Understanding Herbal Actions

By Staff
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When beginning to use herbs in caring for your health and that of your family, it’s important to understand the terminology you will come across in articles and literature during your research. Herbs have a long history of use and offer a vastness of knowledge that can be confusing or overwhelming if we are unsure of the terminology used to describe the plants.

When studying a particular herb you will often see a section which lists Herbal Actions. These actions give us guideline of how the herb responds in the body and which body systems it affects or which types of conditions it can be used for. Specific health conditions are listed as Indications. In this post I will list for you the most common Herbal Actions with their descriptions so that you have a guideline when researching your new herb friends. This is by no means a complete listing, simply the most common ones you will encounter along with some herbal examples.

Adaptogen: To qualify as an adaptogen an herb must be completely safe and non-toxic, it must act within the body in a non-specific way, and it must reduce the effects of stress on the body, both mental and physical. (Ashwagandha, Eleuthero, Holy Basil, Ginseng, Rhodiola, Schisandra)

Alterative: An herb that will gradually restore proper function of the body and increase health and vitality. These are sometimes referred to as blood purifiers. (Black Cohosh, Burdock, Cleavers, Echinacea, Red Clover, Yellow Dock)

Analgesic/Anodyne: Herbs that reduce pain. (Chamomile, Hops, Passionflower, Valerian)

Anthelmintic: Substance that eliminates parasites in the digestive tract. (Black walnut, Sheep sorrel, Wormwood)

Antibacterial: Herbs that inhibit bacterial growth. (Blessed Thistle, Cloves, Echinacea, Licorice, Osha, Usnea)

Antbilious: Herbs that help remove excess bile. (Dandelion, Barberry, Goldenseal, Wild Yam, Wormwood)

Anticatarrhal: Herbs that reduce excess mucous and phlegm. (Elderberry, Marshmallow, Oregon Grape, Poke root, Uva Ursi, Yarrow)

Antiemetic: Herbs that reduce nausea or vomiting. (Barberry, Cloves, Fennel, Oregon Grape)

Anti-inflammatory: Herbs that reduce inflammation topically or internally. (Ashwagandha, Calendula, Cat’s claw, Chamomile, Licorice, Turmeric)

Antilithic: Herbs that prevent the formation or help remove stones or gravel in the urinary system. (Sheep sorrel, Uva Ursi)

Antimicrobial: Herbs that destroy pathogenic organisms. These have actions against bacteria, virus and fungus. (Echinacea, Calendula, Licorice, St. John’s Wort, Usnea, Uva Ursi)

Antioxidant: An antioxidant is a substance capable of eliminating free radicals. (Ginkgo, Kelp, Schisandra)

Antirheumatic: Herbs used to relieve or protect against rheumatism. (Blue Cohosh, Cat’s Claw, Dandelion, Kelp, Poke Root, Wild Yam)

Antiseptic: Herbs that can prevent infection by prohibiting the growth of infectious micro-organisms. (Chamomile, Echinacea, Red Clover, Yarrow)

Antispasmodic: Antispasmodics can prevent or ease spasms and cramps in the body. (Boneset, Chamomile, Cramp Bark, Passionflower, Skullcap, Valerian)

Aphrodisiac: Herb used to stimulate sexual passion. (Damiana, Schisandra, Maca)

Aromatic: Herbs that have a strong, pleasant odor and can stimulate the digestive juices. (Chamomile, Fennel, Ginger)

Astringent: Astringents contract tissue and can reduce secretions and discharges. (Witch Hazel, Calendula, Cleavers, Goldenseal, Uva Ursi, Yarrow)

Bitter: Herbs that taste bitter act as stimulating tonics for the digestive system. (Burdock, Chamomile, Osha, Gentian, Fennel, Dandelion)

Cardiac Tonic: Cardiac tonics are herbs that act beneficially on the heart. (Hawthorne, Cat’s Claw, Motherwort)

Carminative: Herbs rich in volatile oils and expel gas from the stomach and bowels. (Cloves, fennel, Ginger, Hops, Prickly Ash)

Cholagogue: Herbs that stimulate the release and secretion of bile from the gall bladder. They also have a laxative effect on the digestive system. (Barberry, Calendula, Celandine, Dandelion, Goldenseal, Milk Thistle, Oregon Grape, Yellow dock)

Demulcent: Herbs that are rich in mucilage and can soothe and protect damaged or inflamed tissue. (Licorice, Fenugreek, Marshmallow root, Slippery Elm, Mullein)

Diaphoretic: Herbs that aid the skin in the elimination of toxins through perspiration. (Elderberry, Calendula, Chamomile, Yarrow, Peppermint, Ginger, Osha)

Diuretic: Herbs that increase the flow of urine and help in the removal of toxins from the system. (Astragalus, Burdock, Cleavers, Dandelion, Hawthorne, Pipsissewa, Sheep sorrel, Uva Ursi)

Emmenagogue: Herbs that stimulate and normalize the menstrual flow. (Black Cohosh, Blessed Thistle, Calendula, Cramp Bark, Ginger, Vitex)

Expectorant: Herbs that assist the body in expelling excess mucous from the respiratory system. (Angelica, Fennel, Fenugreek, Goldenseal, Licorice, Marshmallow Root, Osha, Red Clover, Usnea)

Febrifuge: Herbs to reduce fevers. (Angelica, Calendula, Prickly Ash)

Galactogogue: Herbs that increase the flow of mother’s milk. (Blessed Thistle, fennel, Fenugreek, Milk Thistle)

Hepatic: Herbs that strengthen and tone the liver as well as stimulate the flow of bile. (Barberry, Dandelion, Fennel, Goldenseal, Milk thistle, Burdock, Oregon Grape)

Hypnotic: Herbs that help induce sleep (not a hypnotic trance). (Hops, Passionflower, Skullcap, Valerian)

Hypotensive: Remedies that reduce elevated blood pressure. (Astragalus, Hawthorne, Valerian)

Laxative: Herbs that promote the evacuation of the bowels. (Barberry, Burdock, Cascara Sagrada, Cleavers, Dandelion, Goldenseal, Licorice, Oregon Grape, Yellow Dock)

Lymphagogue: Herbs that promote or increases lymph production or lymph flow. (Red Root, Cleavers, Echinacea, Poke Root)

Mucilage: Herbs that contain gelatinous constituents and will often be demulcent. (Marshmallow, Slippery Elm)

Nervine: Herbs that strengthen and tone the nervous system, easing anxiety and stress. (Chamomile, Cramp Bark, Hops, California Poppy, Passionflower, Skullcap, Valerian)

Pectoral: Herbs that have a general strengthening and healing effect on the respiratory system. (Angelica, Licorice, Marshmallow Root)

Purgative: Can produce very strong laxative effects and watery evacuations. (Poke Root, Yellow Dock)

Rubefacient: Herbs that simulate circulation locally when applied to the skin. (Cayenne, Ginger, Cloves)

Sedative: Herbs that can strongly quiet the nervous system. (Cramp Bark, Hops, Chamomile, Motherwort, Passionflower, Skullcap, St. John’s Wort, Valerian, Wild Yam)

Stomachic: Herbs that promote digestion and strengthen the stomach. (Chamomile, Cloves, Fennel, Ginger)

Tonic: Herbs that strengthen and tone specific tissues or organs. (Angelica, Ashwagandha, Astragalus, Calendula, Chamomile, Cleavers, Dandelion, Echinacea, Fenugreek, Eleuthero, Gotu Kola, Hawthorne, Licorice, Milk Thistle, Oregon Grape, Red Clover, Schisandra, Wild Yam)

References:
Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth; Sharol Tilgner, ND
Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief: David Winston, Steven Maimes

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