Types of Healing Herbs

Discover the various categories of medicinal herbs and how they can benefit your health.


Photo by Adobe Stock/Chamillew

Herbs are aromatic plants with medicinal and culinary uses whose chemical constituents have healing actions. In herbal medicine, the whole plant or a part, such as the root, leaf, flower, or seed, is used. Knowledge of how herbs work and safe usage, explored over millennia, is increasingly supported by scientific research.

How Herbs Heal

Herbs offer safe, effective holistic healing that focuses on the root cause of a problem, and herbalists tailor remedies to work on the body, mind, and emotions. A range of actions, listed below, strengthen the body and support wellness. Many herbs “multitask” to combine several actions.

Tonic herbs, traditionally taken in the spring, refresh, strengthen, and rebuild health. They work either on the whole body or on specific areas such as the circulation, boosting energy, or the mind, for example St. John’s wort is a nerve tonic with antidepressant effects. Tonic herbs also help rebalance dysfunctional and stressed body systems. Popular tonic herbs include ashwagandha, skullcap, nettle, and hawthorn.

Bitter herbs, such as dandelion root and mugwort, stimulate bitter taste receptors on the tongue and gastric juices to boost digestion. They promote appetite, for example during convalescence; support a healthy gut “microbiome,” balancing good and bad bacteria; aid nutrient absorption; and help the elimination of waste. A large proportion of immune cells is located in the digestive tract and many neurotransmitters originate in the gut, so a healthy gut flora boosts immunity and mental health.

Mucilaginous herbs, also called demulcents, have a protective effect in the gut. They make a gel-like substance that forms a coating to soothe irritation and inflammation, and they are used for a range of digestive complaints as well as for respiratory problems. Emollient herbs, used externally to soften skin, are also mucilaginous. Mucilaginous herbs include marshmallow, plantain, fenugreek, mullein, and chia seed.

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