Sunday, 3 July 2016

Herbal eye care

Our five senses are precious componants of who we are. Too often, we don’t think about them until something happens.

Eyesight is fragile. It can be lost in a moment and professional services via the GP or Accident & Emergency must be accessed if your sight suddenly fails. My mother lost the sight in one eye through a central retinal detachment and didn’t know she should act immediately, waiting until the next day to contact her GP when it was too late. Find out where your nearest specialist eye centre is and have plans in place to go there as fast as you can should the worst happen.

Similarly, if you or your child contract an eye infection which causes the eyelid to swell shut, if it doesn’t respond to treatment after three days seek further medical advice. I once had a client whose daughter had an eye infection but failed to return to the GP for more than a week. The infection was bacterial and the child lost the sight in that eye. The mother blamed the GP for failure to diagnose but there was nothing which could have been done because of the time lapse.

As we grow older, our organs begin to fade. It’s as well to understand what is happening so help can be sought sooner rather than later. The RNIB produce a wealth of information about many eye conditions which tell you what the condition is, how it can be recognised, what tests are used and how it is treated. They also have a helpline for anyone who wants to talk about their eyes and the impact a condition may be having on their life. NHS choices also provides online information about eye conditions which includes self-help advice.

For those of us who have access to herbs, there is much we can do to help ourselves. Most home herbal eye care advice is limited to tired or sore eyes with the author stating that anything further is beyond their scope. In my search amongst those published herbalists I turn to first, only three authors provide a wide-ranging description of eye function, health and herbal support – Anne McIntyre, Matthew Wood and Thomas Bartram. The latter, as befits a Herbal Encyclopaedia, provides so much information it’s difficult to know where to start and when to stop.

Protective nutrition and herbs for eye health

The food you eat will protect your eyes. Antioxidant carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin protect eyes from oxidative stress and high-energy light. A diet rich in dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, peas and broccoli along with calendula, squash, sweetcorn and eggs will help. Lutein is present in the macula. A lutein-rich diet can help prevent macular degeneration, both wet and dry and cataracts.

We also need high levels of vitamins A, C and E, fatty acids such as omega-3s found in oily fish, walnuts, soya beans and flax seeds. Copper is another essential trace element found in nuts, sunflower seeds, liver, beans and lentils. Maintaining good vision with a healthy macular also requires zinc from oysters, beans, nuts, red meat and poultry.

To help prevent cataracts by boosting the action of the antioxidant, gluthione in the aqueous humour, add elderberries or blueberries/bilberries to your diet. Herbs with a similar action to anthocyanidins, which protect blood vessels in the eye, preventing poor night vision and retinal disorders include astralagus root, milk thistle, turmeric and garlic.

Herbs which strengthen blood vessels within the eye and inhibit macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy include antioxidant herbs such as elderberry, hawthorn berries, rosemary, thyme, sage, marjoram, selfheal and ashwagandha.

Herbs which increase circulation to and from the eye include rosemary, gingko, eyebright, vervain and peppermint.

Practical eye care  

The key aspect to eye care is to make sure everything you use is clean and, in many cases, sterile. It is better to use a decoction of herbs rather than a herbal tea if you are aiming for a long-term treatment.

A decoction is made by bringing 2-5ozs/50-125g of dried or fresh herb in 1pt/0.56 litres of water to the boil in a lidded saucepan then simmer gently for 10-20 minutes before straining into a container which is kept in the fridge for up to 36 hours or so. Make sure there is no debris in the strained liquid. You may need a pass it through a second filter such as muslin or a coffee filter.

To extend the life of a decoction, you can put half in the fridge and freeze the other half either in ice cube trays or in a suitable container. These can then be brought out when the first half has been used up.

It is wise to invest in a set of eyebaths and learn how to use them properly, making sure the bath for each eye is kept separate by marking them on the base and don’t share the fluid inside them after a first use.

If you find an eyebath stinging your eyes, add a few grains of salt so the liquid is brought up to the same concentration as tears and won’t sting.

If you are dealing with an eye infection, wash your hands with hot water and soap before and after treatment and ensure the patient has a set of towels for their own use. Every parent knows how fast an eye infection can pass around a family!

If you don’t have a set of eye baths, the bottom part of a tea-strainer can be used but it is too wide to be really effective.

The most common way to deliver herbal eye care is through a compress. This can be made from a scrap of material (preferably cotton), a circle of cotton wool (those sold to remove eye makeup can be useful) or a folded piece of kitchen towel. The compress is dipped in the herbal solution, squeezed to remove excess moisture (otherwise it runs down your neck!) then placed over each eye while you either lie in a prone position, or sit with your head back (so the compress doesn’t fall off!) for fifteen minutes of more.

Herbal support for common eye conditions


The herb which everyone turns to for eye infections and inflammations, including conjunctivitis and blepharitis is eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis). It can be made into a tea by adding 1tsp of dried herb to 1 cup of boiling water then steep for ten to fifteen minutes before straining through several layers of muslin. When it has reached room temperature, pour it into an eyebath and use as a douche and drink the remainder as a cup of tea. It is not unpleasant.

If you don’t have access to dried eyebright, add 5-10 drops of eyebright tincture to an eyebath containing cooled, boiled water. If this stings your eye, reduce the amount of tincture. If using a drop dose it is always advisable to start with the least number and build up over time rather than going for the maximum dose first.

Do be aware that eyebright is astringent/drying, so if you are using it for any length of time you may need to introduce a mucilagenous herb such as marshmallow to counteract the effects.


Eyebright, chickweed and expressed breast milk applied externally can all be helpful in combatting eye infections. Support these remedies with antimicrobial herbs such as Echinacea, goldenseal, burdock, red clover and liquorice taken internally. These herbs will not only help combat infection but will also boost immunity and detoxify the system.

Itchy eyes

Bathe in a solution of chickweed tea, steeped for ten minutes and allowed to cool. If you suffer with hay fever or other allergic eye conditions then chamomile, nettle, lemon balm, yarrow, feverfew and Baikal skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) all have antihistamine actions can bring relief. Matthew Wood recommends goldenrod for hay fever and also for cat allergies.

Tired eyes

Cover a chamomile or fennel teabag with boiled water and allow to cool until just warm then apply to closed eyes as you would a compress.

Sore, inflamed eyes (especially from computer usage)

Make a tea from elderflower, chamomile, calendula, plantain and roses, steep for fifteen minutes, strain and apply as a compress for ten to fifteen minutes, several times a day. These herbs can be used individually as well as in combination. Tea made from small amounts of all the herbs is incredibly soothing.

Dry eyes

Dry eyes often come with aging for no apparent reason. The condition can be linked with blockages in the Meibomian glands which secrete oil to prevent tears evaporating. If there is any solidified oil, you can apply a very hot flannel to the eye for two minutes, then soak the warm cloth in a herbal solution and gently rub along the lash line of the upper and lower lids.

The best herbal combination I have found for dry eyes is an equal mixture of eyebright and goldenrod. Goldenrod is indicated where there is a underlying kidney issue and exhaustion.


“itis” means inflammation of a particular tissue, so conjunctivitis describes an irritation of the lining of the eyes caused by infection, allergies, dust or pollution in the atmosphere. The eye becomes red and inflamed and weeps copious tears.

To treat this condition, infusions of astringent and antiseptic herbs are called for such as eyebright, calendula, chamomile, elderflower and rose. These can be used to bathe the eye and be taken internally.


Blepharitis describes the condition when eyelids become red and inflamed. Sufferers are often told it is incurable but herbal remedies can be helpful. The condition often indicates depleted immunity, a toxic system or allergy, so if these conditions are addressed there will often be an improvement.

Chronic conjunctivitis and blepharitis may improve when dairy products, tea and coffee are removed from the diet and supplements of vitamins C and B are taken. It might also be helpful to experiment with Herb Robert to see if a depleted immune system can be reversed.


Styes occur when there is inflammation or infection in glands at the base of the eyelashes. They tend to occur when the sufferer is run-down or tired. Again, astringent and antiseptic herbs can be helpful in alleviating the often painful condition, whilst the individual must take responsibility for resting and improving their diet.


Bartam, T Herbal Encyclopaedia of Herbal Medicine 1998 Constable and Robinson
McIntyre, A The Complete Herbal Tutor 2010 Octopus Books
Ody, P “Herbs for eye complaints” in Herbs Vol 41 No2
Wood, M The Book of Herbal Wisdom 1997 North Atlantic Books

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Revising the basics: Tinctures

What is a tincture?

Tincture is the name given to the liquid produced when a herb is extracted in alcohol. Each plant is made up of many different chemical constituents and different ones are soluble in different menstrums (liquid mediums). This means some parts dissolve better in water, some in alcohol, minerals in vinegar etc.

Since prehistoric times, herbs have been associated with alcohol. Nettles, alecost, mugwort and meadowsweet have a long history within brewing because they both flavoured the beer and ensured it didn’t go bad too quickly. Hops replaced other herbs in brewing during medieval times because they had a greater antiseptic effect on the beer. Stephen Buhner also believes it was the first herbal contraceptive encouraged by the church because hops depress male hormones!

Ancient herbalists, such as Galen and Culpepper talk at length about infusing herbs in wine, mainly because wine was cheap and easily obtainable and patients would be happy to drink their medicine if it came in a form they enjoyed. Some herbs were used to ferment and make into wine, which then had a medicinal effect. Coltsfoot flowers were used for asthma and other bronchial troubles, elderflowers make a cooling champagne for summer while elderberries made a deep rich wine to ward off winter infections.

Tinctures as we know them today are normally made with spirits, rather than wine. The spirit most used in the UK is vodka. This is because the quality of the vodka does not affect its ability to extract the herb, so you can always buy the cheapest brand rather than the most expensive as you would with brandy.

How do you make a tincture?

A spirit will extract both alcoholic and water soluble constituents of a herb. You can only buy 100% alcohol in the UK if you have a license from the Government and you have to account for every drop you use. Non-license holders should consider what they wish to extract and how much money they wish to pay to do so. Henriette Kress recommends drying a herb before tincturing and using the strongest alcohol you can afford.

If you are using pure alcohol, such as Everclear, you have to add water to the mixture before you add the herb. The proportions are best found in the late Michael Moore’s table .  This is a comprehensive list of herbs which Moore considers extract well in alcohol giving the percentage of alcohol to use and proportion of herb:alcohol as well as the dosage and contraindications.

If you are new to preparing tinctures, percentages and proportions can seem very daunting. If you are making herbal medicines for yourself and your family or friends, there is a simple way which gives fairly consistent results, bearing in mind that the quality/components of a herb will vary year on year depending on growing conditions, amount of sunlight, rain, time of harvest, age and maturity of plant etc.

If you want to make a concentrated tincture, you can dry your herb before tincturing. If you are happy to use fresh plant material, you can either use it straight from picking or leave it to wilt overnight or for 2-4 days, making sure it is not exposed to strong sunlight. Wilting time can be useful to encourage insects to leave your herbs.

To prepare a tincture, fill a screw-top glass jar of any size with your fresh or dried herb. Don't pack the dried herb in too tightly or it will absorb all the liquid and you won't make much tincture. Pour vodka over the herb and “podge” it with a chopstick to get all the air bubbles out, top up the vodka again and screw the lid on firmly.

Leave the jar to stand in a cool, dark place for at least three weeks. Shake the bottle every day. When you decide that it has had long enough, decant the tincture through a plastic sieve into a jug and then pour the liquid into a glass bottle. If the menstrum (i.e. the liquid) is very cloudy, you might want to filter again through a piece of muslin or coffee filter paper. Make sure the bottle top fits securely.

Date and label the bottle so that you know what it is and who made it and when it was made. Tinctures should keep for at least 2 years in a cool dark place, as long as you don't leave the top off and let all the alcohol evaporate.

If you want to reduce the alcohol content of a therapeutic dose of tincture, add boiling water and leave it to cool for at least ten minutes, allowing the alcohol to evaporate.

It is better to make tinctures from single herbs and then mix them with other tinctures rather than try to make a formula with different herbs in the same menstrum.

NB If someone has a compromised or immature liver or an alcohol problem, do not use tinctures. Herbs can be delivered in many other ways such as teas, syrups, vinegars, herbal honey lozenges etc.

Which alcohol should I use?

Some herbs taste better in different kinds of alcohol. Hawthorn berry brandy has a very distinct taste, as has sage brandy. Rum can be useful when extracting very bitter herbs such as motherwort. I use vodka for most of my tinctures and Wray and Nephew’s Overproof Rum which is 63% proof for calendula and Solomon’s seal root.

Making tinctures with glycerine

Tinctures for children and people who do not wish to use alcohol for medicinal or philosophical reasons can be made by extracting herbs with vegetable glycerine. The resulting tincture is called a glycerite. Glycerine does not extract the same range of constituents from a herb and the body has a 20% less efficiency of absorption in the liver.

From "Herbal Preparations and Natural Therapies" by Debra St. Claire:
  • glycerin will extract the following - sugars, enzymes (dilute), glucosides, bitter compounds, saponins (dilute), and tannins
  • absolute alcohol will extract the following - alkaloids (some), glycosides, volatile oils, waxes, resins, fats, some tannins, balsam, sugars, and vitamins.
Glycerine doesn’t have the same antiseptic effects as alcohol, so will have a shorter shelf life if fresh plant material is used.

For a simple recipe for making glycerites - mix 75% glycerine with 25% distilled water.  Fill a jar with fresh herb, packed to medium density, or fill 1/5 full with dried herb. Pour glycerine menstrum over the herb in the jar. Fill to the top of the jar, covering the plant matter. Label and date. Macerate 2-6 weeks, shaking often. Strain and bottle, label and date. Store in a dark place. The shelf life is said to be 1-3 years, depending upon the water content of the fresh plant used.

A helpful discussion about the benefits of glycerine vs alcohol can be found in this online article 

Why use tinctures?

The popularity of tinctures stems primarily from their ease of use. Once made, a tincture can be accessed immediately and used. If you only have a small amount of a certain herb, you can make a tincture from it and increase the doses available compared with making a tea from the same amount of herb. If your herbal harvest is soaking wet when you gather it and there are real fears that it would go mouldy if you put it to dry, you can still make a tincture or vinegar with it, thereby not losing your harvest!

Tinctures are easy to blend into formulas. When you are first learning about herbs, it is probably best to start by using one herb at a time (simpling), but you may wish to combine different herbs to offer particular help. Michael Moore and David Hoffman provide safe, easy to follow formulae for different conditions and Joyce Wardwell has a section in her book, “The Herbal Home Remedy Book”, giving general principles of how to combine herbs together.

Tinctures are easy to take with you if you are travelling. They can be kept for a short time in plastic bottles, cutting down on weight. If you are flying, tinctures should be packed in hold baggage and be labelled with printed rather than hand written labels. There is a danger than tinctures will be confiscated if taken in hand luggage and dried plant material can also be taken from you.

Tinctures can be added to other drinks to enhance medicinal effects or provide a quick beverage if you don’t have time to make a herbal tea.

Herbal Liqueurs

Herbal liqueurs are basically tinctures where you macerate (soak) a selection of herbs and spices in vodka or brandy for 6-8 weeks in a warm, dark place before straining and adding ½ to 1 cup of sugar, then leaving to mature in a cool, dark place for several years. When making sloe or damson gin, the sugar is added with the pricked fruit in a wine bottle, filling the bottle half full and leaving to mature for 3-4 months in a warm place before decanting. The resultant gin can be drunk immediately either neat or with lemonade.

Buhner, SH Vital Man : Natural Health Care for men at Midlife 2003 Avery ISBN 1 58333 136 0
Buhner, SH Sacred and Herbal Healing Beer: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation 1998 Siris Books  ISBN 13 978 0 937381 66 3

Green, J The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook Crossing Press ISBN-13 978 0 89594 990 5
Hoffman, D The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal 1996 Element Books
ISBN 1 85230 847 8
McGarry, G Brighid’s Healing:Ireland’s Celtic Medicine Traditions 2005 Green Magic ISBN: 0954723023
Stapley, C Herbcraft Naturally 1994 Heartsease Books ISBN 0 9522336 1 4
Wardwell, J The Herbal Home Remedy Book 1998 Versa Press ISBN-13 978 1 58017 016 1