A primer on tinctures

Supplements, particularly herbal ones, come in a variety of forms. Liquid tinctures, or alcohol extractions of herbs are one form of herbal supplementation, but are seldom recognized outside of the “alternative health” world. Nonetheless, in many cases they can (and should) be considered over capsules or other dubious extractions.

tincture herbal liquid extract dropper bottle

What are tinctures and why should I care?

A typical tincture is a preparation of distilled, high-proof alcohol combined with dried and/or fresh herbs where the alcohol is intended to soak up some or all of the active components of the substance you’re trying to extract.

It’s similar to, but not to be confused with an infusion, where you soak herbs in hot water to make a “tea.” Infusions extract some active components, but the ones that are only alcohol or fat soluble may remain behind.

Because the hard-to-absorb components of the herb or plant that you’re trying to supplement have been successfully dissolved into alcohol, they become more easily absorbed: No need to buy an expensive extract or take five dozen capsules of a given herb to have the desired effect.

Why aren’t tinctures more common?

Many supplement manufacturers haven’t dealt with tinctures since it’s a better selling point to give you the whole herb. Plus it’s easier to just grind up the dried stuff and shove it in capsules and sell it off.

While some capsuled herbs may be just as effective as the tincture form,  in some cases it’s much better to take the extracted form. The body can’t do a lot with certain dried or whole herbs: it’s why you can’t eat a straight bud of cannabis and expect to feel its effects.

In the case of the cannabis bud, the active components need to be extracted with a solvent, like oil or alcohol. This is also the case with many other herbal compounds, thus the effectiveness of tinctures.

Pros and cons of tinctures

Like any other form of a nutrient or supplement, tinctures come with their own distinct advantages and disadvantages:

PROS

  • Often contains the most bioavailable forms of the active components found in an herb or spice
  • Easy to take in food or drink – no swallowing mountains of pills
  • Typically in smaller containers and contains more doses than herbal capsules
  • Can be prepared by yourself at home with high-proof distilled grain liquor – it will look weird out in the open however

CONS

  • Potency varies; dosages and preparations are not standardized
  • Comes in a dropper bottle — some people don’t care, others hate it
  • May not contain all of the active compounds of the herb, especially if it’s not a “full spectrum” extraction
  • Can taste awful if it’s not diluted in the right food or drink

Pill Scout on tinctures

So far I think herbal tinctures are worth looking into. I think because they appear unconventional and small, and because dose standardization is not established, tinctures can seem more intimidating compared to friendlier and more familiar capsule bottles with suggested dosages.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been taking turmeric and ashwagandha in tincture form and I can confirm their effects on my subjective end of things. The turmeric tincture has been particularly effective at eliminating morning brain fog, headache and bouts of heartburn, but it does like to stain utensils and dishes with fierce yellow color, which isn’t bad because all of those things are exactly what normal turmeric does. The tinctures are legit.

If this is the first you’ve seen or heard of tinctures, you need to check this out: a poster over at T-Nation forums has written about his experience with making tinctures from “test booster” herbs like longjack and tribulus — Some of his claims and statements are contestable, but I will have to try his stuff out for myself soon.

This year, 2014, I will begin exploring tinctures and herbal compounds and dig up what I can on the science behind them. Herbals are a highly under-researched, uncharted territory for the mainstream and I want to see how far these things can go.

Pill Scout is a nutrition enthusiast who strives to find the best substances to enhance the everyday experience.

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