Herbal Applications
by Demetria Clark

[Editor's note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today Issue 87, Autumn 2008.]

jarMany midwives work with or have some knowledge of herbal medicine, but still often have questions about different types of applications. Each herbal application is valuable in its own right. Some applications will feel familiar and some will seem to be more work than they’re worth, but I suggest that midwives experiment and have fun. Sometimes one of these experiments will have a real-life application in the home or in midwifery care.

Herbal Oils

To make herbal oil I suggest the “simpler’s method,” which requires placing the herb in a jar and covering it with high quality oil. The oil of choice is olive (from Greece or Italy), but a good quality sunflower will do. Some herbs are better made with the simpler’s method.

Choose an herb. If it’s fresh, allow it to wilt in the sun or overnight to release the excess water that can contribute to mold in the oil.

Start with a small jar. If recycling an old food jar, scrub it out and sterilize it. Scrubbing and running through a dishwasher will definitely do the trick. Make sure to sterilize the lid so it doesn’t add an odor to the oil.

Make sure the herb is dry and the jar is dry. Fill the jar halfway with herb, then cover with oil and continue until an inch or two of oil is on top.

Methods for Infusing Oil

Sun Infusion: Place the oil in the sun during the day for two weeks. After the time is up, strain through cheesecloth and repeat for really potent oil. This is great for making colorful oils like rosehip, St. John’s wort, etc.

Crockpot Infusion: Place oil and herb in jar as above and place in a crockpot 3/4 full of water and simmer for four hours. (Keep an eye on the water to ensure that it doesn’t all evaporate.) Strain after the four hours and bottle into clean, dry jars. The same method can be used with a roasting pan in the oven or a double boiler on the stove or woodstove.

Tea: Tea is the use of water and herbs to make an extraction. Water, in the case of tea, is the solvent. Teas are used for refreshment, as beverages and as medicinals. Medicinal teas are made the same way as infusions and decoctions. Herbs that make great teas are flowers, and leaves, such as all the mints, roses, calendula, lavender, passionflower, hibiscus, chamomile, etc.

Infusion: Infusions are used for the more fragile parts of a plant, with a few exceptions. Valerian is one root that is prepared as an infusion because of its high volatile oil content. Infusions involve pouring boiling water over the plant matter and allowing the matter to infuse. A medicinal infusion can steep from 20 minutes to overnight. Letting it steep for a generous amount of time makes the infusion medicinally potent.

Decoction: This method is used to get healing constituents from more tenacious plant material such as bark, root or nuts. Decoctions are simmered gently with the herb in the water for 20 minutes. Decoction is the preferred method of preparation for pre-blended roots and leaves. Steeping for a longer time will lead to a more medicinally potent decoction.

Amounts of herb used for decoction or infusion: 1 tablespoon dried herb per cup of water or two tablespoons fresh herb per cup of water. Teas can be made by the quart and refrigerated for daily consumption.

Liniment

A liniment is an herbal extraction that is rubbed into the skin. Liniments are used for sore muscles, strains, arthritis and inflammations of muscles, ligaments and tendons. A liniment is usually comprised of herb and a solvent such as alcohol, vinegar or oil.

To make a liniment for sore muscles, for example, place 4 oz peppermint in a 16-oz jar. Add 4 oz eucalyptus. Add a pint of alcohol or vinegar. Do not use rubbing alcohol; use vodka. Put in a dry place for 14 days and shake twice a day. Use on the affected areas. A few drops of essential oil like rosemary, peppermint or eucalyptus may be added.

An instant liniment for muscle pain may be made by combining 1/2 cup alcohol with 1 tsp peppermint, eucalyptus or rosemary essential oil. First try using less essential oil and find the amount that works.

Bolus

A bolus is a suppository. A bolus can be made by combining powdered herbs with melted or soft cocoa butter. Then mix the two until they are firm and refrigerate for two hours. Roll out into a long narrow strip and cut one-inch-long pieces. Refrigerate to harden and preserve. Allow the mixture to come to room temperature before use. Boluses are inserted into the rectum for treating ailments such as hemorrhoids and into the vagina for treating vaginal infections and irritations. Use boluses at night. The cocoa butter will melt with body heat, so take care to protect clothing and bedding. Deposits of the bolus should be washed away the following morning.

  • Step one: Melt the cocoa butter. Don’t allow it to bubble or burn.
  • Step two: Stir in the powdered herbs a little at a time. Stop if the mixture becomes too stiff. If the mixture is too thin, add some turmeric powder. If it is too thick, add some olive or sesame oil.
  • Step three: Allow the mixture to cool enough that it can be handled without causing a burn.
  • Step four: Either roll the mixture as if making a pie crust, then slice into thin strips and wrap individually in wax paper or take apart a bit of the mixture, as if making cookies, and roll into something about the size of the last two sections of the small finger, two to three inches long and approximately the same thickness as the smallest finger.
  • Step five: Wrap each bolus individually (in wax paper) and put in the refrigerator.

Note: In midwifery we prefer that women not place items that are not attached to the human body into other women, so, e.g., if using a bolus that happens to be for varicosities, have the mother place it between her vaginal lips or over her perineum (if they occur there), instead of inside the vagina.

Some herbs (all powdered) that are good for a bolus are:

  • St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)—Varicosities, hemorrhoids
  • Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)—Varicosities, hemorrhoids
  • Plantain leaf (Plantago major)—Varicosities, hemorrhoids, damaged tissue, soften scar tissue.
  • Shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)—Varicosities, hemorrhoids

Extract

Extracts can be easy to make and are a convenient way to take herbs. First, place as much herb as desired into a glass jar and add alcohol. (I usually add three fingers higher than dried herb or two fingers higher than fresh herb.) Close the jar and allow it to sit in the sunlight for a few days to soak in the solar healing power of the sun and then put it away until done. If it is macerating (steeping) during a full moon, put it outside to gather the moon’s energy. (I allow my extracts to sit for over four months. Many people only allow them to sit for a few weeks to a month, which I don’t advise. I believe an extract should be made to offer the most healing benefits.) Always store extracts in glass in a dry dark spot.

Pour liquid through cloth, such as layers of cheesecloth. The herbs that remain are squeezed thoroughly to remove as much of the fluid as possible. Extracts can be made of single herbs, or herbal amalgamations, depending upon your needs.

Some great extracts to have in a midwifery practice are:

Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris). Tinctured fresh, this plant offers a great medicine for hemorrhage. Shepherd’s Purse works with uterine muscles to assist in contraction.

For a delayed placenta, use Angelica root extract (Angelica sinensis). Place a drop under the tongue and drink with a swig of water. This will swiftly bring the placenta.

Glycerin Herbal Extract

Glycerin is very sweet and will dissolve mucilage, vitamins and minerals. It doesn’t dissolve the resinous or oily properties of herbs, such as myrrh gum, well. Glycerin is great for extracting bioflavinoids.

Glycerin is very sweet so it makes an excellent choice for children’s remedies, especially when the children are very young and reticent. Glycerin extracts should be made in small batches because they have a short shelf life—about 1–3 years—compared to alcohol extracts. Use only pure vegetable glycerin.

Follow the same basic instructions for making an alcohol extract, substituting glycerin for alcohol. To make a glycerin extract, cover the herbs with 100% glycerin alone or a combination of 3/4 part glycerin and 1/4 part water. (Since water is also a solvent I suggest using dried herbs for your glycerin extracts.)

Tincture

A tincture is a diluted extract, traditionally. The tincture is diluted 5x, from the original extract. Unfortunately the term tincture is often misused to describe an extract, in which case the product would be weaker. In many cases individuals selling extracts call them tinctures because it is the common name for the process.

Electuary

An electuary is a sweet way to administer herbs. To make an electuary, place the herb in a paste made with peanut butter, tahini, honey or a similar ingredient. For example, mix a teaspoon of ground herb with enough peanut butter and honey to form a stiff pill shape.

Electuaries are great for administering herbs to children or to individuals with a sweet tooth. Do not give more than eight a day. Each dose depends on the herb/herbs used and amount.

Mellita

Mellitas are a great avenue to get children and individuals to take herbs, but to avoid bitter sensations. They aren’t good in cases in which the bitter principles are needed to aid digestion. Place one ounce of herbs in 20 oz of water and boil for 20 minutes, covered. Add one ounce of honey and use. Store in glass bottle in the refrigerator for a few months.

Compress

A compress is made by soaking a piece of clean cloth (such as linen, cotton or gauze) in a decoction or infusion and applying it to the affected area, as hot as can be tolerated. When the compress has cooled, it can be soaked again in the reheated liquid and reapplied until the condition has been relieved.

Compresses can also be applied cold. I make cold ones for my son’s boo-boos. One of my favorite compresses contains arnica and plantain and is used for bruising. My sweet sons are extremely rambunctious and I use this one a lot. We also travel extensively and I pack these to go in a plastic container “just in case.” I also have made compresses from extracts in water. I find these not only work extremely well but are easy to use when on the go.

Steeped herbs to use in a compress for irritated dry skin: Calendula, oats, plantain and comfrey.

Alternate instructions: Wash hands thoroughly and soak a soft cloth or clean flannel in the liquid mixture, which consists of 2 cups (500 ml) infusion or decoction, or 1-1/2 tablespoons (25 ml) tincture in 2 cups (500 ml) water. Wring out the excess liquid. Before applying, rub a little oil on the affected area to prevent sticking. Place the compress against the affected area. For pain and swellings, secure the compress with plastic film and safety pins and leave for up to one or two hours. Re-apply as required. Layer wool in the plastic to keep the compress warm.

A compress also may be made using essential oil, water and a cloth. Soak a cloth in a bowl of water with a few drops of essential oil, such as tea tree or lavender.

Poultice

A poultice is similar to a compress, except that plant parts are used rather than liquid extraction. Mash or crush fresh plant parts. Heat them in a pot over boiling water or mix them with a diminutive amount of boiling water. Apply the pulp directly to the skin, as hot as can be tolerated, holding it in place with a gauze bandage. When using dried herb, first powder it and make a paste with 1 tablespoon of powdered herb and a little boiling water or hot organic cider vinegar. If the paste is likely to irritate the skin, apply it between two layers of cloth. (I suggest wool, particularly fresh wool that has been gently cleaned and is still full of lanolin. I have a few bags around at all times so I can use the wool I want. Some is barely washed and other pieces are really clean, depending on what I am treating with a poultice.)

Poultices are generally more active than compresses. They are used to arouse circulation, appease aches and pains or draw impurities out through the skin, depending on the herb chosen. A hot water bottle held against the poultice may keep the heat in for as long as needed. Once it cools, apply another, as hot as is tolerable. Please make sure you don’t burn anyone or yourself. Also remember to change the poultice when it cools.

Another way to make a poultice: Simmer for two minutes enough herbs to cover the affected area. Squeeze out excess liquid. Rub a little oil onto the affected area to prevent sticking and apply the herb while hot (but not so hot as to burn the skin). Bandage the herb securely in place using gauze or cotton strips. Leave it on for up to three hours, as required. Wrapping in wool will keep the poultice warm longer. Apply a new poultice every 2–3 hours. Repeat as often as required.

Other types of poultice making: Poultices may be used to help draw out toxins and or to assist in breathing, so they need to remain in place for long hours. This is the main reason to use the following techniques.

Fomentation: A fomentation may be used to treat swellings, pain, colds and flu. Soak a soft white towel or cloth in the desired hot tea infusion. Leave the towel wet but not dripping. Apply the fomentation as hot as the patient can tolerate. To hold in the heat, cover the tea-soaked towel with warm piece of flannel, or another towel. Repeat and reapply as needed. (I keep a few cloth diapers around just for this reason. They are thick and absorbent.)

Cabbage Poultice: Improves lymph drainage and helpful in removing toxins.

Finely chop green cabbage sufficient for the area to be treated. Place the cabbage in a blender with just enough water to make a thick paste. Spread the cabbage paste one inch thick over a piece of cheesecloth, muslin or a clean tea towel. The size should be sufficient to cover the preferred part of the body.

Place the cloth, cabbage-side onto the skin, over the area to be treated. Cover with a clean, dry cloth and wrap the whole area in a thick towel or wool flannel cloth. Leave the poultice in place for 15–60 minutes depending on the rigorousness of the condition and the reactions of the person. The treated area should get red and warm, but should not get burned. If the person becomes uncomfortable, remove the poultice and wash the area with cool water. Have the person lie down and rest for the duration of the application.

After removing the poultice, wash the area with lukewarm water. The cabbage poultice may be repeated two or three times daily as needed, using fresh cabbage each time.

Salve

A salve is a firm beeswax and oil combination that is intended for external application.

Simple Salve Instructions

Use an oil: olive oil or infused oil such as plantain, comfrey or calendula. Estimate the proportions based on the following equivalents. For one pint of oil use about 1-1/2 ounces of beeswax; for one ounce of oil use about 1/2 teaspoon of beeswax. (An ounce of beeswax is equivalent to about five teaspoons.)

Heat the oil with the beeswax and mix until all of the wax is melted. Then add herbs and essential oils and pour into containers. If the salve is too hard, re-melt and add more oil; if too soft, re-melt and add more wax. (Vegetarian wax or coconut oil may be used instead of beeswax.)

Inhalation

An inhalation is the use of steam to administer herbs or essential oils. The person inhales the steam into their lungs and nose and mouth. This method is great for head colds and sinus ailments.

Inhalation (Portable method)

  • 1- or 2-oz bottle or vial
  • Few grains of large rock salt
  • Few drops essential oil

For clearing nasal passages, use rosemary, eucalyptus or peppermint. For calming, use lavender, clary sage or vanilla.

Over the Bowl Inhalation

Pour boiling water/very hot water into a bowl. Add a drop or two of essential oil or a few tablespoons of herbs. Then place a towel over the head and bowl and inhale the steam. Do not get the face too close to the hot steam or knock over the bowl.

In the Shower Inhalation

Plug the tub and start the shower. When a small amount of water has collected, add the essential oil and take a shower. The water will activate the essential oil and provide for inhalation.

Handkerchief Inhalation

Add a few drops to the handkerchief and smell it when needing a pick-me-up. The herbs also may be inhaled using a humidifier or vaporizer by adding a few drops to the water. Another option is to place a pot of water on the stove, add herb or essential oil and allow the water to simmer. This is great for children because it is portable and extremely simple to use.

Each method of application has a special place in my practice and I am sure with time each method will find its home in yours, too.


Demetria Clark is the Global Director of Birth Arts International (www.birtharts.com), Heart of Herbs Herbal School (www.heartofherbs.com) and a midwife assistant and doula living and working in Basel, Switzerland, and the tri-country region of Switzerland, Germany and France.


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