Tincturing Chinese Herbs

I have basic instructions on making tinctures, percolations, and some other herbal products in my book. That section was not meant to be a “how-to” guide, but rather basic procedural information to educated the Chinese herbalist population who, for the most part, has little if any training and essentially no experience and understanding of the different products. It is my belief that, although you don’t need to become a plant pharmacist, it is important to understand how these products are made.
Tinctures are made two different ways. One is called maceration and is the most simple and traditional way of making a tincture, it is also the way that the Chinese herbal “wines” are made. It includes taking the herbs and grinding them to a powder and pouring the hydro-alcoholic solution over them and allowing them to macerate for about 2 weeks, shaking every day is recommended, but most people don’t do it. Note: Most of the Chinese preparations do not grind the herbs which is part of the reason they say to leave the herbs in the liquid for a much longer time period, along there are some other reasons that I won’t go into here. This method is also used with fresh herbs, although grinding is not as important. The herb to liquid ratio is somewhere between 1:10 and 1:2 depending on the herb and the alcohol percentage is between 20% and 95%, again depending on the herb. The standard ratio is 1:5 and the average alcohol percentage is probably somewhere around 45%. Most fresh plant tinctures are made with 95% alcohol (1:2) making the finished product somewhere between 40-75% alcohol, depending on the water content of the plant, most are somewhere around 60%. (As a side note, I often travel with the necessary tools to make tinctures here in China and have made a number of great preparations of plants that I have found from the mountains north of Beijing to the Qing Hai Plateau.) Herbs like aconite are tinctured fresh at 1:10, while I found andrographis to be best at 1:3.5 or 4 (can’t remember, but I think it was 1:3.5….sorry it has been a while.)
Percolation is a vastly different process and requires practice and some level of skill. First, you need a piece of equipment that needs to be purchased from a laboratory glass supplier. (Note: This can also be achieved by taking a bottle and cutting the bottle off it, but is limits the amount you can make and the shape of the neck of a bottle will often cause some problems, especially when you are learning.) The herbs are first ground to an appropriate powder size, this can be quite important and is part of the experimentation. Then they are soaked for at least several hours (I usually leave it for 12-24 hours) with just enough hydro-alcoholic solution to make them damp, so it has soaked up all the liquid is can and will not expand when you pack it into the percolator. Then the moist herb is gently packed into the percolator, again this is important and if it is packed too tightly it won’t drip and if it is not packed tight enough, the liquid will run right through it. The later can be controlled by a valve, that that is not optimal. The liquid is then poured into the percolator and the resulting liquid is captured in a bottle below. The entire process can be done in about 24 hours, but can be pushed to 12 hours depending on a number of factors. This is also the process that is used to make “fluid extracts,” which are a 1:1 ratio, but that process is more complicated, again it is discussed in my book.
A note: products like the Kan liquid extracts are NOT tinctures. They are produced in a closed system, I believe under pressure, although they won’t discuss it. I am not saying that is bad, just distinguishing them from the products I described above.
Another note: Making these hydro-alcoholic preparations is NOT the same as a traditional decoction (汤). The alcohol is a different solvent than water and will bring a number of different constituents into the solution that water either does poorly or not at all. In addition, the presence of the alcohol will block the water from dissolving, or completely dissolving some constituents. This means that you, essentially, have a new product and although it may work better or worse, it is different.
Final note: There is a process where you decoct an herb then add alcohol to preserve it is, in my opinion, not a particularly good preparation (not a bad preparation, but not the best way). There are a number of reasons, but one is that when you add alcohol to the decoction, the relationship between water and alcohol is such that the water will drop a lot of stuff out of solution to bond with the alcohol, leaving a thick muck at the bottom of your preparation. This can be mediated to some extent by adding glycerin to the product prior to adding the alcohol, but there will still be a good amount that falls out of solution. The product can still be used, but it must be shaken well before ingesting and it makes a thicker solution that some people find challenging to take. I have found that you need to get the alcohol up around 25% to really preserve it well and this amount of alcohol will denature or render inert a number of the things you are trying to preserve. That being said there are a few herbs that I still think are good this way, the one that comes to mind first is Ganoderma lucidum (灵芝) (and other species of mushrooms).
If you have my book there is more information about these and a number of other preparations, but the other books such as James Greene’s Medicine Makers Handbook and Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine are better if you are trying to learn how to make these products.
I hope this helps, I am more than willing to answer any questions you might have.
In Good Health,
ThomasA note added on 16 June 2010
Above I describe combining a decoction with a alcohol and at the end I mention making Ganoderma lucidumusing this method. Please allow me to correct myself. In this case I prefer to make a tincture with the mushroom first, press and bottle, THEN use the marc to produce a decoction. Finally, combine the tincture and the decoction (with the glycerin). The resulting product has extracted both the alcohol and water soluble constituents and is the best way to make an extract of many of the mushrooms, at least at home or in a low-tech lab.

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6 Responses to “Tincturing Chinese Herbs”

  1. Karen Vaughan January 23, 2012 5:17 pm
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    Thomas,

    For ling zhi, I prefer to boil first for an hour minimum to break down the chitin and to release the polysaccharides. I add a high alcohol tincture which gets terpenes and other alcohol-soluble constituents to that (either from new mushrooms, the marc or one previously done) with a resultant alcohol content of 25% so the polysaccharides don’t clump out. It is my understanding that the polysaccharides are inactivated by high alcohol and do not extract when alcohol is used first.

  2. thomas January 24, 2012 7:46 am
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    Dear Karen,

    I believe you are correct. One of the reasons I have done it this way is the question of storing the decoction while the tincture process is happening. But I suppose the decoction could be frozen or the marc could be composted (or tinctured for later use) and a previously made tincture could be use instead. I think I will try this method….I like it.

    Thanks for your comments.

    Thomas

  3. Cory Trusty - Aquarian Bath January 24, 2012 11:43 am
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    Aren’t there some herbs that need to be boiled to remove toxicity? I seem to recall Loquat leaf having a poison that is removed in decoction, but not necessarily in tincture. It has been too long for me to recall the source of that info, but I don’t think that is something taught in TCM b/c the traditional preparation is safe.

    I have tried tincturing Huang Qin and found it very inneffective compared to decoction.

    Shisandra berry.. awesome in tincture though.

  4. thomas January 24, 2012 4:48 pm
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    Dear Cory Trusty,

    I will need to look into the loquat leaf (Eriobotrya japonica) toxicity issue, I can’t say I have ever heard of this, thank you for bringing this to our attention as it could be very important information.

    I have been making Huang Qin (Scutellaria baicalensis) tincture for years and find it to be very effective as have many other herbalists I know. I wonder if you didn’t mean Huang Qi (Astragalus membranaceus), which I agree doesn’t make the best tincture without more special preparation such as is mentioned in the blog post by combining water and alcohol extracts, i.e. with Ling Zhi (Ganoderma lucidum).

    Thank you very much for your input.

    Thomas

    Up-date: I found this paper http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1754765/pdf/v063p01355.pdf that describes toxic myopathy in the use of Loquat leaves, however the paper specifically states that the person boiled the leaves. Feel free to post anything else that you might find.

  5. Cory Trusty - Aquarian Bath January 25, 2012 4:14 am
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    Thanks for looking into Loquat leaf. I think it is cyanide in the leaves that is denatured by boiled. I wish I could remember the source for the info. I don’t know if cyanide is modified in alcohol either.

    Huang Qin is what I meant. I used the decoction for years to treat tooth infections with my husband. Switching to tincture was a big failure, but on the positive side he ended up having to go get all his teeth pulled because of it and now (finally) has dentures.

  6. thomas January 25, 2012 5:40 am
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    Dear Cory,

    I could only find one paper with the chemical constituents of loquat leaf and this is what they listed: Nine triterpenes were isolated and identified as methyl betuliate (I), oleanolic acid (II), ursolic acid (III), methyl maslinate (IV), methyl corosolate, (methyl 2alpha-3alpha-dihydroxyurs-12-en-28-oate, V), maslinic acid (VI), corosolic acid (VII), tormentic acid (VIII), euscaphic acid (IX) from loquat leaf.

    No sign of cyanide and I would think they would list it, although it would take more than one paper for me to rule it out completely.

    As for the huang qin tincture, I am not sure what to say. I have found it very effective, in fact I think it is excellent as a tincture.

    I have a significant amount of personal experience treating toothache with herbs and to be honest, it is not a very good method in my opinion. Temporary fix is the best one can hope for. Perhaps in your husbands case you had merely reached the point where herbs were not going to address the issue.

    Thanks for your comments. I hope you enjoy some of the other posts here. I welcome your comments.

    Thomas

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