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Traditional medicine can be prepared in a number of ways. The preparation method used is dependent on the type of medicine (e.g., insizi, ubulawu, or intelezi), the condition or ailment that will be treated (e.g., a headache, chest pain, or rheumatism), and the administration method that will be employed (i.e., enema, induced emesis, douching, or bathing). This article explores the preparation method known as decoction.

What is a decoction?

Yasgur’s Homoeopathic Dictionary and Holistic Health Reference defines a decoction as “the process of boiling down in order to concentrate a mixture”. 

A more simpler definition is that a decoction is a method of preparing medicine by boiling raw materials in a solution, such as water but other substances such as ethanol and glycerol can also be used. In traditional medicine, raw material refers to plant materials, animal extracts, or minerals. Recall that traditional medicine encompasses medicines made from plants (imithi), animals (izinyamazane), and minerals (imikhando).  

Why is it necessary to make a decoction?

The main reason for making a decoction is to extract the chemicals present in the raw materials (that is either plants or animal extract or minerals) by dissolving them in water. This is done in order to make administering the required chemicals as easy as possible. For example, Chewing roots and swallowing them can be difficult, especially when the roots are hard to bite, or bitter, or have a pungent smell. Boiling the roots, in this case, and drinking the liquid makes taking up the required nutrients or chemicals in the roots a little easier. 

The second most important reason for making a decoction is to remove toxicity. There are a lot of plants in traditional medicine that are poisonous. For example, umkhokha (Abrus precatorius) and ricinus (castor oil) seeds are extremely poisonous. Boiling the seeds in either milk or water removes the toxicity, rendering the seeds harmless.

In the article on umuthi obomvu, I mentioned that umuthi obomvu is made using the prolonged boiling method in order to destroy the toxicity and impurities present in some plants. What I didn’t mention was the fact that prolonged boiling is a double edge sword, meaning it can remove toxins in the plants, but it can also destroy some of the enzymes present in the plants. I hinted at this in the moringa powder video, when I spoke about adding the moringa powder onto already cooked meals as cooking the powder with the meals can result in the powder losing its nutritional value. So, besides altering the toxicity profile, decoctions also alter the effectiveness of plants. The more you boil a plant, the more nutrients it loses.   

Decoctions are typically used to make tonics, particularly tonics for treating serious, acute, sub-acute, chronic, and mild case conditions.

How is a decoction prepared?

Unlike other methods of preparation, a decoction is one of the most time consuming method. To prepare a decoction, place the raw material in a stainless steel or earthenware pot and add enough water. Place the pot on the stove and turn on the heat. Allow the water to boil, then turn the heat down and allow the mixture to simmer for 10 to 20 minutes. Turn off the stove, allow the decoction to cool, and then strain it. 

Different traditional medicine systems have different requirements on how a decoction should be prepared. For example, in ayurveda, a decoction is prepared by boiling the raw material until the original volume is reduced to one fourth. In Chinese traditional medicine, a decoction is made by adding water to a level that is 3 to 4 cm above the plant material.

An example of how a decoction is made

First, soak the raw material in about one liter of water for at least 1 hour. There after, boil the material in the water. Then allow the decoction to simmer for 20 minutes. Then pour 200ml of cold water into the decoction. Then leave the mixture for another 20 minutes, and then strain it. 

After straining the decoction, the used material can be discarded and the liquid administered or stored. The liquid should not be stored for more than 24 hours. Ideally, it should be prepared and used after being prepared. Preservatives, such as potash, can be added to the decoction to allow it to be used for a longer periods. The different traditional medicine systems also have very strict requirements regarding how long the decoction should be stored or preserved.

How is a decoction administered? 

A decoction is one of the most common means of administering traditional medicine:

  1. Decoctions can be taken orally as a drink. If the decoction herbal medicine is taken orally as a tonic, it should be taken when it is warm, especially if it is taken to treat colds. 
  2. Decoctions can be taken as enema. If a decoction is taken as enema it should be taken lukewarm. 
  3. Decoction can be applied as a douching agent. If a decoction is taken as a douching agent, it should be at room temperature or lukewarm. 
  4. Decoctions can also be applied topically on wounds and sores. If a decoction is applied topically, it should be at room temperature or lukewarm. 
  5. Decoctions can be administered as bathing agents. If a decoction is taken as a bathing agent, it should be lukewarm. 
  6. Decoctions can also be taken as purgatives.

Final thoughts…

It’s important to note that not every type of plant or animal extract or mineral can be made into a decoction.

Lastly, decoctions also do not always taste pleasant, hence sugar or honey can often be added to enhance the taste.

Reference and further reading:

  • Daswani, P.G., Ghadge, A.A., Brijesh, S. and Birdi, T.J., 2011. Preparation of decoction of medicinal plants: A self-help measure?. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 17(12), p.1099.
  • Yang, Y. and Ross, J., 2010. Theories and concepts in the composition of Chinese herbal formulas. Chinese Herbal Formulas (Treatment Principles and Composition Strategies), pp.1-34.
  • Yasgur, J. 1998. Yasgur’s Homoeopathic Dictionary and Holistic Health Reference. 4 th ed. Grenville: Van Hoy Publishers.

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