The use of alcohol in herbal medicines and some advice if you can't take alcohol

by Monica Wilde
Updated 15 Jan 2020

Some elderly adults, pregnant women, children and people such as recovering alcoholics or with health conditions should avoid or prefer to avoid alcohol. Some people's religion also prohibits the consumption of alcohol. We look at alcohol in herbal medicines and answer some of the questions that we are often asked.

Herbs are extracted in alcohol because this gives the best quality extract of the medicinal compounds found in the herbs. Some phytochemicals - the naturally occurring active compounds in herbs - are not water soluble so drinking a tea does not always give the full benefit. The amount of alcohol used in a dose of herbal medicine does not have any intoxicating effect and the use is strictly medicinal. 

How do I lessen the alcohol in a tincture?

For several methods on reducing the alcohol content of a tincture, or removing the alcohol from a tincture, please see our useful "How to Reduce the Alcohol in a Tincture" guidance sheet. 

What is the Muslim policy about alcohol? Can tinctures be used by Muslims?

An excerpt from Fatwa of Mufti Ibn Adam states that “With regard to the ruling on the various types of alcohol, the usage of which has become widespread and they are used in many medicines and perfumes, becomes known, in that if the alcohol is extracted from grapes or dates, then there is no question of it being permissible or pure. However, if the alcohol is derived from other than grapes or dates, then there is no problem according to the view of Imam Abu Hanifa, in that it will not be unlawful to use such alcohol (and perfumes and medicines made thereof) for medical or other lawful purposes as long as the alcohol does not reach the level of intoxication"…. And normally the alcohol used in medicines, perfumes, etc. is not extracted from grapes and dates, rather it is derived from seeds, honey, chemicals, petrol, etc. (Takmila Fath al-Mulhim Sharh Sahih Muslim, 3/608).

Napiers medicines and tinctures contain small amounts of ethanol. We predominantly use an alcohol extracted from beet (sugar beet), not grape, which is used to extract the medicinal compounds of the plant. Occasionally we use grain ethanol.

Many Muslims take herbal products in this way although the interpretation on taking medicinal products with alcohol can vary from one individual to another. Some individuals interpret the alcohol prohibition extremely strictly. For these individuals a herbal tea blend can be prescribed although it will not contain the full spectrum of the herb.

The amount of alcohol in Napiers products will not have any intoxicating effect and the use is strictly medicinal. To see how many units of alcohol is in a dose click here for our handy table.

To remove the alcohol from your medicine, measure the dose into a cup and add a small amount of boiling water. After a few minutes, much of the alcohol will have evaporated from the heat.

Why do your licensed medicine leaflets say under ‘Overdose’ to treat as in alcohol intoxication?

This statement is a statutory requirement. To become intoxicated on a herbal medicine the patient would either have to drink other alcohol products in combination with the medicine, or alternatively, they would have to drink many bottles at once.

For example, a 150 ml bottle of Cut A Cough contains alcohol equivalent to 1.27 ml wine per 5 ml dose (teaspoon). The alcohol content of a standard 75 cl bottle of wine is equivalent to 19 and a half bottles of Cut A Cough. So to become intoxicated by Cut A Cough, a person would have to consume at least 10 bottles of the cough syrup.

Do not drink alcohol with some herbs

One thing to be aware of is that products containing valerian should not be drunk with alcoholic drinks, as valerian increases the effects of alcohol consumption. This may make you feel intoxicated after just one or two drinks.

Do not drink alcohol with some antibiotics

One thing to be aware of is some antibiotics such as flagyll or metronizadole should not be drunk with alcoholic drinks, as it will make you feel quite sick. If taking antibiotics read the leaflet and if you are advised not to mix your medication with alcohol then please do not take herbal tinctures at the same time.

Be aware of drinking and driving

Although a single dose of a herbal tincture or medicine will not put you over the limit for drink driving in the UK, please be aware that they can have an additive effect if you do have an alcoholic drink. Click here for our handy table.