Nourishing Herbal Infusions: What are they and why should you use them?
One of the cornerstones of my health routine is the daily use of “nutritional herbs” to support optimal nutrition and to get some of the great benefits of herbs in an affordable and sustainable way. I learned about Nourishing Herbal Infusions from Susun Weed, world renowned herbalist and educator, during my short apprenticeship with her in 2012. This simple daily ritual has been transformative for the way I treat my self and the way I view herbal medicine.
The method is incredibly simple, but I want to explain why such a simple method is so powerful.
Herbs come in a range of uses and potencies. Some are quite powerfully “medicinal” and need very careful dosing in small amounts. These herbs tend to get a lot of attention by researchers and healers and are the media darlings of the herb world. However, they have significant interactions and sometimes side effects that cause harm. Users need to be knowledgeable in their use, or just don’t use them at all.
Some herbs are very gentle, with subtle effects. These are food herbs. They can be consumed in large amounts with no side effects, allowing for maximum nutrition. With daily use, this nutrition boost is like taking a daily multivitamin, but at a lower cost, with better bioavailability, better environmental impact, and no compromise in ingredient profile. Additionally, some of the effects of these herbs go far beyond a daily multivitamin, fighting inflammation, supporting healthy joints and bones and teeth, increasing the body’s ability to heal and adapt to stress, and reducing risks of cancer and other chronic disease.
The way that herbs are prepared makes an enormous difference in their nutritional and medicinal value. Fresh plant material contains more volatile compounds like scents and oils. But the cell walls can make accessing those compounds challenging so they must be broken down in some way. Fresh plants also have very short shelf lives, so they must be processed in some way to keep on hand as needed. Dried plants largely lack those medicinal volatile compounds, but store safely and easily for long periods of time. Since the cell walls are broken and the water is gone, they are concentrated stores of minerals, proteins, and sugars and more stable compounds. So it depends on what you are trying to extract from a plant exactly how you will process it.
Additionally, what you extract a plant into will affect its use. For instance, a “tea” is really an “aqueous infusion”. Certain compounds are extracted or infused into the water, then the water is consumed. Not all products diffuse well into water. For instance, fats and oils diffuse less into water. While tea is lovely, and I consume a large volume of it, it is one of the least efficient ways to get value from a plant. Alcohol is a way to extract certain “medicinal” “active constituents” from plants. Tinctures and powdered extracts are often obtained by soaking the plant material in alcohol for a long period of time. Certain compounds infuse into the alcohol, and then the alcohol is consumed. Sometimes after extracting into alcohol, the alcohol itself is evaporated, leaving behind a concentrated extract in a powder form. This is very potent stuff. It can be put into capsules and taken as a medicine, or it can be mixed into other products.
This is a fairly simplified overview of plant processing, but I hope it gives some perspective on why processing matters.
Nourishing Herbal Infusions are aqueous infusions of dried plant leaves and flowers. So if we think about what that means, we have dried plant leaf material, which is an excellent source of minerals, proteins, and sugars in a stable form that is easy to store. Dried plant leaves have less volatile compounds, so there is less risk of some of the effects of volatile compounds (blood thinning, histamine reactions, liver damage etc). Then we extract the compounds with water, which means we have less of the stronger compounds that are best extracted through alcohol. We can use large volumes of herbs this way to maximize the minerals, proteins, and other nutritional compounds.
Next we consider which plants we use. We need plants with low levels of volatile oils since we will be using a lot of plant material. We needs plants that retain their value after being dried. And we need plants that are safe to harvest in large quantities. This last point is important when we consider the environmental impact of our choices. We cannot over-harvest wild plants or there will be none. This has happened before and we do not want to contribute.
Here is a list of herbs that make great Nourishing Herbal Infusions:
Red Clover flower
Stinging Nettle leaf
Red Raspberry Leaf
Violet flower and leaf
To maximize the nutrition extracted into the water, we don’t steep for 10 minutes like a tea, we steep for at least four hours, or up to 12 hours. This gives us a deep dark rich infusion chock full of bioavailable minerals and nutrients.
A few notes on making Nourishing Herbal Infusions before I give the recipe.
- You will need a kitchen scale. Dried plant material is not accurately measured by volume like a grain or liquid. It needs to be measured by weight. You will see that there is a huge difference in volume depending on the plant used as well as the way it was dried, shipped, stored, harvested, etc. Always weight it! Don’t get lazy, you will inevitably be cheating yourself.
- Large quart size mason jars are good for this. But when I started doing this, I did not have any. You can use any kind of metal or glass container you want. But do not use plastic or pots with non-stick coating. The hot water will leach chemicals.
- Finally, while it is fine and good to start with one infusion and develop a love and habit for it, don’t stop there. Rotate through the five major herbs every week. Oat Straw, Nettle, Comfrey, Linden, Red Clover. Each has unique properties it brings to the table. I do not recommend combining them together, however. There are a number of reasons for this. First you are more likely to get bored with the sameness and routine and stop doing it all together. This is human nature. Additionally, it does not allow you check in with yourself. What do you want today? Are your preferences changing? Might this tell us something about ourselves? Finally, it is good to have variety on a genetic level. This is a topic for a whole other blog, but know that eating the same thing every day for years is not good. We actually turn genes within our cells on and off with the foods we eat. There are benefits to rotating through a variety rather than having daily consistency.
How to Make it
You will need:
A pot to boil a quart of water
A Quart size jar with a fitted lid
A scale to weight out one ounce of dry herb
A bowl or container to use to hold the herb while you weigh it
A fine mesh sieve/ strainer, or a length of cheese cloth to strain the plant out
4 cups of water
One ounce of dried herb
This is one of the suppliers I use. I linked to Nettle, but they carry the other herbs as well https://www.mountainroseherbs.com/products/nettle-leaf/profile
- Use a kitchen scale to measure out once ounce of dried herb of choice
- Measure 4 cups (one quart) of water
- Pour water into a pot and bring to a boil on the stove, then turn off heat
- Pour herb into one quart glass jar (or another appropriate container)
- Pour hot water into jar over the herb
- Place lid on jar and refrigerate 4-12 hours (I do mine overnight most of the time)
- Use a fine mesh strainer or cheese cloth and place over desired storage vessel of choice. I usually use another glass jar, or possibly several thermoses.
- Pour Infusion through mesh to catch the plant material, keeping it out of the storage container.
- FINAL IMPORTANT STEP:
Once you have strained the Infusion, it is so important to go back and use your hands to squeeze the heck out of that plant material, over the strainer, into the storage container. You will be amazed how much fluid was still in the plant, and how much of the dark rich color is added to your infusion. This is the good stuff!
Here is a quick instructional video from Susun Weed for visual learners. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsJRfm70dRs&list=PLqq_0iBp8fNubTN4gHlq4LK05FeJZBIji&index=8&t=0s
Voila! You are done. You have Nourishing Herbal Infusion.
I almost always drink it straight and cold, like an iced tea. Several cups a day. However, you can also flavor it with mint (after the long steep), honey, salt, etc. Some people prefer certain types warm rather than cold. You can also add it to recipes for a nutrition boost in your daily cooking.
For pets, you can add some to food, or serve it straight in a bowl if they really like it. I have had some success mixing it with milk or broth for a daily nutrient boost. For small animals you can just give them a few spoonfuls or half a cup from your personal supply. For larger dogs, I recommend making them their own daily or every other day.
You can easily double the above recipe. In fact if you are making it for the whole family, it is easier to make it a gallon at a time and store it in a glass or plastic vessel in the fridge with a spigot. This way it is easy to access throughout the day for anyone who wants it.
Make it a habit to make your infusion most days. If you don’t quite need to make it daily, that’s OK, but be consistent for best results.
Green Blessings to you and yours!