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What Is an Herbal Extract?

By R. Bargar
Updated Feb 15, 2024
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An herbal extract is a liquid preparation of herbs using a solvent to release the active compounds from the plant material. Extracts made with alcohol are referred to as tinctures, while those produced with glycerin are glycerites. It is believed that an herbal extract is often more effective than pills or capsules containing the same herbs. The fresh or dried herbal material is macerated, placed in the solvent for a specific time and filtered to produce an extract containing the active constituents of the herb. Medicinal fungi are also used to produce extracts.

Single herbs may be used to produce an herbal extract. Multiple herbs with properties benefiting specific conditions are sometimes combined in the same extraction process to make a tincture. A more exacting method is to extract individual herbs then combine the extracts in precise proportions. A commercial herbal extract will have a ratio of solvent to herbs on the label. Standard methods of extraction use a one to four ratio of solvent to dried herbs and a one to one ratio of solvent to fresh herbs.

Several advantages of tinctures over capsules are the ease of absorption and assimilation, and the longer shelf life, as the alcohol acts to preserve the medicinal constituents. One disadvantage for some people is the use of alcohol as the extracting agent. Those who are alcohol sensitive or wish to avoid alcohol may prefer glycerites, extracts that use vegetable glycerin and water rather than alcohol. These extracts are often utilized for pets and children but have a shorter shelf life.

An herbal extract can be produced at home following readily available instructions. Many herbalists use vodka as the extracting agent as it contains both water and alcohol, assuring that a broad range of compounds is released from the plant. Some of the medicinal constituents of an herb are water soluble, while others are alcohol soluble. An alternate choice for producing a tincture is 100 percent grain alcohol. Pure alcohol may not be as effective and is often mixed with a specific quantity of water depending on the herb.

Herbal distillates are produced using steam distillation rather than solvents. They are created in conjunction with essential oil production. The essential oil separates from the water and is removed, leaving behind the fragrant herbal distillate, which contains dilute essential oil. Also called floral water or essential water, distillates are used for skin care and aromatherapy.

Medicinal herbs are a major component of alternative healing practices. Their use dates to prehistoric times, and they continued as one of the primary methods of treating illnesses until the early 20th century. Increasing numbers of people are using herbal products to maintain overall well-being and address specific health issues. Herbal extracts are readily found along with herbal pills and capsules and are categorized as dietary supplements.

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