Learning to create simple, effective formulas that do what they’re supposed to do, don’t do anything undesirable, and don’t taste like rotting death can sometimes be a challenge to the budding herbalist. As we tinker and putter and blend our way down the winding path to gaining experience, this can be one of the major hurdles between using herbal remedies and being a home herbalist.
Formulas answer the questions asked by the needs of the body in a convenient and tasty way. When we formulate, we combine multiple herbs in a purposeful manner (as opposed to simples, when we take a single herb and ask it to shine).
As we water and prune our skills, we develop techniques that work for us. We come to herbalism from an assortment of backgrounds as wide as the human experience and as diverse as the microbiome that allows us to be here, and we learn from teachers who hail from similarly diverse schools of thought. So, if this framework helps you muddle through, please enjoy it; if you have a different way of walking this path that still ends up in the Emerald City, then carry on, you beautiful genius.
For a fuller discussion of principles like balance and synergy, as well as an in-depth discussion of how to use materia medica to choose herbs, please peruse the other articles under the “Medicine-Making Articles” tab in the top menu.
Formulation takes skill, intuition, and above all, practice, so double, double, toil, & trouble, my friends. Here is a very basic framework that provides a starting place; it is not intended to be an all-encompassing how-to guide, or intended to supplant your own experience.
1-2 herbs for immediate results
1-2 herbs for long-term results that will stick
Sometimes you can include an herb that will help confront the root cause, in concert with a holistic assessment (it may be the same as the long-term results herb, or in addition). However, since many conditions aren’t fixable, this isn’t always possible—but keep it in mind for when it does pop up.
An example of how this might work for someone with seasonal affective disorder:
Immediate results: Mimosa flowers & Milky Oats, save the poor creature from their misery
Long-term results: Blue Vervain & St Johns Wort, bring the sunlight back, deep inside
Root cause: nettles/oats/horsetail infusion to increase calcium uptake to help keep vitamin D stable, and consider where it’s coming from (buy the special sunlight bulb, increase vitamin D intake, check calcium levels and parathyroid hormone, etc.)
An example of how this might work for someone with a stuck, hacking cough:
Immediate results: Northern Prickly Ash, Elecampane, and Violet, get it moving
Long-term results: Elderberry or Spilanthes, confront the infection
Root cause: not really relevant, unless this cough comes back all the time; then, mullein or New England aster, and suss out why it’s recurring (is there a preexisting condition? allergies? do they need lab work to rule out anything scary?)
An example of how this might work for a kid with trouble concentrating:
Immediate results: lemon balm and ginkgo
Long-term results: holy basil, plus examining sleep & circadian rhythm, diet, exercise, and the expectations of modern life as a general concept
Herbs have multiple herbal actions, which allows for simpler, stronger, more appropriate formulations. When choosing the herbs for a remedy, try to choose fewer herbs that address more issues, as opposed to a single herb for each issue. A nursing mother with signs of liver overload benefits more from nettles, instead of fenugreek and dandelion, even though fenugreek is good for milk supply and dandelion for the liver, because nettles is both a galactagogue and a hepatic specific for erratic hormones.
Many actions appear together often, which can be useful for formulations. For example, many anti-inflammatory herbs are also diuretics, because the kidneys play a large role in inflammation. Expectorant and decongestant appear together, because they move fluid in both the sinuses and respiratory tract—many of these are also vulnerary or anti-inflammatory to mucous membranes. Adaptogen and immune tonic, adaptogen and nervine, adaptogen and hormone normalizer, because they temper the stress response.
Learning these patterns of actions gives you the ability to learn herbs faster and more intuitively, as discussed in the previous article in this column. It also helps make formulas simple, cohesive, and effective.
How are you planning to deliver this formula? Take a step back, question yourself, and look at the remedy form: is this the most convenient, most delicious, most effective way to deliver your remedy? Would the formula be better as an infused honey, a steam, or a capsule? Is the person you want to give it to going to want to take it? Choose your route to maximize synergy and adherence (discussed below). Also consider solubility: choose herbs that will extract in the method you’ve chosen, or choose the method based on the herbs.
Longevity refers to how long it takes a medicine to work and how long the effects will last. This concept is one of the first things to consider when combining herbs into formulas. The following method helps my students and apprentices contextualize their formulas; feel free to use them or not as you putter along.
For short-term issues, medicines should work immediately. Choose fast-acting herbs to address the problem. This is especially essential when you’re working with children.
Example: Your friend can’t sleep because she drank too much coffee, so she takes hops and the problem resolves.
Simple Acute formulas will be heavier on fast-acting herbs, but should still contain long-acting herbs (and root cause herbs if identifiable). For instance, a cold and flu formula will have fast-acting herbs to relieve symptoms, combined with herbs to improve immune response and solve the ACTUAL problem at hand, which is an infection.
Deep-seated issues take longer to rebalance, but hopefully the effects will last. Choose an herb that addresses the long-term problem, such as an adaptogen, hepatic, nervine etc.
Example: Your friend is having trouble managing her stress, so she takes holy basil daily and starts to feel better over time.
Formulas are almost always either “simple acute” or “compound” because long term imbalances show themselves, but it’s still nice to talk about all the flavors of life. You could conceivably have a person who wants to get out in front of a problem, like cancer prevention or maintaining liver health with asymptomatic hepatitis, in which case you may create a formula that doesn’t act on symptoms. But that would be a pretty magical unicorn situation in my practice, as people usually have something going on.
When a deep-seated imbalance includes uncomfortable symptoms, combine herbs that confront the root cause with herbs to immediately ease the discomfort.
- Choose an herb that addresses the long-term problem, as described for simple chronic
- Combine it with a fast-acting herb that addresses the immediate symptom, as described for simple acute
Your friend can’t sleep because of problems with stress, so she’s drinking too much coffee to compensate and is mired in a bad loop quicksand trap. Luckily she’s friends with you, so she starts taking daily holy basil and hops at bedtime. Sleeping better helps her immediate exhaustion, and holy basil gradually improves her response to stress.
Simplicity improves balance and healing: people actually take the formula, so it actually works. The simpler the formula, the more of each herb they get, which will be more effective overall. The energetics are less likely to get screwy if there are only a few herbs to keep in balance. The majority of my formulas have only 3-4 herbs.
Avoid building mishmash formulas: you don’t need the kitchen sink. You also don’t need a rare plant from Indonesia. This error is common among my intermediate students, as they have enough experience to comfortably combine herbs, but not enough to weed out interlopers, dopplegangers, and party-crashers. If you find yourself combining a large number of herbs or herbs that seem random together, look back at actions and indications to find an herb that does a number of things (refer to previous article).
Balance the energetics! Becoming adept at formulation requires attention to energetics. Sometimes balancing energetics can help you eliminate extra herbs in a formula when you have too many. Unless a person and their problem are both way out on an energetic limb, choose herbs that will result in an energetically balanced formula. This means a formula that is, say, gently cooling to the nervous system, reducing excess vata, balancing the wood element, dispersing excess melancholic-choleric energy, or whatever your language is, but not DRASTICALLY so. Be gentle and take small adjustments, knowing you can always do more than you’ve already done, but never less.
Sometimes you may want to create an energetically neutral formula, especially if you’re working far in advance (like making cough syrup in the early fall) since you can always throw something else in if you need to tip it one way or another.
It’s very unlikely that the best formula for someone contains only marshmallow, mullein, and violet, for example; a drying herb might be a nice addition, like witch hazel (especially since an astringent might help them retain the moisture you’re trying to introduce). Combine herbs that will bring folks back to their homeostatic center, not overbalance them out to Saturn’s eighth ring.
Synergy is at the heart of formulation. The definition of synergy is “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” or awesome stuff happens when you combine things that wouldn’t happen if you didn’t combine them, like guacamole, or a party. What combinations are so much better together than they are apart? Some herbs accentuate each other, like rose and lavender, lemon balm and ginkgo, reishi and astragalus. Some herbs are potentiators, like anise-hyssop: these herbs bring out the best in their fellows (but be cautious because some potentiators can be dangerous with pharmaceuticals, like some of the central nervous system depressants; discussed in upcoming contraindications article). Consider how individual plants will work together or against each other; look to traditional combinations for ideas to bring synergy into your work as you combine herbs for maximum fabulousness.
Adherence means whether or not people take the remedies you give them. The key is to create simple remedies that work, in forms that work for the person’s life, and don’t taste like punishment. Consider: who is this person, and can you identify the obstacles in their life to taking this remedy? How can you work around those obstacles to honor their unique needs and create something useful for the actual person in front of you? Eliminate barriers!
Barriers to Adherence & Possible Solutions
Taste: Not everyone has the cast iron tongue needed to take kava kava and valerian undiluted. Be aware of flavor, as it is one of the most common barriers to adherence. Question your remedy form, especially if you’re presenting acrid herbs: could a more delicious form, like a syrup, work instead of that kava kava slurry you had in mind (feh!)? Taste other people’s formulas and figure out why they’re so spine-tinglingly tasty—what can you learn from other peoples’ awesomeness?
Lastly, consider the electuary characteristics of the herbs in your apothecary. Electuaries are herbs that make formulas taste good: perhaps there is an opportunity to introduce a delicious ally into the mix that will accomplish something fabulous. Choose one to enhance your formula by looking back at herbal actions, indications, energetics, and contraindications. Widely useful examples include rose, lilac, anise-hyssop, elderberry, lemon balm, licorice, lavender, schisandra, sage, and many more.
Not seeing results: If a formula takes too long to work, a lot of folks are going to stop taking it because as far as they’re concerned, it didn’t do anything. Easy solution is to add an immediate-acting herb to the formula, or you can give them an additional formula for acute symptoms that will kick in right away. This is absolutely essential when you’re working with kids.
Inconvenience: If the issue is having to take 3,202 things every day, make a formula that does multiple things, instead of multiple formulas or a million simples. If the issue is the time or effort of preparing the remedy, choose a more convenient remedy form, like tincture or capsule, instead of something that takes time like a decoction or slurry. If the inconvenient form is really the best option and nothing else will do, troubleshoot the process: perhaps they can make a half gallon of decoction while they cook supper, and keep it in the fridge for the next day.
Expense: This is a huge barrier, especially if you’re charging for your work. Choose a cheaper remedy form, like tea or slurry, as opposed to organic cognac elixirs made with wildflower honey. If you’re charging for your work, offer income-based discounts or accept barter. Remember that many people may be able to buy bulk herbs, garlic, honey, vinegar, salt, butter, oil, molasses, and other remedy ingredients using SNAP or WIC benefits, so some people may prefer to make their own remedies with your guidance to save money.
Lack of Comfort: This is a biggie. If someone feels judged or condescended to, even if you have the best intentions and true love in your heart, they will not be open to taking a remedy—never mind adjusting their diet! Meet them where they’re at and honor the unique life that they’re living. Give ample credit for what they’re accomplishing, listen to their actual goals and reflect those back at them, and use the “yes and” trick: Yes, there’s a problem, AND let’s fix it, as opposed to No, there’s a problem, but you should fix it/but I can fix it for you. No/but is directly disempowering, whereas yes/and helps them self-empower to steer the healing process. It is really helpful not to treat people like recalcitrant children. Nobody likes a missionary, but everybody likes the person who points out their inner strength.
Humility: Were you wrong? Does the formula really not work? Even though you put in baby laughter, the wishes of foxes, and a tear from Fawkes the phoenix? Trust that the person you’re speaking with is the utmost authority on their body and how it works, so if they’ve taken the right dose for long enough and they’re still telling you it doesn’t work, listen, suss out what is and isn’t working, and adjust accordingly. Always better to take the opportunity to learn.
Intuition is built on thousands of years of caring tradition, coevolution with plants, and our personal understandings of our inner and outer worlds. Trust yourself and let your instincts guide you as you choose herbs and remedy forms. The more you practice, the better your intuition will become. The day will come that’ll you’ll choose lemon balm over catnip without having to reason it out—and someone will ask how you know, and you’ll have to think about it to answer, because the real answer is “I just do.” Or, you’ll toss a little lemon peel and cinnamon in your plain old elderberry syrup because you were baking muffins and it just made sense in the moment, and it tastes incredible, and suddenly the basic traditional medicine has metamorphosed into a whole new butterfly of a thing, and you are simply the lowly milkweed.
Until that happy day, practice often, taste everything, and follow your magic.
This article was originally published in Heart & Hearth, my Plant Healer Magazine column on Radical Family Herbalism. Link in the sidebar to subscribe to the magazine and support my work!