Actions of herbs
I’ve included a quick guide below which summarises the main actions of the most common groups of herbs.
Alteratives: herbs with this action change a long-standing condition by helping the body to eliminate toxins more efficiently. These occur as a result of natural metabolic activity but when metabolism is impaired, perhaps because of an illness, toxins are not properly broken down and eliminated. Some of these herbs were referred to as ‘blood-cleansers’ and include nettles, burdock, cleavers and red clover.
Adaptogens: These herbs have a reputation for helping us to adapt to stress and support our normal physiologic function. They work by increasing our resistance to physical, emotional and environmental stressors for periods of time, by assisting the work of the adrenal and endocrinal glands. Basically they enable us to do more with less, and are considered superior herbs for that reason. Ginseng would be one of the best known herbs in this category.
Analgesics: These herbs relieve pain. Many herbs in this category have a broad action, while some such as lavender, or feverfw are specific to certain types of pain, such as headache and migraine.
Antacids: Herbs with these properties help to reduce excess stomach acid. They also soothe the stomach lining if inflamed from overproduction of hydrochloric acid. Marshmallow root and meadowsweet are two western herbs in this category.
Anti-inflammatories: Relief from inflammation may be the first step in the healing process. Many prescribed and over the counter anti-inflammatory products cause damage to the stomach. Herbs such as chamomille and licquorice root are protective of the stomach while being effective anti-inflammatory agents with a wide range of applications.
Antimicrobial: These herbs help to clear up infection by strengthening the body’s natural defences. Certain antimicrobials such as bearberry have a specific action for a specific condition, in this case for urinary tract infections, while garlic has a broader application.
Antiseptics: These herbs have a direct action on infectious organisms. Thyme is a well known antiseptic as is ti-tree.
Antispasmodics: A very important group of herbs which stop or slow down cramping and spasm. They work on the muscles, and can affect voluntary and involuntary muscle function. Cramp bark is self-explanatory and helps with intestinal and uterine cramping. Wild yam root has a similar action.
Bitters: The more bitter tasting herbs act on the digestive system, and on the liver and gall-bladder in particular. They help the digestive organs to function well by stimulating the production of important digestive enzymes. This helps in breaking down and absorbing food efficiently. They are often used where there is a sluggish bowel, a lot of belching and distension and general discomfort after eating. Dandelion root is well known for supporting the function of the liver and chamomille is a well known digestive aid.
Carminatives: These herbs are soothing to the digestive system while assisting with assimilation of our food. A very important group of herbs in helping to relieve gas and distension. They are often highly aromatic herbs such as aniseed, caraway seed or ginger.
Diuretics: This category of herbs promotes urination by increasing the volume of water to be passed when there is fluid retention. Herbs such as cornsilk and parsley work in this way.
Nervines: a very important category of herbs which can relax, stimulate or act as a tonic for the nervous system. No herbalist would be without them. Skullcap is both a relaxant and a tonic, while Kola is stimulating. Often it is good to combine relaxant and tonic nervines.
Uterine tonics: These herbs are used for many problems associated with the menstrual cycle, after giving birth or for some chronic conditions. Raspberry leaf is one of the better known herbs in this category.
Wound herbs: These herbs are often used both internally and externally. They help reduce inflammation, promote healing by helping the cells knit together speedily and reduce infection. Plantain leaf and marigold are two of the best-known herbs in this category.