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Infusions & Decoctions

Infusions and decoctions are simple methods of extracting the active constituents of herbs into hot water – infusions by pouring freshly boiled water onto light, aerial herbs and decoctions by simmering denser herbal materials. Short of nibbling the fresh herb, infusions and decoctions are the simplest forms of herbal preparation, and undoubtedly the oldest, probably trailing behind the discovery of fire by no more than a week or two!

They count amongst the few forms of medicine where the main pharmaceutical procedure is customarily performed by the individual at home – this being both their strength and their weakness. Compared to ready-to-use medicines, they are clearly inconvenient. However they are inexpensive, and there are many therapeutic strategies best served by them. Making this routine effort for the sake of one’s own health is therapeutic in its own right – a nurturing, reflective, connective, positive ritual. A herb tea as a customary ‘cuppa’ has a different psychological impact to taking a more obvious medicine such as a pill or a tincture for any duration.

One can and should take every opportunity to make infusions and decoctions from fresh herbs – although this presents practical limitations to the practitioner in terms of providing a regular fresh supply to patients (unless they happen to have them in their own gardens or hedgerows – it’s always worth enquiring). Inevitably dried herbs will be used in the main. The drying of herbs has for time immemorial been the most common method of preserving herbal remedies for future use, making it possible to employ them for twelve months of the year.

It seems appropriate in this section to dispense with the usual botanical names of herbs and to use common names throughout.

1. INFUSIONS

Description

Infusions, tisanes, or simply herb teas, they are one and the same. An infusion is the liquid preparation produced by steeping one or more herbs in hot water for a brief period of time, which is then strained, discarding the spent herb(s).

Infusions may be consumed piping hot or allowing to cool, but the latter should not be confused with cold Infusions, prepared in cold water, to be discussed later. In orthodox pharmacy, infusions may also include preparations that are subsequently preserved, but this will not be covered here.

Uses

Ordinary tea and cafetiere coffee are examples of herbal infusions. The herbal tea bags available in supermarkets and health shops are popular for their convenience and should be supported as part of a healthy lifestyle. However, they seldom contain top-grade plant material and can be expected to have no more than a mild therapeutic action (and in many cases none at all).

Infusions are often dismissed as being ‘weaker’ than tinctures and the like. This is not so. A standard 5ml dose of tincture is usually derived from 1 – 3g of herb, compared to 5 – 8g in an infusion. Even allowing for less efficient extraction, infusions still win the day. A 500mg capsule of dried herb, despite very efficient absorption, is clearly weaker still.

There are a number of circumstances in which infusions will prove the preparation of choice. A hot infusion is the ideal medium for promoting a therapeutic sweat. This often combines with another major advantage, of conveying volatile constituents rapidly to the tissues, especially the respiratory mucosa. Arguments abound as to whether infusions make better diuretics, or simply appear to be so due to the associated water intake. There is also a definite advantage to applying an alterative (‘blood-cleansing’) strategy in infusion form, where the image of ‘flushing out the system’ holds good in practice. It may seem illogical, but infusions taken hot are essentially cooling. This will be most obvious in the case of diaphoretics (which encourage sweating), but generally in energetic terms infusions (and decoctions) are favoured where a cooling effect is sought.

A choice must be made between infusing and decocting (see under). The guiding principle is that an infusion is suitable for leafy and other light herbs where extraction will be rapid, or where volatile constituents would be lost by lengthy exposure to heat. Decoctions are more suitable for roots, barks, and dense materials, or where constituents are stable to heat.

Infusions may incorporate as many as five or six different herbs, in proportions reflecting their relative potency and the balance of therapeutic activity required.

Formulation

For medicinal use, herb teas are usually dispensed loose either as simples or in combination. Self-fill teabags are available but add expense whilst proving only marginally more convenient.

The old herbalists’ approach of an ounce per pint per day, (roughly 30g per 500ml) divided into three or four equal doses, still holds good, if one accepts that this is effectively a maximum dose, often unnecessary and inevitably very strongly flavoured. The weight of herb is the only critical measurement – there is no reason why the volume of water should not be increased if this makes the result more palatable. This formula also assumed that the day’s supply would be prepared in the morning, and some or all would be taken cold, which is convenient but not always therapeutically appropriate.

Where a fresh hot brew is preferred at defined intervals, consider between one and four teaspoons per cup, depending on both the potency of the herb(s) employed, and whether they are fairly dense, e.g. Fennel seeds, or light, e.g. Marigold petals. It’s usually acceptable to ‘adjust to taste’ within sensible limits. Whenever there’s an opportunity to employ fresh herbs, one can instead talk in terms of a leaf, a sprig or a handful.

Modern domestic preference is for mugs rather than cups, containing about 250ml compared to a cup’s humble 150ml – but as already observed, the volume of water in which the herbs are infused really doesn’t matter.

Method

Dried herbs should be comminuted for use as teas (most commercial cut-and-dried herbs are). Needless to say, every care should be taken to ensure that the plant materials used are of high quality, have been stored carefully and remain within an acceptable shelf life. Where two or more herbs are to be infused, they should be mixed very thoroughly before proceeding further. Fresh herbs may need to be chopped or lightly bruised to aid extraction.

A measured amount of the fresh or dried herb(s) is placed in a clean teapot, and freshly boiled water poured over. The volume of water should slightly exceed that required in the final result to allow for absorption by the herb. The tea is allowed to stand for 2 – 5 minutes and then strained. The length of time will relate to the density of the herbs and their active constituents – as a general principle, unless a high tannin content is actually desired, too long an infusion will ‘stew’ the tea. The result may be taken hot or cold according to requirements.

Infusion cups, cafetieres, or any other suitable vessel with a close-fitting lid may also be employed, with the usual proviso that they are made from inert materials such as glass, china or stainless steel. It’s slightly less effective but still viable to simply infuse the herbs in a mug of water and strain it off into another mug. However, the Rolls Royce of the infusion world is the vacuum flask, (‘Thermos’), treated exactly as if it were a teapot, but being stoppered as soon as the boiling water has been poured on. This will result in infusion at a much higher temperature, volatile constituents are retained better, and the infusion time is reduced to a minute or two. One can also use a vacuum flask to store an infusion after it has been strained, in order to make a hot herb tea available later in the day.

Examples

As infusions are for many a first introduction to making herbal medicines, one or two examples are offered:-

Yarrow, Elderflower and Peppermint tea

Mix the three dried herbs in equal quantities. Use 2-3 teaspoons per mug, taken piping hot up to 5 times a day.

This famous mixture, re-invented in many cultures and used all over the world, is the great standby for head colds. Add Eyebright if catarrh is copious, or Thyme if the infection tries to drop to the chest.

Tea of Happiness

Mix 2 parts each Chamomile, Limeflowers & Vervain, 1 part each Lavender & Peppermint. Use 2-4 teaspoons per mug, taken as a hot drink as required.

A famous and much-loved recipe originating in Provence, Tea of Happiness can be used freely during the day for ‘free floating anxiety’ or during periods of excessive stress. It’s most popular use, perhaps demanding the higher dose, is as a safe but effective ‘nightcap’, promoting a restful sleep.

Spring Cure Tea

Mix Agrimony, Cleavers, Elderflowers & Nettles in equal parts. If some or all of these are available fresh, all the better. Infuse 30-50g in 1 litre water, allowing to cool. Divide into  4-5 doses a day, taken cold, the last not too close to bedtime as the effect is quite diuretic.

There’s a long tradition for taking cleansing herbs during the spring to clear out winter toxins, and employing some of the robust & nutritive ‘blood-cleansing’ herbs that arrive in the same season. The herbs (and there are others that you might choose) should be taken for a fortnight at the same time as a partial fast, concentrated on fruit and fresh vegetables, along with all opportunities that can be taken for communing with nature, spiritual cleansing and personal renewal.

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