Are Tinctures Magic Potions or Snake Oil?


Photo: Trunk Archive

As a stressed-out 30-something navigating the typical travails of work and life, I’m a big proponent of self-improvement. So yes, I’d like to lose a few pounds — five to eight, depending on the week — have clearer skin, and be less anxious. I combat these minor aggravations by working out (regularly), eating well (for the most part), meditating (occasionally) and taking (many) nutritional supplements.

But what if there were one more thing I could do to fine-tune my routine? Many alternative-medicine experts suggest tinctures, which have become popular amongst the health-minded fashion set. A tincture is a mix of alcohol, water, and herbs that have been steeped together for several weeks. The resulting liquid is an extract that supposedly can help with everything from sleep deprivation to migraines, depending on the specific herb’s healing properties. Tinctures can be made out of ingredients like chamomile, yarrow, and even marijuana and can be consumed though tea, a drop under the tongue, or a capsule.

There’s no denying that herbs can be powerful drugs. (Whether or not you agree with its legality, weed unequivocally packs a punch.) But are tinctures, in general, effective? And should we all be taking them?

What are the benefits of tinctures over traditional supplements? Tinctures should not replace supplements. Instead, they can be used to enhance — or complement — a supplement’s efficacy. Tinctures also tend to be stronger than supplements because they are easier to absorb. And, because they contain alcohol (a preservative), they last longer. “I give tinctures more than any other form of herbal remedy,” says David Wintston, a registered herbalist. He also sells his own line of tinctures called Herbalist & Alchemist.  (Those suffering from serious liver damage or struggling with alcohol abuse should avoid any tinctures made with alcohol, which is most of them.)

What ailments are tinctures especially good for?  Herbalists treat tinctures like traditional medicine: They prescribe different formulas for different symptoms, from acne to the common cold. At the Organic Pharmacy, a London-based company with U.S. retail locations in New York and Los Angeles, there are tincture formulas for aiding digestion (a mix featuring ginger, marshmallow, and other herbs), clearing up skin (red clover, chaste tree, marigold), relieving headaches (feverfew, skullcap, willow) and just about any other “issue” one might be facing. Stephanie Tourles, a licensed holistic aesthetician and author of "Hands-On Healing Remedies," suggests yarrow for acne. Echinacea can also help with acne, as well as foot fungus and psoriasis. Witch hazel is great for bruising, while lemon balm can be good for eczema.

Should you take tinctures every day, just as you do with vitamins?
Tinctures are meant to be taken in courses, not consistently. “Start by taking it for one week and then taking three or four days off,” suggests Tourles. “It’s a good way to let your body assimilate, and also judge your condition.” And even more important: Experts across the board stress that you should not take more than the recommended dosage. “Tinctures are stronger than tea or supplements,” says Winston. “You only need to take a tiny bit to get the same effect.”

How much do they cost?
Many of the age-old formulas — which have been used for thousands of years by alternative-medicine practitioners — are so simple and safe to produce that they can even be made at home with a proper recipe. But it’s more convenient to buy tinctures through herbalists, naturopaths, or online. To be sure, they’re not cheap. Herbalist & Alchemists formulas start at around $20, while the Organic Pharmacy’s begin at $24. And custom tinctures made by independent herbalists can cost upward of $85 a bottle. But here’s the good news: Doses are so small and potent that a bottle can last a long time.

Is it OK to take tinctures without consulting an alternative-medicine professional first?
Tinctures are generally considered very safe, but it’s not recommended that one go into it blindly, given that they also can be very powerful. “Good herbalists don’t treat diseases, we treat people,” says Winston. “There is not one herb that cures all headaches, or one herb that helps treat every form of depression. If you don’t have guidance, you might be underwhelmed by the results.” For those who still want to try tinctures independently, Tourles suggests reading a few books on alternative medicine, not just visiting a website forum. It’s also important to recognize that a tincture is not a magic potion.  “Before I even talk about herbs to anybody, I talk to them about diet,” she says. “Clean up your diet, cut out the crap, and exercise. Herbs are support mechanisms—the spice.”