Herbology 101

Types of herbs

History/uses/origins

The use of herbs is broad and varied. Generally speaking, an herb is any plant used for flavoring, medicine, or perfume. Herbs are used for both culinary and medicinal purposes to varying degrees. While pharmaceuticals in Western societies are typically more prevalent, non-industrialized societies including many Asian and African countries, use herbs in their primary health care. The World Health Organization estimated that some 80% of the populations of several Asian and African nations use herbal medicine as a principal aspect of their health care. As scientific evidence continues to support the effectiveness of herbal medicine, the use of herbs to treat patients is becoming increasingly accepted in the United States and Europe, where clinical health care dominates.

Herbs can be taken in several ways in order to treat bodily ailments or increase function. The most common ways to administer herbal treatments are in liquid form to be drunk by the patient. Whole herb consumption is also practiced through fresh, dried, or juice ingestion. The main preparations for herbs include tisanes, extracts, essential oils, aromatherapy, and whole herb consumption.

Tisanes (herbal teas)

Tisanes, or more commonly known as herbal teas, are made from the infusion or decoction of herbs or other plant materials in water. They are non-caffeinated beverages that can be served hot or cold and are often taken for their health benefits. They are particularly popular for their stimulant, relaxant, or sedative properties; other benefits are specific to the herbs used to make the tisane.

Extracts

Herbal extracts include liquid extracts, dry extracts, and nebulisates (which are dry extracts created by freeze-drying). Liquid extracts contain lower ethanol percentages than tinctures and are usually made by vacuum distilling tinctures. Dry extracts from herbs are collected through evaporation, and they can be refined into a capsule or tablet for easy consumption.

Tinctures

Tinctures are alcoholic extracts from herbs. They are made by combining pure ethanol with the herb, resulting in an ethanol percentage of at least 25%.

Essential oils

Essential oils are concentrated hydrophobic liquids containing the aroma compounds from herbs that are typically extracted through distillation. They are used in perfumes, cosmetics, and soaps, as well as for culinary flavoring, and are added to incense and cleaning products. There is skepticism as to how effective essential oils are in their medicinal properties, but they have been used in alternative medicines for centuries.

Aromatherapy (inhalation)

Herbs can also be inhaled, through a process called aromatherapy. Aromatherapy uses essential oils to create aromas for the purpose of altering a person’s mind, mood, or health. There is little clinical evidence to support the efficacy of aromatherapy treatment, but this is largely due to the lack of studies using rigorous methodology. There is evidence, however, that essential oils (when taken through inhalation) contain therapeutic properties. The main methods of administration are through direct inhalation, aerial diffusion (less direct), and topical applications in the form of scented oils and lotions.