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Herbal Remedies & Medicine for Beginners: Getting Started

Woman lying on sofa reading laptop

What Is Herbal Medicine?

Herbal medicine is the study and use of plants for therapeutic purposes. There are so many rich and ancient traditions from cultures around the world of people using plants for healing.

Different parts of the plant (such as leaves, flowers, berries, fruits, bark, and roots) are used to make a variety  of herbal remedies.

Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City gives a comprehensive overview of the history and herbal medicine uses.

dried herbs used for self care

Herbal Medicine Uses

How Are Herbs Used?

There are so many diverse medicinal plant uses. Herbal remedies include: teas, infusions, decoctions, syrups, oxymels, vinegars, tinctures, hydrosols, creams, salves, oils, poultices, compresses, and baths. And you’re already quite familiar with the most common herbal medicine uses–spices for seasoning in household cooking. A delicious, easy, and effective way to use herbal medicine on a daily basis!

We’ll cover a few of these different herbal preparations, but here’s a comprehensive list of terminology from the American Botanical Council.

How Do Herbs Work?

Deciding on the type of herbal preparation depends on the type of issue you are treating and the types of plants you are using. Different herbal remedies are better at extracting distinct constituents from various plants.

For example, the alcohol used to make tinctures is best at extracting plant alkaloids, aromatics, and resins, but tinctures aren’t good at extracting vitamins, minerals, and mucilage of plants, so you would use a different herbal preparation if this was the goal. Elderberry and echinacea are good choices for tinctures, while mineral-rich burdock or dandelion would be better in an herbal vinegar.

Don’t worry too much about all this as you’re starting out; I’ll share simple plant medicine for beginners. These recipes will help you integrate herbal remedies into your life. And I’ll offer herbal medicine resources at the end of this article if you want to go deeper into your herbal studies.

drying herbs for medicine making

How Does Herbalism Differ From Western Medicine?

Herbalism works very differently than Western medicine and it can take some time to retrain ourselves to think about healing in a new way. So often we can find ourselves asking, “What is such-and-such herb good for?”

It’s not that black and white.

Who Should Use Herbal Medicine?

People dealing with the same health condition may need very different herbal medicine. A person’s constitution plays a big part in this–for example, one person may be cold-natured and fatigue easily, while another person may run hot and have a lot of energy, and find it hard to sleep because their mind keeps going.

This is a more advanced concept but it’s important to mention from the start in this plant medicine for beginners series. The sooner we can get out of the equation thinking that “x plant is good for x condition” the better. This is also why you would want to work with a professional herbalist, especially with complex or chronic health conditions.

One of my herbalism teachers, Rosalee de la Forêt, gives this personal example:

“When I first started learning about herbs I’d had this major healing event where western medicine didn’t have answers for my chronic autoimmune disease and instead I was shown just how powerfully herbs and holistic therapies could heal.

It was so mind blowing and simple!

Herbs work!

Since then I have more come to appreciate the nuance of herbs. That’s it’s not simply about substituting herbs for pharmaceuticals. Instead it’s been my relationship to the plants themselves, and the earth around me, that has made the biggest impact in my life. These connections and relationships have opened my eyes to the beauty and awe of this magical world we live in. Instead of simply trying to heal a disease, it’s been about immersing my life in joyful heart-centered connections.”

How Does Herbal Medicine Work?

While more studies are being done related to how herbal medicine works, scientists still have a limited understanding of the numerous ingredients in different plants and how they affect healing. One of the wonders of plants used for medicine is the unique combination of healing ingredients in a given plant, and how they synergistically work together in a way that we haven’t yet been able to replicate when extracting single, specific ingredients to make pharmaceutical medicines or herbal supplements.

The National Institutes of Health’s Pub Med offers an extensive, free database of more than 34 million citations and abstracts with links to full articles on a wide range of health and medical sciences, including studies on herbal efficacy and research.

jars of herbs used for herbal medicine making

Herbal Medicine Recipes for Beginners

Now that you have this brief overview, let’s get started on herbal medicine for beginners. I’ll cover: teas and infusions, decoctions, oxymels, other creative herbal uses, and flower essences.

What to Consider

The #1 Most Important Thing to Remember

But first, the most important consideration when making any kind of herbal medicine is the freshness and quality of the herbs. I’ll tie this in with the Earth care post in more detail, but for now start to bring awareness of where the herbs come from, how long ago they were harvested, how far they traveled, and how they look and smell.

Take Your Time

Author and herbal teacher Emily Han highlights another key consideration as you start to work with herbal medicine:

“Beginners often feel a sense of pressure to learn and work with all the plants. I remember thinking I had to tincture each and every herb I came across! (And then wound up with a closet full of bottles that I never used.)

It’s perfectly okay, even preferable, to focus your attention on one plant or a handful of plants. Spending time with them and getting to know them deeply will give you a richer experience—and more confidence—than trying to cram information about hundreds of herbs.

Make your remedies in small batches as you learn what you really like and use. Slow and small is the way to go!”

Herbal Teas & Infusions

cup of herbal teaDrinking tea is probably something you’re already familiar with, and I’ll give you some additional suggestions.

Infusions, also called herbal teas, are water-based extractions where you steep the herbs in water for a period of time. Tea is most often made with dried herbs; the part of the plant used for tea is usually flowers and leaves. Dried herbs are more easily extracted by the water than fresh herbs. (Though in the summer, I like to do both.)

There are many different preparations and the goal of the tea you’re making is a key consideration. For example, is this something delicious and warming to sip, or are you seeking something more potent for healing? You’ll steep the herbs for a shorter period of time in the first case, and longer in the second.

Personally, I was somewhat dismissive of using tea for healing because it seemed weaker than taking herbs in capsules or tinctures. After starting my herbal training, I now feel quite differently. Drinking tea is one of my favorite ways to incorporate herbs into my daily life, a proactive way to receive the gentle, nourishing benefits of the plants.

Herbal Tea Recipes

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Gentle Mind Tea

Ingredients:
1 part Blue Vervain to calm overwhelm & overthinking
2 part Tulsi to ground/anchor the mind in the body & uplift the spirit
1 part Rose to synchronize the heart & mind

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Soul Time Tea

Ingredients:
1 part Blue Vervain to release overwhelm and calm the mind
1 part Hawthorn leaves to prioritize what’s most important to your heart
2 parts Oat Tops to nourish and restore the nervous system when overstressed

I love making infusions using more herbs in larger quantities and drinking them over a day or two (just make sure you refrigerate overnight). You can also use it as the base for a morning smoothie (my husband can’t tell, so this is an easy way to get loved ones to use herbs!).

Nourishing Infusion

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Restore & Nourish Infusion

Red Clover and Nettle are mineral rich and gently detoxifying. Stinging Nettle is restorative to the whole body, especially the kidneys, and is incredibly protein-rich. Oats are wonderful for restoring the nervous system and helpful if you’re dealing with anxiety or feeling burned out.

Dried Ingredients:
2 parts Oatstraw
2 parts Red Clover
1 part Milky Oat tops
1 part Nettle

  • Put ¾ cup of the dried herbs in a quart-sized mason jar.
  • Bring water to a boil and fill mason jar to the top.
  • Let steep for 4-8 hours. (You could prepare the night before.)
  • Strain and drink throughout the day.
  • Bonus: I like to use the same herbs to make a 2nd batch. While the 2nd batch is weaker, I like appreciating the plants’ healing gifts, and taking good care of the earth in this way as well.

Precautions: Do not use Red Clover if on blood thinners as it may enhance their effects. Discontinue 2 weeks before surgery. Check with your doctor if dealing with estrogen-sensitive cancers as there are some inconclusive studies as to Red Clover’s effects on this. You can easily make the infusion without Red Clover.

woman on paddleboard

Herbal Decoctions

Similar to teas, decoctions are water-based ways of extracting plant material. Instead of using flowers and leaves, decoctions are an effective way to extract the medicinal properties of tougher plant material, such as roots, bark, berries, and seeds. This is done by simmering the herbs on the stove similar to the way you make broth.

Decoction Recipe

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Burdock Hawthorn Decoction 

This recipe is deeply nourishing. Burdock is supportive of the liver, and energetically can help process anger. Hawthorn strengthens the heart and can help you process your feelings with an open heart.

Ingredients:
2 Tbsp. dried Burdock root
4 Tbsp. dried Hawthorn berries
2 cups of water

  • Boil until half of the water is gone, approximately 20 min.
  • Bonus: Add 2 drops of the Bach flower essence Pine to your decoction to release self-blame, guilt, shame, and perfectionism. You can also take drops of the Pine flower essence 3-4 times a day for a few weeks for deeper healing.
  • Precautions: if you are taking medications for a heart condition, check with your doctor before taking Hawthorn regularly.

Herbal Oxymels

honey used to make herbal oxymelsOxymels are a mixture of vinegar and honey, and the Latin meaning is “acid honey.” Western herbalists usually use unpasteurized apple cider vinegar because it offers its own health properties of probiotics and micronutrients. You want to make sure the vinegar has at least 5% acidity for preservation purposes.

Fresh or dried herbs can be used, and you want to make sure they are cut into small pieces for best extracting the nutrients. Another tip is to use a small piece of parchment or wax paper between the metal lid of the mason jar and the top of the jar (otherwise the acid from the vinegar will corrode the lid).

Oxymels are another favorite of mine to make and use (I got really carried away during one of my herbal trainings and made a lot!). I love their flexible uses—for example, a tablespoon in hot water with lemon juice in the morning, as a salad dressing, in a glass of sparkling water, or taken straight as an immune boost.

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Goldenrod Fire Cider

This recipe boosts immunity & resilience, offering protection & strength. The Goldenrod offers support with both energetic and physical boundaries.

making oxymels

Mason jar
3-5 cloves of Garlic
1 medium Onion
1-2 Hot Peppers of choice
1 cup of Goldenrod flowering tops & leaves
zest and juice of an organic Lemon
3/4 cup raw Honey (more or less depending on desired sweetness)
Raw Apple Cider Vinegar

Optional: you could add Yarrow, Oregano, and/or fresh sliced Ginger.

  • Chop the Garlic, Onion, & Pepper, place in jar
  • Chop and add in the Goldenrod
  • Add zest and juice of Lemon
  • Pour Honey and Apple Cider Vinegar to cover and fill to neck of the jar
  • Shake vigorously to mix everything together
  • Use a piece of parchment paper under the lid to keep the Vinegar from touching the metal, or use a plastic lid
  • Let sit 2-3 weeks, shaking every couple of days
  • Strain and keep refrigerated
  • Have a Tbsp. daily or weekly during cold/flu season
  • Bonus: When you take it offer yourself a soul order:
    “Dear my soul, mind, & body, I love you. You have the power to heal yourself. Do a good job, thank you.”
    Taken from Soul Mind Body Medicine by Dr. & Master Sha

Other Creative Uses of Herbal Medicine

close up of mugwortDuring my herbal training we were asked to select a plant ally for the year. I picked Mugwort (which caused some gardening and farming acquaintances of mine to recoil). Considered an invasive weed by many, historically Mugwort was connected to the Greek goddess Artemis and used with dreamwork. It continues to be used in acupuncture with moxibustion. I’ll share more about Mugwort below. Here’s a creative way to use Mugwort as part of a dream pillow.

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Herbal Soul Dreaming Pillow

Dried Ingredients:dreamtime with herbal medicine
2 parts Mugwort leaves to cross thresholds & stimulate lucid dreams
2 parts Rose petals to open the heart
10-12 Cloves for clarity
1part Yarrow leaves for divination & protection
1 part Blue Vervain to balance emotions & expand communication
1 part Lemon Balm to soothe the spirit

  • Put dried herbs in a small cloth pouch and tie with string
  • Place next to or under your pillow
  • Set your intention for something you want to release with ease and something you want to embrace & receive insight on
  • Bonus: journal about your dreams when you wake

The recipes above were selected because they’re simple to make with herbs that are easy to find and not endangered. There are many ways to substitute with what you have—experiment!

Flower Essences

While flower essences are their own unique modality of holistic healing, I include them here as they are one of my favorite ways to be creative with herbs.

Flower essences work Bach flower essences for emotional balancevibrationally to help balance negative emotions. They don’t have a scent or taste, and in this way are different than essential oils or herbal remedies. You take them orally, a few drops under the tongue or in a glass of water, 3 or 4 times a day.

Flower essences are made by picking flowers in full bloom, placing them in a bowl of water. The heat from the sun, over the course of several hours, imprints the memory of the flower in the water. When you take a particular flower essence, it floods your soul with the positive vibration of the flower, and in this way helps you balance the negative emotions you’re experiencing.

You can read more about how to take flower essences, potential benefits, how to figure out which ones you need, and more.

Local Herbal Medicine Suppliers

When you’re learning about different plants used for medicine, connecting with experts and like-minded people can be a huge resource.

using fresh herbs to make herbal remedies

You can explore places to connect with herb suppliers near you including local farms and farmers’ markets, garden clubs or green thumb neighbors, and other regional sources. As you begin working with herbal medicine, enjoy the process of discovery as you meet and connect.

Rosalee de la Forêt put together a list of herb growers and ethical wildcrafters in the United States and Canada.

Additional Herbal Medicine Resources

Here are some additional plant medicine resources to help you on your herbal medicine journey.

Additional Reading:

Using Herbal Medicine for Self Care & Herbalism for Earth Care

Plant Medicine for Soul Healing

Self Care Meets Earth Care

Tara Muenz: Nurturing with Nature in Mind

resources for getting started with herbal medicine

Best Herbalism Books:

Best Books on Herbal Medicine

Best Books on Flower Essences

Wild Drinks & Cocktails by Emily Han (An amazing & delicious way to get started using herbs!)

 

Best Herbalism Trainings:

Learning Herbs offers both free and paid recipes and courses.

Rosalee de la Forêt offers both free and paid recipes and courses.

Best Herbalism Podcasts:

woman making herbal tea

Herbs with Rosalee Podcast
Herb Mentor Radio
The Flower Essence Podcast
All Things Enchanted with Isha Lerner
Plant Spirit Podcast

Best Resources for Herbal Products:

Mountain Rose Herbs
Pacific Botanicals

Small, Organic Farms in the Northeast U.S.:

Katydid Hill Herb Farm
Kestrel Herbs
Healing Spirits Herb Farm
Red Moon Herbs
Peace Tree Farm
And my favorite local farm in the Hudson Valley for herb starts to grow in the spring, as well as amazing soil, is McEnroe Organic Farm.

Conclusion

I hope this gives you some good ideas on herbal medicine for beginners. Whether it’s brewing a simple tea, reading a book, or enrolling in a formal training, I wish you the best as you begin your herbal medicine journey.

I’ll explore more in my next post about the ways you can take good care of the environment and Mother Earth, as you take good care of yourself using herbal medicine.

And the last post in the series where I explore the soul healing benefits of plants and ways to connect to plant spirit medicine.

Need additional support?

Check out my upcoming virtual Soul Healing Events or use Soul Healing Recordings for a range of common issues.

You can book here if you’re ready to experience a Distance Reiki, Tao Hands, or Online Hypnosis session for yourself (no matter where you live in the world!).

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