Herbal actions — it doesn’t sound nearly as exciting or sexy as botanical monographs or the latest cure-all, does it? I’m aware that a fair number of beginning and intermediate herbalists tend to gloss over this particular subject, probably in part because of the typically vague and boring explanations given in many books and classes. What you may not realize though, is that this particular subject is both the foundation of the key to being an effective and insightful herbalist. As jim mcdonald puts it in his own introduction to herbal actions and properties:
“I don’t think I could possibly overstate how important it is to understand the properties by which herbs work. This knowledge is what separates a mediocre herbalist (someone who memorizes the name of a problem and the name of the herb that is listed next to it and says use this for that) from a good herbalist (someone who says, “Ah… dry, enflamed tissues… which mucilaginous herb should I use for this?”)… learn this stuff. Years later, you’ll either be glad you did, or wish you had.”
And while herbal actions ~sounds~ pretty dry, the actual experience and reality of it is very exciting because it has everything to do with the how the plants speak to us through our bodies. In my opinion, there really isn’t anything more appealing than and fascinating than talking to plants!
If you were to check out the list of actions in nearly any herb book, you would likely find them to be an overwhelmingly long list of very short, often cryptic definitions, most of them with the prefix of anti-. There’s usually an enormous amount of overlap and no arrangement of primary and secondary categories, along with a complete lack of consideration for herbal energetics. I’ve always found this to be immensely frustrating, which is exactly why I’ve been writing my Terms of the Trade series for this blog exploring primary actions and now providing this introduction to herbal actions.
You won’t see anti- anything as a primary action in my writings, this is because it’s much easier to understand the herb through what it promotes in the body rather than what it kills or stops. In fact, I would go so far as to say that herbal medicines simply aren’t anti-oriented. Even when they happen to help eliminate bacteria internally or systemically (as opposed to topically on the skin), it’s most often through some kind of enhancement of the native immune process rather than through direct attack on the bacteria itself. This can be hard for modern antibiotic oriented minds to understand. We keep asking ourselves when the bacteria is going to get herb resistant, showing how linearly minded we’ve become and how out of touch with natural processes we tend to be. I feel that the anti- prefixes only reinforces this kind of thought process. Therefore, I attempt to focus on the ~vital~ actions that the herbs excel at and which herbal medicine utilizes so well.
We do need to understand that there are many herbs that, while normally safe and life-enhancing, can be used in a suppressive or dangerous manner in inexperienced or overly forceful hands. A large part of the herbalist’s (and herbs’) job is simply to remove obstructions in the path of the anima (vital force) so that the body can do what it does best: heal, balance and thrive. Also, herbs that work primarily on a constituent-based physiological basis (think narcotics) are often best left to acute situations in the hands of experienced herbalists. The plants I DO talk about here should not be thought of any less powerful than ones such as Opium Poppy or Henbane. To the contrary, I consider plants that act in a nourishing, vitality increasing way to be far superior to those of limited usage and potentially dangerous, although both can be useful in the proper context.
Learning the Language of the Plants
Herbs are dynamic, living beings, as are we. Both the human body and the plants have the ability and tendency to adapt as needed. For this reason, there’s a fair amount of unpredictability involved in herbalism (much to the chagrin of the scientific and mainstream medical industry), but the perceptive herbalist will learn to recognize what is most likely to happen with certain herbs and what is most likely to happen with certain people, and not get attached to the idea of one herb creating the exact same effect in every person. A rose is a rose is a rose, but in one person the Rose may help them to feel relaxed and joyful and in another person it may trigger a sensation of physical coldness or even cause them to feel jittery and spaced out. The usefulness of understanding energetics and actions, is that it helps even the less experienced herbalist to better see what will likely happen in a relationship between any given herb and person.
Energetics and actions are not lists of correspondences and memorizable terms, but rather a mode of perception through our senses. A way of listening to the language of the plants with our bodies.
Herbal actions are the general tendency of the herbs in the body. They are not set and unchangeable but rather a continually adapting relationship between human and plant. Yes, astringency will always tighten the tissues, but how much and where will vary greatly depending on which plant, what other plants it might be mixed with, where that plant grew, when it was harvested, how it was processed, and so on.… it will also depend on the constitution and condition of the individual who ingests, the climate they live in and how they ingest it. Beyond that, there is the less tangible territory of intent and the subtleties between the person and the plant. Our emotions, state of mind, modes of perception and open-heartedness all play a large part in how everything around us enters and effects us, not least the plants we evolved beside and have allied with for millennia.
Actions are our perception and description of how the herbs effect the anima that flows through us. In most cases, the plants are encouraging our body to remove obstructions to the vital force (through stimulating circulation or diaphoreses or digestion, by modulating the immune system, by feeding the nervous or endocrine systems, by relaxing the muscles or countless other ways).
Primary & Secondary Actions
Primary actions indicate that the action is the foundational tendency of the herb in the human body, often deriving directly from its energetic propensities like astringent or demulcent. Secondary actions are those specific to certain organ systems like pectoral (lungs) or hepatic (liver). There is yet another category of actions (the anti- actions, I call them) that are dependent on the remedy’s ability to kill certain organisms, suppress or stimulate a function of the human body such as anti-fungal or narcotic or sudorific — we won’t be dealing with this third class much here because these plants are often poisons of varying degrees and thus depress vital function.
The easiest and often most accurate way to discern the action of any given plant is through our senses. The sensory input an herb gives us through taste, smell, texture and color can provide us with very specific insight into what the herb will likely do in the human body and in many cases, even ~how~ it will do it. This is the way the plants speak to us (and indeed the whole world, if we’re paying attention.
Previous and future posts on specific actions indicate how determine each action through the senses. A future post will also cover basic energetics and their relationship to actions.
While the plants possess an extraordinary amount of innate intelligence, it is up to us listen and observe closely enough to know which plants are needed in what way and amount. All humans have the inborn ability to do so, and it is the calling of the herbalist to specialize in this matchmaking process. We are not just well-trained pharmacists or researchers who can recite lists and cures from books, but sensitive practitioners with one hand on the human pulse and the other in the soil.
Preamble: The Sensory Continuum in Herbal Energetics
Before you can even begin to understand energetic terms like stimulating and relaxing, cooling and heating, moistening and drying, you need to realize that we are not speaking in terms of dichotomous polarities. Rather that viewing different herbs and herbal actions as opposites, realize they are actually dynamic continuums.
A continuum is “a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, although the extremes are quite distinct.” according to the dictionary. Still, this kind of continuum implies a straight line, and reality is more like a color wheel or musical scale, more like a spiral with many layers.
So understand, you’re not looking at neat little boxes defined by precise terms that can be cross-referenced in a textbook. You’re looking at energetic patterns, directions and tendencies as interpreted by a manic herbalist’s typing fingers. I’m not here to give you a system, not even a “natural system”, I’m providing you with a set of tools and perspectives to help you get down on your belly and taste and see and smell and engage with the complex and magical people we call herbs.
Herbs are rarely pure embodiments of one action or end of the spectrum. Just go ahead and accept that an herb can be both astringent and demulcent, stimulating and relaxing, even hot and cold, all at once. It’ll all be much easier if you can allow yourself that kind of flexibility of thinking. In fact, not only can they be, they almost inevitably are a blend of actions and tendencies. Because just as with humans and life in general, the polarities of black and white are a limiting illusion.
Reality, for people and plant, is much more complex and beautiful and disturbing and breath-taking. A thousand shades of colors and subtleties of sound, one layered on the other and woven together in an intricate knot-work and weave that ties us all together in the web of life.
This concept of shifting from seeing everything as blocks (packed with categorized info) to seeing a wheel of color and song (flowing with wisdom and sensory magic) spiraling in on itself will be an essential part of “getting” energetics on a gut-deep level.
We’re not looking for static categories or pre-determined equations, we’re observing patterns and experiencing the tendencies of living, intelligent beings and how they interact with our bodies. And as much as we herbalists like to dabble and blather on, this isn’t a science experiment or discourse, it’s a dance.
Primary Tendencies In Herbal Energetics: Stimulant & Relaxant
Tthe typical definition of stimulate is something like “to encourage or cause increased activity in a state or process”. In vitalist herbalism, as defined by Paul Bergner and the Physiomedicalists of the early 1900’s, it is “the increase of vital expression in a tissue or organ”.
Let’s be clear, this is not just cocaine, methamphetamines, and sugary beverages marketed under names like Monster and Rock Star. Stimulating herbs are not simply substances or plants that make you feel jittery, superman-strong and oh so clever. As appealing as that kind of nervous system rush can be, the common use of the word stimulant gives many herbal students and practitioners a total brain-block when it comes to the herbal action by the same name.
Stimulation is “the increase of vital expression in a tissue or organ”, this can manifest as the local pain and inflammation following some kind of trauma as the body focuses its anima –the vital healing force– to the part of the body most needing blood, nutrients and attention at the moment. It may occur as many seemingly unpleasant “disease” symptoms as an expression of attempted or ongoing healing. It also happens in more potentially pleasant situations such
There are many different ways in which herbs qualify as stimulants. Some stimulate a specific function or organ system, including those herbs that stimulate the nervous system and/or metabolism to some degree, like Sassafras, Coffee or Chocolate. Bitters, eg., Oregon Grape Root, Goldenseal or Gentian are also an example of herbs that increase the function of a particular organ system, as they cause the flow of gastric juices. Many warming, spicy herbs fall under this heading, including the archetypal warming circulatory stimulants of early American medicine, such as Cayenne, Juniper and Garlic.
Relax is usually defined as “to make or become less tense or tight”, in part from the Latin lax, literally “to make loose”. In vitalist herbalism this means to lessen tension that causes obstruction or constriction of the vital force in the body. In other words, it is to loosen the tissues or organ in a way that allows the vital force to flow more freely.
In pop culture the term Relaxant is often immediately taken to mean “sedatives” or some substance that calms the nervous system and makes a person feel sleepy, stoned or mellow. This can indeed be the case, because excess tension in the body certainly has the capability to make one feel overwrought or wound too tightly, and the proper relaxant herb can remedy that very efficiently.
Paul Bergner rightly points out that those herbs considered to be primarily relaxant are almost invariably cooling in energy, such as Burdock, Pleurisy Root and Elder flowers. Many overt relaxants, especially strongly aromatic herbs, are by nature antispasmodic in action, since spasms are nearly always caused by some kind of tension or constriction. A few examples of this are Black or Western Cohosh, Wild Cherry and Valerian.
The majority of relaxants are also stimulating (do remember what I said about spectrums and continuums above and don’t start twitching just yet). This is often because when excess tension in the body is relaxed, it allows an increase in the amount of vital force that is able to flow through organ or tissue and restore needed vitality.
So, if you have a rubber band wrapped around your wrist, and it cuts off the circulation to your hand, your blood flow and vital force is constricted by the obstruction (the rubber band), eventually resulting in a cold, numb, seemingly lifeless limb. When you take the rubber band off, and thus relax the constriction placed on the wrist, you will then experience an increase in blood flow and general stimulation of the vital force to the hand. This increase is often painful and certainly noticeable, and provides a very visceral, if not necessarily recommended, experience of relaxation resulting in stimulation.
As a side note, all nerve tonics, those nervines that work to rebuild the strength and resiliency of the nervous system, are both relaxing and stimulating. They generally work by relaxing any constriction or tension in the nervous system while directly the vital force to that area to provide the nervous system with the energy and nourishment necessary to healing and healthy function. When selected specifically for the individual, this tends to result in a feeling of calm well-being and increased energy/stamina. Milky Oats, Vervain and Skullcap all belong in this class.
So you see, Relaxation and Stimulation do NOT act as opposites in energetic herbalism. They are complimentary and often overlapping tendencies. For example, go find someone you really like, a lot. Now kiss them, intensely and for a long time. Now come back. So probably, you feel relaxed and kinda gooey inside with a general disinclination to think, type or form complete sentences. If not, go back and try again. You also likely feel a bit tingly, very IN your body with somewhat heightened senses and a feeling of energetic movement/buzziness. Your body has been relaxed and stimulated simultaneously, both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems engaged and ready to go, a state generally very conducive to positive romantic encounters.
If you don’t have anyone to kiss at the moment, try this alternate experience from jim mcdonald: “Hold your hands with your fingers like claws, put them on your head, and scratch vigorously. Ahhh… definitely stimulating, but also relaxing because it relieves any underlying tension that may have been inhibiting good circulation to your noggin.”
Keep doing it until you get it. Try noticing what foods, activities, interactions, herbs, music and other types of experiences cause you to feel more relaxed or more stimulated and some of both. Notice how that feels to you, whether it’s pleasurable or disturbing or simply curious. If you have a hard time figuring out what you’re feeling, just keep at it, without pressuring yourself to put words to it. Enhancing and refining sensory awareness is a fundamental practice for any good healer, but its importance multiplies exponentially for those working towards an energetic approach.
Resources & References:
Jim McDonald’s excellent and evolving exploration of herbal actions and energetics
Paul Bergners Notes on Actions and Energetics
The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by Matthew Wood
The Earthwise Herbal by Matthew Wood
Medical Herbalism by David Hoffmann
The term diffusive has been coming up more and more in recent herbal conversations. Although a generally archaic term, it has become somewhat common with the revival of physio-medical thought in modern herbalists. What most people don’t know is that diffusive is only one part of a symbiotic set. The other, the word permanent, I don’t hear nearly as much but is an important element in understanding the former term.
To diffuse is to spread something widely. In herbalism, it generally refers to any agent that has a powerful, rapid, and sometimes transient effect on the body through the nervous system. This impression can often first be felt upon the tongue as a tingly sensation, as with Echinacea, Wild Ginger, Bayberry or Prickly Ash.
Permanent refers to those plants which act on the body in a slower, less jolting and more persistent manner. This especially applies to many nourishing herbs such as Milky Oats but can also be felt in many, many other plants.
It is important to realize that a plant can have both a diffusive and permanent action on the body, in varying proportions and degrees. Cayenne is a common example of this, being first felt through its rapid effect on the nervous system which fades, but then persists in a more permanent, slow way on the whole body. William Cook puts it this way:
“These terms are, of course, merely relative; for some agents which are absorbed (as capsicum) may first make a diffusive impression through the nerves, and follow this by an influence of a slower and more persistent kind through the entire frame. But, while this nomenclature is not absolute, it is sufficiently explicit to warrant its general use — employing the terms only as referring to time, and not to extent.”
So how is this useful to the novice or practicing herbalist? Well, understanding both the differences and overlaps of these terms will allow us to better understand the action of the plant in the human body, and to thus better see what is required. In some cases, diffusives can help to potentiate the effects of more permanent herbs, to speed and strengthen their effects. For instance, TJ Lyle states in Physio-Medical Therapeutics that:
“Hepatics, cathartics, stimulants and nervines will usually be more effective if combined with some diffusive, and a less dose will be required.”
Basically a diffusive can help nudge the other plants into acting quicker, stronger and in a smaller dose. They work through the sensitive nervous system to effect the whole body. On the other hand, very diffusive herbs can be rendered safer, more nourishing and longer lasting through being combined with a permanent plant. Because of this, diffusive herbs are often added in small amounts to nearly every formula and are sometimes considered harmonizers as well as potentizers. Ginger is a perfect example of this, serving to spread the effect of the overall medicine more promptly through the body, and increase the immediate as well as long term effects. This is why I often combine Peach and Ginger, especially for use in digestive or nervine matters, for Ginger speeds the spread of the calming influence while the Peach soaks in and saturates the whole overactive system with its sweet yet firm touch. In the same way, the lymphatic effects of Burdock will be felt more quickly if a small percentage of say, Echinacea or Ginger, is added to it. This is why we can still see small sprinkles of Cayenne added to many older formulas, not so much because the practitioners were obsessed with hot peppers, but because it was an easily available and highly effective way of increasing the potency of the medicine.
In the simplest sense, alteratives are those herbs that restore function to the body by way of the metabolism, through increasing both eliminative functions and also through increasing the absorption of nutrients. While they effect the entire metabolism, they can be said to especially effect the kidneys, liver, lungs, skin, bowels and lymphatic system. Alteratives are the well known "blood cleansing" herbs of yesteryear, so often depended upon to restore well being after a long winter of potatoes, salted meat and little fresh green food.
I have heard some people say that we no longer need these herbs since we have access to fresh food year round and are no longer effected by so many seasonal restrictions. Yet, it seems to me that perhaps the case is that many of us actually need alteratives year round rather than just in the spring due to the incredible lack of nutritious food, fresh air and movement we are exposed to. Some schools of thought also strictly relegate these herbs to very specific symptom pictures, but I tend to see them as the supreme generalists, capable of optimizing the healing process in almost anyone.
Alteratives are best used as a long term approach, as their action tends to be slow, steady and thorough. These plants may be our best class of medicines for chronic disease, especially those due to damage done by long term inflammation caused by food allergies, nutritional deficiencies and environmental toxins.
Nearly any sort of metabolic sluggishness or impairment usually indicates the need for alteratives, but certain symptoms are specific signals for persistent use of these wonderful plants. These symptoms are a part of a pattern that was once called "bad blood" and include chronic infections, swollen glands and generally depressed immune function. "Bad skin" is another indication for alteratives, as is chronic fatigue, any form of cancer and emotional disorders stemming from impaired digestion and metabolism.
You could say that alteratives are a suitable part of treatment for nearly any disorder, and even as maintenance for optimal health. And in fact, many herbalists base the great majority of their formulae on an alterative. Favorites include Stinging Nettle, Dandelion, Red Clover, Elder and Burdock. All of which most of us will recognize as popular herbs to be taken on a daily basis, and considered both nourishing and gentle.
Two cautions should be observed in the use of this class of herbs. One, is that if the life force of the individual is severely compromised, then care must be taken not to overload the system with the sudden circulation of waste products. Even during a long term infection or lymphatic stagnation in a normally healthy person, the use of strong alteratives can lead to a temporary sense of unwellness or systemic "toxicity". Secondly, alteratives as a whole tend to be drying and for those individuals who are already dry in constitution should be careful to include a moistening herb to the mix, even a pinch of Mallow or Elm to a Nettle infusion can make a big difference. Or the individual should be careful to select one of the less drying herbs like Red Clover or even Burdock
Expect to use an alterative for a minimum of a month and sometimes many months before seeing significant changes in most cases. This doesn't mean they're not working, it's simply their nature to take a long term approach.
For further understanding, I'm including a small list of other common alteratives. These herbs may also have other primary functions but all serve to restore bodily wholeness through the metabolism in some way.
Oregon Grape Root
and many, many more.…
Now let's deal with an often misunderstood herbal action: astringency. In the most physical sense, astringents are those substances that tighten tissues on contact, resulting in that puckery mouth feeling so familiar to anyone who's ever bitten into a green apple, tasted too strong black tea or chewed on a green banana peel. There's a tendency to label astringents as herbs that dry the tissues out, but this is an oversimplification. In reality, astringents contract tissue and thus tonify. This can serve to lessen inflammation or irritation, strengthen weakened tissue and therefor provide a stronger barrier against infection, and can provide symptomatic relief from issues resulting from excessive discharge of fluids such as diarrhea, bleeding, vaginal discharge, chronically heavy menstrual periods, profuse sweating or even excessive urination.
And so, astringents help hold fluids within the body, which can be very desirable when they are escaping inappropriately. They also firm the tissue, which is wonderful when the integrity of the skin has been broken and needs to be retightened in order to prevent infection, inflammation and an over abundance of bleeding. They can also be useful in cases of prolapsed organs or in other situations where the tone of the tissue has been compromised and has become weak and/or lax.
Many of our favorite first-aid herbs are astringent, and notable examples include Yarrow, Geranium, Plantain, Raspberry, Mullein, Comfrey, Sage, Elm and Goldenrod. The most useful astringents often have accompanying demulcent properties as in Comfrey, Elm, Violet, Plantain and Mullein. This allows them to effectively soothe the area of injury while also contracting the tissue and clearing inflammation and stopping fluid discharge. This also works very nicely for abraded surfaces within the GI tract, and Plantain is (or should be) highly regarded for its profound effect upon inflammation, pain and dysfunction of the gut. And for those who are chronically dry in nature and exhibit signs such as very dry skin and a withered tongue concurrent with excessive fluid discharge through sweating and urination, then astringents can help to actually hold the moisture in the body rather than drying it out more. And herbs that are both demulcent and astringent can provide the moisture while containing it, which is very useful indeed.
The downside of astringency is that overindulgence in very astringent substances can have several unpleasant side effects, such as decreased digestive function including constipation, and water retention in some cases. Of course, many astringents are also diuretics and alteratives, and so help to self-buffer any negative effects. Side effects are very unlikely to happen with normal use of mild herbs such as Raspberry, and is counterbalanced by the mucilage in gently astringent herbs such as Plantain and Elm. Avoid astringent herbs in cases where there is already a lack of elimination through the waste channels of the body. That is, if you already don't pee enough, are constipated and/or can't seem to sweat then don't chug the Oak bark decoction.
Demulcents are herbs that contain noticeable amounts of a carbohydrate (a polysaccharide, actually) called mucilage that moistens, cools heat, lessens inflammation and often stimulates local immune response. It was once thought that demulcents could only effect the surfaces they came in contact with, but it is now known that, through whatever mechanism, they are able to systemically moisten the whole body, some people call this the indirect demulcent effect. This means they can provide much needed moisture to places like the lungs where the physical matter of the herb will not touch during ingestion or digestion.
Demulcents are one of the easiest herbal actions to recognize. In fact, you can perceive their actions with just your fingers even by crushing the herb and moistening it. If it becomes gooey and slippery and forms a slimy rope when you pull the pieces of plant matter apart, you have yourself a demulcent. Some herbs are only slightly moistening and it may be harder to detect the mucilage with your fingers (though you should still feel a distinct slipperiness) and it may be easier to make a small amount of tea and feel it on your tongue. This gooeyness is very healing to abraded, inflamed tissue and tremendously valuable wherever there is excess dryness and heat, even (or especially) in constitutional imbalance.
Used externally, these herbs are usually called emollients. I don’t see any sense in confusing people with more terminology than is necessary so I stick to just demulcents in the my writing. The indications are simple and straightforward in most cases, we’re looking for dryness, inflammation and often (but not always) symptoms of excess heat, sometimes accompanied by irritation that won’t heal (usually from lack of adequate fluids). When there’s dryness with obvious heat, Mallow is a great choice. When there’s dryness with some coldness or systemic weakness, Elm is often better for it is more neutral in temperature. If you need something that’s both astringent and moistening, Plantain and Evening Primrose are both exceptionally healing with a very useful balance of astringent and mucilaginous qualities. Most demulcents tend to have marked action on the kidney and urinary tract, with some such as Mallow, being active diuretics. They are very soothing to inflamed or irritated tissues, and can be very useful in the treatment of UTIs, interstitial cystitis, scalding urine and other similar issues as long as the root issue causing the inflammation or infection is dealt with as well.
The polysaccharides tend to precipitate out in alcohol, creating a strange ropey mess in the tincture that renders the mucilage unusable. However, a very low percentage alcohol, just enough to preserve the tincture (say, 20%, 1:5 with dried plant matter), can work ok, it doesn't have all of the mucilage to be sure (that starts to precipitate out at about 5% or 10%) but it's still slippery. However, you may not properly extract other useful constituents from the herb such as volatile oils or alkaloids with such a low percentage of alcohol. For this reason, I rarely tincture highly mucilaginous herbs, although I make an exception for Mallow, because the tincture is a quick and very useful treatment for many cases of sore throat, especially when combined with a soothing astringent like Wild Rose. I also make very soothing salves with oil or lard infused with Mallow, Elm or Comfrey. I tend to use water based preparations to work with demulcents and often find them to be the most effective. Fresh plant poultices are also very doable, and a chewed up strip of fresh Elm bark is a wonderful remedy for a great many afflictions, from sore throat to abraded skin. Another excellent way to work with demulcents is in honey, either as an infused honey or even better, with whole freshly dried plant ground up very finely and combined with honey. This is a great to ingest the whole plant in a well preserved, good tasting vehicle. It does vary from plant to plant and situation to situation which form of preparation is most ideal.
Keep in mind that these are plants for dryness, and they will be less helpful (possibly even counterproductive) in cases where there is excess moisture, boggy tissues and copious chronic mucus. Also, cooling demulcents tend to have a very cooling effect on the constitution so be sure to use a neutral to warming demulcent where there is feelings of coldness, pale purulent wounds that refuse to heal or other symptom of coldness.
Cool to Cold Demulcents
Licorice (The Chinese spp is more warming and the American spp more cooling)
Notably Astringent Demulcents
Bitters are some of our most effective and widely applicable medicines. They are also easy to come buy and simple to integrate into our lives. The longstanding popularity of proprietary bitter formulas bespeaks the usefulness of such preparations.
Very simply, a bitter is an herb with a predominantly bitter taste, and the activation of that taste in the mouth stimulates the secretion of digestive juices throughout the body. By necessity then, bitters must be tasted in order work their magic.
Bitters stimulate the activity of the digestive organs, triggering or increasing the flow of acids and juices, releasing enzymes and generally improving both appetite and digestion. Many bitters are especially efficient at increasing the metabolism of fats and proteins. However, bitters do not just stimulate digestion, they also tighten/tone the mucosa.
It is overwhelmingly common in our culture to suffer from insufficient amounts of digestive fluids (including acids, biles and enzymes) resulting in nutrient malapsorbtion, chronic digestive infections and syndromes such as heartburn and reflux that many people associate with too much stomach acid. Lowered gastric secretion also significantly contributes to gut inflammation and thus food intolerances and allergies.
Many schools of traditional medicine view the stomach and digestive functions as the center of health and vitality. If the digestive fire is low, then the whole organism will suffer and there will be a cascade effect throughout the body. For the immune system to work properly, our digestive system must be working properly. All parts and functions of the body are connected and interdependent but the digestion, and thus the metabolism, are the core from which all wellness flows.
In Traditional Western Herbalism, bitters are especially associated with the liver. Indeed, the bitter taste can both stimulate and cool the liver (and gallbladder), often significantly improving poor digestion directly related to a sluggish or damp liver by increasing hepatic tone and bile flow. Chronic hepatitis is almost always benefited by the use of appropriate bitters as both herbs and food. And on another level, certain kinds of anger (usually outbursts of reactionary anger) can be cooled by a good dose of bitters.
The pancreas is also directly effected by bitters, and they help regulate the secretion of pancreatic hormones. Additionally, they can be very helpful in the modulation of blood sugar and insulin. In close relationship to the effects on both the liver and pancreas, bitter herbs and foods can often dramatically help the irritability, bloating, moodiness and digestive upset of PMS.
Where there is depression with feelings of sluggishness bitters can help by clearing removing and stagnation in the tissues. Bitters also clear heat (inflammation) and infection from the tissues. Strong bitters such as Oregon Grape Root and Rue have a long reputation for eradicating bacterial infection and general inflammation in the body.
In general, bitters move energy in the body, usually in a downwards motion. It is especially efficient at releasing heat, dampness and phlegm down and out of the organism. Bitters have long been broadly classified as cooling (likely because of their anti-inflammatory action) but in actuality they range all the way cold to hot.Regarding humidity, they tend towards a drying and reducing action, although there are mucilaginous bitters such as Fenugreek. The downward movement can help facilitate a sense of groundedness as long as the drying properties are not excessive for the individual. Where there is constitutional dryness I would recommend either formulating a blend that also nourishes the vital fluids or picking a single bitter herb that also has demulcent properties.
As with all herbs, not all bitters are appropriate for all people, but food-like mild bitters are beneficial to just about everyone. Traditional diets of wild foods usually, if not always, included significant portions of bitter greens, roots and seeds.
Therapeutically and practically, I would suggest that most people use bitters before meals either as salad greens or as an elixir or tincture of some kind. Bitter roots like Calamus or Angelica can also be chewed before and after eating. Many people even find that when they're craving sweets, a hit of bitterness will help them move through that, and fulfill whatever bodily need was causing it.
We Westerners don't usually care much for the taste of bitter foods likely because of the utter dearth of it in modern diets. I used to HATE bitter tastes, I wouldn't even eat Dandelion or Mustard greens, they literally made me gag. I had SUCH a thing for sweets and couldn't abide the bitter. Turns out bitter was just what I needed. I can't even begin to emphasize what an important part of my digestive and emotional recovery it has been and continues to be. You should have seen me trying to get them down in the beginning, I made some awful faces. Now I actually love them, and think salad is really weird without some bitter greens. It really can be a learned taste, especially once the body recognizes that, wow, this is exactly what it's been looking for.
Caution: Some bitters (like Dandelion) are diuretic enough to trigger low blood pressure in sensitive individuals, in which case something like Oregon Grape Root may be more appropriate.
Aromatics are easy to spot. Their strong signature aromas and tastes are dead giveaways. In fact - technically- aromatic is a taste, not an action. The proper action here should likely be labeled carminative (aromatic digestive herbs, generally). However, this action seems to have gotten pigeon-holed as only those herbs which release gas, and that’s a rather limiting definition of a very important class of herbs. I have thus melded a few different actions into one nontypical (at least in modern Western herbalism) category. This is how I tend to view them and how they make sense to me personally. Clinically, I find if very useful to combine the carminative and other aromatic subcategories into this main heading.
The primary action is that of movement with dispersment of heaviness and a general sense of lightening. Their action is due primarily to the volatile oils which give them their aroma. They shift stagnation of nearly every kind, are generally antimicrobial, assist in digestion, stimulate peristalsis and yes indeedy, they help move gas and relieve gas pains. Along with their talent for moving things along, they’re often effectively anti-spasmodic. All together, this makes these herbs excellent aids for energetic, digestive and all around balance.
It’s worth quoting WilliamCook’s writings on anti-spasmodics to give a better understanding of what aromatics do (though he was referring to all anti-spasmodics, not just aromatics):
“In every such case, the muscular irregularity is dependent upon the fact that the nerves will fail to respond to the vital force with freedom and smoothness; and hence the life power reaches the parts in weakened and interrupted waves. This fact covers all spasmodic affections, whether manifested through voluntary or involuntary muscles.”
This goes back to the bit about movement, since the vital force is meeting some kind of interruption or blockage which causes spasms and often pain. Most issues in the body can be traced back to some kind of blockage, mis-direction or squashing of the vital force (or the anima, as it were). What herbs and herbalists do best is to nourish the vital force and to clear, open and strengthen the channels through which it flows in the body (and the rest of the self). That sounds kind of esoteric, but really it’s just a matter of getting ~stuff~ out of the way so that the body can heal itself.
Some antispasmodics can be used as a suppressive measure, sedating the spasm without addressing the underlying cause. And indeed, Peppermint tea may soothe your belly after over-indulgence in a large dose of your favorite problem food (or fake food, as the case may be), it may even significantly lessen the triggered inflammation and pain. However, it does not, and cannot, eradicate the actual sensitivity. No matter how you apply a band-aid, no matter how natural or pleasant smelling or nice it is, it still becomes a band-aid when the real issue is left unresolved. Every time you eat the food (or get really stressed, or deprive yourself of needed sleep, or whatever else your trigger is), your gut is going to flare up, often accompanied by systemic inflammation that will take you down the long, windy road to more and more immune and digestive problems.
On the other hand, when you do address the underlying cause, these aromatic herbs can be ever so helpful in the form of belly healing teas (I emphasize the tea part here, because while tinctures CAN be effective, they don’t coat and saturate the gut the way tea can). Once you’ve removed the root problem, the body will often heal much faster with the help of these soothing, calming herbs. Many of my formulas for IBS and leaky gut related problems are primarily aromatic herbs with a touch of bitter and sweet, with consideration to the individual and their constitution. These tastes are part of the blessing of understanding herbal actions — they give a spoken and sensory vocabulary for what the herbs are all about, and how they will likely interact with our bodies. So while you could memorize a long list of stomach healing herbs, it’s easier and far more adaptable (read: practical) to train yourself to understand the primary qualities of the plant through it’s taste, feel, scent and the other forms of the sensory, tangible language that the green world speaks to us through. In this way, you know the plant in your body, in your head, in your spirit. This knowledge goes far deeper than anything you might memorize or read from a book, it is waking up the wisdom that already lives in your cells. A remembering, you might say, of the integral, innate bond between human and plant.
It has probably already occurred to you that many of our favorites spices are decidedly aromatic, adding warmth and flavor to the food while assisting our gut in the assimilation of nutrition. It’s hard to imagine fine sausage, homemade gingerbread or a rich sauce without the savory bite and tingle of Oregano, Juniper berries, Chives, Garlic, Ginger or the sweeter evocation of Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Vanilla and Cardamom. This is yet another amazing example of how we have adapted/evolved in order to further our survival, well being and even pleasure through our relationship with the plants. There’s so much medicine to be found in the average kitchen, and our species has traded, bought, stole and even fought wars to possess the luxury of enhanced taste these herbs and spices bring us.
In addition to the digestive actions, aromatic herbs are also some of our best nervines and nerve tonics. Some of this is due to their typically relaxing action, but at least as important is that tendency to strongly move stagnation. Much in the way of anxiety, depression, long-term sadness, chronic feelings of grief and other such states are often due, at least in part, to stagnation (physical, spiritual, emotional, you name it). I have found that they can be especially effective for people usually impervious to relaxants of other kinds, especially Tulsi (Holy Basil) and Lavender. Aromatic, diffusive herbs (Ginger, for example) are also excellent at speeding and enhancing the effect of other nervine herbs (such as Peach or Skullcap).
Being antimicrobial, antispasmodic and moving in nature, many of these herbs have a great affinity for the lungs, as well as for moving stuck liver energy, lessening pain and are useful in the treatment of wounds, among many other uses of this class of remedies.
Be aware though, that much in the way of volatile oils must be excreted through the kidneys. This means that large (very large, usually), constantly consumed amounts of many of these herbs could potentially cause kidney irritation. I do think that it would take an enormous amount of Lavender and Basil to cause any problems, but if you have compromised renal function use your common sense, and get to know the individual herbs you are working with.
Examples of Aromatic Herbs
Lemonscent (Pectis angustafolia)
A special sub-category of this is the bitter aromatics, which can cause a dramatic shift in the body and sometimes dramatically stimulate digestion. They are especially appropriate where there is inflammation and heat in the body, with accompanying dampness in the digestive organs, resulting in chronic bloating, possible loose stools and (you guessed it!) flatulence. Sour stomach or chronic belly fermentation (often seemingly from the inability to digest fat/protein but really having to do with carb metabolism) is another indication as is stress or travel-induced constipation.
If there’s primarily coldness and stagnation without heat, then stick with the warming aromatics for the most part. There are, of course warming aromatic bitters as well, like Aster and Fenugreek, and I think of these in the treatment of digestive weakness after or concurrent with chronic illness or some other overwhelming physical debilitation that has resulted in the inability to assimilate and move food through the body.
Mostly though, just pay attention to the energetics of the individual and condition (which are sometimes different) and then match appropriately with the energetics of the herb. It’s a way listening with your whole body.
Examples of Bitter Aromatics
Sage (not necessarily the well known Garden Sage, but many of the native American aromatic spp are also at least somewhat bitter)
Aster (some Asters are just aromatic, some are bitter aromatics)
Goldenrod (again, some spp. are just aromatic, some are bitter aromatics)
A trophorestorative is an herb, food or other substance that acts as a nutritive restorative for the body, usually with a strong affinity for an organ or organ system and corrects deficiency and weakness not simply through temporary stimulation but through the vital nourishment of that organ or organ system.
It is a tonic in the deepest sense of the word, in that it provides substance for the building up of strength and function. It order to be a true trophorestorative it must not bring harm or have undue side effects and be able to be used over a long period of time safely. Also, while many herbs are nutritives, trophorestoratives are unique in that they can restore actual physical function to a debilitated organ or tissue, as is the case with Nettle Seed (kidneys), Avena (nervous system) and Ashwagandha (endocrine system).
Todd Caldecott says:
"The “trophic state” is representative of the vital capacity of a system or tissue in the body. In chronic states of irritation or depression some degree of vital deficiency will manifest in the affected tissue, with a gradual loss of functional capability.… In any case where an organ or tissue can be determined to be suffering from a vital deficiency, trophorestoration should be undertaken as a long-term measure to restore normal function."
While most herbs of this class are very nourishing and restorative by nature, they should not be taken indiscriminately but as with all herbs, with specific indications as there is need. Just because Yerba Mansa is a mucus membrane trophorestorative and your mucus membranes are having issues doesn’t necessarily mean you should be using that herb. However, if your mucus membranes are boggy, there’s copious mucus and you feel generally cold then Yerba Mansa might be a match. If instead you have inflamed sinuses with noticeable irritation and redness and systemic dryness, you’d be better off looking into Spanish Needles (Bidens spp.) instead. Some herbs are a bit more universal, and if there’s impending kidney failure accompanied by exhaustion I’m very likely to choose Nettle seed regardless of other constitutional components. Nevertheless, I’ll usually include the Nettle seed within a larger regimen that includes specifically chosen herbs for that individual’s temperament.
A Few Examples of Herbal Trophorestoratives
Nettle Seed, Urtica spp. (Kidneys/Adrenals)
Milky Oats Avena fatua or sativa (Nervous system, heart, endocrine system)
Skullcap, Scutellaria spp. (Nervous system)
Milk Thistle Silybum marianum (Liver)
Ashwagandha Withania somnifera (Endocrine system)
Yerba Mansa, Anemopsis californica (Mucus membranes)
Goldenseal, Hydrastris canadensis (Mucus Membranes)
Spanish Needles, Bidens spp. (Mucus Membranes)
Hawthorn Crataegus spp. (Heart)
St John’s Wort Hypericum spp. (Nervous system)
In the most general sense, a nervine can be considered any herb which has a pronounced (and generally positive) effect upon the nervous system. They are often currently thought of simply as calmatives or even sedatives, but this is inaccurate and belies the complexity and diversity of the uses nervines are capable of. The truth is that Skullcap, Damiana, Wild Lettuce and Coffee are all nervines, although they may effect the nervous system in vastly different ways. As such, there are a great many secondary actions under the primary heading of nervine, including everything from hypnotic to stimulant to the potentially narcotic. We will only be discussing the more important of these sub-headings in this post in order to focus on the most essential and core elements of the nervine action.
Below are the three most easily understood categories of nervines with appropriate herbs under each heading. The herbs listed are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather a small sampling of those plants with which I have the most clinical and personal experience. The botanical name given is usually the species with which I am most familiar (often native to New Mexico or common to Southwestern gardens) but I try to indicate allied species where I am aware of them. When this piece is ready for my upcoming book (and student curriculum) it will be expanded upon and profiles of each herb in regards to their nervine action will be added.
A relaxant nervine are those herbs that relax constricted or contracted tissues in relation to the nervous system. It does not imply sedation in any way. These herbs may well allow a sense of calmness or even sleepiness through the way they allow vital energy to freely flow through the body in its natural manner, but they are not suppressive in nature. In essence, they enhance the vitality of life rather than diminishing it (as many overt sedatives do).
When vital energy is blocked or constricted in the body, it can created irritation and resistance that may manifest as insomnia, muscle spasms or tics, agitation or manic behavior (although these symptoms can easily be due to other underlying issues as well), or may eventually result in depression or a sense of constant fatigue. By relaxing barriers to the flow of vital energy, the body is more able to maintain emotional and physical equilibrium. This may manifest as increased energy or an easier time relaxing or getting to sleep, or all of the above.
They are appropriate where there is blocked, constricted or contracted tissues.
Milky Oats – Avena fatua and sativa
Vervain – Verbena and Glandularia spp.
Beebalm/Wild Bergemot – Monarda spp.
Skullcap/Blisswort – Scutellaria spp.
Lavender – Lavendula spp.
Rose – Rosa spp
Peach - Prunus persica
Chokecherry – Prunus virginiana and allied spp.
California Poppy – Eschscholzia californica and allied spp.
Desert Anemona/Pulsatilla – Anemone tuberosa and allied Pulsatilla spp.
Western Mugwort/Moonwort – Artemisia spp.
Damiana – Turnera difusa and allied spp.
Elderflower – Sambucus nigra and allied spp.
Peppermint – Mentha x piperita
Monkeyflower – Mimulus spp.
Violet – Viola canadensis and allied spp.
Sage – Salvia spp.
Bleeding Heart/Golden Smoke – Dicentra formosa, Corydalis aurea and allied spp).
A stimulant nervine is that which stimulates lax or stagnant tissues in relation to the nervous system. It does not necessarily imply overt nervous system stimulation as in the case of methamphetamines or even coffee, but may simply refer to a gentle herb such as Peppermint and their ability to stimulate the vital energy into depressed tissues.
They are appropriate where there is atonic, overly relaxed tissues.
It should be noted that some nervines are both stimulant and relaxant at once. Stimulant and relaxant should not be thought of opposite ends in a bisected polarity, but rather complementary and often overlapping actions within the whole. Michigan herbalist Jim McDonald says to think of it as “stimulating activity while relaxing resistance to that activity” and I find that a very useful (and accurate) way of looking at it.
Milky Oats – Avena fatua and sativa
Western Mugwort/Moonwort – Artemisia spp.
Rosemary – Rosmarinus officinalis
Peppermint – Mentha x piperita
Sage – Salvia spp.
Damiana – Turnera difusa and allied spp.
Coffee – Coffea arabica and allied spp.
Yerba Maté – Ilex paraguariensis and allied spp.
We’ve previously discussed the general meaning of Trophorestorative in this series, but here it specifically refers to those herbs which act as nutritive restoratives for the nervous system. They feed the nerves and help to restore functionality and resiliency often in addition to their stimulating and/or relaxing properties. This is an extremely important class of herbs, given how burnt out, brittle and emotionally fragile the citizens of the modern industrial world tend to be. When there is great tension and stress, there can be a tendency to simply want to relax and calm (which in itself can be very healing) or to stimulate the body back up to functioning speed, but signs of nervous system fatigue and malnourishment should be carefully watched for and treated with specifically nutritive herbs. Applicable minerals and vitamins should not be overlooked either, as nutrition plays a primary part in emotional health and the ability to appropriately deal with with stress.
Again, it is possible (and common) to have overlap between this category and the others. This is not a contradiction, but rather a wonderful illustration of how dynamic herbal medicines can be.
Skullcap/Blisswort – Scutellaria spp.
Milky Oats – Avena fatua and sativa
Vervain – Verbena and Glandularia spp
Sage – Salvia spp.
Damiana – Turnera difusa and allied spp
Rose – Rosa spp.
More about the general nature of the terms Relaxant and Stimulant as applied to herbal medicine and energetics is forthcoming (hopefully soon). I will also be talking about tissue states in the near future, since they are very much connected to understanding herbal actions and energetics in the Traditional Western Herbalism.
Medical Herbalism by David Hoffmann
Personal Correspondence with Jim McDonald
Combining Western Herbs and Chinese Medicine by Jeremy Ross
This is still a fairly controversial term among the herbal community, especially with the more grass-roots practitioners. Not all of us feel that it is useful as an action or category because it artificially lumps together herbs from several other classes in what is essentially a scientifically created box. I don’t personally categorize herbs this way, preferring many of the traditional, vitalist or organ system specific actions/terms to this more modern one. Nevertheless, the word has become fairly mainstream at this point and its meaning needs to be understood by any herbalist (or for that matter, any person that reads herb books and blogs). Below is the definition by the term’s creators, my distilled definition and the definitions of several notable practicing herbalists. There is also some notes for use and context provided, along with the standard short list of familiar plants that are currently grouped under this heading.
The term was first coined in 1947 by a Russian scientist named Dr. Nikolai Lazarev but the formal definition was not created until 1968 by Isreal Brekham, PhD and Dr. I. V. Darymov. The formal definitely includes the following criteria:
1. An adaptogen is nontoxic to the recipient.
2. An adaptogen produces a nonspecific response in the body—an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical, or biological agents.
3. An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor.
In summary, an adaptogen is a substance that increases the body’s non-specific resistance and adaptibility to stress while having a balancing effect on the overall physiology without being significantly toxic even with long term use.
David Hoffmann points out in his excellent Herbal Handbook that:
“….an adaptogen enables [the body] to avoid reaching a point of collapse or over-stress because it can adapt ‘around’ the problem.… The core of their action appears to be in helping the body deal with stress… Adaptogens seem to increase the threshold of resistance to damage via the support of adrenal gland and possibly pituitary gland function. By stretching the meaning of the word it can come to mean what in the past was called a tonic. This is especially when an herb can have a normalizing effect; that is, contradictory actions depending on the body’s needs. This restorative quality is a common and unique feature of herbal medicines.…”
The primary point of an adaptogen is to actively promote homeostasis. They are able to modulate body systems regardless of which direction (hypo or hyper) the system is currently swinging (high or low blood pressure, tachycardia or bradycardia etc.).
Thus, most adaptogens are immunomodulators but not all immunomodulators are adaptogens. In the same way, all (as far as I know) adaptogens are antioxidants but not all antioxidants are adaptogens. In order to be an adaptogen it must fulfill all of criteria listed above. They may effect various organ systems in myriad ways but their overall effect is non-specific to any particular organ. They are the great generalizers and have the amazing ability to address many symptoms and seemingly disparate disorders through their gentle normalizing action.
In their popular book entitled Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief, David Winston and Steven Maimes define adaptogens as:
“…herbs [that] help the human body adapt ot stress, support normal metabolic processes, and restore balance. They increase the body’s resistance to physical, biological, emotional and environmental stressors and promote normal physiologic function”
Now, according to the above definition I could imagine many herbs primarily considered alteratives to also fall into this category, although the botanicals listed in the book are fairly typical of what we think of as adaptogens at the current time.
A common definition of adaptogen by modern herbalists also says that its effect must be primarily upon the HPA axis (Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal) and thus acting through the endocrine (and immune) system(s). Not everyone accepts this part of the definition and you may sometimes see many nourishing or “tonic” type herbs referred to as an adaptogen. Great Lakes herbalist Jim McDonald puts it this way:
“Adaptogenic herbs increase the ability of the body to cope with and respond to stress. They tend to act on the adrenals and the endocrine & immune systems. This is the class of herbs people think of when they hear the word “tonic”… There is much academic debate about what can and should not be called an adaptogen. For my part, if an herb relaxes tension, increases one’s resilience to the stress they are exposed to, and, if taken over time, helps replenish their vital energy, then the herb is acting as an adaptogen, whether or not we can pinpoint and verify that its actions are manifested via the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis.”
I agree with Jim’s assessment but I feel that at this point, the term becomes so vague as to be less than useful. Also, (as always) the herbs effect different people in different way. Most people perceive American Ginseng to be energizing yet relaxing at the same time, but some people (especially those with extensive nervous system trauma) may find that it simply gives them the jitters. Many (but not all) adaptogens are warming and can easily trigger hot flashes in those with either deficiency or excess heat. Care should be taken to match the herb to the person in each case. Given at medicinal doses, there’s really no such thing as a universal remedy. In most cases, adaptogens are best suited to those with some level of deficiency because most of these botanicals are, by their very nature, supplementing. To supplement someone with an already excess condition is to aggravate the existing issues and potentially cause more.
One of the greatest problems in the modern use of so-called adaptogens is how they are promoted to help us push beyond normal stress capacity. So rather than working with the plants as helpers and healers, they are used as a kind of drug to keep us going when our body is telling us to slow down and recuperate. In this way, they become yet another coping mechanism and a way to speed us towards inevitable burnout. This is a suppressive method and one I don’t recommend, especially in the long term.
A safer and more advisable approach is working with these plants to help build up strength after a long illness, during recovery from a chronic disease or as a long term measure to supplement and nourish an individual who is very sensitive to stress and environmental factors. This is also a more traditional way of working with these herbs in most cases. Adaptogens are NOT a replacement for sleep, adequate nourishment or a much needed change in environment or ways of being. They are not a “natural” version of steroids, viagra or nodoze. They are complex, dynamic living beings that can have a profound healing effect upon our bodies, emotions and minds if we ally with them. The more we remember they are our partners and not drugs or minions the more successful our relationship with them will be.
Because of how broad this category is, it’s very difficult to lay out criteria for when they should or should not be used beyond my above general recommendations. I advise you to research each herb as an individual rather than just under the heading of ~adaptogen~ in order to gain further clarity and insight into these plants. Many of these plants will also be discussed under other (more specific) terms in the Terms of the Trade series.
A Few of my Favorite Adaptogens:
Withania somnifera - Ashwagandha
Ocimum sanctum - Holy Basil/Tulsi
Ganoderma lucidum - Reishi
Glycyrrhiza spp. - Licorice
Panax quinquefolius - American Ginseng
Eleutherococcus senticosus - Eleuthero, formerly known as Siberian Ginseng
Schizandra chinensis - Schizandra
Urtica dioica and related spp - Nettle Seeds
Centella asiatica - Gotu Kola