Getting Your Minerals from Herbs

Equisetum telmateia (Equisetopsida) at Cambrid...

I had been making overnight infusions of herbs for several years when David Winston opined that infusing a mineral-rich herb like oatstraw or horsetail was a waste of herb because the minerals were locked up in the structure and that they were not released by steeping in water unless you waited several days.  He claimed that his labs had found that simmering for 20-30 minutes (decocting) was necessary to release the minerals.  So long as my overnight infusion isn’t aromatic, which would be damaged by simmering, I now decoct my mineral herbs instead of infusing overnight.  In fact I often mix herbs, decocting the roots or mineral-rich herbs first, turning off the flame and infusing the aromatics overnight afterward.

I had started making my herbal preparations as tinctures.  Tinctures are great.  They last for years, they are handy and I enjoyed them.  Tinctures grab resins and aromatics, but don’t get minerals at all.  Even spagyric tinctures like those of Herbalist & Alchemist have only a portion of the minerals added back in.  Other manufacturers like Cedar Bear Botanicals add in colloidal minerals.  But in any event, most of the minerals wouldn’t fit in that tincture bottle without giving you sludge.

After four years of Oriental Medicine study I had rather gotten used to decocting my herbs (although as a well-trained western herbalist I admit to infusing the aromatic bo he mint and patchouli after decocting the roots. )  But it got me thinking about why I derived some benefit from the overnight infusions.

Haver bloeiend Avena sativa

I believe the reason is that infused herbs still have a high level of bacteria on them and that the bacteria help break down the minerals.  Yes, Virginia, even your freshly dried nettles probably have significant amounts of e-coli and other bacteria.  You know how your infusions get funky after a couple of days?  The bacteria are proliferating and breaking down the herb.  Now a manufacturer needs to not have bacteria, but those of us steeped in the Weston Price Foundation fermented food movement have a more complex relationship to bacteria.  We like live foods, but we want some control about which critters are fermenting our foods, because some bacteria frankly stink.

Decocting subjects most bacteria to a long enough and hot enough process that bacteria are killed while minerals are released.  Decoctions last longer in the refrigerator than infusions.

What other ways are there to consume herbs and get the minerals?  You can cook them in a soup.  (The word “soup” and “decoction” are the same in Chinese.)  The fat from meat helps assimilate the minerals in the herbs and any bones.  Nettles are great in soup, but roots like astragalus or albizia are also good, although they must be removed before eating.  Codonopsis roots and opiophogon tubers can be eaten. Medicinal mushrooms won’t do you much good unless they are decocted for an hour to break down the chitin, but that makes a great soup stock to cook your herbs in.

Champion Juicer

You can eat the herbs straight, although my stomach, unlike the multiple chambers of a cow’s, won’t break down oatstraw.  And oatmeal doesn’t have the same properties.  You get perhaps too much cellulose from eating herbs, and minerals can be locked up.  Juicing helps break down the cellulose.  A Vitamix type juicer retains all of the cellulose and can be a bit much to drink.  A normal juicer may remove too much fiber and spike your blood sugar, so it helps to put back some of the discarded fiber.  A Champion wheatgrass juicer can be very useful to bring out the properties of St. Johnswort or calendula.

If you want fermented herbs, add a strong lactobacillus culture.  This works well with roots like burdock, ginger, turmeric or Jerusalem artichoke.  Or try a mother of vinegar or kombucha mother to a decoction (but not one that is strongly antimicrobial or aromatic)- add the herbs after fermentation in that case.  Or add yeast for wine or beer.  Dandelion wine preserves the essence of summer.  Ginger beer adds the kick of alcohol with the pungency of the root, but the minerals should be easy to extract- I wouldn’t recommend an oatstraw beer unless the oatstraw was decocted first.

fruit leather
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You can take decoctions and cook them down to a thick fluid, add in a little of the marc or a powdered herb like eleuthero, then evaporate them on a fruit leather tray.  You will retain the minerals.  Chris Hobbs discusses making mushroom leather this way, or suggests grinding it up as a dry extract.  A similar process is used to make Chinese dry extracts, in a process that combines freeze drying and recapture of the aromatics (at least for the better companies.)

If you use Chinese dry extracts you may need to alter formulas to deal with mineral constituents.  (Chinese herbal medicines include rock powders, shells and other non-plant components.)    While most herbs are extracted 5:1, minerals are already 1:1 and formula proportions need to be adjusted.   Eric Brandt has some good articles on the Blue Poppy Press site.

Chinese herbal store reposted with lomo effect...
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Vinegars are good for extracting alkaline minerals.  I like to infuse vinegars with nettles, bone, eggshell or red raspberry leaves.  I like to use  my Thieves’ Vinegar which has oregano, sage, rosemary and a number of other leaves.  The advantage of using vinegars is that they do not counteract the hydrochloric acid in your stomach, which tends to be low when we are over 30 and are better assimilated.

When you take mineral rich or vitamin-rich herbs, it is a good idea to take them with food.  This is different from when other medicinal properties are desired from the herbs.  Food generally includes fats which help in the assimilation of minerals.  Just as you get more out of your vitamin and mineral pills when taken with meals, your vitamin and mineral rich herbs will give you more with food.  Think of it as  making up for the loss of minerals that used to be in the food.

There is no single “best” way to get herbs with minerals into your diet.  Tinctures probably won’t do it- they are better for herbs that give information to your body.  Fluid extracts give you somewhat more, but still limited amounts. Soups are great for anything you decoct or infuse.  But decoctions, ferments, overnight infusions, wines, beers and juices all can give you herbal benefit .  I suggest you go for variety.

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