Creating your own herbal formulas can be an intimidating process. Formulation is admittedly not a clear-cut process and it seems that many herbalists create their formulas with a combination of knowledge and intuition. That’s tough to teach!
What makes things even more complicated is that Western herbalism doesn’t have a strong tradition in herbal formulas. While a few classic formulas exist, we don’t have anything like Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which has thousands of formulas that have been perfected over hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of years.
One of the biggest hurdles people have when starting out in making herbal formulas is the concern about safety. A question I often get is, “Can you ever combine herbs in an unsafe way?” or “Does combining two or more herbs ever end up with a toxic result?”
The answer is a definite no. As long as the herbs you are using are generally regarded as safe and are given in safe doses, then the end result will be safe.
But this isn’t to say that all herbal combinations are a great idea. Creating herbal formulas is a bit like combining food: sure, you could add ketchup to your coffee – it wouldn’t hurt you – but it also doesn’t make sense and the end result would be nasty. “Double shot Americano with two pumps of ketchup, please” – probably not!
You can see that artful herbal formulation is an important skill to develop. It enables you to carefully choose herbs that fit the individual and the circumstances. If you know the reasoning behind an herb in a formula, it also can help you to choose substitutes if necessary. You can also create formulas out of plants that you grew or foraged.
In this article I am going to show you one way to create an herbal formula using a sore throat spray as an example. Please keep in mind that there’s no one way to create an herbal formula. By showing you both my method and reasoning, I hope that it deepens your understanding of herbal combinations so that you can feel more confident about creating your own.
Step #1: The Big Picture
Our first step is to figure out why we want this herbal formula in the first place. In our example, we want to create a sore throat spray formula, but we need to take a closer look at the situation.
We may ask…
What exactly do we want to we want to accomplish?
What herbal actions are we looking for?
If we looked up “sore throat herbs” in a reference we’d likely find a long list, but what exactly are those herbs doing?
Here are some generally helpful actions herbs can have on a sore throat.
- Anodyne: Relieve pain
- Astringent: Tighten swollen tissues (this can relieve pain and inhibit further infection)
- Lymphatic: Address swollen lymph glands
- Antimicrobial: Combat infection (antiviral herbs are especially helpful with sore throats)
- Demulcent: Coat and soothe irritated or inflamed tissues
- Immune Stimulant: Sore throats are often the first sign of a cold or influenza, making it the perfect time to boost the immune system in the hopes of avoiding illness or shortening the duration.
Step #2: The Formula Structure
Before we choose the herbs for our sore throat spray blend, let’s take a look at the structure of an herbal formula.
I first learned herbal formulation when I was studying Traditional Chinese Medicine at the East West School of Planetary Herbology. Over the years I’ve adapted my own language and nuances, but those early studies undoubtedly still influence me.
When I create an herbal formula, I break it into three parts:
- Main Roles
- Supporting Roles
- Catalyst and Corrigent Roles
The main roles are the starring herbs. These are often are used in the largest amounts in the formula and are the herbs with the main actions and effects that we are looking for.
Herbs in supporting roles boost the efficacy of the main herbs and they can also bring other gifts to a formula that the main herbs don’t possess. Herbalists generally use supporting herbs in smaller amounts than those in the main roles.
Catalyst herbs raise the level of action of the formula. Catalyst herbs are often warming and aromatic in nature, helping to stimulate circulation and increase absorption of all the herbs in the formula.
Corrigent herbs are added to smooth out a formula by balancing out the warming, cooling, moistening or drying qualities. With this in mind, they can be added as a final touch to a formula to make it more fitting for an individual. They can also be used to improve the flavor of the formula.
Catalyst and corrigent herbs are very important for bringing the formula together. These powerful plants are generally used in much smaller amounts than either the main or supporting role herbs.
Step #3: Choose Your Herbs
Our next step is to combine what we covered in the first two steps to artfully choose our herbs.
For this sore throat spray formula, I have decided that the main actions that I want are anodyne, antiviral and immune stimulating, as I want to slow down the infection. As a supporting action, I want an astringent herb to help tighten the throat tissues. In the catalyst and corrigent roles, I want something aromatic to enhance absorption, I want something soothing and moistening to the throat, and I want something sweet to improve the flavor of the formula.
Once we have determined the appropriate actions for the situation, we want to choose herbs based on the actions we are looking for as well as the body system we want to address. In this case we can consider herbs that have an affinity for the throat and the mucous membranes.
Let’s take the herbal action astringency as an example. Oak bark is a wonderful astringent herb. I have no doubt it could be helpful for a sore throat. However, it is not an herb that has a strong infinity with the throat. Instead, herbalists more often use it to address the lower digestive tract.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) leaf, on the other hand, is a wonderful astringent with an affinity for the throat. A warm sage tea or a sage-and-salt gargle are some of my favorite simple remedies for a sore throat.
By this process, we decide which herbs are best for each role.
Here’s the formula I came up with for this sore throat spray:
- Main Roles: Echinacea and elderberry
- Supporting Roles: sage
- Catalyst and Corrigent Roles: fresh ginger, licorice root and honey
Let’s take a closer look at each of these herbs.
Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia)
In modern days, Echinacea is famous for being an immune stimulant and is often recommended at the first sign of an upper respiratory illness. However, it has several other herbal actions that inspired me to give it a starring role.
When Echinacea comes into direct contact with mucous membranes, it stimulates secretions and creates a zingy and numbing sensation. It is also one of our best herbs for promoting lymphatic movement, which can be helpful for swollen lymph around the throat. Echinacea is also broadly antimicrobial and has been shown to be effective against a variety of bacteria, viruses and fungi.1 All in all, Echinacea is anodyne, antimicrobial, lymphatic and an immune stimulant. All of these actions combine to make it a fantastic herb for addressing a wide range of symptoms in a sore throat.
Important note: Because Echinacea has been tragically overharvested from the wild, please only used cultivated sources. This is a beautiful plant to grow – consider adding it to your garden!
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis, S. cerulea, S. nigra)
I often combine elderberry and Echinacea for the first signs of a cold or flu. I also take this combination with me when traveling on airplanes and use it as a preventive remedy. Elderberry is my favorite herb for warding off an upper respiratory infection. It works in many different ways to modulate your immune system, as well as to prevent viral replication.2 3 4 While elderberry doesn’t have as many herbal actions that are beneficial for a sore throat as Echinacea, its ability to prevent the illness from progressing earns it a starring role. It also has a good flavor, which is always helpful in a sore throat spray.
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
As I mentioned above, people have long used sage to bring relief to sore throats. Researchers have confirmed this folkloric use in a couple of human clinical trials. In one randomized, double-blind trial, researchers compared the effects of a sage and Echinacea extract on sore throats with the effects of a spray made up of the antiseptic chlorhexidine and the anesthetic lidocaine. For reducing sore throat symptoms, the sage/Echinacea extract showed slightly better results after three days.5 Another study showed that a fluid extract of sage worked better than a placebo in reducing pain due to viral pharyngitis (throat infection).6
Sage is astringent, helping to reduce swelling, which can be a contributing factor to the pain of a sore throat. It’s also antimicrobial. While it could play the main role for a sore throat as a tea, in this sore throat spray formula it’s better suited in a supporting role. Also, a little bit of sage’s strong flavor goes a long way and a lower dosage is best for palatability.
Fresh Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Herbalists commonly use ginger as a catalyst or synergist in TCM herbal formulas, and it is the perfect catalyst for a sore throat spray formulation. Fresh ginger is wonderfully antimicrobial and somewhat pain relieving. It is also warming in nature, bringing a circulatory stimulating effect to the formula.
Licorice Root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Licorice is another common synergist in herbal formulas, especially in TCM. The root is very sweet and is sometimes called a “peacekeeper” in formulas because it is said to bring all the herbs together. In addition to its sweet taste, I added it to this sore throat spray formula because of its antiviral and demulcent qualities. Licorice, when taken in large amounts, can raise a person’s blood pressure but this generally isn’t a problem when it is used sparingly as a synergist in formulas. However, if you are concerned about your blood pressure, then licorice can be omitted from the formula.
While technically not an herb, honey is an important part of our formula. Local and minimally processed honey is immunomodulating and antimicrobial. I like adding honey to a sore throat spray because of its demulcent and soothing qualities, as well as for the wonderful flavor.
Step #4: Putting Your Formula Together
Now that we have chosen the herbs we want for our sore throat spray, we need to figure out how to use them.
Here’s what we need to consider.
- Which part of the plant is used (e.g., leaves, roots, flowers)?
- Is it best to use the plant fresh or dried (or either)?
- How do we best extract the plant (e.g., hot water, cold water, alcohol, vinegar, oil)?
- What individual dosages should be used for the herbs?
If you are new to herbs, then figuring all of this out could seem like a daunting task. But you learn about herbs the same way you learn about anything in life: little by little. Many herbalists recommend studying one herb at a time so that you can really sink into all of that information.
To save us both some time, I’m just going to tell you how I would create this formula by giving you the recipe below.
Herbal Sore Throat Spray Recipe
From a dull ache to a raging inferno, sore throats can be one of the more uncomfortable symptoms of a cold or flu. Sipping hot teas and eating spicy soups both help to mitigate the pain, but there’s only so much liquid you can consume in a day! This herbal sore throat spray can be a convenient way to frequently get the herbs directly on the throat where they are most needed. The following recipe can be made with alcohol (my preference) or a glycerin and water combination.
What you’ll need…
- 35 grams (about 1/3 cup) finely cut and dried cultivated Echinacea angustifolia roots
- 25 grams (about 1/4 cup) dried elderberries
- 3 grams (2 firmly packed tablespoons) dried sage leaf
- 5 grams (about 2 teaspoons) minced fresh ginger root
- 3 grams dried licorice root
- 1 tablespoon honey
- About 1 2/3 cups vodka or brandy OR 1 cup vegetable glycerine and 2/3 cup water
- Place all the herbs and honey into a pint-sized jar.
- If using alcohol, add it to the jar, leaving about a 1/4 inch headspace.
- If using glycerine and water, then first mix together the glycerin and water before pouring into the jar. Stir well.
- Reserve any leftover liquid (alcohol or glycerine/water).
- Cover the jar tightly with a lid and label.
- For the next week, shake the mixture every day. If necessary, as the dried herbs soak up the liquid, add more of either the alcohol or the glycerine/water mixture.
- Let it steep for a total of 4 weeks.
- Strain using a fine mesh strainer and cheesecloth. Squeeze or press the herbs well to release as much liquid as possible. Compost the herbs.
- Pour the liquid into containers and attach fingertip misters (spray toppers). Label.
To use: spray directly to your throat as needed to relieve pain and reduce swelling.
Yield: About 1 1/4 cup
Now I’d love to hear from you!
What herbs do reach for when you have a sore throat?
Do you have any formulating tips to share?
Let me know in the comments below.
- Hudson, James B. “Applications of the Phytomedicine Echinacea Purpurea (Purple Coneflower) in Infectious Diseases.” Journal of biomedicine & biotechnology 2012 (2012): doi:10.1155/2012/769896. ↩
- Ho, Giang Thanh Thi, et al. “Structure–Activity Relationship of Immunomodulating Pectins from Elderberries.” Carbohydrate Polymers 125 (July 10, 2015): 314–22. doi:10.1016/j.carbpol 2015.02.057. ↩
- Zakay-Rones, Z., et al. “Randomized Study of the Efficacy and Safety of Oral Elderberry Extract in the Treatment of Influenza A and B Virus Infections.” Journal of International Medical Research 32, no. 2 (2004): 132–40. doi:10.1177/147323000403200205. ↩
- Roschek Jr., Bill, et al. “Elderberry Flavonoids Bind to and Prevent H1N1 Infection in Vitro.” Phytochemistry 70, no. 10 (2009): 1255–61. doi:10.1016/j.phytochem.2009.06.003. ↩
- Schapowal, A., et al. “Echinacea/Sage or Chlorhexidine/Lidocaine for Treating Acute Sore Throats: A Randomized Double-Blind Trial.” European Journal of Medical Research 14, no. 9 (2009): 406–12. ↩
- Hubbert, M., et al. “Efficacy and Tolerability of a Spray with Salvia Officinalis in the Treatment of Acute Pharyngitis—A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study with Adaptive Design and Interim Analysis.” European Journal of Medical Research 11, no. 1 (2006): 20–26. ↩