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. Or 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 medicinal preparation. Personally, if I am making a medicinally potent tea my rule of thumb is to use about one to two tablespoons of herb (4-8 grams) per pint of water depending on age, weight and type of herb. By the way- for children- I like to use the rule of thumb of dividing a kid’s weight by 150 and then using that as the fraction of a dose I would use. For example a 50 pound kid would get 50/150, or a 1/3rd of a dose.
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 generally its important to bulk up on nutritive and tonic herbs for a longer period of time. And if the condition is more acute, then smaller quantities 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 a number of 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. Of course alcohol extracts pull out more constituents than just water extracts- so they are generally quite a bit more potent. 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). Part of the reason is that there are plants that are extremely potent (lobelia, poke) and even very tiny doses work.
But even with less potent herbs that should not “work” at such a tiny dose, there are quite a few herbalists who achieve success offering tincture at that level. This comes from old “vitalist” ways of thinking about health that we are simply encouraging the body’s own natural and vital processes. Tiny and even homeopathic doses can therefore achieve results. These tiny doses that are minimally pharmacologically active are called “drop doses”- based on the energetic principle that tiny doses of an herb can stimulate a healing response in the body. Certainly the taste of an herb by itself are known to generate a response via the salivary glands as it signals the brain, the nervous and the digestive system.
I have seen this in my own practice as a therapist where minute drop doses can bring on 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. While this is one of the easiest ways of administering herbs, it is not always effective. 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.
From a trauma informed perspective, our digestive systems shut down when we are under stress during a sympathetic nervous system response. When this happens chronically due to PTSD or ongoing stress, digestion of food, let alone capsules of raw herb or pills, becomes very difficult.
The other thing that is missed when taking raw herbs in this form is that we don’t experience them as flavors that affect our taste and digestive buds. For example, on the tongue we have bitter receptors that start the process of salivation, induce digestive secretions and actually signal the vagus nerve to bring us to a calmer state that helps us to digest more properly.
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- but still far far less than traditional Chinese herbal decoctions.
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 beneficial even without a direct “sensual” interaction with the herb.
Notes about my Approach as an Herbalist
As an herbalist I am very aware of the problem of “compliance” (horrible word but it has to be said.) Compliance is the likelihood that a client will actually take those weird concoctions and preparations you are suggesting and offering. Generally, the easier it is to consume, the more chance the individual will do it. So while in China people are used to doing multiple decoctions of a large formula of 10 herbs, its fairly unlikely that most westerners will go through all the trouble on a regular basis. As herbalists we have to tailor our approach to fit our clients. For that reason, most herbalists in the West offer tinctures and some blend of teas and capsules primarily. While tinctures and capsules are more easy to use, teas take additional effort. Because of the challenge of compliance, I have shifted my practice to offering concentrated syrups and elixirs.
A syrup is a water based herbal extraction (think infusion or decoction) mixed with a sweetener (usually honey or sugar). The sweetener preserves the herbs and honey can provide additional nutritional value. An elixir is the same but with added tincture or alcohol. In my syrups and elixirs, a larger amount of herbs are infused and decocted and then reduced significantly before adding honey and tincture. The client then only has to take one or two tablespoons of the concentrate a day. In that way, larger doses of nutritional and tonic herbs can be offered to clients in a way the tummy likes without the need to go through the trouble of spending the day making complex tea formulas. In my practice, that means far greater compliance.
So I generally offer an assortment of tinctures, syrups and elixirs as the primary ways for helping people- tinctures generally for more short acting relief- and concentrates for more longer term health needs. For those who will go to the trouble I will also offer herbs to infuse and decoct.
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.
You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health.