When looking for herbal remedies, you will often find many different formulations of the same plant. The most common ones are tinctures, glycerin extracts, dried whole herbs, powdered extracts and standardized extracts. For health benefits, tinctures are usually best. However, each formulation has its own pros/cons which might make it a better option for you.
The best way to take an herbal remedy for health benefits is as a standardized extract containing the entire plant. Standardized extracts tend to be pricy. If you can’t afford them, then alcohol extracts are usually the second-best option. Mucilage plants like mullein and marshmallow are better taken as a glycerin extract.
Tinctures (Alcohol Extracts)
Alcohol extracts are made by soaking dried plant matter in ethanol alcohol. Vodka, which contains 40% ethanol alcohol, is commonly used to make tinctures at home. After soaking for several weeks, the plant matter is strained out. Because almost all health-promoting compounds of the plant – including oils and phytochemicals – dissolve into the alcohol, the alcohol becomes highly concentrated.
The alcohol extraction method works great for most herbs. There are exceptions though. Resins and mucilages (such as in mullein or marshmallow root) are damaged by alcohol.
Because it is so concentrated, you only need a few drops of a tincture to get health benefits. Alcohol is also readily absorbed by the body, so you get the nutrients faster. The alcohol also helps preserve the healthy compounds.
Even though alcohol tinctures are a cheap and reliable way to extract plant compounds, a lot of people are put off by the idea of taking alcohol – especially if the formula is for kids. However, the amount of alcohol in a tincture is very small. Studies show that the alcohol in tinctures is safe for children.
- Great extraction ability
- Very long shelf life
- Alcohol sensitivity
- Not suitable for all herbs
Glycerin extracts are made by soaking dried herb in glycerin for several weeks and then straining out the herb matter. While glycerin is good at extracting many plant nutrients, it isn’t as powerful a solvent as alcohol, so glycerin extracts won’t be as potent. They also don’t last as long, so the extract will need to be used within a year. However, because glycerin extracts don’t contain alcohol and have a naturally-sweet taste, a lot of people prefer these. It’s also the best way to extract mucilage from plants as this would be damaged by alcohol.
- Decent extraction ability
- Poor shelf life
- Weaker final product
- Not good at extracting alkaloids
Dried Herbs (Whole or Powdered)
Dried herbs are usually steeped to make a tea or, with dried powders, put into smoothies. A lot of people are drawn towards dried herbs because they are less-processed and thus “more natural.” However, in the case of herbal remedies, less-processed doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is better.
The main problem with dried herbs is that their quality can vary drastically. For example, the herb could have been grown in poor soil or harvested before it had time to completely develop its nutrients. This is sometimes also the case with extracts but extracts can be standardized whereas dried plants are not.
Another issue with dried whole herbs is that their nutrients break down quickly. Powdered whole herbs have more surface area exposed to oxygen, so they lose their healthy compounds particularly quickly. You may still get benefits but will have to take much more to get the same benefits as an extract.
- Usually the most affordable option
- Can forage and dry them yourself
- Must consume a lot of the herb to get health benefits
- Lose potency over time
- Herb may have a bad taste
Not to be confused with dried herbs, a dried powder extract is made by soaking the herb in a solvent. The solvent is then evaporated, leaving behind a powdered form of the herb’s healthy compounds. Manufacturers will often add some dried plant matter or fillers so they can put the powdered extract into a capsule.
Dried powdered extracts are very potent and it only takes a small amount to get health benefits. They also don’t contain alcohol. The only real downside is that they tend to be very expensive because higher-tech equipment is used to make them.
- Very potent
- Often sold in convenient capsules
When an extract is “standardized,” it means that the extract was tested and contains a specific amount of a certain compound. For example, a standardized turmeric extract might contain 70% curcumin.
There are two ways that standardization is done. The first method involves making the extract as normal then testing to see how much of a certain compound the extract contains. This ensures quality and potency – a major benefit to customers since they know they won’t be getting extracts made from poor-quality herbs with few nutrients. Since the extract contains a high amount of one compound, it is reasonable to assume that there will be high levels of the plant’s other compounds too.
The second method of standardization involves isolating a specific compound from the herb. This is usually done with a solvent that specifically binds to the compound. The final product will contain that compound and virtually no other compounds from the plant.
This second method is very controversial because it assumes that a single compound in the herb is responsible for all its health benefits. Yet, we know that plant compounds work together in synergy to provide health benefits.
- Guaranteed level of potency
- Only need to take a small amount to get benefits
- Sometimes only extract one nutrient from the plant; don’t contain all the health-promoting parts