Herbs work in very different ways than modern pharmaceutical drugs.
This difference is rarely well explained in books and is the source of much confusion for folks who are new to using herbal medicine.
This article comes from my desire to explain and provide some clarity in this area.
These Herbal Actions & Categories are explained and applied in depth during our longer herb programs, especially the Foundations of Herbal Medicine. A general outline is provided here. Many of the herbs listed were chosen because they are locally available in the SW. There are many other plants from other parts of the world not listed here.
Demulcent (internal) or Emollient (external)
Herbs in this category moisten tissues and soothe inflammation
Energy is moistening and usually cooling (cinnamon is the rare warming demulcent)
Works systemically, the herb itself does not need to come in contact with a particular surface, such as the lungs or bladder, to be effective
Contains mucilage, has a slimy, viscous feel
Will loosen and relax tissues that are tense due to dryness
Affect the respiratory, digestive & urinary systems
Reduce excess dryness or heat
Moisten and soothe coughs
Help relieve a sore throat
Moisten dry constipation
Reduce irritation from bladder infection
Cool and reduce inflammation from burns, especially sunburn
Cool topical inflammation
Malvaceae family, especially mallows, also hollyhock, okra
Plantain leaves – Plantago major, P. lanceolata, these are best used fresh
Flax or Chia Seeds
Comfrey leaf and root
Slippery Elm bark
Aloe Vera gel
Licorice Root (non-mucilaginous)
Prickly pear pad – inside flesh (topical)
Corn Silk (Zea mays) is used for bladder infections
These are herbs that cause tissue to contract or tighten.
These plants are usually high in tannins.
Black tea is a well known astringent.
Short term, these herbs have a drying effect on tissues by stopping secretions.
Long term, they have a moistening effect on deeper tissues because they prevent fluid loss in the body. These opposite actions can cause initial confusion.
The sour taste is usually astringent.
These plants are used for tissues that are atonic – meaning weak or too relaxed. Examples are diarrhea and spongy gums
Reduce inflammation and irritation like ulcers, poison ivy, sore throat
The tightening, shrinking effect of tannins aide the body in creating a barrier to infection. An astringent gargle can help a sore throat.
GI – diarrhea: many rose family plants, blackberry root, black tea leaves
Bleeding (topical) – yarrow, oak, Canaigre root
Skin – weepy rash, excess sweating, overactive pores leading to oily skin, itchy bug bites or poison ivy – yarrow, rose, oak, witch hazel
Reproductive – uterine bleeding – yarrow, shepherd’s purse, raspberry leaf
Rose family – YARFA (from Michael Moore – “Yet Another Rose Family Astringent”), blackberry root, raspberry leaves, rose petals, agrimony, hawthorn
Oak – very strong
Witch Hazel – often used in commercial products to close skin pores and reduce oily skin
Rhus trilobata leaves
Manzanita (uva ursi) leaves
Salvia officinalis leaves
Yarrow leaf and flower
Stimulate digestive secretions, increase saliva, bile, pancreatic secretions and peristaltic action in the colon
Energy is stimulating, cooling, drying (increases fluid secretion short term which has long term drying effect)
Bitters are often combined with warming and moistening herbs for a more balanced effect if used long term
Sometimes the desired effect happens from adding bitter foods to the diet, especially wild or leafy greens.
The bitter taste on the tongue stumulates and balances stagnant, sluggish conditions, especially in the digestive system such as constipation or lack of appetite.
This taste also aids in digestion of protein and fats by stimulating the release of bile from the gall bladder.
Angelica archangelica root
Berberis & Mahonia inner bark mof stem or root
Yarrow leaf and flower
Artemesia ludoviciana leaves
Yellow dock root
Dandelion leaf and root
Most bitter herbs have other herbal actions
An older term for coughing (to expectorate)
Expectorant herbs work in two ways:
Stimulating expectorants are usually warming & drying and help to initiate the cough reflex, sometimes by irritation. These should be used when the lungs are cold & damp with excess mucous that needs to be coughed up.
Grindelia resinous flower buds
Monarda leaf and flower
Relaxing expectorants are used when the lungs are hot & dry with an unproductive, spasmodic cough. These herbs cool and soothe and either calm the cough reflex or moisten the dry phlegm so it can be coughed up
Mallows, espceially Althea officinalis
Asclepias tuberosa root
Any plant containing essential oils, they usually have a definite aroma
Often warming, drying and stimulating
Just as essential oils disperse aroma in the air, these plants have a dispersing effect in the body and help to move things. They can even be helpful to awaken a dull mind.
Dispersive, moves fluid, diuretic
Moves stagnant digestion, especially after a heavy meal
Breaks up sinus and lung congestion
Mint family – peppermint, basil, rosemary, thyme
Seeds of the Apiaceae family – fennel, caraway, dill, celery
Conifer needles and resins
Indian spices – ginger, cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, clove
Most cooking spices, especially those used in Mediterranean and Indian cuisine
Herbs that help to ease discomfort caused by gas or cramping. Many are high in volatile oils. Integrate these into the meal when possible. They can also be used as an after dinner tea or added to other formulas as needed.
Coriander (seed) or Cilantro (leaf)
Seeds of the Apiaceae family – Dill, Celery seed, Caraway, Cardamom, Fennel, Anise
Herbs that affect the nervous system. They can be stimulating (coffee), strengthening tonics (milky oats, skullcap, ashwaganda) or sedative/relaxants to either the muscular or nervous system.
Especially useful for excess stress and busy minds
They can change the quantity of thoughts as opposed to psycho-active herbs that change the quality of thoughts.
Help to ease emotional and physical tension that is inhibiting the flow of vital energy
If the flow of vital energy is increased, a relaxant can be energizing
If physical tension inhibits sleep, a relaxant can promote sleep although it does not make one sleepy
Relaxants are not equal to sedatives
Herbs that relax muscles are ‘anti-spasmodic’
Herbs that relieve lymph congestion by increasing the flow of lymph. They are used with swollen lymph nodes, especially during the flu or with a sore throat
Energy is stimulating and can be either warm or cold
Exercise – as the goal is to increase flow and movement within the body, any type of vigorous physical movement is helpful. A naturally active lifestyle keeps the lymph moving. We are more sedentary when we are sick, so the lack of movement can create the need for these herbs. Lymph massage is also helpful.
Poke Root and Wild Indigo are strong herbs that are toxic at higher doses. Use only with proper training
Tropho means food
Deeply nourishing to an organ or system, allowing it to function better
The action is similar to tonic in TCM
These herbs are usually gentle acting and used for long periods of time
Milky Oats, Ashwaghanda or Skullcap – nervous system
Milk Thistle – liver
Yerba Mansa or Goldenseal – mucous membranes
Hawthorne – heart
Solidago – kidneys
These herbs are used to heal wounds. They can be used externally on the skin, or for internal ‘wounds’ such as ulcers or hemorrhoids.
Comfrey – external only
Cholagogue – Choloretic
Choloretic stimulates bile flow from liver
Cholagogue stimulates gall bladder contraction
These words are interchangeable in the herb community
Energy is usually bitter, cooling and drying
Releases bile into small intestine to help digest fats & protein
Increasing bile flow has a laxative effect
Contra-indicated for known gallstones or acute infections such as hepatitis
Herbs: (There are many)
Most bitter herbs are also in this group.
An herb that increases the flow of urine
Energy is drying and either hot or cold
Use for edema, some types of Hypertension, bladder infections
Two primary types of diuretics:
- Kidney irritants: herbs that have essential oils which irritate the kidneys and are flushed out. (irritation in the body often leads to expulsion like coughing, sneezing, diarrhea and vomiting). Most aromatic herbs are in this category, especially peppermint.
- Any herb that increases circulation, moving more blood thru the kidneys which increases the filtering process. Coffee and black tea work this way.
Dandelion leaf and goldenrod are other commonly used diuretics
Laxative – Also known as Purgative – Cathartic – Aperient
Promotes bowel movements
Mild – Triphala, coffee, digestive bitters, fruit.
These should be used first.
Lubricating – psyllium, chia and flax seeds, licorice root
Cathartic (best to avoid or use short term) – senna, cascara, buckthorn, rhubarb root.
These can be weakening to the colon and create dependency if used excessively.
Diffusive – also known as Circulatory Stimulant
Herbs that help to spread and disperse the effects of other herbs in a formula. Using diffusive herbs can make the formula more effective or work more quickly. The effects can be spread throughout the body or to certain areas. They are usually ~5% of a formula.
These herbs are also in many other categories. In general, they are warming, stimulating and increase circulation. They often have volatile oils.
Diaphoresis is an older term that means ‘to perspire’. These herbs help to regulate body temperature during a fever by directing circulation, ventilating the body and allowing sweating
Stimulating diaphoretics have a warming energy and raise the body temperature, helping a weak fever increase in strength
Relaxing diaphoretics relax the circulatory system so that blood (and heat) move from the core to the surface of the body. This helps sweating to occur which can lower a high fever.
Herbs that increase the vital energy, strengthen the body and increase one’s ability to deal with stress. These are referred to as ‘tonics’ in the Chinese tradition. These are often misused as a sleep replacement or marketed as an herbal substitute for coffee or as aphrodisiacs. They are properly used long term, in small amounts to nourish the endocrine system and raise the vital energy. They can have any combination of energies and should be matched to balance the individual. Tulsi, ginseng and ashwaghanda are well known examples.
Stimulate flow or secretion
Stimulates production and flow of bile, affects the liver and gall bladder, Many bitter herbs do this, coffee is one
Stimulate flow of saliva, used for dry mouths. Herbs: Echinacea, Prickly Ash, Spilanthes
Anodyne – Analgesic
Pain relieving. As pain has many causes, this is a vague term and usually not helpful w/o more information.
One must know and address the cause of pain
Pain can often be reduced by relaxing tension or reducing inflammation. Herbs are part of a long term & broad based approach.
An herb that increases the desire or ability to be sexual. A confusing term and one that is often misleading and misused for marketing purposes.
Sex is a natural expression of who we are when we are in balance, both physically and emotionally. There are many facets to being sexual and no single herb will have a ‘magical’ or instant effect.
On a basic level, sex is about producing, moving, exchanging and releasing energy. Most herbs that increase the vital energy have some influence in this area.
Depending on what an individual needs to be in balance, herbs that calm, nourish, moisten or increase vitality or circulation can be thought of as aphrodisiacs.