Medicinal herbs are categorized by their herbal actions. Like the key or legend to a map, knowing what these herbal actions mean can help us navigate the world of personal health and herbal medicine. Here are the top 18 herbal actions, what they mean, and how to use them:
Adaptogens or herbs with adaptogenic properties do just what they sound like – they adapt. Or, more specifically, they support your body in adapting to its environment or circumstances. The term was originally established in 1947 to give a name to a non-specific action performed on the body. In this use, adaptogens support and strengthen the body against stress – stress being another that threatens to disrupt the homeostasis of a body or system.
Some common adaptogens:
- holy basil (tulsi)
- Panax ginseng
- Rhodiola rosea
- Gotu kola
Alteratives help restore proper organ function by assisting the body to eliminate waste. In this way, they help restore health and vitality to the body, or a specific group of organs. All cells consume nutrients to function and eliminate waste. Such natural waste is things such as proteinaceous waste, cellular debris, hormones and other byproducts of our cells’, or organs’ metabolic processes. When this waste is not efficiently removed by the cells, organ or body at large, we get such symptoms as swelling, swollen lymph nodes, constipation, skin conditions, low-grade fever, chronic infections, chronic fatigue, and low energy levels.
Some common alterative herbs are:
- stinging nettles
- yellow dock
- blue flag
- red clover
Analgesic herbs function as pain killers, without the added doping effect of some narcotics. Some analgesic herbs work better on specific areas of the body (ie. the skin, or joints) and can provide pain relief by their anti-inflammatory actions.
Common analgesic herbs:
- black cohosh
- st. john’s wort
- Willow bark (which has the same active ingredient as aspirin)
Anticatrrhal herbs help thin and reduce mucus as well as prevent its formation and the inflammation that sometimes accompanies it. They’re usually used to treat common colds and upper, as well as lower, respiratory illness, but they can also be used to treat infections of the adenoids, middle ear, sinuses or tonsils.
Common anticatarrhal herbs:
- American echinacea
- wild cherry
Antimicrobial herbs perform their action by interfering with the growth and reproduction of microbes in the body. Bad microbes can include bacteria, fungi, or protozoans.
Common antimicrobial herbs:
- clove oil
- garlic – for more info on how to use garlic medicinally, check out my post 13 Medicinal Uses of Garlic
- neem oil
- peppermint oil
- eucalyptus oil
- lavender oil
Oxidants are free radicals that our body naturally produces to help fight off viruses and other toxins. They also exist in our environment in the form of air pollution, smoke, alcohol, processed foods, etc. Oxidant overload can lead to accelerated aging, weakened immunity, fatigue and cellular degradation. Antioxidants, on the other hand, helps our body fight oxidants and the damage they can cause.
Common antioxidant herbs are:
Astringent herbs dry and constrict tissues, helping them to draw things out. If you’ve ever had a strong red wine, you’ll have noticed how dry and puckered your tongue becomes. This is due to the tannins within the wine. Astringent herbs treat a wide variety of issues, including reducing inflammation, toning skin and membranes, edema, and diarrhea.
Common astringent herbs:
- white oak
- green and black tea
- witch hazel
Bittering herbs are just how they sound – bitter. The bitterness of them results in increased saliva production, increased digestive fluids and increased appetite. Bitters were often taken after eating a large meal to support the body in digestion. Bitters will also be used to treat occasional constipation, gas-related cramping, sluggish digestion, and to increase appetite.
Common bitter herbs:
- yellow dock
- orange peel
Carminative herbs are often aromatic, and help reduce and expel gas from the digestive system. Used mainly to treat bloating and gas related cramping.
Common carminative herbs:
Demulcent herbs are rich in mucilage, which can soothe and protect irritated or inflamed tissues. Mucilage is a gummy, slimy substance that cools and soothes dry, red, inflamed tissues. Because of this general action, they can be used to treat a number of conditions: soothing inflammation in the esophagus in the case of reflux, soothing irritation in respiratory and urinary tracts, soothing stomach and intestinal lining, reducing inflammation in the GI tract, drawing, and healing of external wounds, and more.
Common demulcent herbs:
- marshmallow root
- slippery elm bark
- fenugreek seed
- Irish moss
- flax seed
- chia seed
Diaphoretic herbs create or promote sweating. Think of the flush and sweating you get after eating peppers. This benefits the body in a few ways: sweating helps the skin expel waste or toxins, increases circulation by dilating blood vessels, and can improve kidney function. They can also increase sweating during a fever, which will help the body expel whatever it is fighting and help naturally cool the skin.
Common diaphoretic herbs:
Diuretic herbs increase urination, which is the body’s way of eliminating excess fluid. They can also stimulate the kidneys to excrete more sodium into the urine. Diuretics are used when the body is retaining too much fluid. This can be a symptom of a number of diseases: high blood pressure, cirrhosis, kidney dysfunction, kidney stones, swelling in the legs, PCOS, pre-menstrual bloating and diabetes.
Common diuretic herbs:
- green and black tea
Emmenagogues are herbs that promote menstrual flow. The effect of the herb can range from mild to strong and can cause abortions if the user is pregnant. Not all emmenagogues will cause abortion, but they should all be used with extreme caution if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. Menstrual cycles can be delayed for a number of reasons: stress, poor diet, anxiety, travel, hormonal disturbances, or as a side effect of medication.
Common emmenagogue herbs:
- black cohosh
Expectorant herbs help the body loosen and expel mucus. They help to thin the mucus and detach it from your lungs so you can cough it up. I’ve always followed the advice that if a cough is productive, don’t suppress it. That is if you’re able to cough mucus up, take expectorant herbs to help your body cough it up. If your cough is dry, you can take suppressing herbs.
There are two types of expectorants: stimulating and soothing. Stimulating expectorants are used in cases of excessive mucus production. Soothing expectorants are used in cases where a cough is irritating, or unproductive. They work by soothing bronchial spasms and loosen the mucus secretion.
Common expectorant herbs:
Hepatic herbs are ones that work, in some way, to aid the liver. They tone, strengthen, and assist the flow of bile. While this may seem rather vague, hepatic herbs work in a number of different ways, but a healthy liver is fundamental to a body’s homeostasis.
Common hepatic herbs:
- dandelion root
- milk thistle
Nervine herbs are those that support the nervous system. Just as with hepatic herbs, this is pretty general. Some nervines work as tonics (see below), some are calming, some are relaxants or sedatives. In this way, they are great to use for anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, and stress reduction.
Common nervine herbs:
- lemon balm
Stimulant herbs boost the body’s energy. These herbs tend to lift your mood, quicken your metabolism, and may increase circulation which delivers more oxygen to your cells, energizing them.
Common herbal stimulants:
Herbal tonics restore and invigorate cells and organs by toning them. Again, this is a very generic action. Tonic herbs provide “adaptive energy”, have anti-aging properties, and balance physical, emotional, and psychic energy. In old times in the Appalachia, people would come out on their cabins in the Spring and eat specific spring greens as tonics. They would revitalize a body and the digestive system after months of bland food and be inside. These spring tonics would prep the body for the long summer’s work ahead.
Common herbal tonics:
Once you’ve chosen the herbal action you want to capture, and the herb you’ll use, check out my post on How to Make an Herbal Tincture.
Now that you have a solid understanding of herbal actions, you’ll be able to navigate your way through herbal literature or know exactly what to search for when you’re looking to treat a specific illness.