It seems that practitioners of health-related disciplines insulate themselves with jargon that “laypersons” just can’t fathom. This probably dates back to the days when we entrusted our physical and mental health – if not our very lives – to alchemists, shamans and magicians, who camouflaged their craft in unintelligible language in order to secure their positions in their clans, tribes or villages.
Well, herbalists are no different. Try discussing the virtues of your favorite herbal tea with your local herb purveyor, and you’ll probably hear terms like “carminative” and “demulcent.” Unless you’re up on your herbal vocabulary, you’ll walk away wondering what that was all about.
Here, then, is a brief primer on those unfamiliar terms that tumble freely from the tongues of herbalists but seem to stick in the ears of the uninitiated. Keep in mind that these terms aren’t really intended to obfuscate; rather, they’re a convenient and consistent way to describe specific characteristics that have made herbs so valuable to humans through the ages. It’s also important to remember that most herbs possess multiple characteristics, making them useful for more than one condition – in contrast to prescription medications, which are typically designed to target a specific physiologic process.
Analgesics: Any substance that reduces pain, either by relieving muscle spasms, reducing inflammation or directly affecting the nerves that carry pain impulses. Examples include cramp bark, dong quai, lobelia, chamomile, poppy and kava kava.
Antacids: Herbs that neutralize stomach acid or counteract the effects of excess acid in the gastrointestinal tract. Fennel, dandelion, slippery elm, Irish moss, kelp and licorice are all natural antacids.
Anti-abortives: Women who have a history of spontaneous abortions often seek the help of an herbalist in the hope that herbs will prevent miscarriage and allow them to carry their pregnancies to term. Herbs that are attributed with anti-abortive properties include red raspberry, cramp bark, lobelia and false unicorn root. Supposedly, these agents won’t prevent “inevitable” miscarriages, such as those due to genetic anomalies.
Anti-asthmatics: Herbs that have traditionally shown benefit for treating asthma. Some, such as lobelia, purportedly prevent bronchospasm and dilate the airways. Others reduce airway inflammation and break up mucous plugs. Some anti-asthmatic herbs are smoked to get their active ingredients into the lungs quickly. (This practice should be approached with extreme caution, as introducing any combustible material into the lungs of an asthmatic could do more harm than good.) Lobelia, yerba santa, coltsfoot, pleurisy root, mullein, wild yam, comfrey, elecampane and wild cherry bark are examples of anti-asthmatics.
Antibiotics: A plethora of herbs are known to inhibit the growth and replication of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms. Since plants are stationary and cannot avoid exposure to infectious agents, they have developed defense mechanisms – often essential oils – that ward off pathogens. Garlic, thyme, juniper berries, buchu, cedar, chaparral, echinacea, goldenseal, myrrh, eucalyptus and grapefruit seed extract are representative examples of herbal antibiotics.
Anti-catarrhals: Catarrh is a medical term for excess mucous (phlegm). Many viral illnesses are associated with “catarrhal phases,” during which mucous production is the prominent (and sometimes overwhelming) symptom. Black pepper, cayenne, ginger, sage, cinnamon, gotu kola, mullein, comfrey, yerba santa and wild cherry bark possess anti-catarrhal properties.
Antipyretics: “Pyresis” (meaning “fire”) refers to the fever that accompanies most infectious processes (colds, bacterial infections, etc.) and many inflammatory disorders (e.g., lupus or rheumatoid arthritis). Herbs that prevent or reduce fevers or that are generally cooling in character include alfalfa, boneset, basil, skullcap, gotu kola, chickweed and seaweed. Willow, which is rich in salicylic acid, was the original source for one of our most effective antipyretics, aspirin.
Antiseptics: Much like antibiotics, antiseptics prevent the replication of bacteria, fungi and viruses. The term “antiseptic” is usually applied to an agent that is applied externally to prevent bacterial growth. While many antiseptic herbs can be taken internally, some should only be used on the skin. Goldenseal, chaparral, calendula, and a variety of essential oils (thyme, garlic, pine, juniper, sage, etc.) make good antiseptics.
Antispasmodics: Herbs that reduce or prevent muscle spasms, whether they’re in skeletal muscle or in the smooth muscles of the body (GI tract, airways, urogenital tract, etc.). Antispasmodics are included in many herbal formulas, as they allow afflicted individuals to relax and direct their energies toward healing. Dong quai, black cohosh, blue cohosh, chamomile, valerian, skullcap, kava kava and thyme possess antispasmodic properties.
Aphrodisiacs: Like the fabled unicorn, most herbs that reputedly improve sexual potency and boost libido are the product of fancy, rather than fact. Nonetheless, those that have found favor among herbalists include damiana, false unicorn (no irony there!), ginseng, angelica, astragalus, kava kava, burdock and yohimbine.
Astringents: Any agent that tends to shrink or constrict living tissue. This is a particularly important herbal property, as it has so many applications in human illness. Astringents slow bleeding, reduce swelling and decrease secretions. For the most part, herbs’ astringent properties stem from tannins, which are found in most plants but are particularly concentrated in barks, roots and nuts. Bayberry, oak, witch hazel, wild cherry, blackberry, uva ursi, rhubarb and yarrow are all excellent astringents.
Carminatives: Herbs and spices that reduce intestinal gas, bloating and cramping. Peppermint, fennel, anise, cumin, basil, ginger, dill and chamomile are carminatives.
Cholagogues: If you know that “chole” is a Greek root for “bile” or “gall,” you’ll understand why cholagogues are substances that promote the movement of bile from your gallbladder to your small intestine. A number of herbs possess this property, including aloe vera, barberry, Oregon grape, goldenseal, licorice and dandelion root. (People with gallstones or liver problems should use cholagogues with care, as these herbs can precipitate a gallbladder attack.)
Demulcents: Herbs that soothe or protect inflamed mucous membranes, usually by coating them with mucilage. Marshmallow, comfrey leaf, Irish moss, slippery elm, chickweed, licorice, psyllium, flax, aloe vera, chia seeds, mullein and fenugreek are good demulcents.
Diaphoretics: These sweat-inducing herbs can be invaluable during febrile illnesses; they’re also frequently used before and during ceremonial sweats. Diaphoretic herbs are often administered in hot infusions, as this further promotes sweating. Lemon balm, catnip, ginger, cayenne, elder flowers, yarrow flowers, peppermint, blessed thistle and hyssop are valuable diaphoretics.
Diuretics: Herbs that are used to promote the flow of urine. This is beneficial for people with fluid retention and edema, obesity, bladder infections (which should also be treated with antibiotics) and other conditions where excess fluid is problematic or where increased urinary flow would be useful. Diuretics are often combined with cholagogues and tonics (see below) in “detoxification” formulas. Agrimony, parsley, horsetail, dandelion leaf, buchu, juniper and nettles are popular diuretics.
Emetics: Agents that induce vomiting and empty the stomach. Ipecac is the herbal emetic that is familiar to most people. Lobelia, elecampane, blessed thistle, black mustard seed and bayberry are additional examples. (When used in low doses, many of these herbs do not induce vomiting but have other salutary effects on the body.)
Emmenagogues: Herbs that promote menstrual flow and help regulate irregular cycles. Because emmenagogues can stimulate uterine contractions, they have been used in the past to induce abortions. This is an extremely dangerous practice, as these herbs can exert other toxic effects when they’re taken in doses high enough to evacuate the uterus. Emmenagogues should not be used during pregnancy or when a woman is trying to conceive. Pennyroyal, juniper berries, black cohosh, rue, angelica and wild ginger are emmenagogues.
Emollients: Compounds that smooth, moisten and soothe the skin. Herbal oils (almond, sesame, apricot, wheat germ, etc.) or herbs with high mucilage content (marshmallow, comfrey root, slippery elm, chickweed, etc.) make good emollients.
Expectorants: Herbs that liquefy mucous or promote its expulsion from the respiratory passages. Some of these herbs loosen mucous by virtue of their high mucilage content, while others stimulate the cilia that propel mucous along the airways. Examples include wild cherry bark, yerba santa, mullein, coltsfoot, horehound and anise.
Galtactogogues: As the name suggests, these are herbs that stimulate milk secretion, a property that can be helpful for a new mother whose milk hasn’t quite come in yet. Anise seed, blessed thistle, fennel, cumin and vervain are galactogogues.
Hemostatics: Any agent that slows or arrests active bleeding. Most hemostatics are potent astringents that shrink blood vessel walls, but they might also directly affect the coagulation process by acting on platelets or clotting proteins. Blackberry, goldenseal, horsetail, white oak bark, yellow dock and yarrow are effective hemostatics.
Laxatives: This one needs no explanation. Herbs that promote bowel activity include senna, aloe vera, Cascara sagrada and rhubarb. (When taken in large or repeated doses, these herbs are known as purgatives)
Lithotriptics: Herbs that help dissolve urinary and gallbladder stones or “gravel.” Gravel root, cleavers, parsley, dandelion, nettle and horsetail are used for dealing with kidney and bladder stones, while Cascara sagrada, Oregon grape root, wild cherry bark and globe artichoke are used for gallstones.
Nervines: Agents that reduce tension and anxiety and promote healthy nervous system function. Valerian, skullcap, lobelia, and lady’s slipper are representative examples.
Oxytocics: Substances used to support or accelerate labor by stimulating uterine contractions. Oxytocic herbs have traditionally been employed by women whose due dates had passed or in whom labor had commenced but was progressing slowly. The use of oxytocics should be limited to situations where a midwife or other qualified individual is in attendance; using them inappropriately could result in placental abruption, fetal distress or other obstetrical complications. Angelica, black cohosh, blue cohosh, juniper berries, rue, uva ursi and wild ginger are oxytocics.
Parasiticides: Herbs that help eliminate parasites from the gastrointestinal tract or skin. Garlic, wormwood, thyme oil, rue, chaparral and pennyroyal are effective parasiticides; when taken internally, these agents should be used under the supervision of a knowledgeable practitioner, as they can be toxic if they’re misused.
Rubefacients: Herbs that increase blood flow to the skin wherever they’re applied, thereby inducing redness and warmth. The purpose of a rubefacient is to draw inflammation from deeper areas to the surface and remove “congestion” from underlying tissues. These herbs, which are frequently applied as poultices, are most commonly used for treating arthritis, sprains, strains and other joint problems. Examples include cayenne, black pepper, mustard seed oil, pine oil, thyme oil, cinnamon and eucalyptus.
Sedatives: Like nervines, sedatives calm the nerves; however, sedatives are more likely to promote drowsiness – although larger doses of nervines can be quite sedating, too. Hops, skullcap, kava kava, wood betony and passionflower are good sedatives.
Sialagogues: Herbs that promote salivation. This is useful for people who suffer from dry mouth or who have problems digesting starches. (Amylase, a starch-digesting enzyme, is found in abundance in human saliva.) Yerba santa, echinacea, black pepper, cayenne, ginger and licorice all help increase salivary flow.
Stimulants: In contrast to nerviness and sedatives, stimulants increase your energy levels, improve circulation and promote warmth. Many herbs possess stimulant properties, including cinnamon, cayenne, black pepper, anise, ginseng, ginger, astragalus, ephedra, sarsaparilla, onion, garlic and elecampane.
Tonics: Herbs that promote the function of a particular body part or organ system. (Most tonics, by nature, affect your entire body, even though they’re “targeted” to a particular system.) A few examples of tonics include hawthorn (heart), lobelia (nerves), gentian (stomach), parsley (urinary tract), Oregon grape root (gallbladder), dandelion root (liver) and ginseng (reproductive system).
Vulneraries: Herbs that improve wound healing by encouraging cell growth and tissue repair. Aloe vera is a well-known vulnerary; cayenne, comfrey, calendula, marshmallow and slippery elm are additional examples.
As you can see, there’s some overlap among herbal “classes” and properties, and many herbs possess a variety of useful characteristics. It can all get a little intimidating, but anyone who’s capable of reading can ferret out a given herb’s properties or learn what herbs are useful for a specific problem. That’s one of the innate beauties of herbalism: it isn’t limited to the astute, the arcane or even the educated. On the contrary, herbs are the “common man’s medicine,” and they’re often available within an arm’s reach of your back door.