Herbal Extracts and their Menstruums


     It is important to know a little about herbal extracts if one wants to make or purchase the best for one's needs. I will try to simplify a crash course here for a better understanding.  An herbal extract is simply the best way in many cases to absorb the desirable properties of a medicinal herb, preserve it and to prescribe it.  Most medicinal tinctures or herbal extracts that are sold on the general market are processed from the dried herb. I never do! My extracts are all processed from the freshly harvested green plant. I am a believer like the Eclectic Botanical physicians of the 19th and early 20th centuries that the majority of green tinctures is always the best and the most potent, but there may be a few isolated exceptions. A green tincture or herbal extract is one that is made from the fresh plant without any drying involved before hand. John Uri  Lloyd,  the genius biochemist and pharmacist of the 19th century had this to say about green tinctures:

"Water is intimately connected with the creation of all component parts of our plants and experience will teach us that the dissolution of many of these bodies takes place when the water upon which they are indebted for existence is removed. Dried plants are exposed to the influences of moisture and the atmosphere from the time they are gathered until used, a constant decomposition is going on. And although a plant may weigh as much twelve months after as  it did when first dried, this imperceptible decomposition may have resulted in the total destruction of the principles that originally give it  its therapeutic activity. . . "

However, saying this, each herb is different and needs to be evaluated on its own merits. Lloyd goes on to say: "My experience teaches me that some drugs must be worked green, other partly dry, others are best when thoroughly dried, while others yet even become most useful after being aged to a certain extent. Thus, as examples, only green cactus, in my opinion, is of value. Freshly dried Iris versicolor is superior to the green, and Rhamnus purshiana improves by age."    I agree totally.

     As far as menstruums, lets look closer? The word "menstruum" is an old herbal term simply meaning the solvent, which is used to soak (macerate) a herb in to absorb its active compounds.  Plants are made up of many compounds some inert and useless, others active for medicinal reasons. It  is desirable to formulate a tincture that has the maximum of active compounds with a minimum of inert ones. This characteristic can be manipulated by the menstruum we use to extract. 

Water is the most common menstruum that can be used but it can only absorb certain types of botanical compounds. Water is often the solvent of choice in teas (infusions) and decoctions. Water tends to be a poor solvent for the more active components of plants, which tend to be alkaloids.  It can also extract compounds not particularly useful like proteins, pectins, tannins, sugars, starches and gums. It is also often very unstable and not a good preservative. 

Alcohol in the form of ethanol is the most widely used solvent in tinctures and herbal extracts. It has low toxicity, will dissolve a large array of useful plant compounds-particularly many alkaloids, and is highly stable and a superb preservative.

Glycerin is another commonly used alcohol in formulating tinctures and extracts often referred to as Fluidglycerates.  Like ethanol, it is a good solvent for many water insoluble compounds found in the plant.  It has low toxicity, is a good preservative if kept in the 50%  concentration levels. It can be a useful solvent to prevent precipitation of the tannins. 

DMSO is a solvent that I particularly like but has not been traditionally used in herbal medicine but then, it was only widely recognized after the 1960s brought to prominence by Stanley Jacobs. A Russian scientist first synthesized DMSO in 1866. This substance was colorless, had a garlic odor, felt oily and looked like mineral oil in the test tube, and left an aftertaste similar to clams. This early scientist found that DMSO was an excellent solvent, great degreaser, and anti-freeze. For the next 80 years, DMSO was pretty much forgotten. After WWII, chemists were showing renewed interest in it as a solvent. It was found that DMSO could protect biological tissue from the damages of freezing.What really brought DMSO to public recognition was Dr. Jacob's early work with it as a kidney organ protector in freezing. He obtained samples of DMSO from the Zellerbach Paper Company, since it is commonly collected as a by-product of the paper making industry. It is derived from lignin, the cement substance of trees. He found that DMSO had a drying effect on skin making it useful in burn therapy. He found that painting it on his skin; he could taste it within seconds. Further studies by Jacob showed that DMSO not only passed through the skin membranes without damaging the tissue, but it also could carry a large number of substances with it, into the body. For example, Penicillin can be dissolved in DMSO and carried into the body. DMSO was shown to relieve pain, reduce swelling, exhibit anti-bacteria properties, improve blood supply, soften scar tissue, enhance other medicate ons, act as a diuretic, and have muscle relaxant qualities.

The FDA has stubbornly refused to recognize DMSO for human use except in a few isolated pathologies. Veterinarians can use it on horses for various ailments, but they are the exception in the eyes of the FDA.DMSO is curious in that it has a freezing point of 68 degrees F. The pure forms of DMSO will freeze at that temperature, but with the addition of more and more water, DMSO's freezing point will be lowered. This is a good test to know how pure your DMSO is. If it does not freeze in two hours in the refrigerator, it probably is diluted with water.Also, note that DMSO is highly hygroscopic. It pulls water out of the air and out of body tissue (hence, its drying effect). DMSO and water have a very strong chemical bond. This is the mechanism of how it moves through the live tissues by bonding with the water molecules.The immune system is stimulated into higher effectiveness by DMSO, which allows macrophages to move around and through the tissues faster. DMSO diminishes allergic reactions.Many drugs dissolve in DMSO and retain their activity and properties while combined with DMSO. Often DMSO can strengthen and multiply the action of dissolved drugs. It has been found that many drugs can be used in smaller quantifies when applied in DMSO. As a penetrating carrier of drugs, DMSO is unsurpassed. It can easily carry pharmaceuticals to any part of the body in therapeutic dosages. It can penetrate endothelial coatings of the arterial walls, meninges of the brain, skin, mucous membranes, most all tissues. Intravenous and intramuscular injection of DMSO can pass it easily into the brain and spine. The blood/brain barrier is usually exempt to most drug therapy, not DMSO. It will pass through this impenetrable area. DMSO has been administered topically; injected under the skin, in the muscle and in the blood; given orally, intrathecally and by inhalation. I have used DMSO for a number of years as a menstruum for my herbal tinctures. It is the best replacement for ethanol that I can think of. Not only will it extract the medicinal properties from your herb, but it will produce a tincture that will very efficiently transport those medicinal properties through the skin and GI tract equal to, if not better than ethanol.


16 major therapeutic properties of DMSO:

1)    It blocks pain by interrupting conduction of the small c-fibers, the nonmyelinated nerve fibers.
2)    anti-inflammatory,
3)    bacteriostatic, fungistatic, and virostatic,
4)    transport therapeutic drugs across the membranes,
5)    reduces platelet thrombi in blood vessels,
6)    can reduce the workload on the heart,
7)    tranquilizing properties,
8)    enhances antifungal, antibacterial agents,
9)    a vasodilator,
10)   inhibits cholinesterase,
11)   softens scar tissue,
12)   scavenges hydroxyl free radicals,
13)   stimulates immune system,
14)   potent diuretic when administered IV,
15)   stimulates interferon formation,
16)   stimulates wound healing




So to summarize DMSO, it has all the characteristics of making a superb modern solvent not previously in the grasp of our ancient herbalists. It can be treated very similar to ethanol when making tinctures and herbal extracts and is beyond compare to all other formulations for topical skin applications. 

Under construction, more to come!