powdered herbs, tablets, essential oils, herbal ointments and herbal supplements. Herbal teas, tinctures and fluid extracts are the fastest acting on the human system, considering they are absorbed directly into the bloodstream.

Herbal Tinctures

Herbal tinctures are excellent medicinal remedies that can be stored on the shelf for long periods of time. Most store bought herbal tinctures are comprised of a base of vegetable glycerin and alcohol which is an excellent extractors of plant compounds (most of the healing properties of herbs are alcohol soluble). Depending on the particular constituent of the herb being extracted, alcohol concentrations will vary.

Herbal tinctures can be traced back to the earliest alchemists. The traditional way of making tinctures is to simply steep the herb in an alcohol base. For strong concentrations, a batch of herbs are steeped in an alcohol solution, which is then strained (sometimes distilled) and then re-macerated again with a new batch of herbs. Alchemists would often dry out the used plant material and expose it to fire until it became a grey-white ash, which would in turn be added back to the tincture, thus replacing lost trace minerals. Alchemist referred to this ash as the salt of the tincture, which would also include Mercury (not literally). In fact, this practice could very well be seen as a predecessor of modern day homeopathic medicines. Store bought tinctures, which often contain several types of herbs for treating a broad range of symptoms, are rated according to their strength. 1:5 and 1:2 are the most common, whereas 1:2 would be the most concentrated of the two - 1 part herbs to 2 parts alcohol.

Fluid Herbal Extracts

Even stronger than herbal tinctures are herbal fluid extracts. Essentially highly concentrated tinctures, fluid extracts are also preserved with an alcohol and/or glycerin base, thus lengthening their shelf life as well. Going through the same process as herbal tinctures, the only difference is that the herbal tincture undergoes a distillation process that rids the tincture of some of the alcohol. Glycerin is usually then added back to the tincture to serve as a dilution and preservative. Fluid extracts can be forty times stronger than regular tinctures, so follow directions carefully when taking these. Also, keep in mind that herbal tinctures which use glycerin as the sole extractor of an herbs properties often contain entirely different medicinal properties than tinctures using alcohol as the extractor. When searching for alcohol-free tinctures, make sure they use alcohol as the extractor (which is burned off and replaced with glycerin). You can also make your own homemade herbal tinctures with high proof grain alcohol and fresh herbs. Simply add 1 part herbs to 2-5 parts alcohol and let steep for a couple of days. Strain the alcohol from the extracted herbs and store in a light-proof glass medicine dropper. You can then add the tincture to teas, water and even foods.

Keep in mind that you should always research the herb you plan to make a tincture out of, including any drug contradictions it may have with medicines you are currently taking or any contradictions it may have with pregnancy. It's always best to ask your doctor or a herbalist beforehand. Also, verify the concentration and duration for which you should take the tincture. Certain herbs which have a great potential for toxicity, such as Foxglove and Mistletoe, should never be self administered.

Solid Herbal Extracts

Even stronger than fluid herbal extracts are solid herbal extracts. Not to be confused with poultices, which are vegetable fat-based extracts, true solid extracts are prepared by cooking the herb and water down (repeatedly adding water) until a paste is formed. Much like a soup base or mirepoix, solid extracts are heavily concentrated. Solid extracts are also prepared like tinctures and fluid extracts except they have all extraction solvents removed, leaving only a pasty, solid compound of the herb itself. Sometimes sold preserved with glycerin, solid extracts are often diluted to make fluid extracts and tinctures. As for herbal poultices, these are prepared without extractors. Often consisting of fresh ground herb (and water), herbal poultices have a short shelf life and are usually used for topical purposes, such as bruises, cuts and burns.

Dried Herbs

Dried herbs are often made into powder, which is then compressed into tablets. Tablets make for a convenient method of taking herbs, especially those that are anything but good tasting, such as Valerian Root. Some herbs also offer additional uses via the powder form. Gotu Kola, for instance, is often used as a snuff to help clear the sinuses. Dry skin and diaper rash are also efficiently treated with powdered herbs.

Herbal Ointments

Also good for the skin are herbal ointments. Using vegetable oil and a thickening agent such as bees wax, herbal ointments can also be prepared at home. Simply cook the herb in vegetable, olive or grape seed oil, strain and add a thickening agent, such as honey or Vitamin E oil. The salve can be applied directly to the skin (in the same way that herbal poultices are used) and have a long shelf life.

Herbal Capsules and Supplements

Do not confuse true powdered herb capsules with herbal supplements, which are composed of several herbs. These can often be found in grocery and drug stores. Herbal supplements often go through a process in which only the medicinally active constituents of the herb (phytochemicals) are extracted and then added back to the powder supplement. In essence, these are not true herbal preparations, for only parts of the herb are in the tablet. However, if prepared properly, herbal supplements can still be effective.

Herbal Essential Oils

Lastly, certain herbs are made into essential oils. Obtained from extracting aromatic compounds from the herb, essential oils are not something easily prepared at home. Some essential oils can be taken internally, however, most are used externally -either topically or inhaled. For instance, both Eucalyptus and Spearmint have concentrated degrees of plant oils which are often used for aromatherapy. Essential oils are often prescribed for headaches, muscle aches and skin conditions.

If you are looking for herbs, whether fresh, dried, in bulk or as herbal remedies, a vast selection can now be found online. No longer limited to the few and far between neighborhood herb shops, people like you and me can easily get our hands on all kinds of rare and useful herbs. Aside from growing your very own herb garden and cooking with herbs, the world of herbs has never been more available. If you want to learn more about herbs, you have come to the right spot. There is so much to learn! Who knows...you may become so intrigued you might even decide to become a Professional Herbalist!

Perhaps you already are a professional herbalist...If you already know what you are looking for and are simply searching for dried bulk herbs to purchase online, then please visit our Herb Store Directory.

For a greater dosage of herbs, please read our Herbal Tips Archive below.

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