Solvent: Alcohol

When I began to study herbs and herbalism it was with the desire to make medicines using the plants I grow on my own property, medicines that will aid in comforting myself as well as those I love. I was immediately overwhelmed with scientific and/or unfamiliar terminology. In an attempt to better understand these terms, I decided to write about each one, defining it in as many ways as possible. As I synthesize myriad definitions from multiple sources, I will relate them to the plant allies I am growing, harvesting and working with..reinforcing my studies.

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Alcohol equals water in importance as a solvent for many active plant substances...
— James Green, The Herbal Medicine-Maker's Handbook

Until recently, I had stepped inside a liquor store maybe once or twice in my forty-six years. I can recall buying a couple of bottles of inexpensive wine to give as gifts in the 1990s. In the spring, I bought my first bottle of 100-proof vodka.

The term alcohol (at least in herbalism) is a bit ambiguous. I have learned it is very important to understand the differences between common types of alcohol - rubbing (or, isopropyl alcohol), ethyl (or, ethanol) and the dangerous…methyl (or, methanol) .

NEVER USE METHYL ALCOHOL or WOOD ALCOHOL in ANY herbal preparation!

When I first began learning about using alcohol as a solvent I was overwhelmed by the concept. So many tutorials and instructional manuals discuss the dangers associated with using the wrong type of alcohol or, the wrong alcohol-related ratios. The wrong type of alcohol can be absolutely toxic - and so, it is extremely important to understand which alcohol is used in making which type or preparation (i.e. a tincture, a liniment). Ratio is important too, but I have learned the concept is not too scary and, there are ways to make it simple.

Here are some general notes I have made for myself to better understand the use of alcohol as a solvent in herbal medicine-making:

Types of Alcohol

Rubbing Alcohol (also known as isopropyl rubbing alcohol or ethyl rubbing alcohol)

  • All rubbing alcohols are unsafe for human consumption.

  • Isopropyl rubbing alcohols do not contain the ethyl alcohol of alcoholic beverages.

  • Ethyl rubbing alcohol is NOT the same as ethyl alcohol (used in beverages); it is toxic.

  • Rubbing alcohol should ONLY be used externally (i.e. liniment).

Ethyl Alcohol (also known as ethanol, grain alcohol or drinking alcohol)

  • Relatively safe for human consumption (when not used in excess).*

  • Provides preservative action when used in herbal preparations.

  • It is a psychoactive substance

  • It is the principal type of alcohol in alcoholic beverages.

  • Alcoholic beverages are labeled using a system that measures alcohol-by-volume, or alcohol proof. Unlabeled or ‘homemade’ grain alcohol/moonshine may be toxic when used in herbal medicine-making.

Methyl Alcohol (also known as methyl wood alcohol or methanol) ☠

  • All methyl or wood alcohols are unsafe for human consumption.

  • Methyl alcohol should NEVER be used in herbal medicine-making. ☠

  • Methyl alcohol may be toxic and lethal if consumed; may cause organ damage.

Ethyl alcohol is the alcohol to which James Green refers in the quote at the beginning of this post. I’ve learned ‘drinking alcohol’ is a valuable solvent (or menstruum), extracting the alcohol-soluble constituents from plant material while often providing preservative action.

A dilute alcohol, such as 100-proof vodka (50% water and 50% ethyl alcohol) is an ideal solvent because it extracts both alcohol-soluble and water-soluble agents, provides preservative action and also remains safe to consume (it does not pose the same dangers as high-proof alcohols).

What is Alcohol Proof?

Alcohol proof (in the United States) is defined as twice the percentage of alcohol by volume. And alcohol by volume is defined as the number of milliliters (mL) of pure ethyl alcohol present in 100 mL of solution at 68° Fahrenheit...so what does THAT mean? Divide the proof by two, I’ll discover my percentage of alcohol…

The 80-proof label tells me the alcohol I have purchased is 40% alcohol (or I recognize, 2x the percentage). In 100 mL of vodka, if 40% is ethyl alcohol, the remaining 60% is water.

The 100-proof label tells me the alcohol I have purchased is 50% alcohol (or I recognize, 2x the percentage). In 100 mL of vodka, if 50% is ethyl alcohol, the remaining 50% is water.

But…what about high-proof alcohol, like 190-proof? Well, according to April Graham (the herbalist behind the popular Instagram account and YouTube channel, She Is Of The Woods), I should not be using high-proof alcohol…because it is dangerous! Pharmaceutical industry-level danger.

So why do so many books, tutorials, and programs instruct students to use high-proof (often 190-proof) alcohol as a solvent? My understanding is that a 190-proof alcohol is 95% ethyl alcohol and only 5% water! Why would I need to use such a high percentage of alcohol in my solution? Well, it seems some plants require a higher amount of alcohol to extract their constituents.

Resins, balsams, camphors - and other constituents I have yet to extract (nor imagine I will) - are drawn from fresh plants using a high amount of alcohol. However, I am using fresh plant material exclusively from my own backyard (native and naturalized ‘weedy’ species); I can’t imagine I will ever need to use high-proof alcohol in any of my tinctures (or, as a preservative).

Alcohol Sources

When I began reading about herbs and herbalism, I was first focused on the actual plants. Which plant allies am I currently growing? Which will I seek to use for the health of my family? How best are the constituents of those plants extracted? What delivery methods are ideal for my family?

I began learning about extraction methods…the first method I attempted was tincturing. Making a tincture required me to lightly chop fresh plant material and soak it in a solution. I used 100-proof vodka (50% water, 50% alcohol) as my solvent.

Yea, that’s great. Vodka. Uh, what is vodka? I really had no idea. Yea, I’m pretty inexperienced in the alcohol arena. So, I had to do some research. In addition to learning more about the origin of alcohol, I also learned certain dilute alcohols (alcohol diluted with other “ingredients” like water or honey) make better sense as solvents for certain preparations.

Ethyl alcohol - or, drinking alcohol - is sourced from various types of cereal grains, tubers (think: potatoes), by-products of sugarcane (think: molasses) and fruits.

When April Graham discusses making flower essences shelf-stable, she suggests using honey liqueur. Why? If I wish to make a flower-based preparation, I may wish to use a dilute alcohol of honey mixed with vodka rather than a fruit-based alcohol (such as a brandy, sourced from fruit wines). Why? Honey boasts wildflowers as its source! Makes sense, right?

What Must I Remember?

  • rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol is used externally only

  • ethyl alcohol (drinking alcohol) is used internally and safe at 100-proof or less

  • high-proof alcohol is often unnecessary; it should be used only when extracting certain plant constituents which require a higher amount of alcohol

Monograph: Dandelion

The term monograph when applied to herbalism is generally defined as close study of a specific plant. The information collected is for use in one's own practice, and often collected in one's own Materia Medica. There are virtually thousands of examples online and in print. The posts (which I have collected here), labeled as Monographs, represent the plants growing within my property's boundaries and, which I intend to use as plant allies in my medicine-making. The information will be collected from various sources, personal observations/experiences and will be ever-growing.

The image carousel will eventually include images of leaf, stem, flower, fruit and root.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Family: Asteraceae

Growing Season (North America): April to November

Identification

Leaves 

  • radiate outward from a basal root (a central taproot)

  • form a basal rosette (no leaves appear along the flowering stalk)

  • thin at base and widen as they radiate outward

  • bright green lance-shaped

  • edges are toothy, irregularly serrated

  • bald, smooth on all surfaces (top, undersides and ribs)

Stalk

  • grow individually from basal rosette (with a single flowering top on each)

  • straight (2 to 18 inches tall)

  • unjointed (there is no branching, only individual flower stems)

  • round

  • smooth

  • hollow

  • pale green

  • secrete sticky, white sap (bitter-tasting, sweeter in springtime)

Flower

  • bright yellow

  • emerge at basal rosette (appear as tight bud)

  • bloom atop single stem emerging from basal rosette of leaves

  • composed of hundreds of individual flowers

  • fruit (achene): produced on a globular seedhead; carried on hair-like parachutes (pappus)

Root

  • deep (up to 10 inches), underground taproot

  • may be branching with rootlets

  • white-beige skin, fleshy inside

  • sticky, white sap when broken or bruised

  • storehouse of vitamins and minerals from soil

Why Dandelion?

First, she is non-toxic and considered generally safe (see below). There is little fear involved in using dandelion - you may use any part (flower, seeds, leaves, stem parts, and roots!). 

Medical Actions

If there is one aspect of herbalism I find most confusing, it's understanding the medical actions associated with each plant. The terms are unfamiliar and my understanding of their definitions - if read too hastily - is sometimes flawed.

Example...dandelion is a hepatic. Hepatic is defined as reducing congestion and draining the liver. This does not refer to nasal congestion, or chest congestion...it refers to liver dysfunction and the the congestion of bile! 

I am studying the terms associated with common herbal actions to better understand each; I will publish individual essays that define and describe each action and link to those posts as they are published. The following information, specifically regarding the use of dandelion, comes from Blair (2014):  

  • Anti-inflamatory - reduce swelling and inflammation of tissue

  • Aperient - acts as a mild laxative

  • Cholagogue - increases flow of bile

  • Depurative - reduces impurities or heterogenous matter

  • Diuretic - increases flow of urine

  • Galactagogue - stimulates flow of breast milk

  • Hepatic - reduces congestion and drains the liver

  • Stomachic - strengthens and tones the stomach

  • Sedative - reduces anxiety, stress, irritability or excitement

Side Effects & Interactions

There are only a few precautions associated with using dandelion; it is not completely free of side effects or interactions.

  • Do not use dandelion if you have an allergic reaction (skin irritation or mouth sores) to any plants in the family Asteraceae such as ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigold, chamomile, yarrow, daisies, asters or (obviously) dandelion

  • Do not use dandelion if you have an allergic reaction to iodine; dandelion is naturally rich in iodine (as well as other vitamins & minerals - these elements are absorbed from the soil in which the plant grows)

  • Herbal actions of dandelion may cause undesired drug interactions. If taking medication(s) which perform the same action, the effect when taking dandelion will be doubled, if taking medications to perform the opposite action, the effect when taking dandelion may render the prescribed medication ineffective - either may pose a danger to the individual

[ Information regarding drug interactions may be obtained from the herbal database at PSHMC


September 2018

When I was a little girl my Gram cooked dandelions and served them at Sunday dinner. I liken them (in my memory) to overcooked spinach. This could be - sorry, Gram - that they were simply not cooked properly...or, my palette had not yet evolved to like dandelion! In fact, I love spinach now (raw) and when I was a little girl...I probably hated it. So, maybe I should give cooked dandelion greens another try...or, not.

Dandelion is considered one of those all-around great plant allies. Loaded with vitamins and minerals, easy to find anywhere (except Antarctica) and every part of her is edible...how can she possibly be ignored by anyone learning to use plants for healing? 

In early spring I made my very first tincture...and I used fresh, young dandelions (harvested from my own backyard). I harvested leaves, blooms, and some of the roots; leaving most of the broken off taproots in the ground (to replenish my supply - it worked, I still have plenty of dandelions thriving out back...nearly five months later).