When someone suggests an herbal medicine, there is often a lot of contradictory information about how much and how to take it. Ideas on dosage vary quite a bit depending on the advice of different herbalists and according to different cultures. You may find that a western herbalist suggests using just a couple teaspoons of herb for a cup of tea, equivalent to about a gram or two of herb. And you may find that an herbalist practicing traditional Chinese Medicine might offer a decoction (tea made with roots, bark, woody things, etc) that contains upwards of 120 grams or just over 4 ounces of herbal material (usually split into 2-6 doses over the course of a day). That is a wide difference in approach and I think its key to explore some of these differences and I’ll give you my take on what works best for me.
The first thing to think about in terms of dosage is how much herbal material is contained in each portion of tea, tincture or capsule that one takes. Lets start with tea. When you go to a store to buy a box of tea, you’ll find that each bag weighs about 1.5 grams and can be measured out with one or two teaspoons. This is the classic dosage for a gentle cup of herbal tea and often the suggestion is to take two cups of tea a day for a total of 3 grams of herbal material. However, this general rule varies quite a bit depending on which herb you are preparing and what potency of dose you are looking for. With nourishing and nutritive herbs, such as oatstraw, nettles and raspberry leaf, one can use quite a bit more herbal material to make tea. A classic infusion would include 30 grams (just over an ounce) of herb to a quart of hot water left to infuse overnight.
Most Western herbalists suggest using quite a bit more herb in a preparation. Personally, if I am making a medicinally potent tea my rule of thumb is to use about two tablespoons of herb (8 grams) per pint of water. If it is a decoction I will do the same but a half hour of simmering an herb can lose quite a bit of the liquid and make the beverage pretty potent. I may add some water back in. Of course this is all dependent on what herbs I am using. Some herbs are quite potent and one would use less of it (cramp bark, kava) and some are quite mellow (oat straw, linden) and one can use more.
This is all quite a bit different compared to the use of herbal tea prepared as Traditional Chinese Medicine. Often teas are made with upwards of 10-12 herbs of 6-12 grams for each herb. That can come out to a whopping 120 grams (4 ounces) of herb per day. These brews often include herbs that are strong tasting, sour, bitter, etc and can be very unpalatable to Western taste, especially at that dosage. They obviously carry far more nutrients and constituents but can feel truly overpowering to some who take them regularly. They are also generally decocted (simmered for a half hour to an hour) which increases the potency even further. For many people it is just simply too much.
So how much is just right? Herbal preparations are a lot like cooking. There are some general ideas but then you just have to experiment. Some folks like a lot of salt in their food and some like alomst none. Some can feel quite an effect from a tea made from a store bought tea bag. Some require quite a bit more. I generally feel that if you are making teas that are trying to improve long standing chronic conditions, then more herb, and esepcially nutritive and tonic herbs, are needed for a longer period of time. And if the condition is more acute, then smaller quanties for shorter periods of time are needed and often tinctures are better. But really the answer is subjective and the joy of tea is that you can know pretty quickly what is working, or not, and adjust accordingly.
Tinctures are often used for a variety of reasons. They stay medicinally potent without going bad for several years. Alcohol extracts a number of constituents that are not water soluble and they are small and easy to carry on your person. Most tinctures made with fresh herbs are made in a 1:2 ratio. That means for every 300 grams of herb (10 ounces), there would be 600 ml of alcohol (20 ounces). In a one ounce (30 ml) bottle of tincture made in a 1:2 ratio, there is a half ounce of herbal material (15 grams). There are gerenerally 30 droppers full of tincture in a bottle so that means each dropper contains about a half gram of herb.If you take 2 droppers full 3 times a day then you would receive about 3 grams of herb a day, equivalent to a small dose of herbal tea taken a day. By the way I know that an ounce really equals 28.35 ounces but I’m making this simpler for calculation. Please no emails
The interesting thing is, tinctures can seem to work at very low doses, sometimes as little as 1-5 drops- essentially a negligible amount of plant material (1 drop would be equivalent to 1/60th of a gram of herb). This is what I would call a “Spirit Dose”, one that is based on the energetic principle of the herb and its ability to stimulate a healing response in the body, even at tiny doses. Certainly the taste of an herb by itself may be able to generate a response via the salivary glands as it signals the brain. But on a deeper level, many respected herbalists acknoweldge a homeopathic response, where negligible amounts of herb are able to elicit healing. Certainly I have seen this in my own practice as a therapist where minute herbal doses can bring out profound transformative emotional responses. One of the beautiful things about drop dosage is that an herbalist and a client are generally working with one plant, trying to connect the medicinal and spiritual benefits of a singular herb to fit a very specific constitution and illness process.
Generally, capsules are offered at 500 mg per capsule. One can then take two of these two to three times a day for a total of 2-3 grams of herb per day. Again, this is equivalent to similar levels of herb taken in tea or tincture form. Whole herb concentrations are generally more potent than tea form because one is ingesting the whole ground up plant instead of just the liquid extract. However, many people have difficulty digesting and absorbing herbs in this way and I believe that many people pass capsule based herbs without absorbing their full medicinal effect. This is one of the reasons I tend to promote taking herbs in tea and tincture form.
I also am a big fan of people getting to know their herbs on a sensual level. That means the more someone can see, feel, smell, taste and yes- hear an herb, the more effective it often is. When taking a capsule, we bypass our senses in favor of experiencing the medicinal result of the herb. In many ways this is similar to how we approach western allopathic medicine, and my hope is for people to really gain an experiential love of herbs that emphasizes the process, instead of just the result.
If one is taking Chinese herbal formulas, there is an emphasis on taking herbs prepared as granules and pills. The main reason for this is because most Westerners (understandably) won’t take decoctions. So people will often take up to 6 pills 3 times a day for a total of 18 pills. The pills are often around 5-700 mg so one could easily take around 12 grams of herb a day. That is far more than western herbal style dosing.
Even though I don’t generally suggest capsules and pills, I have seen many people experience remarkable benefits from taking herbs in this way. Certainly this is the most common way of taking herbs and can be amazingly beneficial even without a direct “sensual” interaction with the herb.
So if we are to look at dosage, the first thing that I would notice is that western herbalists use far less herbal matter than Chinese herbal medicine. Is one system better than the other? I don’t think so. I have found that effectiveness depends on the situation, the personal constitution and biochemistry of the individual taking the herb as well as the type of ailment needing care.
On a personal note, I tend to use minute “spirit doses” of tinctures for more emotional level concerns. This is akin to flower essences which truly carry no herbal material at all. I have personally witnessed and experienced positive and transformative results from the use of minute doses. For example, an herb like bleedingheart, offered at a very tiny level, has helped clients of mine get in touch with a feeling of woundedness in the heart area, often due to personal loss or a breakup. I would also suggest larger doses of herbal tinctures (up to 2 droppers full) of tincture, esepcially for acute concerns such as passionflower or skullcap, for anxiety spikes.
I am also comfortable with working with larger doses of herbal teas , especially as deep level nourishment and tonification. The level and type of dose depends on a number of factors including age, constitution, and what type of preparation the client is willing and likely to take. A classic example of a larger dose herb that I may suggest would be an infusion of a cup of nettles (one ounce/30g) to a quart of hot water infused overnight and taken throughout the day. The nettles are deeply nourishing and mineral and nutrient rich or those who feel depleted and exhausted.
Herbal dosage is complicated and the amount and type of herbal preparation is very dependent on situation, temperament, ailment pattern and personal preference. I think there is a time and a place for a number of different styles of dosage and preparation depending on circumstance.