Ask An Herbalist

August 2011
by Philip Fritchey
Q. I would like to make a tincture out of Yellow Dock, and I wanted to double check that 100 proof vodka is the way to go. I would also like to clarify just how it should be taken. Your book says it should not be consumed in large quantities or for very long periods of time. What does that mean exactly? Is that no more than a year at 10 drops a day, or is the duration much shorter? I was looking for a very high source of iron that would also help clean me up internally. Adrenals and thyroid are of special interest. My intentions were to possibly use this in a combination tincture.

A. Yellow Dock tincture does well in 100 proof vodka. It is an herb that I tend to use more for its cleansing than its nutritional properties, though, and that is usually short-term (6-12 weeks) and cyclical (like Spring and Fall). It does have a reputation as a high-iron supplement, but is better understood as a facilitator. It helps the body assimilate iron, especially when taken with other iron-rich herbs, and foods like greens and root crops, particularly beets. My feeling is that it does this by getting other things out of the way, especially inorganic iron, using the liver as the disposal pathway. That takes us back to the cleansing idea, and constant cleansing by liver stimulation can definitely be counterproductive. The body needs to be allowed to regularly find its own center without constant and excessive outside influences.

If you want to use this in a combination, I'd suggest making single herb tinctures of your herbs first. Then, try your blends in small batches, mix them well and set aside for a week or two. Yellow Dock is one of those herbs that tends to combine chemically with other herbs and can convert to a pretty much useless sludge that settles to the bottom of the bottle. If your combination stays clear and sediment free after two weeks, it's probably going to be fine long-term.

Q. I have a friend with some challenges with her daughter. She has trouble waking up in the morning, is very irritable throughout the day and easily distracted, has had recurring ear infections and is just finishing another round of antibiotics. She is prone to gagging on the current liquid antibiotic and vomits about half of the time. She's been sick 2 times in the last 3 weeks with vomiting and diarrhea. Her daughter has had problems having a bowel movement since she was about 3, she's 7 now, and has only one BM daily and sometimes none. My friend knows that I am just beginning my natural healing journey, but she asked today if I could help. She does not want to take her daughter back to the doctor because, in her words, It obviously isn't going to make her well."

A. You could be describing the frustrations of mothers of young children all over this country, and sadly, most of those mothers aren't reading HealthKeepers or magazines like it. It sounds to me like you are looking at the all too common ramifications of recurrent antibiotic use with no balancing probiotics. Virtually all the problems you describe can be related to yeast/Candida overgrowths and unbalanced colon flora. I suspect she also either has or will soon develop respiratory and skin issues as well that could certainly evolve to asthma and eczema or psoriasis. All of those things are wrapped up in the issues with primary elimination, which can, in turn, be traced to colon friendly flora imbalances stemming from the original antibiotics. Those may actually have been given to the mother at birth or to the child shortly after, and the problem has been developing ever since.

As soon as this round of antibiotics is finished, I would highly recommend an extended course of children's probiotics- chewable, or capsules if she can handle them. Then do your research on a Candida control program. It will be an uphill battle, but nothing like what she would face in later years. In the meantime, introducing the child to herb teas, sweetened with a little Stevia would be a good way to make the transition to natural support. For starters, I'd focus on Chamomile to ease the irritability, Peppermint to calm the stomach and improve digestion, and Dandelion to gently aid elimination. These are all easy to grow or find, and it might help her have fun with what she's drinking if she actually sees the herbs and picks a few leaves to use rather than always using teabags.

Q. I attended your seminar in Indianapolis this past April and I purchased Comfrey tincture-a fabulous product! I really liked your formula with glycerin and alcohol and wondered if you would share your recipe with me. (I do have your book and attempted to make Comfrey tincture BUT let's just say I discovered another way NOT to make it.) I hope to use fresh root this time instead of dried. Do I wait till the plant is finished flowering before digging the root? Will other root type tinctures turn out as well using glycerin and alcohol? I know you went over it in class, but can you remind me how to respond to my friends who tell me that they've heard that Comfrey shouldn't be taken internally and can cause liver problems.

A. Comfrey is almost uniquely suited to glycerin extraction, really. Most of its actives are readily water soluble and chemically compatible with glycerin, unlike many other herbs with higher alkaloid or resin content. In my opinion, alcohol is generally far superior to glycerin for extraction of most herbs, at least by simple maceration. In the case of Comfrey, only the minimum alcohol is necessary for good preservation.

The menstruum I use to tincture dried Comfrey root is made of one part vegetable glycerin, one part 100 proof vodka and two parts distilled water. The water fraction should be reduced to 1 part if fresh root is used. The best fresh root is available just after the first frost when the tops die back, but usable roots can be dug anytime the plant is not in flower. A good working ratio of dried Comfrey root to menstruum is 1:12. For fresh root, try 1:8.

The Comfrey controversy centers on the presence of a single chemical called pyrollizidine alkaloid-PA for short. One published study indicated that when PA is extracted, concentrated and fed to rats in massive quantities, liver cell overgrowths were detected. No study that I have ever found has indicated any credible causal relationship between the whole herb- whether root or leaf-and liver problems. My advice is that you certainly shouldn't try to extract or consume PA. Instead, use the whole herb with its balanced chemistry as God designed it. He knows what He's doing.

Treated with respect, as all herbs should be, Comfrey is, in my opinion, absolutely benign and incredibly beneficial. The choice to use herbs is a personal one, though, as is the responsibility for those choices. I would personally consider my liver safer from a gallon of Comfrey tea than from two tablets of ibuprofen. I would seldom consume that much Comfrey, and even less frequently take a couple of Advil, but neither would cause me grave concern.

Q. I'm hunting for a few good book recommendations. I don't really understand the yin/yang, heat/damp, wind, fire, and water thing of Eastern origin. Do you have a few favorites you can recommend?

A. Inscrutable. There's a good reason why that word is almost synonymous with most things Chinese. Trying to wrap our Western linear-thinking minds around the very circuitous philosophies of Traditional Chinese Medicine can be extremely challenging. Michael Tierra has done much to apply TCM principles to Western Herbology, and any of his books might help bridge the gap. If you really want to try to grasp the concepts on a deeper more intuitive level, then I would recommend starting with a couple of months of quiet time and the book Between Heaven and Earth by Efrem Korngold and Harriet Beinfield. It was published in the early 1990's, and I'm not sure if it's still in print, but I'm sure you can still find it on eBay and el