What is a tincture?
“What is a tincture?”
This is a question I hear often when talking about natural or herbal remedies and holistic or homeopathic medicine. Simply put, a tincture is a liquid extract made from herbs. The essential compounds of the plant, that give its medicinal properties, are commonly extracted in alcohol. However, glycerine, and vinegar are sometimes used as well.
“Herbal tinctures are not always made using ethanol as the solvent, though this is most commonly the case. Other solvents include vinegar, glycerol, diethyl ether and propylene glycol, not all of which can be used for internal consumption. Ethanol has the advantage of being an excellent solvent for both acidic and basic (alkaline) constituents.” [wikipedia]
Tinctures are a common way to use herbal remedies in a concentrated form. Using a dropper, you place drops of tincture under your tongue, where it is easily and rapidly absorbed into the blood stream. Since they are concentrated and absorbed quickly, you don’t need very much to feel it’s effects. Tinctures are convenient because they are ready to use out-of-the-bottle, opposed to a tea – which needs to be prepared at the time of consumption. That is, of course, if you’re not making them yourself. Tinctures are easy to make, but some methods can take about 2 weeks to 6 months to create a potent product, so people often prefer to buy them already prepared.
Alcohol tincture vs. glycerine tinctures
“Why are some tinctures made from alcohol and some are not?”
The answer to this has two major points. The first has to do with the perception of alcohol and peoples aversion to it. Whether it’s an allergy to alcohol, parents giving tincture to their children, or a personal preference to just not consume alcohol, glycerine is an available and welcomed alternative to the traditional method of alcohol extraction. The second is the effectiveness and shelf life of alcohol over glycerine.
Alcohol, as a preserving mechanism, sterilize and denatures proteins; this means that alcohol can reduce the potency and effectiveness of your tincture, especially if proteins play a major role as the extracted component of your tincture.
Glycerine is a sugar alcohol, though it has the title of an “alcohol” it is different in its structure from ethanol alcohol and has different properties. It preserves by its desiccant property, much like the silica packets used to keep shoes and other items from becoming moldy in their packaging. It works by absorbing excess water that bacteria would need to breed and break down your tincture. The draw backs to glycerine tinctures are that they have a shorter shelf life than alcohol, and glycerine isn’t as effective/potent an extractor as alcohol is.
Glycerine also has the added benefits of being sweet tasting but doesn’t raise blood sugar levels. This is especially important for people who are looking to use tinctures for diabetics and children.
It is worth mentioning to ONLY USE Food Grade Glycerine when it comes to tinctures.
How are tinctures made?
Before we get into the processes to make a tincture, it is important to understand that these are delicate medicinal extracts. When you make a tincture, you want to do so in a way that extracts the essential compounds of the plant without damaging them. You also want to store them in a way that protects and preserves them, so keep them out of light and in a cool, dry place. If you buy tinctures you will notice they come in brown or blue bottles, that is because these bottles prohibit damaging light from breaking down the solution while in storage. If you are making your own tincture you can buy tinted bottles of varying sizes for extraction and storage, to get the job done right.
Now that’s out of the way, there are a few methods for extraction:
- Stove top
Cold extraction is the most common method and it takes the longest time – 2 weeks minimum. It can take longer, sometimes up to 6 months, depending on the herb and the potency you’re trying to achieve. The simple explanation of this is that you’re soaking the essential parts of the herb out of the fibers and cellulose, which takes time.
Warm extraction is a little faster but you risk damaging your tincture. This method involves you forcing the “cold” method by allowing subtle heat to hasten the process. A common practice for this is to “sun brew” your tincture, much like sun brewed tea. Often, this method involves you putting your extraction in a paper bag, or other container to block light, as you let it sit on a sunny windowsill. The issue here is that light can still get in and slowly break down some of the vital constituents of your tincture.
Stove top extraction, you probably already know where this is going, is the method where you heat your extraction over the stove. This is probably the poorest way to meet your goal, as the heat can easily break down compounds that are important to the potency of your tincture. This method is really a rush job, if you can avoid it, I recommend using one of the other methods.