Two simple things about herbal medicine I wish I learned 5 years ago
A guest post from herbalist Krista Coyan.
There is medicine all around us!
I’ve always loved the outdoors. For me, there is nothing better than a warm summer afternoon working in my garden accompanied by the buzzing of the busy bees as they fly from flower to flower. I believe that God gave us plants not only for food and beauty, but also to heal us. I pursued that belief by studying everything I could find about herbalism. I pored through every book I could find, and enrolled in several herbalism courses. Soon the world around me opened up even more. On my daily hikes with my husband, I began to recognize that we were surrounded by a natural pharmacy. I began gathering herbs from the surrounding forests and fields, as well as ones I would grow in my garden, to make natural treatments. I would experiment with different formulas and used myself and my family as test subjects for a variety of salves, tinctures, and teas. Over the years, I have continued to tinker with and perfect both the ingredients I use and how I process them. I now make over fifty different herbal products, mainly for family and friends, and continue to constantly experiment with them.
Good results take time
I have used a dehydrator almost from day one, since with the amount of herbs I gather in the summer would take up too much space in my house and garage to dry. I use an Excalibur dehydrator like the one in the picture because I needed something that has a lot of space for drying and could run constantly from summer to fall. One day my husband was observing the steps I go through to make salves and tinctures, and had some suggestions. He works for EU Juicers (maybe you're reading this on their blog), a company specializing in appliances for healthy living like juicers and dehydrators, and he said I could speed up the process and perhaps get better results with some of our appliances. For example, when I make a salve I first gather the herbs, dry them, crush them with a mortar and pestle, infuse them into an oil either by putting a jar in a sunny window for 6-8 weeks or VERY carefully cooking it on the stove for about 30 minutes, then adding melted beeswax and essential oils to the infused herbal oil. It's a long process, but you can't cut corners if you want to make effective herbal treatments.
Putting away the mortar and pestle
Grinding herbs with a mortar and pestle takes a lot of time, and tends to leave a very coarse texture. To maximize the medicinal potency of herbs, the most surface area of the plants need to be exposed in the oil. Following my husband’s suggestion, I processed a batch of herbs in our juicer. It is a Sana 707 horizontal juicer, and has this cone that you can use instead of the juicing screen that makes it a grinder. It was fast and the herbs were ground much better than I could do by hand. It was a fine consistency – small enough to have a ton of surface area, but large enough that it wouldn’t dissolve in the oil. I actually make all my teas in this juicer now as well.
A new way to infuse oil
After seeing me pour out a batch of oil I ruined by overheating, my husband asked me about it. I told him that herbal infused oils are very sensitive to temperature. While I still often just let a jar sit in a sunny window, that doesn’t work in the winter, and I often produce so much that time is critical. If you cook it on a stove at too low of a temperature, the medicinal properties aren’t released nearly so well. It you cook it too hot, the oil can burn and destroy the herbs. The “sweet spot” in between the extremes is very small, and depends on the herbs and oils used. He suggested using a dehydrator or our bread machine to infuse the oils, since they are very accurate keeping a particular temperature. Our dehydrator is always full, so I tried the bread machine. It's called a Sana Smart Bread Maker, and it lets me set the time and temperature digitally. I put a jar of fresh oil with herbs, and set it for 30 hours at 45C. The next day, I removed the jar and the oil was a rich dark color and smelled amazing. In the photo here (sorry, I used my phone to take it), the new oil is on the left and the one infused in the window is on the right. Notice how it is much darker and richer in color.
I made some arnica oil and salve (used mainly for bruises, but also muscle soreness and acne) this way, and compared it to my previous batch using the mortar and pestle grinding and the window infusing. I was really surpised at the results. The new one using the juicer and bread maker was deeper in color and smelled richer than the “by hand” batch. Color and smell are good indicators of a product’s potency – the darker the better – as long as it isn’t overheated (which will be dark but smell rancid or burnt.) I’ll put a photo here – sorry it isn’t too clear but I just used my phone – hopefully you can see the difference. The oil and salve on the left are the new batch. Better yet, I tried another product – a “white widow” salve made from a high-CBD stain of cannabis – which my daughter uses for her sore wrists using this method. My daugher told me that the new version made her feel even better than the old one.
I now make almost all my products this way – not only are they more potent, but the time saved lets me spend more time gathering or studying. It is especially time saving with teas, since I make everyone two different herbal teas in the morning and another at night so we go through a LOT of tea. Now I have to convince my husband to buy a bigger dehydrator!