Copyright © 2014 by Robert Dale Rogers. All rights reserved.
No portion of this book, except for a brief review, may be reproduced, or copied and transmitted, without permission of author. This book is for educational purposes only. The suggestions, recipes and historical information are not meant to replace a medical advisor. The author assumes no liability for unwise or unsafe usage by readers of this book.
HERBAL ACTIONS AND PROPERTIES
In order for herbalists to converse and think about plant energetics, it is important to have a common groundwork of definitions.
The term adaptogen was coined, by Soviet scientists, in 1964. They first described activity that increased body resistance and vitality, but had a normalizing effect on body tissues. That is, adaptogenic herbs help increase capacity to resist disease caused by stress, not by blocking the stress response, but by smoothing out the highs and
lows of endocrine function. Adaptogens help clients adjust or adapt to changing environment and ability to cope with today’s physiological stress.
Examples include Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), Roseroot (Rhodiola rosea), Maral Root (Leuzea/Rhaponticum carthamoides), Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera), Schizandra (Schisandra chinensis), as well as Panax and American Ginseng (Panax spp.). I include Wild Sarsaparilla and Devil’s Club in this grouping.
Alteratives are herbs that help the body eliminate waste, and improve overall health by promoting good digestive function and proper immune response. In older texts, the term was often associated with “blood cleansing”, which does no justice to physiology. Alteratives do not alter anything, in spite of the name! They are herbs often suggested during infection, or to resolve long-standing, low-grade infections.
Alteratives help normalize a pathological condition, by adjusting both hyper and hypoactive systems.
Although difficult to explain, the effect is obvious upon observing the eliminating organ systems. Urine will smell stronger and appear darker, the bowels will become looser and more odoriferous.
Perspiration may increase but more importantly, may be stronger in odour, while the lungs expel phlegm and mucous in excessive amounts.
Alteratives generally are most useful in chronic degenerative and inflammatory conditions. Care must be taken with alteratives, as the promotion and elimination of toxic wastes can cause discomfort and irritation if done too rapidly. In the case of clients with liver damage, the use of alteratives is preceded by use of hepatoprotective herbs, such as Gentian, Licorice Root, Schisandra or Ginger.
Examples of alteratives are Red Clover (Trifolium pratense), Burdock (Arctium lappa), Garlic (Allium sativum), and Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica). Alteratives have affinity for particular organ systems and will be covered individually.
Anodynes are herbs that help relieve pain, either topical or internally. Some examples are Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa), Ginger (Zingiber officinalis), Peppermint (Mentha piperita), Jamaican Dogwood (Piscidia erythrina) and Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium).
An antacid herb helps neutralize excess acid in the stomach and intestinal tract. They may be demulcent and help protect and coat the stomach lining, or modify acid production.
One of nature’s best examples is Queen of the Meadow (Filipendula ulmaria). Dandelion root, fennel seed, slippery elm, and Irish moss also fit this category.
Anthelmintic herbs kill parasites and worms. Individual herbs appear to work better for specific conditions, ranging from the mild, safe effect of Pineapple Weed for pinworms in children, to the powerful Pomegranate root bark for tapeworms. Other effective plants are various Artemisia spp., including Sweet Wormwood, Wormseed, and Wormwood, as well as Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), Elecampane (Inula helenium), Butternut and Walnut (Juglans spp.). The term Vermifuge (see below), refers to agents that remove worms from the body, but do not necessarily kill them.
Anti-catarrhal herbs help remove excessive mucous from the body, whether it be in the gastro-intestinal tract, the respiratory system or the bladder. This normally involves reducing the amount of mucous secretion, or thinning mucous and thereby helping remove it more easily. Also see Expectorant.
Generally speaking, an anti-catarrhal herb is combined with a diaphoretic, diuretic or laxative to help elimination from other body systems. Examples include cayenne, ginger, sage, mullein, yerba santa, gota kola, and comfrey.
Anti-coagulant herbs help prevent clotting in any fluid, but mainly refer to the blood. Many of the herbs mentioned contain coumarin compounds, such as Sweet Clover (Melilotus spp.), Bedstraw (Galium spp.) and Red Clover.
Anti-depressant herbs are covered under nervines. St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is probably the best-known example. But as the herbal student will see, this herb has much more to offer than relief from mild to moderate depression. Much more.
Inflammation is the body’s response to infection and other acute illness, and should not be suppressed unless life threatening. In fact, inflammation is perhaps the most important tool available to the body, to help restore homeostasis, and balance.
Again, anti-inflammatory herbs have body system affinity, and operate
in different manners, depending upon their composition.
A wide range of plants contain salicin, including Poplar, Willow and Birch barks, as well as Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) herb. Other plants such as Licorice root contain saponins that are utilized by the body to produce or extend steroid molecular activity, while Calendula, Chamomile and Plantain reduce digestive and skin inflammation.
It is widely accepted in both the natural and biomedical models of health, that chronic inflammation a major contributing factor in chronic disease. It matters little which organ system is affected.
Anti-microbial herbs assist in active or secondary control of bacteria, viruses and fungi. These herbs are therefore active participants in microbial destruction, or assist the immune system by stimulating
its function. These herbs may be used internally or externally. Some examples include Garlic, Juniper berry, Elecampane, Osha, Usnea, Goldenseal and Thyme.
Anti-oxidants help prevent oxidation that contributes to premature aging, and auto immune damage to tissue. Some of the better known anti-oxidants are Green Tea, Calendula, proanthocyanidins from Pine bark and Grapeseed, Rosemary, Turmeric, Bilberry, Pomegranate,
Gingko, Fleeceflower (Polygonum cuspidatum), Roseroot (Rhodiola rosea) Goldenrod and Schisandra.
Green Tea plantation
Anti-rheumatic herbs help relieve or prevent inflammation, and degeneration of the connective tissue, such as muscles, tendons, and bursa. There is a restriction of movement, accompanied by pain and stiffness. Examples include Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata), Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) and Celery seed (Apium graveolens).
Antiseptic herbs prevent or destroy sepsis or infectious destructive conditions of tissue, and will be covered under that category. Examples include goldenseal, calendula and myrrh.
These are herbs that help relax, prevent or reduce muscular spasms via the autonomic nervous system, but are not necessarily sedatives or nervines. Carminative herbs (see below) are usually anti-spasmodic in action towards the digestive system, and relaxing expectorants (see below), often act as anti-spasmodics for the respiratory system.
An example of an anti-spasmodic nervine is Valerian
(Valeriana officinalis). Other anti-spasmodics are Black Cohosh, Kava Kava, Skullcap and Raspberry leaf.
Aperients gently stimulate digestion, and may possess very mild laxative action. Examples include Chamomile, Licorice root, and a variety of kitchen spices.
Aphrodisiacs increase sexual excitement and libido. Some examples include Damiana (Turnera aphrodisiaca), Catuaba, Muira Pauma, Astragalus, Panax Ginseng, Puncture Vine, Horny Goat Weed (Epimedium breviconum), Maca (Lepidium meyenii), and Yohimbe.
Fresh Maca roots or Peruvian ginseng
Astringent herbs generally work via the action of tannins or gallotannins on tissue. The name tannin is associated with the production of leather from animal hides, due to precipitation and drawing together of protein, gelatin, and salts.
The greatest advantage of astringents is the drawing together of tissue, as in wound healing, and the repair of digestive system conditions caused by inflammation, infection and/or irritation.
Astringent herbs are used, internally and externally, to balance fluids. If one looks at the example of a water blister formed from a burn, the astringent poultice will stop fluid loss into the blister, as well as create resorption back into underlying tissue, creating a healthier environment.
Astringents are therefore used for diarrhea, and edema of swollen ankles or water retention related to pre-menstruation.
Black tea, for example, is a good astringent, and an example can be felt in the mouth upon ingestion. Yarrow is an example of an astringent that is useful for cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, urinary, and skin conditions, usually combined with other herbs.
Astringents precipitate herbs high in alkaloids, so many tannin rich tinctures contain up to 10% vegetable glycerine to prevent this action.
Examples include white oak bark, yellow dock, witch hazel, myrrh, stoneroot, uva ursi, and horsetail.
Bitter principles trigger a response in the back of the tongue via the taste buds. Bitters increase appetite and digestion via stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, thus influencing release of enzymes by stomach, pancreas, duodenum and liver, and increasing flow of bile. Bitter actions help repair intestinal wall damage by stimulating their own self-repair mechanisms.
Many herbalists believe that bitter action has a marked anti-depressant psychological and grounding effect.
The craving for olives, or bitter vegetables like artichoke and dandelion greens may be indicative of digestive under-activity.
James Green, noted herbal educator, wrote, “the predominant avoidance and lack of the daily bitter flavor experience in western diet is a subtle, primary cause of male and female sexual organ and immune system deficiencies”. Green believes, “eliminating the bitter flavor from our daily experience is like eliminating one of the colors of the rainbow... Hand in hand with the avid avoidance of bitter flavors in the diet, the North American psyche refuses, in general, to deal with the (bitter) “shadows” of its life, routinely projecting the darker side of its own nature onto others... Our community’s predominant lust for the sweet flavor (sugar), and its equally extreme avoidance of the bitter flavor are possibly symptoms dealing with the psychic insecurity we feel from our cultural disconnection with our planet, Earth.”
He suggests that coffee, chocolate and hops in beer, are the only bitters consumed on a regular basis. Our salads, which used to contain a variety of bitter tastes, now are reduced to tasteless, bland iceberg lettuce, covered in sweet, tangy dressings.
Because the bitter must be tasted to create this cascade of activity, herbal bitters must be in water or alcohol form. Various aperitifs, especially from Europe, contain a variety of bitter principles from herbs such as Gentian, Yarrow, Wormwood, Chamomile, Hops, and Bogbean. Angostura bitters, a combination of herbs, including Gentian, from Guyana, is well known to bartenders, as a hangover remedy, helping support and stimulate the hepatic system, and detoxification.
Bitters are contraindicated in a variety of inflammatory conditions of
the digestive system, as well as pregnancy.
Absinthin, found in Wormwood, is so bitter it can be detected in dilution of 1:30,000, while amarogentin found in Gentian (Gentiana lutea) can be detected in as little as one part in 58,000,000 parts! That is like one ounce of liquid in a swimming pool.
A calmative herb is not simply a sedative or nervine. It helps quiet the nervous energy of the body in a gentle manner, without the “drugged” effect of sedatives.
Examples include Matricaria spp. including German, and Roman Chamomile, Pineapple Weed, as well as Passionflower, Scullcap, and Kava Kava.
Carmine is an artist’s colour red, helping the student remember the association with blood and warmth.
Carminatives help ease dyspepsia, flatulence and distention of the digestive tract. They generally ease spasms, and inflammation by stimulating blood flow, and increasing warmth to the affected area.
Poor digestion, and indigestion are often related to under-activity of digestive power.
Stomachic cordials, including mints, anise and caraway are examples of carminative herbs. In fact, the use of spices with meals throughout the world is an example of incorporating flavour with carminative properties. Scandinavians love angelica, dill and fennel, Indian cooking uses cumin, cinnamon and cardamom, while the
Mediterranean herbs of marjoram, oregano and basil, dominate Italian, Greek and Spanish cooking. Calamus root is another example.
Calamus Seed Head
Cholagogue is from the Greek chole, meaning bile, and agein, to lead forth.
Cholagogue herbs stimulate the flow of bile, help digestion of fats,
and increase intestinal health due to its anti-microbial and laxative effect. Many bitters (mentioned above), and hepatics, are cholagogues, improving biliary constipation, jaundice, mild hepatitis, and assisting liver detoxification.
These herbs help promote strong, and healthy liver health, and are more than simply choleretic in activity.
Cholecystitis, or inflammation of the gallbladder, may be acute or chronic, and is often associated with gallstones. The condition may be related to infection, but in any case, the use of cholagogue herbs is contraindicated when pain is present.
Celandine flower and seed pod
The art and science of herbalism dictates the proper herb or combination be used at the appropriate time, with dosage playing a key role in effectiveness. Choosing the right plant medicine for the client requires many years of artful integration and observation.
The stimulation of painful gallstones is to be avoided, with reduction of inflammation, spasms and pain of the first order, and promotion of healthy bile promotion a secondary concern.
Examples of cholagogues are Celandine, Balmony, Fringe Tree, Artichoke, Barberry, Wahoo, Blue Flag, Culver’s root, Wild Yam, Licorice and Oregon Grape root.
Demulcent herbs contain carbohydrate mucilage that helps soothe and
protect inflamed or injured internal membranes.
If used externally, demulcents are called emollients, and used to
soothe, inflamed, dry, or damaged skin.
Demulcents generally become slippery, or slimy with addition of water, suggesting a soothing property to mucous membranes of the gastrointestinal tract.
Demulcents soothe mucous membranes of the lungs and bladder, suggesting a different mode of action. Mucilage molecules are too large to be absorbed and transferred to these organs, so another mechanism must be at work.
Wild Licorice seed head
Simon Mills postulates, “the emetic effect in reverse, that is, the reflex effects on the tracheobronchial musculature of a soothing effect on the upper digestive tract, is instead postulated, mediated by the vagus nerve. Similar associations are used to justify the use of mucilages in painful conditions of the urinary tract.”
Animal studies with Marshmallow root suggest this is probably the avenue of action. The reverse is certainly true, in that esophageal reflux can induce nocturnal asthma.
Some of the better-known demulcents include Iceland Moss, Couch Grass, Licorice, Comfrey, Slippery Elm, Mullein, Cornsilk, Flax, Aloe vera, Fenugreek and various Mallows.
Diaphoretic herbs increase perspiration, or sweating through the skin. Eating a good curry will give you some idea of this concept. Diaphoretic herbs are useful in cases of fevers, where it is important to speed up the process of eliminating waste through the skin, and lowering body temperature through perspiration.
Diaphoretics promote dilation of surface capillaries, helping promote circulation.
It is not advisable to take laxative herbs before diaphoretics, but instead an enema if required.
The term Febrifuge is sometimes applied to this process, but this is really concerned with lowering of fever, by whatever means, including sweating. Anti-pyretic is another term for lowering heated states.
Naturopathic physicians speak of the skin as a “third kidney”, meaning that the removal of toxins is a question of balance, with some people neither sweating nor urinating sufficiently. In the case of the former, diaphoretics can help; while in the latter, diuretics are called for.
Yarrow, Peppermint, Elderflower, Boneset, Pleurisy root, Ginger, Blue Vervain, Cayenne, Sage and Prickly Ash are good examples of diaphoretics.
The difference between relaxing and stimulating diaphoretics will be discussed in detail under skin. Lemon Balm and Catnip are relaxing diaphoretics; while ginger and yarrow are stimulating.
Herbs that improve the digestion of food either directly or indirectly include Papaya, Fig and Pineapple. All of these fruit contain enzymes that assist in protein digestion, and may be combined with Bitters as needed.
Diuretic herbs help rid the body of excessive fluid, by increasing urinary output. Edema, the accumulation of excessive fluids, can be associated with any number of disorders that require careful evaluation. After all, diuretics remove various electrolytes such as sodium and potassium salts that play a key role in cell heath, and control blood pressure, nerve transmission and muscle contraction.
As mentioned elsewhere, many diuretic herbs act as diaphoretics when taken hot, and as lymphatics when taken cold.
Two general classes of diuretics are commonly used in herbal medicine; one that increases kidney blood flow, and another that reduces water resorption in the renal nephrons.
The first group are circulatory stimulating herbs that increase blood flow to the kidneys, with caffeine beverages like tea and coffee a good example. Herbs in this category are Lily of the Valley, Dandelion leaf, and Yarrow. These are called Aquaretics in German herbal practice.
Restharrow flower and leaf
The second group includes Parsley, Buchu, Cornsilk, Horsetail, Restharrow, and Celery seed. Some of these herbs have a potassium to sodium ratio of 150:1, compared to the average diet of 2:1. As well, some of these herbs remove waste products, suggesting more than simply water removal.
Often times, the urine will initially appear darker, more odorous, and precipitate gravel, sand or mucous strands. Urinating into a clear jar, first thing in the morning, and letting it stand for the day, will help the client adjust their herbal dosage.
Diuretics may be of use in treating urinary stones, bedwetting, and ascites associated with hepatitis.
Many pharmaceutical diuretics interfere with electrolyte balance and may complicate hypertensive conditions. It has not been definitely proven, but it may be that high potassium levels help eliminate more water. Other authors suggest that herbs rich in inulin may increase diuretic effect on kidney tubules.
Diuretic herbs may be contraindicated in diabetes and renal failure. It is often advisable to combine a demulcent herb with a diuretic to avoid kidney or bladder irritation.Emetic herbs induce vomiting, a practice not advocated by many modern herbalists. The medicine, syrup of Ipecac is made from the root of Cephaaelis ipecacuanha. The use of emetics, including ceremonial emeticsby North American
natives, is largely of historical interest. Lobelia, Elecampane and Blessed Thistle are emetic herbs.
Emmenagogue herbs stimulate menstrual flow and activity.
Many herbals use the term more loosely to describe any toning or normalizing of the female reproductive system.
Yarrow, Mugwort, Vitex and Squawvine are examples of true emmenagogues. Strong emmenagogues include juniper berry, black cohosh, pennyroyal, angelica, and wild ginger.
The whole issue of uterine tonics, astringents, regulators, anti- spasmodics, and anodynes will be discussed in book on Reproductive system.
Expectorant herbs help promote the removal of bronchial secretions from the trachea and lungs. Expectorants may be either relaxing or stimulating.
The latter group work by thinning the sputum, and easing removal through coughing; or by irritating the bronchioles. Examples include Elecampane, Seneca snakeroot, Squill, Horehound and Balsam Poplar buds.
Horehound is unique in that it both stimulates expectoration, and relaxes muscles of the bronchials.
Relaxing expectorants work by soothing bronchial spasms while simultaneously loosening mucous. Relaxing expectorants are most useful in hot, dry, irritating and unproductive coughs. Examples include Marshmallow, Pleurisy root, Iceland Moss, Sundew, Licorice, Gumweed, Wild Cherry Bark, Skunk Cabbage, and Lobelia.
A few expectorants act in both stimulating and relaxing manner. This property, known as amphoretic, is found in herbs like Mullein, Elder and Garlic.
Febrifuges reduce or lower fevers, when dangerously high. Fevers are part of the body’s healing mechanism and should only be used when the client has received hydration. Examples include Yarrow, Peppermint, Elder flowers, Poplar, and Catnip.
Galactagogues stimulate or increase production of breast milk. Examples include Prickly Lettuce, Borage, Fennel, Dill, Blessed and Milk Thistle, Vervain, and the unique Goat’s Rue (Galega officinalis).
Hemostatic herbs help stop bleeding, both internally and externally, through astringent and coagulation activity. Examples include Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), Canada Fleabane (Erigeron canadensis), Yarrow, Geranium (G. maculatum),
Bethroot (Trillium pendulum), and Black Root or Sanicle (Sanicula marilandica).
Shepherd’s Purse seed pods
A hypnotic herb helps induce sleeping, and is not related to hypnosis. The range of herbs available is wide and dependent upon the constitutional predisposition of the client, and experience of the practitioner.
Examples include Hops, Kava Kava, Valerian, Wild Lettuce, Scullcap, Vervain (Verbena officinalis), Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis), Passionflower, and Chamomile.
Hypotensive herbs help reduce blood pressure, with activity on both systolic and diastolic pressure. Some herbs only lower one or the other, and will be discussed in the Cardiovascular book.
Some examples are Garlic, Black Cohosh, Hawthorn, Motherwort, Passionflower, Valerian, Mistletoe, and Linden flowers.
Herbal laxatives promote evacuation of the bowel. Cathartics and purgatives are strong laxatives that can cause griping without support of carminative herbs. The old term “physic” refers to this strong purging effect. Examples include Sacred Bark (Cascara sagrada), Turkey Rhubarb (Rheum officinalis), Senna (Alexandria senna), Butternut and Buckthorn.
Also included under laxatives, are herbs that provide bulking action, by forming larger stools, and preventing dehydration. Examples include Psyllium (Plantago spp.), Flaxseed, and Guar Gum (Cyamopsis tetragonolobe).
Lithotriptics are herbs that help dissolve and eliminate urinary and biliary stones, including sand and gravel. Examples include the aptly named Gravel root, Cleavers, Parsley, Stinging Nettle, Hydrangea root, and Oregon Grape root.
In many medical texts, it is suggested there are no substances with this capability that are not harmful to patients. They obviously have never used herbal medicines!
Nervine herbs relax, stimulate or tone the nervous system.
Relaxing nervines are very important in our modern society, to help balance stress, anxiety and worry. Some relaxing nervines possess anti-spasmodic activity. Examples include Valerian root, Scullcap, Passionflower, Kava Kava, Wild Lettuce, California Poppy, and Chamomile.
Nerve tonics help to strengthen and restore nerve health, and are especially valuable following shock, and are useful in both acute and chronic stress conditions. Green flowering Oats, Scullcap, Lemon Balm and St. John’s Wort are examples of nerve toning herbs.
Oxytocic herbs help promote the onset of uterine contractions (myometrium), and thus speed up labour. Examples include Peony (Paeonia officinalis), Rye ergot, Corn Smut, Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), Black Cohosh, Blue Mallow,
Elecampane, Vervain, Motherwort, Mistletoe (Viscum album), and the oil of Canadian Fleabane.
Mistletoe white berries
Rubifacient herbs produce a redness of the skin by increasing the flow of blood to the region. The function is to draw inflammation and congestion from deeper tissue.
In older texts, the term counterirritant is used. A vesicant blisters the skin, and is not advised. The classic example is Mustard plaster, from freshly ground seed. Caution is advised, as the preparation is extremely irritating to skin tissue.
Sedative herbs help reduce nervous energy and irritation. Sedative herbs may be simply calmative, or may be hypnotic in activity.
Sedatives that help relieve pain (anodynes) are Betony and Jamaican Dogwood.
Mild sedatives include Passionflower, Hops, Lemon Balm, and Lady’s Slipper, while stronger sedatives are Valerian, Scullcap, Wild Lettuce and Kava Kava.
Yellow Lady’s Slipper
Sialagogues promote the flow of saliva and digestion of starches. Herbs in this category are Gentian, Lobelia, Pricky Ash, Senega, Echinacea, Ginger, Yerba Santa, and Blue Flag.
Herbal stimulants increase the physiological activity of the mind and body. Caution must be exercised when using stimulants, as the client’s debility will determine whether stimulation or relaxation is needed in convalescence.
Stimulating an already over stimulated body or mind is counter- productive. Many of these stimulants require balance with relaxants and nervines to prevent over-stimulation.
Some mild stimulants are Ginger, Cayenne, Prickly Ash, Chocolate, Myrrh, and American Ginseng. Stronger stimulants include
Coffee, Yerba Mate, and various herbs that are best used in homeopathic dilution including Nux vomica, Ignatia, Cocculus, and Physostigma venenosum.
Yerba Santa flowers
Styptic herbs reduce or stop external bleeding through astringent action. Yarrow leaf and cayenne powder are two examples.
Tonic herbs are similar to Alterative herbs in that they stimulate nutrition by improving assimilation, increasing vigor and strengthening the body organ tissues. They affect the entire body in a positive manner, but are often system specific. See Alterative.
Remember that a tonic can be sedating or stimulating, depending on the constitution and condition you are treating.
Vasodilators expand blood vessels, in turn, increasing circulation of blood. They promote production of prostaglandins that relax the muscle of blood vessels, opening them up.
Vasodilators may influence the whole body or may act as bronchial vaso-dilators, coronary vaso-dilators or peripheral vaso-dilators, which are also called circulatory stimulants.
Vasodilator herbs include linden flower, hawthorn, yarrow, garlic and feverfew.
Vulneraries help soothe tissue and assist healing, and are applied
to external wounds or inflamed mucous membranes. Some classic examples are Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), Calendula, Arnica, Plantain, Chickweed (Stellaria media), Comfrey, and Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica).
Witch Hazel flowers