What Is a Tincture?

A Popular Way to Dose Herbs Under the Tongue

Medically reviewed by Femi Aremu, PharmD

A tincture is a concentrated liquid extract of an herb. Tinctures are made by soaking plant material (e.g., leaves, flowers, seeds, or roots) in a solvent like alcohol or vinegar, which draws out the active compounds in the healing herb.

While cannabis tinctures have seen a recent surge in popularity, the use of herbal tinctures dates back centuries. Numerous plant tinctures offer potential health benefits.

This article discusses the various types of tinctures, their alcohol content, and how to make and use herbal tinctures.

<p>Emilija Manevska / Getty Images</p>

Emilija Manevska / Getty Images

Herbal Tinctures and Their Uses

Herbal tinctures are plant-based remedies used for millennia, with historical records of their use in ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt. Modern research confirms many plants contain therapeutic properties that may provide health benefits.

Echinacea

Echinacea, a flowering herbaceous plant native to North America, is best known for its immune-boosting benefits. Loaded with antioxidant properties, echinacea extracts may prevent or shorten the duration of upper respiratory infections like the common cold.

People with allergies may find relief from symptoms like runny nose, coughing, and sneezing with the help of echinacea extracts. Evidence suggests echinacea suppresses the release of histamine—a chemical the immune system releases in response to allergies.

Echinacea extracts also have antibacterial properties that may promote wound healing and prevent infection when applied topically (directly to the skin). 

Lemon Balm

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a member of the mint family and is valued for its calming and uplifting properties. Studies suggest that lemon balm may improve mood by relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Lemon balm may also improve cognitive function by boosting memory, focus, and alertness.

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has a rich history in India's ancient system of medicine known as Ayurveda. Ashwagandha's adaptogenic properties may help manage stress by regulating cortisol (stress hormone) levels and supporting the nervous system. Studies suggest ashwagandha may reduce stress-related symptoms by promoting a sense of calm, improving mental clarity and sleep quality, and boosting energy levels.

Ashwagandha's anti-inflammatory properties may also reduce inflammation associated with inflammatory conditions like arthritis, and its analgesic (pain-relieving) effects may ease joint pain. However, more robust research is needed to determine its impact on pain and inflammation.

Tulsi (Holy Basil)

Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum), also known as holy basil, is a revered herb in India with many uses in Ayurvedic medicine. Studies suggest tulsi enhances the immune system's response to viruses by stimulating specific immune cells, which may prevent or treat certain viral infections, including bronchitis.

Tulsi is rich in antioxidant compounds, which may combat free radical damage, reduce inflammation throughout the body, and protect against conditions associated with chronic inflammation (e.g., heart disease, cancer).

Clinical trials show tulsi helps improve insulin resistance and lower blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome (a group of symptoms that can lead to type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease).

Tulsi extracts may also protect against specific type 2 diabetes complications like heart disease by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Chamomile

German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is a daisy-like herbaceous flower with the following properties:

  • Antioxidant

  • Antibacterial

  • Anti-inflammatory

  • Antianxiety

  • Antidepressant

  • Anti-allergic

  • Analgesic (pain-relieving) properties

Chamomile has sedative effects that some suggest may improve sleep quality, though research results are mixed.

Chamomile supplementation may benefit people with mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Research shows chamomile may help reduce moderate to severe anxiety symptoms and improve depression symptoms in people with major depressive disorder.

Chamomile may also relieve gastrointestinal discomfort such as bloating, indigestion, stomach pain, and gas. Chamomile has antispasmodic properties that relax muscles in the digestive tract, effectively treating diarrhea and reducing stomach cramping and pain.

CBD/THC (Cannabis)

Cannabis tinctures come in different forms, such as the following, offering a customizable way to benefit from cannabinoids—medicinal compounds in cannabis plants:

  • CBD tinctureCannabidiol (CBD) tinctures contain mostly cannabidiol, a nonpsychoactive compound that offers therapeutic benefits of compounds in cannabis plants without the psychoactive "high," which comes from tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). CBD tinctures contain less than 0.3% delta-9 THC, the main psychoactive component of cannabis. CBD tinctures are effective for treating epilepsy and may help manage pain, inflammation, and anxiety.

  • THC tincture: THC tincture primarily contains delta-9 THC. THC tinctures may help manage chronic pain, promote sleep, stimulate appetite, and enhance mood.

  • CBD/THC tincture: This combination contains CBD and THC, blending the potential therapeutic effects of both compounds into one tincture. People use CBD/THC tinctures for pain relief, managing symptoms of anxiety and depression, improving sleep, and reducing nausea, though research on its effectiveness is ongoing.

Tincture Formulations With Alcohol

Alcohol is a key component of many tincture formulations. Alcohol is a solvent that does the following:

  • Effectively extracts beneficial plant compounds

  • Extends the shelf life of herbal tinctures

  • Improves the stability of the tincture and its components

The type of alcohol in tinctures depends on the intended use of the tincture. Herbal tinctures taken orally contain ethyl alcohols, such as vodka or food-grade ethanol. Herbal tinctures for topical use may contain isopropyl alcohol, but these are not for internal use and may have harmful or adverse effects when ingested.

Alcohol concentrations also vary, depending on the plant parts and type of herb involved in making the tincture. Generally, higher alcohol concentrations draw out more of the plant's medicinal compounds. Here's a quick overview of alcohol concentrations in herbal tincture formulations:

  • 80- to 90-proof vodka (40% to 50% alcohol by volume): The standard alcohol of choice for most tinctures; excellent solvent when using dried herbs or fresh herbs that do not have high water content

  • Half 80-proof vodka and half 190-proof grain alcohol (67.5% to 70% alcohol by volume): Excellent for extracting properties from fresh herbs or high-moisture herbs like lemon balm or when using plant roots, berries, or seeds

  • 190-proof grain alcohol (85% to 95% alcohol by volume): Good solvent for resins, gums, and barks, but not necessary for most herbal tincture recipes using plant leaves, flowers, or roots 

Alcohol-Free Tinctures

While alcohol is the most popular solvent for herbal tincture formulations, other liquids are used as solvents for alcohol-free tinctures, as follows: 

  • Glycerine: Vegetable glycerine is a clear, sweet-tasting liquid many people use in tinctures for its ability to extract a wide range of plant compounds. This solvent is especially effective when making tinctures with fresh herbs and is safe for children and pregnant people.

  • Vinegar: Apple cider and white vinegar are popular alcohol-free solvent choices for making extracts with dried and fresh herbs.

  • Honey: Soaking herbs in honey and apple cider vinegar produces oxymels (an herbal extraction with a honey or vinegar base). Some prefer oxymels for the sweet taste and honey's additional health benefits.

The choice to use an alcohol-based tincture or tinctures made with other solvents is personal and depends on your health needs and preferences.

How to Make Homemade Tinctures

While there are many commercially available tincture options, creating your own tinctures allows for customization with the plants you work with. Before you begin, gather the necessary materials, such as:

  • Fresh or dried herbs: Choose high-quality herbs from your garden, local farmer's market, or grocery store. Fresh herbs offer a more vibrant flavor, while dried herbs have a longer shelf life.

  • Choose your solvent: If using alcohol, choose a grain alcohol like Everclear (high-proof alcohol) or vodka. Ensure it is labeled "food-grade" for safe consumption. If you choose alcohol-free options, choose organic vinegar, local honey, or food-grade vegetable glycerine.

  • Glass jars: Use sterilized jars with tight-fitting lids. Mason jars are a popular option.

  • Labels: Clearly label your jars with the herb, the date of preparation, and the date it is ready for use.

Making herbal tinctures is a straightforward process that includes the following few, simple steps:

  1. Prepare the herbs: Wash fresh herbs thoroughly and dry completely. Chop or grind dried herbs.

  2. Fill the jar: Fill 75% of the jar with dried or fresh herbs.

  3. Cover with solvent: Completely submerge the herbs in alcohol or your solvent of choice, ensuring they remain submerged before placing the lid on the jar.

  4. Seal and store: Tightly seal the jar and store it in a cool, dark place away from direct sunlight for two to eight weeks.

  5. Shake it up: Gently shake the jar a few times weekly to redistribute the herbs.

  6. Strain and bottle: Strain the tincture through cheesecloth or a coffee filter into a clean glass bottle after several weeks. Discard the plant material.

  7. Label and store: Label your bottle clearly and store it in a cool, dark place. 

Depending on the type of solvent you use, the shelf life of tinctures varies:

  • Alcohol-based: Three to five years

  • Glycerine-based: One to two years

  • Honey-based: Six to 12 months

  • Vinegar-based: Six months

Side Effects From Tinctures

Herbal tinctures offer a natural approach to wellness, but "natural" does not necessarily mean "safe." Tinctures and other herbal medicines can cause various side effects, including:

  • Allergic reactions (e.g., skin rash, sneezing, runny nose, itchiness)

  • Asthma

  • Diarrhea

  • Dry mouth

  • Fatigue

  • Headaches

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Rapid heart rate 

  • Seizures 

In some cases, herbal remedies may cause liver damage or life-threatening anaphylactic allergic reactions. Some herbs can interact with prescription or over-the-counter medications or other dietary supplements, potentially altering their effects or causing adverse reactions.

Always consult a healthcare provider before using herbal tinctures if taking medications or supplements.

Tincture Dosing

Compared to conventional medicines, the research on herbal tinctures is less extensive, and no standardized regulations or established dose ranges exist. The potency of herbal tinctures varies widely depending on the solvent, specific herb, and herb-to-solvent ratio in specific tinctures.

Most commercially available herbal tinctures come with dosage recommendations on the label/packaging, but it's important to remember—these are just recommendations, and individual experiences and dosage needs can vary.

Consult a healthcare provider before starting any new supplement, including herbal tinctures. They will discuss potential interactions with medications you take, determine whether the tincture is the right fit for you, and suggest a safe and effective dosage.

Summary

Herbal tinctures offer a natural way to benefit from the many health-promoting compounds in plants. Made by soaking plant parts (e.g., leaves, flowers) in a solvent like alcohol or vinegar, herbal tinctures may offer an easy, natural way to support your physical and mental health.

Herbal tinctures can have side effects, so it's important to discuss your plan to use them with a healthcare provider before adding them to your wellness routine.

Read the original article on Verywell Health.