Herbal Properties and Actions
EGAD! This (below) is old and not up to my
current thinking, which I've been elaborating on in
depth in Plant Healer Magazine; you can get a pdf
file containing 100 pages (and formatted for
printing out and binding) from me for $10 if you'd
like to see the more refines telling of my take on
energetics and actions; just drop me an email and
I don’t think I could
possibly overstate how important it is to understand
the properties by which herbs work. This
knowledge is what separates a mediocre herbalist
(someone who memorizes the name of a problem and the
name of the herb that is listed next to it and says
use this for that) from a good herbalist
(someone who says, “Ah… dry, enflamed tissues… which
mucilaginous herb should I use for this?”).
Understanding these properties opens up new worlds
of possibility to the herbal student. It
allows one to more deeply understand the herbs
they’re using, and see patterns in both plants and
people more clearly. It also clears up
that head scratching that occurs when you’re reading
herbal books and have no idea what they’re referring
to when they say “anticatarrhal”.
While you could go
through this list and try to memorize terms and
definitions, the best way to gain an understanding
of this material is to do so experientially.
You can read what an astringent is, or you can chew
on a green banana peel or wild geranium root and know from experience.
Or you can understand that a mucilage is a viscid,
slippery carbohydrate, but making a strong infusion
of Marshmallow or Slippery Elm and playing around
with the resulting goo will allow you to not only
understand with your head, but with your body as
well. And who would want to pass up the
opportunity to compare and contrast the varying
degrees of bitter?
So… learn this stuff.
Years later, you’ll either be glad you did, or wish
I should state that while I've presented these initial
energetic considerations as polarities (hot/cold,
dry/damp, tense/lax), there are so many
exceptions and distinctions to be made when
practically applying these concepts that visualizing
these qualities on opposing ends of a spectrum is
going to cause confusion and frustration and teeth
gnashing. As an example, we could say that
demulcent herbs are moistening and astringent herbs
are drying, but while moistening and drying is a
polarity, astringents and demulcents are not...
astringents are really the opposite of relaxants,
If you don't get that, please read on, and hopefully I
can clear up and elucidate herbal energetics into
the rather commonsense recognition of patterns that
hot ~ cold
It is clear that some herbs are warming and some are
cooling. Give anyone some cayenne pepper and,
given the two options, they're sure to pick
correctly. Same goes for iceberg lettuce, or
cucumbers... they're just clearly cooling, and
you're likely to find wide agreement on this fact.
But, as you move in from the extremes to the middle
ground, you'll start to see differences of opinion,
even among the wisest of plant people. To me,
that just makes sense, in the same way that everyone
will agree that Palm Springs, California in July is
hot and Lake Superior in late March is really very
cold. But put them in a "room temperature"
hotel and any group of two or more will often
disagree as to whether its a bit warm or a bit
chill. When learning to apply the ideas of
"heating" and "cooling" to herbs, start with the
obvious extremes and work you way in.
Still, there are some general observations about these
two categories that can be clarifying and offer
generally speed up processes, increase peripheral
circulation, are generally stimulating in
slow down processes, soothe either irritations or
damp ~ dry
Imbalances in the body are often characteristically
dry or damp. This applies throughout the body,
but nowhere, perhaps, is it as readily discernable
as in the respiratory tract, since when someone
coughs, you can often clearly hear which end of the
spectrum is manifest. Likewise, the herbs we
use tend to possess either a drying or moistening
As it turns out, most herbs are drying,
can vary greatly not only in degree, but in nature
of the "dryness" they impart. Drying herbs tend to
cause dryness via one of two processes:
1.) They result in the release of fluids from the
body, like diuretics (fluid lost through pee),
diaphoretics (fluid lost through sweat), bitters
(fluid lost through bile), galactagogues (fluid lost
through breastmilk), emmenogogues (fluid lost
through blood), sialogogues (fluid lost through
drool), expectorants/decongestants (fluid lost
through mucous), emetics (fluid lost through vomit),
aphrodisiacs (fluid lost through... you probably get the picture).
But, of course, we need to thicken the plot a bit...
The same drying herbs that release fluids from the
body in some ways moisten tissues as the
fluids are released. For example, the skin will go from dry to
moist with the use of an appropriate diaphoretic.
This, though, is a local and transient phenomenon,
one to be utilized for a limited duration of time; if it makes you secrete a fluid or stimulates some
type of evacuation, it’s still constitutionally drying,
because there is less fluid in the body as a result
of its action. But sometimes just establishing
- or reestablishing - the flow of fluids through a
given tissue will restore proper function, and with
Another consideration is that the "dampness" in the
body calling for the use of this class of "drying"
herbs can often be seen as a "stagnation" of some
sort. By stimulating the flow of fluids
associated with a given organ, system or tissue, we
help to break up that stagnation and resolve the
problems that go along with it; as a general rule of
thumb, anywhere you have stagnation in the body, you
have an imbalance that needs to be addressed.
2.) Astringents are considered drying. This is both
a correct and misleading way to understand what they
do. Astringent herbs don't really cause the loss of
fluids from the body... in fact, they often are used
to help retain fluid from being lost (for example,
blackberry root being used to stop diarrhea,
shepherd's purse to staunch uterine bleeding, or
staghorn sumach to help resolve excessive urination). But a
simple taste of an astringent leaves the mouth (i.e.
the mucous membranes) dry (think about the dryness
you get from sipping green tea, or from taking a
bite of a too green banana). What astringents do is
restore tone to tissues by causing them to
constrict. It is this constriction - generally of the
outer surface of the tissues - causes dryness. In
western herbalism, these herbs were sometimes referred to as
"tonics": herbs that restored tone to tissues. In
most cases, short term use of astringents causes a
localized dryness, while helping to preserve fluids
constitutionally. Prolonged use, however, or the use
of very strong astringents can constrict tissues too
much (and not just on the surface), and in doing so
impairs their proper function by both robbing them
of fluids and impairing their ability to absorb or
So we might say that "drying herbs" that cause
loss of fluids from the body a constitutionally
drying while sometimes moistening locally, and
astringents are locally drying while they initially
help to retain fluids on a constitutional
level... this distinction is exceptionally
important, as lumping together these differing
qualities under the simplified assessment "drying"
can lead to inappropriate use or inappropriate
That insight is worth re-reading until you get it.
generally come in four types:
1.) Demulcent/emollient herbs that moisten via
mucilage. We should be aware, though, that this is not always a direct effect
of the mucilage coming into contact with tissues. In the GI tract, there's a
moistening effect via contact, but this isn't the
case with, say, the lungs. Still, mucilages almost
universally moisten mucous membranes, even if they
don't come into contact with them. Degrees to which
mucilaginous herbs moisten is roughly proportional
to how mucilaginous they are; slippery elm and
marshmallow a very mucilaginous and very moistening,
plantain is mildly mucilaginous and mildly
moistening. Sassafras and violet leaves are in
2.) "Sweet tonics" are mildly moistening. Think of
tonic" in the TCM sense - herbs like American Ginseng, Codonopsis, licorice.
3.) Herbs rich in fixed oils (think
of most seeds and nuts), or that affect oil
utilization are moistening. Flax (the freshly
ground seeds, not the probably rancid oil), in
addition to fixed oils is rich in mucilage, and so
especially useful. Some herbs may not
actually contain a lot of fixed oils, but somehow
help in there optimal utilization. Burdock is
an example of an herb that affects oil utilization.
Also, we should consider the incredibly important
role of Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids found in wild
fatty fish, wild game, and other animals with a free
ranging wild eating lifestyle.
4.) Some warming, oily aromatics can moisten, if
only superficially. Angelica and Osha are examples.
This may seem strange, because
these are herbs that are generally used to treat wet
coughs (and they do indeed have a notable drying
action). But they are really oily
herbs, and the moisture they offer is oil moisture,
not water moisture. So, if someone needs water
moisture, they won't help much and might aggravate,
but if someone needs oil moisture for some acute
situation, they can be very
helpful. I (who tends to be dry) can use these
without much aggravation, but their potential to
aggravate if there's water dryness can be tempered
by adding a bit of mucilage. A practical
example of this is to use Osha on a dry cough; the
mucous dries up, but the lung tissues are moistened
to a degree by the clearance of Osha's antimicrobial
Tissues can become too tense, or too lax/weak.
Tension or spasm in
tissues impedes the flow of the circulation and the
body's vital energy. Relaxants are usually
called for here... normally people refer to these as
"antispasmodics", but I feel that relaxants more faithfully
conveys the nature of there action: they relax
resistance to the healthy flow of energy in the
body. Aromatic herbs can ease tension via
their inherently dispersive nature (think of
chamomile relieving tension and expelling gas in the
gut), acrid herbs are often notable antispasmodics
(kava and lobelia being notable here), and stinky/skunky
smelling herbs (valerian, cannabis, poppy) are often
pain relievers and sedatives, helping to resolve
tension as a reaction to pain.
also consider that demulcents can result in a
lessening of tension, because dry tissues are more prone
to be tight; just think about an old, dried out
piece of leather; it lacks pliability and gets "stiff".
In such a case, the strongest antispasmodics
available will do little good if the underlying
cause of dryness is not addressed. On a
similar note, nervine herbs will be needed if
tension arises from mental stress of agaitation.
Laxity or weakness
in tissues calls for astringents, as astringents help to cause the tissues to constrict
and tighten up; think of the puckering, tightening
sensation you get if you eat a banana that's not
ripe enough, or the milder expression of this that
accompanies sipping on green tea. Prolapse is
a form of laxity (think about the way a balloon
looks that's been blown up for a week and then
deflated). Other tissues may get "spongy" when
they lose tone (such as the gums or prostates).
In William Cook's Physio-Medical Dispensatory, he
discusses the difference between herbs he calls "diffusives"
"Impressions made upon the nerves are conveyed with
rapidity. Sometimes, this rapidity may be so
great as almost to resemble a shock. Hence
agents that are principally conveyed by the nerves,
manifest themselves speedily; while those that act
principally by absorption, are more tardy in working
their effects. A great many agents act through
both media, and that in every conceivable ratio;
hence these may first manifest a prompt, sudden
action, which will apparently have passed away, and
subsequently be absorbed, and make a renewal of the
original impression in a less intense but more
persistent manner. Agents acting principally
on the nerves are, therefore, more diffusive
and transient, while those relying upon the slower
process of absorption are more permanent.
These terms are, of course, merely relative; for
some agents which are absorbed (as capsicum) may
first make a diffusive impression through the
nerves, and follow this by an influence of a slower
and more persistent kind through the entire frame.
But, while this nomenclature is not absolute, it is
sufficiently explicit to warrant its general use -
employing the terms only as referring to time,
and not to extent."
An interesting example of this relationship is found
in Burdock; the seeds are diffusive, while the root
increase the ability of the body to cope with and
respond to stress. They tend to act on the
adrenals and the endocrine & immune systems.
This is the class of herbs people think of when they
hear the word “tonic”. The term was originally
coined to describe Siberian Ginseng, and other herbs
compared to Ginseng. There is much academic
debate about what can and should not be called an
adaptogen. For my part, if an herb relaxes
tension, increases one's resilience to the stress
they are exposed to, and, if taken over time, helps
replenish their vital energy, then the herb is
acting as an adaptogen, whether or not we can
pinpoint and verify that its actions are manifested
via the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis.
These herbs act on
the body to promote a healthy and balanced state of
functioning by supporting the liver, kidneys,
lymphatic & immune system and adrenals. They
are often referred to in herb books as “blood
purifiers, though their affect on the blood is
really the result of their action on the metabolic
organs. Alteratives might be more accurately
be called "metabolic tonics", as they coordinate and
improve the efficacy of our metabolism. Most
Alterative herbs also special "niches" they excel in
addressing. Cleavers and Red Root, for
example, are excellent lymphatic tonics, while
Dandelion and Yellow Dock act more strongly on the
lower gastrointestinal tract. Nettles and
Milky Oats improve adrenal processes, and Burdock
seems to have a balanced action on all metabolic
organs and processes.
Aromatic herbs are those that contain strong smelling
volatile essential oils. These oils tend to be
anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and are
“dispersive” in nature, which is to say that they
help break up stagnation of all sorts. This
can be respiratory congestion, intestinal gas, or
even cluttered minds & cloudy thinking.
Although not exclusively so, aromatics are often
relaxants, acting perhaps as antispasmodics to help
relieve tension and spasm, perhaps as calming
nerviness to allay nervous stress and anxiety (and
frequently both). Though it sounds strange to say,
aromatic herbs are also very often stimulating, and
some are both relaxant and stimulant (to wrap your
head around this apparent contradiction, try
vigorously scratching your head. You’ll find that
any tension there is relaxed, but that the
scratching also stimulates increased blood & energy
flow). Aromatics often act as diuretics as well, as
the volatile oils are processed by the kidneys,
which find them irritating and increase urine output
to “flush” them out of the body. This is what
provides aromatic’s antimicrobial effect; the
antiseptic oils in the urine bathe the tissues of
the urinary system as they are swept out of the body. Examples are innumerable…
Sage and Fennel are a couple.
Astringents are herbs that cause tissue to contract,
and so are indicated when tissues are weak, atonic
and/or “leaking” (the tissues don’t have the tone
they need to hold in fluids), swollen or injured.
They may be used to
stop bleeding (In which case they are called
A good way to conceptualize tissues that need
“astringing” is to think about a balloon that’s been
blown up and emptied out so many times it’s lost its
resiliency; the latex is weakened and lax. Or,
sometimes weak tissues get "spongy" (think of
spongy, bleeding gums).
Most people are quite familiar with astringency…
that bite of green banana that you thought was ripe
enough? That sensation of puckering and dryness is
astringency. The strength of astringent herbs varies
widely, from the very gentle strawberry to the
moderate green tea to the significantly strong oak.
Pretty much all things that taste sour are
astringent to some degree.
Astringents are generally considered “drying” in
nature because of the sensation they offer, though
they can help the body retain fluid on a larger
scale by preventing excessive urination caused by
weak renal tissues. They have a local
anti-inflammatory action, and can also act as
antimicrobials by toning tissues, they make it
harder for bacteria to adhere to them. Cranesbill, Sumach, Oak,
and most of the rose family are examples.
Herbs containing mucilage are referred to as
“demulcents” when used internally, and “emollients”
when applied externally. Mucilage refers to a
carbohydrate that, when moistened with water,
becomes viscid and slimy. Michigan herbalist Joyce
Wardwell calls these herbs “slimaceous”, which is
both an appropriate and memorable term. Mucilaginous
herbs lubricate tissues, ease dryness, and soothe
inflammation, irritation and injury. Though it makes
sense that demulcents coat tissues, the physical
mucilage is actually very poorly absorbed by the
body, and certainly isn’t traveling through the
blood to the kidneys. Rather, the ingestion of
mucilage seems to promote a systemic moistening of
tissues throughout the body, with some demulcents
being more specific to particular organ systems.
Mucilages can help loosen/relax tissues that are
tight due to dryness. Slippery Elm and
Marshmallow are archetypal.
regarding astringents and demulcents…
Because astringents are generally considered
“drying” and mucilaginous herbs considered
“moistening”, it can seem confusing to use them
together (which is often done) and even more
confusing that some herbs are both astringent and
demulcent. To wrap your head around this seeming
contradiction, don’t view astringent/dry –
mucilage/moisten as opposite ends of a polarity...
that simplification doesn’t work. Instead, consider
that astringents tighten and tone, and demulcents
coat and soothe. The moistening effect of the
demulcents is perfectly appropriate to balance the
dryness that comes with astringency, and the
lubrication offered protects the tissues as they are
“Trophorestorative” isn’t so much
an action, but a term that applies to the result
obtained upon certain organs/tissues through the use
of certain herbs. Trophorestoratives are herbs whose
use resulted not only in restored structure (as in
astringents) but in restored function as well.
Beyond that, a trophorestorative will create lasting
improvement in structure in function that persists
even if the herb itself is discontinued. Many people
would be inclined to use the word “tonic” here, and
although perhaps appropriate, there are so many
different kinds of tonics (blood tonics, bitter
tonics, astringents…) that using the word unmodified
often proves to be problematic (this is elborated on
Nettle seed is an incredibly important
trophorestorative to the kidneys and adrenals;
Goldenseal acts as a trophorestorative to mucous
membranes throughout the body, including urinary
tissues; Milk Thistle for the liver, Hawthorne for
the heart (probably cactus too); perhaps Stone Root
for the vasculature..
"Tonic" is a dreadfully problematic term, because it
has so many meanings and can be applied in so many
different ways. Really, without using an
adjective to qualify what kind of tonic it is, the
noun "tonic" is close to useless. To be
practical, most people intend to convey that a tonic
is an herb that builds up your energy and health and
is good for you.
Herbalist Matthew Wood, in a draft copy of his
Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, offers
the one of the better definitions of the word “tonic”,
unique in that it allows for all the different
manifestations this vague category may take:
tonic is usually an herb or food that acts on the
body in a slow, nutritive fashion to build up the
substance of the body. In this sense, the term
"tonic" might be considered synonymous with
"trophorestorative". It can also be defined as
a substance which (like an astringent) restrains
loss from the body by "toning" tissues. Matt
offers the following categories tonics may fall
into: Bitter tonics were used to strengthen
and nourish the liver and metabolism (alteratives,
for the most part), Sweet tonics acted primarily on
the immune system and adrenals (adaptogens).
Oily tonics supplied fixed oils and essential fatty
acids to tissues to ensure hydration, cell
permeability and to prevent atrophy.
Mineral tonics (do I really need to say?) provide
essential minerals, and sour tonics are rich in
bioflavinoids. Protein tonics are rich in
protein… not lots of plants here, for the most part,
but Nettle is a good example.
In Chinese Medicine, their are chi tonics, blood
tonics, yang tonics, yin tonics, and a slew of other
types of tonics, each with their own unique
indications and contraindications.
stimulate the secretion of of pretty much all the digestive acids, juices
and enzymes, which generally improves appetite &
digestion, especially of fats/oils/lipids.
They also increase absorption of nutrients by
supporting the processes that breakdown and absorb
nutrients. Bitters stimulate tissue repair in
the GI, and also can have a mood
stabilizing/"antidepressant" effect by increasing
the production of mood related hormones by the
enteric nervous system in the gut. They have a
grounding, downward energy. You
must taste bitters to receive their medicinal
virtues. There are nutritive bitters
(dandelion greens), aromatic bitters (Calamus),
bittersweet bitters (Celastrus), and just plain
bitter bitters (Boneset).
used to open the pores and promote perspiration.
They are usually used in the treatment of fevers,
but can be used to advantage in colds & flus as
well. Diaphoretics act on the hypothalamus,
which controls the body’s thermostat by directing
the actions of peripheral circulation and the pores.
In physiomedicalism, diaphoretics are seen as being
stimulating of they promote circulation out from the
core to the periphery (cayenne, cinnamon, yarrow),
or relaxant if the ease tension inhibiting that
outward circulation (elderflower, boneset, butterfly
weed). Some herbs do both (most mints).
force perspiration, and the term is really
better applied to more toxic substances such as
the quantity of urine expelled from the body.
Some do this by increasing the blood flow to the
kidneys (like Scotch Broom and caffeine containing
herbs), others affect the secretion or reabsorbtion
of fluids in the kidneys (Dandelion), while still
others irritate the renal tissues and the kidneys
produce more urine to try to “flush out” the
irritant (Juniper being an example of this).
Nowadays, laxness of terminology has led to people
using the word “diuretic” to refer to any herb
affecting the kidneys in any way (alas…).
”Relaxant” is a term
commonly used in Eclectic and Physiomedical herbal
texts. It does not refer to herbs that
are sedative, but rather herbs that relax contracted
tissues, such as antispasmodics. This doesn’t
seem confusing, but when you look up and herb in
Cook’s Physiomedical Dispensatory and it says “this
herb is stimulating and mildly relaxing”, you get
kind of disoriented. What such a sentence
means is that the herb stimulates activity and
relaxes resistance to that activity. Lobelia is a famous one.
Nervines are herbs
that act on the nerous system. Technically,
there are stimulating nerviness (such as Kola Nuts
and other caffeine containing herbs) and relaxing
nerviness (Scullcap, Valerian…). Nowadays,
though, the term most often refers to nervous system
relaxants. To further delineate, there are
herbs considered to be “tonic” nervines (herbs that
when taken long term improve nervous conditions,
such as Wood Betony) and “sedative” nerviness (herbs
that actively sedate the central nervous system, and
should be used short term to manage acute problems,
like Hops). Both “soporific” and
“hypnotic” are terms that specifically refers to
herbs that induce sleep (hypnotic does not refer to
hypnotic trances). To make matters confusing,
“sedative” may also be used to refer to herbs that
sedate activity of tissues (and not necessarily the
central nervous system)… so an anti-inflammatory
herb might be called a sedative in an old Physiomedical book. It should be noted that
the word “sudorific” is not the same as “soporific”…
even though they look the similar and rhyme.
Sudorifics promote sweating, and while some may be
soporific as well, not all are.
Here’s a doosey of a
term. Obviously, stimulants stimulate
activity. However, while nowadays people
almost always associate stimulants with caffeine,
Ephedra and other cerebral or metabolic stimulants,
most old herbal texts use the word stimulant to
describe an herb that stimulates activity of any
sort of tissue or process... sialagogues are
An herb's secondary actions are those properties
attributed to it that owe their effect to one or
more of the plant's primary actions. As an
example, people often refer to an herb as possessing
an "anti-inflammatory action". While this
tells us something of what might be achieved by
using the plant, it really tells us very little
else. Is the herb anti-inflammatory because it
contains a mucilage that coats and soothes enflamed
tissues? Or perhaps its astringent?
Maybe the anti-inflammatory agent resides in the
plants aromatic oils, or maybe it contains
salicin or some other compound that inhibits
It is in all of these differing possibilities that the
answer to the question, "How do I choose the right
anti-inflammatory for this person expressing these
specific symptoms lies. So, if you know a
plant possesses some secondary action, try to
understand which primary actions lead it to this
These herbs “absorb”
swellings of various sorts, more or less via
lymphatic action. Mullein is an example… see
anodynes describe herbs that ease or relieve pain.
They may do this through a variety of mechanisms;
for example, antispasmodics, anti-inflammatories and
herbs containing salicylic acid are all anodynes.
Willow & Black Cohosh are examples of
analgesic/anodyes. Narcotics inhibit central
nervous system activity, and are generally dangerous
in excess. Opium and Henbane are examples… not
for the home herbalist.
Antacids are herbs
that contain constituents that bind with and
neutralize acids. These herbs are usually used
in the treatment of heartburn, and include
Chamomile, Fennel and Peach. Some, such as
Meadowsweet, are also astringent, and have the added
benefit of strengthening a weakened sphincter that
is allowing stomach acids to escape into the
esophagus, as well as helping to heal any
ulcerations that have resulted from this.
These herbs kill
worms and parasites. They should be used
when they are needed, and not based upon
the mistaken belief that we’re all full of parasites
that are causing all of mankind’s ills. Black
Walnut is probably the most widely used.
These herbs help
resolve congestion arising from excess mucous
production (“catarrh” being mucous), as in
sinusitis. Often, they are astringents
(which tighten tissues to lessen secretions) and/or
contain volatile oils (which disperse congestion).
Goldenrod and Goldenseal are anticatarrhal.
Herbs that kill or
inhibit the growth of fungi. Cedar, Wild
Bergamot and Black Walnut come to mind. They
most often require consistent, long term use to work
Obviously, herbs that
help resolve inflammation. This action may be
the result of mucilages that coat and soothe
inflamed tissues (Slippery Elm), astringents that
tighten tissues (Vinca), or of constituents like
salicylic acid (Meadowsweet).
“Lithiasis” refers to the production of “stones” or
“gravel”; precipitations of minerals in the body
that (for the most part) cause excruciating pain
that most agree rivals or surpasses childbirth. In
reference to the urinary system, this would include
not only kidney stones but also gout and some types
of nonspecific joint pain. Antilithics are therefore
understood to be herbs that in some manner or
another help to resolve this condition. This can be
achieved in a number of ways.
In a sense, any diuretic herb is going to be
antilithic to a certain degree, because it increases
the volume of urine and helps flush stones from the
body. Demulcents, by causing the
moistening/lubrication of urinary tissues, helps as
well to facilitate the expulsion of stones.
Relaxants help ease resistance to the stones
But some plants are considered specifically
“antilithic”, in addition to other actions that may
be related. These herbs are sometimes said to
“dissolve” stones. This, I feel, is a special
action, but one that requires some looking into. It
is probably unlikely that any herb will reliably
dissolve a stone that’s being passed like salt or
sugar dissolving in water. There just doesn’t seem
to be evidence that this occurs with any reliability
(though I do account to exceptions). However, I do
think that some herbs can help to dissolve stones to
a degree. This might result in taking some of the
sharper edges off a stone, or perhaps breaking a
large stone into smaller, easier to pass pieces.
Herbs I’d consider specifically antilithic include
goldenrod, queen anne’s lace, gravel root & burdock
refer to “antibiotics” and “antivirals”.
Antimicrobial is a more general term that refers to
herbs that kill or inhibit invading microorganisms,
without specifically referring to which type of
microorganism the herbs are active against.
The mechanisms by which they work are too varied to
Herbs that help
inhibit the growth of tumors. Red Clover is
Herbs that prevent
bacterial growth. “Septic” infections are
usually considered “damp”, being purulent (having
puss)… staph-type infections. Echinacea and
Wild Indigo are antiseptics.
Aphrodisiacs increase one’s interest in sex… or are
supposed to. Some stimulate blood flow to the
genitalia (Yohimbe), some act as antispasmodics to
relax tense muscles and tissues (Skullcap), some act
as nourishing tonics, usually to the adrenals (Milky
Oats), and some inhibit inhibitions (think:
A very broad term
referring to herbs that improve the function of the
heart and circulatory system. “Tonic” implies
that long term use will yield optimal benefit, and
not weaken the system. Hawthorne is an
aromatic herbs that contain volatile oils and
initiate the expulsion of intestinal gas.
They often relieve cramping as well. Catnip,
Fennel and Chamomile are carminatives.
vomiting (Lobelia, syrup of Ipecac), and
anti-emetics help relieve nausea (Ginger, Peach
leaf, most mints).
stimulate menstrual flow, and are used to help bring
out scanty or suppresses menstruation. They
should not be used during pregnancy. Oxytocic
herbs stimulate uterine contractions, mimicking the
action of naturally produced hormone oxytocin.
Black Cohosh, Blue Cohosh, and Motherwort come to
Expectorant refers to
herbs that help expel mucous/phlegm from the lungs.
Generally, warming, drying herbs (like Angelica) are
used for wet/damp/dank coughs, while mucilaginous
herbs (like Marshmallow) are used for dry coughs.
”Pectoral” is a
general term referring to herbs that affect the
Antipyretic refer to herbs used to treat fever by
lowering body temperature. While these may
refer to diaphoretics, they also include herbs
containing Salicylic Acid (Wintergreen/Willow Bark)
and Echinacea, that lower body temperature through
methods other than encouraging perspiration.
increase the supply of breast milk in nursing
mothers (not gonna work for the guys…).
Fennel, Borage and Fenugreek are examples.
Hepatic is a general
term for an herb whose sphere of activity influences
the liver. Cholegogues stimulate the
production and release of bile (acting on both the
liver and gallbladder, and usually acting as
aperients), while antibilious herbs help the body
deal with an excess of bile (this may be done
through releasing it, which is why the terms are
often used interchangeably). Most often these
are bitter herbs, such as Dandelion or Yellow Dock.
Herbs that lower
blood pressure (like Hawthorne) are hypotensive,
while herbs that raise blood pressure (like Ephedra)
(or force) evacuation of the bowels. Laxatives
– even herbal laxative use – can be habit and
dependence inducing. Cathartics (like Cascara
Sagrada and Senna) do this forcefully, while
Aperients are gentle laxatives; usually bitter herbs
that stimulate the production and release of bile,
which lubricates the digestive tract.
Dandelion, Oregon Grape and Yellow Dock are
relieve lymphatic congestion, usually evidenced by
swollen glands. No one really knows how they
work, but “experience hath shown” (as Culpepper used
to say) that when used, the swollen glands resolve.
One theory is that they increase the solvency of
lymphatic fluids, which helps break up and disperse
metabolic debris within the lymph system. Red
Root, Echinacea and Cleavers are lymphatic herbs.
These herbs are
applied topically and have an irritating and/or
heating effect on the skin. By causing local
irritation, these plants draw the attention of the
body (usually via blood) to the area they are
applied, and so initiate a healing response.
Cayenne and Arnica are popular counter irritants.
Some plants that have been used as counter
irritants, such as Buttercups, are exceedingly
strong and will blister the skin.
These herbs provoke
the production and flow of saliva. Prickly Ash
is an example.
These are herbs that
generally have a beneficial action on the stomach.
They may be antispasmodics, they may affect acid
levels, they may be astringents… Fennel, Chamomile,
Peach, & Meadowsweet come to mind.
(Ephedra) narrow blood vessels (usually causing and
increase in blood pressure); Vasodilators (like
Hawthorne) expand them (usually lowering blood
Theses are herbs that
have been used to treat wounds… most often they are
astringents/styptics, but herbs such as Arnica and
St. John’s Wort are oft included here.