VS. COOKED MEDICINAL HERBS, AND RAW HERBAL JUICES
by Tom Billings
[Written November 1997]
The question of whether (medicinal) herbs should
be used raw or cooked, and the efficacy of raw herbal juices, comes up often. This paper
addresses those questions.
Fresh, raw herbs are generally seen as the strongest form in which to take
medicinal herbs. In particular, raw herbal juices are assimilated more
readily than other ways of consuming raw herbs. The use of raw juices and
herbs is recognized in Ayurveda, the traditional medical/wellness system
of India, and in Western herbalism as well (see the book, "Healing With
Herbal Juices", by Siegfried Gursche, for a Western herbal approach to
the use of raw herb juices). The widespread use of wheatgrass juice (also
barley grass, alfalfa juices) in the raw foods movement, provides an
excellent example of using raw herbal juices for health and healing.
However, real life doesn't always conform to our preferences, and the use
of raw herbs is constrained by a number of factors. A discussion of these
constraints is as follows.
* Form: some herbs are (very) difficult to use raw.
Clearly, leaves and juicy fruits can be juiced and/or consumed raw. However,
it is difficult to eat bark, wood, seeds, or dry pods/fruits in the raw
state. Some dry pods can be eaten as-is (carob, for example) or rehydrated
and eaten (e.g., cassia). However, it is very difficult to eat wood/bark/
hard seeds, unless they are finely ground (and then they may cause stomach upset on
* Availability: use of formulas.
Most herbal medicine systems use combinations of herbs, i.e., formulas,
in preference to single herbs. The solitary use of specific herbs is
not very common, in general. Whereas one might be able to get one herb
raw, it is considerably more difficult to get all 5-12 herbs that are
in a formula, fresh and raw, all at once. Additionally, the form constraint
(e.g., some herbs in the formula are wood/bark) presents an additional
challenge. Because of this, dried herb powders and tinctures are widely
used in herbalism, so that the formula is readily available.
* Method and timing: the method (and timing) in which herbs are taken may
Both Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine regard the method and timing in which herbs
are taken, to be important. Depending on the condition
of the person, and the nature of the ailments, herbs and/or formulas
may be taken before meals, after meals, between meals, at night, in the
morning, etc. Similarly, the vehicle - route of administering the herbs -
may vary as well: hot water, cold water, milk, aloe vera juice, honey, etc.
Those who wish to use raw herbs, may have to change the method and/or
timing, of their herbs - consult your herbal advisor on this.
* Vehicles: use of warm water/milk and/or alcohol.
Warm water (milk) and/or alcohol, are often used as vehicles to administer
herbs. For those herbs used in a form that is difficult to use raw (e.g.,
wood/bark/hard seeds), heating allows more of the alkaloids (active
ingredients) in the herbs, to dissolve in the media (warm water/alcohol),
hence the active ingredients can be more bio-available. Presumably, raw herbs contain more
active ingredients than cooked herbs; however if the raw herbs are in a
difficult-to-assimilate form, they can pass through you without beingdigested and
assimilated. When that happens, the active ingredients are literally wasted. In such
cases, a heated tea or tincture, containing less
active ingredients, but which you actually absorb, may be more effective.
* Dosage: some herbs are very harsh in their raw form.
In my own personal experiments, I discovered that raw (refrigerator) tea
made from raw neem leaves is extremely harsh (and very diuretic as well).
Tea from boiled neem leaves is not as harsh as the raw, and I would
not recommend raw neem leaves. Side notes on neem: Mahatma Gandhi used to regularly eat
chutney - pickles - made with raw neem leaves, as an aid in the practice of celibacy.
Finally, neem is widely used in anti-diabetes and anti-cancer programs in Ayurveda. For
another example, a friend (Bodhi)
reports that the raw juice of gingko leaves is so strong that it literally takes your
breath away. So, one must use discretion with raw herbs - they
can be very strong indeed.
On the other hand, some herbs can be easily used raw, for example: corn silk and dandelion
roots (the latter via refrigerator tea). Getting the dosage correct is important,
especially if the herb is raw and very strong. It is easy to overdose when using raw
Side note: how to make raw refrigerator tea.
Take herbs (dried OK), place in water in a clean glass bottle (with lid), shake
well. If the herbs are fine powder, refrigerate immediately. If not, allow the herbs in
water, to set at room temperature and become re-hydrated - may take 1-2 hours. Then put
herbs and water in clean blender, and blend on medium or high speed (to grind up the
rehydrated herbs). Return to bottle, place bottle in refrigerator, leave in refrigerator
overnight - raw tea is ready the
next morning. Note: if the herbs are in powder form, you might prefer
to let them set at room temperature for an hour or two, shaking occasionally,
then use immediately. Caution: long periods without refrigeration should be
avoided, due to risks of bacterial growth/contamination.
* Taste: may be (very) unpleasant.
The unpleasant taste of raw herbs can sometimes be masked by eating them with food (but
this is not always appropriate). If the herbs are in juice
form, they can be mixed in raw celery juice or raw carrot juice. Raw
carrot juice is an excellent vehicle, as it is absorbed quickly by the
body. (Carrot juice is not appropriate for everyone - too much sugar
for some people, especially those struggling with diabetes or hypoglycemia;
also carrot juice is heating and increases pitta, in Ayurvedic terms).
Note also that one must be very careful with dosage, when mixing herbal
juices with celery or carrot juice - the masking effect of the vegetable
juices makes it easier to overdose on the herb.
In closing, I recommend that those with serious health problems should
consult a qualified health professional (preferably one with knowledge
and experience with herbs), before changing their herbal programs to include
fresh, raw herbs. Those of us that are healthy, of course, are free to choose
whether to experiment with raw herbs, or not (at your own risk, of course).
I hope the above is of interest to some readers. I wish you good health!