Alcohol extracts have been a part of pretty much every indigenous herbal tradition everywhere, forever! Certain types of artisan made alcohol are considered to have genuine medicinal qualities for different constitutional types when consumed in the right amount and with a certain degree of wisdom. Alcohol consumption wasn’t always about the excessive indulgence of mass produced, industrial scale garbage. None-the-less, some people have concerns about the use of alcohol in preparing herbal extracts and question whether it is safe or even necessary.
There are so many different herbal constituents that can be extracted in a variety of ways – it really depends on which herbs we are working with and what the desired outcome may be. But we often find alcohol being used as a solvent in herbal tinctures so let’s take a look at why it is used in this way, and at some of the pros and cons:
- Alcohol is one of the few “edible’ substances that can very effectively extract many important herbal constituents that are not water-soluble, including many alkaloids, essential oils, many of the plant sterols and some terpene compounds and resins amongst other things.
- Alcohol is an excellent preservative that can maintain the potency of the herbal extract for many years – pretty much indefinitely to be honest if the alcohol volume is 30% or above.
- Alcohol seriously increases the absorption capacity of the medicine by allowing it to directly enter the bloodstream via the capillaries under the tongue and within the walls of the cheeks, bypassing digestion almost completely. Even if the tincture is swallowed straight away, alcohol is one of the select few substances that pass through the wall of the stomach almost immediately (which is why drinking alcohol has such a quick effect on our mental state). So even if swallowed straight away it can enter the bloodstream prior to completing the usual digestion/absorption process of other substances.
- Alcohol-based tinctures can enable us to create very potent extracts that can deliver a concentrated dose of herbal medicine in only a very small quantity of alcohol. For example, one dose (30 drops) of a liquid extract that has about 50% abv (alcohol by volume) will only contain as much alcohol as you would find in 5ml of 5% beer, which is one 65th of a small can. This is also approximately an 85th of a standard 8oz glass of red wine. To put it another way, it is about as much alcohol as you would find in one over-ripe banana – the kind that has gone black and mushy and is starting to ferment. From that perspective, it really isn’t much at all.
- Alcohol in safe, very low, medicinal quantities can help to dilate the various channels of the body and open the meridian pathways, allowing the improved systemic circulation of fluids and qi. This can only support the utilisation of any medicine we are consuming.
- People with a history of extreme alcohol abuse may benefit greatly from certain herbs but feel that they can’t go anywhere near alcohol of any description, no matter how small the quantity. This is perfectly understandable and if tinctures are necessary then glycerin-based extracts are an option, but while glycerin might be a pretty good preservative, its ability to extract is not nearly as effective as alcohol, especially when dealing with resins and oily constituents. It really depends on the herb in question and what you are trying to extract from it. Another alternative is vinegar-based tinctures, but these are far less potent than alcohol tinctures and don’t last nearly as long. Still, it’s an option if alcohol just cannot be used. Otherwise alcohol-based tinctures can be diluted by adding the dose to water and further reducing the alcohol volume so that it is literally undetectable to the palette.
- Another important consideration here is people that have a strong predominance of the fire element within their constitution or are experiencing some form of pathology that has a hot and fiery nature. This will often mean inflammation of some sort and/or liver congestion or gallbladder issues which can often be symptomatically visible as jaundice or swollen, yellow/red eyes. In such cases these people should avoid alcohol of all kinds. Liver cirrhosis is a good example of this. Often people like this don’t need such a high concentration of nutrients and plant constituents anyway, and the healing process is usually a lot more effective when any medicine consumed has a cooler and more diluted nature.
So generally speaking, good quality alcohol is an excellent solvent for extracting a lot of valuable herbal constituents. Sometimes a 50%/100 proof alcohol can be used to extract both the alcohol and water soluble fractions of a plant. If the plant is quite soft and lightweight, the water fraction of the alcohol (50% alcohol & 50% water) will extract the water soluble contents of the plant, and the more astringent the alcohol is, the easier this process will be. Other times a much stronger 95% ethanol may be necessary (when dealing with certain roots, barks or wood-like polypore fungi) but can often be complemented with a second, water-based extract and combined to make a dual-extract – depending on which herb is being used.
So while they are some instances where alcohol-based extracts are not the ideal option, I think that most of the concern and apprehension around using alcohol as a menstruum is unfounded and based on the natural hygiene fallacy that alcohol of any amount is toxic to the liver. In truth, such a minute amount doesn’t pose any adverse health risks, quite the opposite actually. Used intelligently and strategically it can be one of the ultimate means for extracting, preserving and delivering high grade medicine into the body.