Types of Healing Herbs

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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.

Adaptogens, such as Siberian ginseng, astragalus, and licorice, are a type of powerful tonic that help the body adapt to physical and emotional stress, restoring balance and building resilience.

Sedative herbs, such as valerian, passionflower, wild lettuce, and ashwagandha, calm the nerves, reducing the effects of stress on the body and mind. Sedative herbs are also referred to as nervines, relaxants, or hypnotics.

Carminative herbs, such as cardamom and fennel, are often aromatic and rich in essential oils. They relieve gastrointestinal spasms and expel excess gas to ease cramping pains.

Antioxidants inhibit cell oxidation to stop free-radical formation. Rosemary and milk thistle are powerful antioxidant herbs.

Astringent, or toning, herbs, such as witch hazel, rose, or sage, tighten tissues, helping protect against fluid loss and inflammation. They can be applied internally to calm inflamed mucous membranes and reduce excess mucus; or externally to tone skin, treat sores, and help stop bleeding.

Expectorants, such as elecampane and mullein, loosen mucus, ease spasms, and make coughs productive to expel phlegm. Anti-phlegm herbs, which remove mucus, and antitussive herbs, which soothe coughs, are related to expectorants.

Diuretic herbs increase the production and flow of urine, making them beneficial for problems such as fluid retention and for flushing the urinary tract when an infection is present. Diuretic herbs include dandelion, cleavers, buchu, and corn silk.

Antimicrobial herbs, such as calendula and garlic, have a range of protective properties, including being antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and anti-infective. They increase resistance to—and inhibit the action of — pathogenic microorganisms, strengthening the body’s resilience and limiting infection.

Anti-inflammatory herbs, such as sarsaparilla and cayenne, help reduce excessive inflammation, in turn relieving pain.

Antispasmodic herbs, such as wild yam, relax muscles and reduce spasms. They can work on smooth muscle, such as in the stomach, as well as relieve general muscle tension.

Styptic herbs, such as lady’s mantle, have a “hemostatic” action to help stop bleeding when applied topically.

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Cover courtesy DK

Excerpted from Complete Wellness, reprinted by permission of DK, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Neal’s Yard Remedies.

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