Herbal tinctures are regarded as the cornerstone of traditional herbal medicine due to their healing effectiveness and efficiency. Herbs are steeped in liquid to make tinctures, which have been used for centuries to cure a variety of illnesses and ailments.
In this comprehensive guide, we will discuss what herbal tinctures are, the history of tinctures, the health benefits to taking tincture, methods used to create tinctures, how tinctures are made, the various types of herbs tinctured, shelf life, storage, and potential downsides to taking tincture.
Table of Contents:
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- What are herbal tinctures?
- Why do people use herbal tinctures?
- What is the history of herbal tincture?
- What are the various methods to create tinctures?
- How are herbal tinctures made?
- What are the differences in using unique tincture menstruums?
- What makes herbal tinctures different than herbal teas?
- What plants can be tinctured?
- What is the shelf life of tincture?
- How should tincture be stored?
- What are the downsides to taking tincture?
- Does herbal tincture taste bad?
WHAT ARE HERBAL TINCTURES?
A herbal tincture is a form of plant medicine, and it is ingested for its natural healing properties.
Herbal tinctures are concentrated liquid herbal extracts prepared by soaking fresh or dried herbs, flowers, roots, leaves, berries, or bark from one or more plants in a combination of a solvent and water. The liquid used is known as the menstruum, and it draws out the active compounds and medicinal properties of the plant material.
The infused liquid is separated from the plant components and is filtered to remove any remaining plant particles. The plants are usually composted, and the remaining liquid is now referred to as a herbal tincture.
WHY DO PEOPLE USE HERBAL TINCTURES?
Herbal tinctures are used for treating a wide range of mental and physical health issues, including anxiety, depression, stress, indigestion, osteoarthritis, insomnia, and the common cold.
Health benefits can be seen in some tinctures such as Calendula, Chamomile, and Peppermint Leaf within the same day, but stronger effects typically start within one to two weeks. This especially holds true for adaptogenic herbal tinctures like Rhodiola rosea, Ashwagandha, Cordyceps, and Ginseng, as the body adapts and the herb optimizes various systems within the body.
Tincture is taken orally to relieve a wide range of health issues, or as a proactive way to support specific elements of one's well-being.
Tincture may also be applied directly to the skin and incorporated into lotions for a variety of purposes, including aches and pains, bruises, spider veins, varicose veins, and other skin diseases such as eczema or fungal or bacterial infections. Tincture may also be diluted and used as a mouthwash to improve breath and to soothe mouth infections.
WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF HERBAL TINCTURE?
While the concept of herbal tincture might be new to many, tincture dates back as far as distilled alcohol.
The ancient Egyptians frequently soaked herbs in alcohol to produce tinctures and cordials—tinctures commonly prepared with less alcohol.
In 1025, physician-philosopher Avicenna published a series of five books known as the Al-Qanoon fi al Tibb (The Canon of Medicine). This encyclopedia of medicine described all of the known medical issues of the time, the causes, pathology, and treatment formularies, which included herbal tinctures.
The original text, which was based on Islamic medical expertise, had been influenced by several past traditions such as Greco-Roman medicine, Persian medicine, Chinese medicine, and Indian medicine. It served as the foundation for medical education in the West from the 12th to 17th centuries and was designed to ensure that Western medication embraced historical herbal therapeutic uses.
The Canon's foundation rested in Avicenna's thesis on the cosmic elements, Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. This outlined humans' connection to the Earth, our bodies as an extension of the Earth, and the inextricable connection between our health and the bond we have in Nature.
The practice of distilling and tincturing did not become well-known in Europe until the 14th century. The Irish and Scottish peoples were the early adopters of distillation and tincturing, and by the Victorian era in Anglocentric cultures, herbal tinctures were commonplace.
Laudanum; a tincture of opium containing codeine and morphine, was formerly available over-the-counter in Canada and the United States until the 1970s. Laudanum was historically used to treat a variety of health issues, but its principal use was as a pain medication and cough suppressant, and was even given to children.
Cannabis tincture was available in your average pharmacy until the 1920s. Any number of the elixirs and other medicines found commonly advertised were either cordials or tinctures. It wasn’t until pharmacology moved on to emphasizing pills that the usage of herbal tinctures greatly declined. Many of our elders will recall the days when their own grandparents utilized natural treatments in their daily lives.
As humanity is awakening and people are becoming educated about natural healing, herbal medicine and tinctures are once again gaining popularity.
WHAT ARE THE VARIOUS METHODS TO CREATE TINCTURES?
Tincture is made using one of two methods: the folk method and the standard method.
The folk method; is the simplest method for producing herbal tincture. It's what the common "folks" would employ, according to its name. The folk method is straightforward and easy to do as it does not require any advanced math, measuring, or equipment to execute. It only requires herbs, a wide-mouth mason glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, solvent, and cheesecloth.
Since there are no measurements used, the folk method inherently produces variable results in terms of ratios and strength. This variability is the main drawback because it does not allow the herbalist to know the strength of the tincture. There is often a lack of consistency in the tincture, as well as uncertainty in dosing because the exact concentration is unknown. For the inexperienced herbalist, this method can result in a tincture strength that is too little or too high, which leads to either inadequate extraction of plant medicine, or excessive, unnecessary use of alcohol in a tincture.
Many people may believe the folk method is of low quality because it's too easy, but this is not accurate. Some of the most well-known and respected herbalists prefer using the folk method because of its simplicity and the wisdom required to utilize it safely and effectively. Tincturing with the folk method is primarily for very experienced herbalists, or for home herbalists who are using herbs, which are safe to take at any amount.
The standard method; also known as the ratio method, calculation method, or measurement method, is a much more complex but precise way of tincturing. The standard method is thought to be a more "scientific" approach to creating tincture because the herbalist can make reliable measurements using mathematical equations, measuring tools, and extraction equipment. Due to this consistent approach, the quality of the herbal products is more likely to be consistent every time.
Many herbalists prefer using this method because it takes the guesswork out of tincturing, and it also makes dosing for the consumer safer and easier.
HOW ARE HERBAL TINCTURES MADE?
Regardless of the method used to create the herbal tincture, the general process is the same. This process is called "maceration."
Maceration is an extractive technique conducted at room temperature and consists of immersing the chopped or ground-up herb in a liquid solvent, within an airtight container such as a wide-mouth mason glass jar, for several days or weeks.
In herbalism, the liquid solvent is called the "menstruum." The menstruum extracts the plant's active medicinal compounds, such as alkaloids, vitamins, and minerals.
There are several types of menstruums that may be used to extract the medicine from plants in tincture creation. Alcohol, water, glycerine, vinegar, oil, or honey/syrup can all be used and each one has its advantages and disadvantages.
After soaking macerated herbs, the herbs are then filtered off, pressed, and discarded as compost. The concentrated liquid infusion, now a tincture, is ready to be used for its intended medicinal function.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES IN USING UNIQUE TINCTURE MENSTRUUMS?
The menstruum chosen for the tincture is typically based upon the chemical nature of the compounds contained within the plant.
Solubility, desired strength of the extraction, shelf-life, and lifestyle choices are also considerations when choosing the menstruum.
Alcohol as a menstruum: Generally, ethyl alcohol is the most widely used menstruum in tincturing because it is able to extract the greatest amount of active medicinal ingredients contained within the plant. These ingredients include essential oils, alkaloids, alkamides, glycosides, acids, bitters, and resins. Ethyl alcohol; more specifically, grain alcohol such as vodka are primarily used as the menstruum when creating alcohol-based tincture. While other types of alcohol such as whiskey and rum may be used, grain alcohol is often chosen for its indistinct taste. This means it will not influence the taste of the final tincture as much as other types of alchol that have sweeter or bitter tastes.
Alcohol addiction, alcohol sensitivities, and certain religious views might be some of the reasons people choose not to use an alcohol-based tincture. Some parents may also have concerns about giving their children a herbal tincture with alcohol. While these are all valid and respectable reasons to not choose alcohol-based tincture, keep in mind they have very little of it. Alcohol content of roughly the same quantity can also be found in baking extracts like as vanilla extract and almond extract. Even a ripe banana can have more alcohol content than a single dose of herbal tincture. Individuals who prefer not to ingest alcohol may also add the tincture to a steaming hot cup of tea and the hot liquid will cause virtually all of the alcohol to evaporate off.
Water as a menstruum: While technically not a tincture, water can be used as a menstruum to create a herbal infusion and it is known to extract some minerals, mucilage, acrids, tannins, starches, and carbohydrates. It does not extract essential oils or volatile oils and resins particularly well.
Water is typically combined with alcohol menstruum to decrease the potency of the tincture. Water can also be used as an additional step in the tincturing process of some plants and fungi. For example, the best Lion's Mane mushroom tinctures on the market go through a double extraction process. This process involves an alcohol soak followed by a hot water decoction. This dual extraction process is done for optimal extraction of both alcohol-soluble and water-soluble constituents to obtain the maximum extraction of available mushroom medicine.
Glycerine as a menstruum: Glycerine, often known as glycerol, is a clear, colourless, and odourless liquid. It's a by-product of soap manufacturing's saponification process and has a very sweet flavour and the consistency of thick syrup. Glycerine extracts; known as “glycerites,” are highly effective solvents for extracting chemicals including essential oils, alkamides, tannins, acids, polysaccharides, saponins, and glycosides. Glycerine does not; however, extract aromatic bitters, resins, minerals, or mucilage particularly well. Also, it is not as powerful an extractor as alcohol is. Some people prefer to ingest glycerine tincture over alcohol-based tincture due to their sweeter taste. They are also a preferred choice for administering herbal support to people who have alcohol sensitivities. Lifestyle and value choices like Veganism and Kosherism are considerations for those who choose not to buy glycerol-based tinctures because the glycerine can be derived from the fats of animals with unknown origins.
Vinegar as a menstruum: Vinegar, unlike alcohol or glycerine, is a solution of acetic acid and water with distinctive extraction properties. Instead of being considered a plant medicine, vinegar might be regarded more like a superfood supplement or nourishing tonic in the role of menstruum. It is excellent for extracting some of the plants' vitamins and minerals, but it isn't efficient at extracting plant chemical components that play a more important role in plant health.
Oil as a menstruum: Oil may also be used as a menstruum, and it's combined with herbs for topicals or other kinds of culinary herbal treatments. A carrier oil is infused with dried or fresh herbs. The infused oil, while not technically a herbal tincture, may be used to make salves, soaps, balms, lotions, and creams. Infused oils, which may be used as add-ons in cooking, are versatile and convenient. Coconut oil, avocado oil, and hemp seed oil are three types of carrier oils that are often used to cook with.
Honey or Syrup as a menstruum: Honey and syrup may also be used as a menstruum and work similarly as oil. Though not technically a tincture; with their sweeter taste and ability to extract a wide variety of plant nutrients, honey and syrup are a delicious choice to consider when creating a menstruum. Honey and syrup infusions can be consumed as they are and are typically used in culinary treatments. While honey and syrup infusions have some medicinal-like qualities, they are not considered highly effective forms of plant medicine due to their lack of efficiency in drawing out the spectrum of medicinal compounds. Some herbalists will combine honey or syrup with alcohol as a menstruum. This approach can make the tincture more palatable; especially for children.
WHAT MAKES HERBAL TINCTURES DIFFERENT THAN HERBAL TEAS?
Herbal tincture are significantly more concentrated and powerful forms of plant medicine than herbal teas.
Unlike herbal teas, which require us to prepare leaves and flowers separately from roots, barks, and berries because of their structure, with herbal tinctures ALL parts of the plants can be combined and tinctured at the same time.
The most significant distinctions between herbal tinctures and herbal teas are the types of liquids used to extract the plant material; and, the length of time the plant is left in contact with the liquid.
The herbs in herbal teas steep in a pot of boiling water for a few minutes, while the herbs in tincture steep in alcohol, water, glycerine, vinegar, oil, or honey for days or weeks depending on the menstruum used.
WHAT PLANTS CAN BE TINCTURED?
In principle, any plant or herb may be tinctured. Even roots, twigs, berries, fruits, grasses, and barks can be tinctured.
Some plants and plant components are dangerous and should never be tinctured, whereas others have no scientific evidence to back up their therapeutic value. Every plant is different, but some plants are far more popular and safer than others.
The following are a few of the most frequently tinctured plants with scientific studies that suggest may help your health:
- Calendula (flower). Calendula's anti-viral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory effects have been well-documented. Calendula is frequently used to improve immunity; treat gastrointestinal problems such as gastroesophageal reflux disease and ulcers; soothe heartburn and acid reflux; relieve stomach discomfort and inflammation; and reduce swelling in the mouth and throat.
- Chamomile (flower). Research suggests Chamomile is a plant that’s effective in treating anxiety, healing wounds, and reducing inflammation.
- Ginger (root). Research indicates ginger can reduce nausea in pregnant women, and anecdotal reports claim it’s a good remedy for motion sickness.
- Nettle (roots and leaves). An analysis of several scientific studies suggests Nettle (Urtica dioica or "stinging nettle") is most common in being used to treat diabetes, and rheumatic conditions including urinary tract infections, gout, bursitis, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Other studies indicate its successful use in reducing the effects of respiratory issues and seasonal allergies.
- Ginseng (root). Research suggests ginseng may have beneficial psychological and immune effects. It also suggests ginseng can help people with diabetes.
- Raspberry (leaf). A review of studies on Raspberry Leaf suggests it can support female reproductive health, including its use to strengthen and tone the uterus, and help treat uterine cramping, shorten labour, decrease potential for caesareans, and reduce menstrual cramping and nausea during menstruation.
- Rhodiola rosea (root, rhizome). Rhodiola rosea is thought to be one of the planet’s premier adaptogens, known to restore balance to all of the body's systems. Numerous studies including this one, indicate Rhodiola rosea may reduce mental and physical fatigue. Other suggests it may help to decrease stress and anxiety, increase immunity protection, improve energy, heart health, and athletic performance, speed up recovery, enhance mental focus, raise mood, aid in weight loss and libido improvement.
- John’s wort (flower, leaf). According to studies on St. John's wort, it may help relieve the symptoms of depression.
- Valerian (root). According to a small survey of studies, Valerian root may improve sleep quality and reduce insomnia.
- Yarrow (flower). A review of studies suggests it can help treat stomach issues including Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Gastrointestinal (GI) pain, gastrointestinal lesions, cramps, and gas. Other studies have indicated Yarrow may improve appetite and digestion, as well as reduce cold and flu symptoms and airway conditions such as asthma. Research has also shown beneficial preventive or therapeutic properties on epilepsy, Alzheimer’ diseases, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’ diseases and stroke. A review of studies indicates Yarrow may help regulate the circulatory system and female reproductive processes, reduce excessive menstrual bleeding (menorrhagia), alleviate menstrual cramps, lower blood pressure, and assist with circulation problems such as blood clots, varicose veins, and more.
WHAT IS THE SHELF-LIFE OF TINCTURE?
The shelf-life of tincture is unique to the type of menstruum used.
Alcohol-based tinctures have the longest shelf life. The anti-fermentative effects of alcohol make it the most effective menstruum for preservation. The range of preservation depends on the strength of the alcohol used. Weaker strengths (~25% ABV) can last a couple of years, moderate strengths (40% ABV) can last up to 5 years, and potent strengths (90%+ ABV) may last for up to 7-10 years if stored under optimal conditions. Shelf-life can be extended with proper storage, as well as by thoroughly filtering the tincture to remove as much plant sediment as possible. As long as alcohol tincture is kept in a cool (but not freezing) place away from direct sunlight, it will stay potent for years.
Water-based do not last long. The major disadvantage of water menstruum is its short shelf life. Water extracts only survive for a few days. This is due to the fact that bacteria thrive in water.
Glycerine-based infusions typically have a shelf-life of 12 to 24 months.
Vinegar-based infusions are quite brief. Despite vinegar's use as a food preservative, these tinctures have an expiration period of approximately six months.
Oil-based extracts generally have a shelf life between 12 and 18 months. While microbes can thrive in oil, the primary threat to the shelf-life of an oil-based extraction is oxidation. Oil-based infusions should be kept in an airtight container to optimize shelf-life.
Honey or Syrup-based preparations have a shelf-life of approximately 6-12 months.
HOW SHOULD TINCTURE BE STORED?
Tinctures are always best stored in a dark glass bottle. Amber, blue, or green are the most popular colours.
Clear glass is not recommended as it does not reflect the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun and can diminish the effectiveness of the tincture. Plastic is to be avoided as the tincture solvent can draw out the impurities from the plastic in the same fashion it does the herbs. Tincture left in plastic has a distinct artificial taste and the shelf-life is diminished significantly.
Alcohol-based tinctures are the easiest to store, as the alcohol acts as a highly effective preservative. Even when a dark, glass bottle is used, it is still recommended to keep them in a dark location; such as a bathroom or kitchen cupboard, to ensure the product quality lasts as long as possible.
It's critical to keep any non-alcohol tinctures in a cool, dark cupboard away from heat and light. Tincture should not be kept over a stove or near a heat source because this might damage the herbs' quality. Mold can also grow under certain circumstances. Tinctures containing water, glycerine, vinegar, oil, honey, or syrup have some preservative qualities but not nearly as much as alcohol. This implies these types of menstruums will have a significantly shorter shelf life and be more prone to contamination. As a result, it's critical to check your non-alcohol-based tinctures before each use to ensure they are in good condition.
WHAT ARE THE DOWNSIDES TO TAKING TINCTURE?
Herbal tinctures are not without risk.
As with any medicine, tincture should be taken with caution. Every herb, tincture, recipe, manufacturer, and every user is unique. Adverse reactions may occur and can vary from person to person. Even plants that have been scientifically proven to improve health come with potential negative effects, and there can be extreme consequences in taking tincture.
Consult healthcare experts, such as naturopaths, naturopaths, and doctors, before using herbal treatments. No action should be taken solely on the basis of its source's content — regardless of whether it is considered scientific. Readers should instead contact qualified medical professionals about any health-related issue.
Here is a list of the most frequent side effects that tinctures and herbal treatments can cause:
Adverse reactions with pharmaceutical medications: Herbal treatments may interact with other pharmaceutical medicines in certain people. This might result from the following:
- blood clotting issues
- increased negative side-effects of pharmaceutical medication
- liver damage
Allergic reactions: Many plants cause allergies. Allergic reactions within those who have various plant-based allergies may include:
- anaphylaxis (which could lead to death if not treated quickly)
Blood sugar drop: When using tinctures or other herbal treatments, people with diabetes should exercise extreme caution. Some plants can severely lower blood pressure.
Death: Some plants and components of certain plants can be extremely poisonous and obviously should be avoided. Gingko leaves are a well-known herbal treatment for example; however, it's vital to avoid gingko seeds since they are poisonous. They can induce seizures and death in extreme cases. Goldenseal is also hazardous in high doses.
Estrogenic effects: Certain plants, such as milk thistle, have estrogenic effects. It should not be used by women who are pregnant or nursing as well as those women with certain health concerns as it may worsen the health issue. Such health issues include:
- cancer including breast cancer, uterine cancer, or ovarian cancer
- uterine fibroids
Gastrointestinal issues: Many herbs such as Calendula, Chamomile, Peppermint Leaf, and Yarrow are used to diminish the effects of gastrointestinal issues; however, in some cases it's possible for the herbs to induce gastrointestinal issues. The following gastrointestinal disorders can be caused by plants consumed for herbal treatments:
Dizziness, headaches, and light sensitivity: When taken in large amounts, certain plants, such as St. John's wort, can make you more sensitive to light. Other plants, like valerian, may cause migraines and dizziness.
Sleeplessness: Plants that have stimulating qualities can cause sleeplessness. Adaptogens such as Rhodiola rosea are known to increase energy levels and should be avoided before bed.
DOES HERBAL TINCTURE TASTE BAD?
This question depends on who you ask.
Some people report one downside to taking tincture is they do not taste good, while other people love the taste and crave it as part of their morning routine.
Depending on the plant being used, tinctures can be intensely bitter and have an earthy taste. The reason why tinctures taste as they do, is the same reason why they are so effective. These antioxidant-rich phytochemicals include polyphenols, flavonoids, isoflavonoids, anthocyanidins, phytoestrogens, terpenoids, carotenoids, limonoids, phytosterols, glucosinolates, and fibers, as well as alkaloids, vitamins, and minerals. Tinctures extract and highly concentrate these phytochemicals into a potent liquid form that is easily absorbed. They are strong and this is why they are powerful forms of medicine.
If the bitter taste is off-putting, herbalists, naturopathic doctors, and naturopaths recommend diluting the tincture in a few ounces of water. Water is absorbed immediately into the bloodstream with the tincture and has no impact on the absorption rate of the tincture. Some individuals report taking tincture undiluted with water increases the absorption speed and the effects are noticed more quickly; however, we have not found any scholarly articles to substantiate this claim.
What can be substantiated, is millions of people love the antioxidant goodness of the phytochemicals extracted through tinctures.
DISCLAIMER: Wilderland Botanicals assumes no liability for any personal interpretation of this content. While there are many scientific, peer-reviewed studies proving the effectiveness of herbal remedies, readers who fail to consult their physicians prior to the purchase and subsequent use of any product, assume the risk of any adverse effects to taking herbs.
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