The art of making medicinal teas

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In our fast-paced world, the art of making medicinal teas is giving way to more “efficient” forms of medicine such as pills and tinctures. However there is something therapeutic in the very act of making and drinking tea – in taking the time to care for ourselves and our loved ones, and to play an active role in our own wellbeing. It’s a form of self-nurture, a positive, reflective ritual and one of the few forms of medicine that we can manufacture ourselves at home.

While more fiddly and time-consuming than popping pills or getting a herbal quick fix through tinctures, preparing herbal teas gives you more freedom and control over the end product, and according to extraordinary herbalist Rosemary Gladstar (my new teacher) can be more effective for chronic problems. And when you think about it, this makes sense. While acute problems may respond better to a quick fix, it seems fitting that chronic problems require consistency over an extended period of time – making herbal teas the perfect fit!

That being said, herbal teas can also be used to help with acute problems but more on that later…

So how do you make medicinal teas?

Infusions and decoctions are the two most common methods of extracting the active constituents of herbs into hot water.

Infusions

In general we create infusions when preparing the more delicate parts of the plants, such as flowers, leaves and fruits. As these parts of the plant are generally higher in volatile oils (which evaporate quickly) we want to avoid boiling the herbs at all cost! Roots high in volatile oil such as valerian and goldenseal also fall under this category.

To prepare an infusion, simply place the herbs in a container with a tight fitting lid (I use a simple glass jar), pour boiling water over them and allow to steep for 10-20 minutes. The length of time will depend on the herb you are using but in general is a lot longer than we are used to when preparing tea with a tea bag. Once your infusion is ready, strain off the plant matter and enjoy!

Decoction

In general, decocotions are used to extract consituents from the tougher parts of the plants such as bark, roots and other dense matter.

To prepare a decocotion, place herbs in a pot of boiling water and simmer for 15 to 20 mintues over a low heat. Or alternatively place herbs in cold water, slowly bring to the boil, then simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Whatever method you use, remember to keep a tight fitting lid on the pot at all times so all the goodness doesn’t escape! As for your pot – ceramic, stainless steel and cast iron are all good options.

Proportions and dosage

When it comes to proportions, the age-old tradition is one teaspoon per cup. But in reality, since most herbal teas are safe and non-toxic, it’s really a matter of taste. As a guiding principle, start with 2 or 3 teaspoons of herb for a litre of water and see how you go. But of course always do your research, check precuations for individual herbs (particularly while pregnant or breastfeeding) and take extra care with young children.

As for dosage, in order for medicinal teas to be effective, they must be used consistently. In general, for acute conditions, small amounts (try a quarter of a cup) are taken frequently until symptoms subside. While for chronic conditions larger amounts (such as a cup) are taken less frequently (3-4 times per day) over several months.

Good quality herbs

The better quality herbs, the better the brew. While it’s best to use fresh, organic herbs from your own backyard or widcrafted in nature (no need for drying!), you can also find good quality dried herbs from your local market, health shop, or online. In the US, Mountain Rose Herbs has an amazing selection of organic herbs complete with information regarding medicinal uses and precautions. They also have a great post on how to make your own herbal blends here.

For Aussie readers you can try Mullum HerbsThe Herbal Connection, or Austral Herbs (choose the organic or wildcrafted ranges) or better yet, buy a small plant from Byron Bay Herbs and grow it yourself!

Wherever you get your herbs from, use your senses to measure their quality. The closer dried herbs look, taste, and smell to their fresh counterparts, the better.

Which herbs? 

There are hundreds of herbs in common usage to treat every illness imaginable so have fun reserching, experimenting and blending. To get you started, here are a few popular, medicinal herbs that you can find almost anywhere.

  • Chamomile: A safe, mild sedative, good for calming nerves and relaxing little ones.
  • Catnip:  Used as a cold and flu remedy, a mild sedative and to ease tummy upsets .
  • Ginger: An old favourite for colds and flus mixed with lemon and honey.
  • Hibiscus flowers: Known to lower blood pressure and popular as a natural diuretic.
  • Nettle leaf: Deeply nutritious with high mineral, vitamin and chlorophyll content and widespread uses including treating ezcema, allergies, osteoathritis and anaemia, reducing bleeding and balancing female hormones.
  • Peppermint: Famous for its fresh flavour, it is both a stimulant and a relaxant – stimulateing the circulation yet soothing the nerves. It is used to treat indigestion, nausea, diarrhea, colds, headache and cramps.

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