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by Alex Williams May 30, 2023
What’s the difference between potions, tinctures, and tonics?
There are dozens of words thrown around to describe a slew of different herbal preparations, so it can get a little confusing to understand why different herbalists use different words in different applications.
My nomenclature is inspired by the practical traditions of folk herbalism and herbcraft, so the words I employ in my practice often point to their intended use.
But first, it might be helpful to define the tincture, a word that you typically don't hear everyday, unless you've chosen to infuse deeply in the world of herbcraft.
Tinctures are herbal preparations that use alcohol as a solvent. Alcohol allows the most effective extraction of plant properties while preserving the herbal preparation much longer than water-extraction methods.
While utilized for many purposes, tinctures are most often offered to support, nourish, and/or balance various aspects of our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.
Tinctures vary widely in personality based upon the plant material extracted within and the potency/extraction rate at which the plant material is extracted. Read more about potency on our blog post, A Note on the Potency of Herbal Preparations.
Importantly, many of the terms used below may also (but not always) be tinctures, in that it is an herbal preparation that uses alcohol as a solvent.
Ahh, tonics. One of the most widely utilized, least understood, and ambiguous terms applied in herbalism. It seems as if any of these formulas could potentially be tonic in its ability to support well-being. But this can actually be a misleading term as some herbs are intended for long-term use and some short-term. And then if we take the literal meaning of tonic into account things get more confusing!
So let's start with the literal meaning of tonic:
The word ‘tonic’ comes from the action of an herb as ‘tonifying’ or restoring tone to weak tissues. The action most commonly associated with tonic in this more literal sense are astringents.
Astringents are astringent primarily due to the presence of tannins derived from phenolic acids present within plant material. The ‘drying’ action of tannins are viscerally felt when the tannins in an astringent come into contact with the proteins in tissues or in bodily fluids, such as mucous. The tannins bind to the proteins, constricting the surface of tissues in the process, and creating a thin and temporary coating.
This is also where we get the word 'toner' from and is more accurately a tonic in its astringent and tissue toning nature.
Potions are preparations to be taken as needed and not intended to be taken long-term, although some can be taken long-term.
Yes, this can be a little confusing, but given the myriad constituents in different herbs (and even the variety in the amount of constituents among individual plants of the same species), it would make sense that some herbs can be supportive long-term, some supportive in the short-term (and potentially less efficacious or harmful in the long-term).
Herbal formulas like our gently sedative and sleep-supporting Underworld Potion, or the immune system stimulating Weather Feather Potion, which need to only be taken as needed when the circumstances call for their use.
There are also formulas like Peace Portal Bitters which can offer immediate calming benefits to those experiencing moments of intensity and stress, but can also be supportive as a nervous system tonic in the long-term.
In the case of our Apiary Bitters, long-term use promotes balanced immunity throughout allergy season while short-term, in the moment use helps to soften our body's acute response to seasonal allergies.
This speaks to the wild versatility of many of the herbs we call upon to promote everyday wellness.
I think of potions in a very folkloric and whimsical sense. When I think of the myths and fairy tales I grew up on, the potions were always offered in delicate bottles that seemed to disappear in a cloud of purple smoke upon use. This is echoed in the fantasy RPG games I would play, where a simple potion would diminish your inventory by one upon each use.
Fortunately, our 'potions' stay in your inventory much longer as they contain dozens of servings, but their everyday use is 'as-needed' rather than cumulative.
Here are some other words commonly thrown around by myself and other herbalists. Both are considered tinctures in that they employ alcohol as the primary solvent, but there are a few distinctions that are helpful to be aware of:
Bitters are a 'tonic' preparation (that is, can be taken long term) that includes bitter herbs where bitterness is perceivable on the tongue. While bitters are tonic in nature, they can also be used as needed to support digestion of meals, but their long-term benefits can be quite profound.
Bitters tend to have an affinity for the digestive system and promote overall digestive health. Bitters are often, but not always, slightly sweetened.
Our Over/Under Bitters is a great example of a well-rounded bitters blend that supports optimal digestion.
Elixirs are tinctures sweetened with honey to a greater degree than a bitters preparation and may or may not have bitter herbs included. Elixirs tend to require higher dosage than tinctures and may utilize herb-infused honeys to enhance their health-promoting properties. Some elixirs straddle the threshold between herbal syrups, water-based infusions, and tinctures.
Language is important when we discuss the therapeutic value of herbs and how we use herbs to support well-being and vitality in ourselves and our communities. There are many studies that like to emphasize the lack of efficacy of herbs, while also lacking clarity around the kinds of preparations and potency of the preparations they are using in the study. While the language I provide here clearly does not attempt to cater to the more scientifically inclined crowd, I employ it here since it is practical, accessible, and inspires curiosity and wonder. These are the virtues that herbalism also offers and that individuals deeply need in regular, healthy, and tonic doses if we are going shift our perspective and way of being towards that of a deeply connected and embodied community of people in the years to come.
Tinctures are herbal preparations that use alcohol as a solvent. Potions are any herbal preparation that is not intended for long-term, regular use. We call a preparation a potion to evoke more of a temporal (and perhaps esoteric or magical) usage of a preparation rather than to describe the solvent used to extract the benefits from the herb. So a potion can be a tincture, but it can also be any other preparation that is taken in the moment for more immediate effects. Preparations like tincture (alcohol-extracted), acetum (vinegar-extracted), decoction (water-extracted), oxymel (vinegar/honey extracted), are examples of different preparations that are named for the solvent employed to create them.
Herbal tonics have been traditionally employed in herbal medicine to aid in revitalizing, strengthening, nourishing, and energizing various bodily systems while supporting overall health and vitality. Tonics tend to be taken over longer periods of time and are crafted from carefully chosen herbs, yielding a preparation designed to promote well-being and balance within the body.
Herbal tonics, tinctures, and other preparations can be safe when used appropriately and under the guidance of a trained clinical herbalist. It's also important to let your primary care provider know when you are using herbal supplements, and to follow recommended dosages especially if you have specific health concerns or are taking medications. Individual responses to herbal remedies may vary, so it's prudent to exercise caution and informed usage.
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