All herbs can be categorized by their actions. Each herb has a unique description of actions and energetics, and generally we find that herbs overlap the boundaries of these descriptions. When we formulate herbal remedies we seek to ascertain a whole-body analysis of the individual. We want to know whether the person runs hot or cold, moist or dry, what their sleep, diet and exercise patterns are, what is their mental state and their emotional triggers, their medical history and current medications. This individual health assessment allows us to match the herbs to the bodies needs for balance.
Once a health assessment is completed we can begin to understand which herbal actions will bring balance and harmony to the body and mind. When we utilize herbs in this manner we are providing whole plant values to our bodies. As bio-organic organisms, we and the plants are compatible by nature, thus we receive a multitude of safe, healing actions by using herbs.
Let's discuss a few of the broader terms defining herbal actions. Understanding these actions helps us to understand the plants medicinal values and how they might be utilized. Generally speaking we are using herbs to counter imbalances by applying an opposite action.
One of the most popular terms used on our food labels today is anti-oxidant. The anti-oxidant action counters free-radical production. Free radicals are reactive molecules in the body that can cause damage to healthy tissue and cells. They are formed when we are exposed to environmental and internal toxins. Anti-oxidants are always found in dark colored fruits and vegetables. Example: Blueberries
Another popular term found in first aid skin care and sickness formulas is anti-microbial. Anti-microbial herbs aid the body in resisting and killing off pathogens. Generally anti-microbial herbs destroy viruses, bacteria and fungi. Example: Garlic
Adaptogen herbs are wonderful to get to know. These herbs can be taken for long periods of time, and usually are tonic herbs which tone and build body systems. Adaptogen herbs are specific for stress. They aid the bodies ability to adapt to and moderate stress levels, and stimulate immunity. These herbs are helpful in building stamina and energy reserves. Example: Astragalus
Alterative herbs are generally used for short periods of time to address specific imbalances. These herbs are blood purifiers, assisting the body with nutrient absorption and detoxification. Alterative herbs are known to restore body functions. Example: Burdock
Astringent herbs describe an action that dries up secretions and tones tissue. Astringents would be useful when there is swelling present, oozing of poison ivy, or hemorrhoids. The binding effect of astringent herbs is generally found in barks which are high in tannins. Example: Witch Hazel
Anti-inflammatory herbs are great alternatives to the many forms of bottled capsules sold today. These herbs will assist body discomforts ranging from headaches to menstruation to post-op procedures. Anti-inflammatory herbs reduce pain and inflammation in the body. Example: Chamomile
Bitter herbs are known to stimulate digestion and tone the digestive tract. They assist the body in absorption of food. Bitters are historically known to be used before mealtime. Example: Yellow Dock
Carminative herbs help expel gas from the bowel and relieve the stomach. Example: Fennel
Demulcent herbs are some of my favorites. These herbs are rich in mucilage, a substance that soothes, coats and protects irritated, damaged or inflamed tissues. Demulcents are favored for UTI's and sore throats, ulcers and colitis. Example: Slippery Elm
Diaphoretic herbs refer to the action of inducing perspiration. These herbs are useful when alot of heat is present, as in the case of a hot fever. They help the body to expel pathogens via the skin. Example: Ginger
Diuretic herbs increase urine flow. This is most helpful with conditions like urinary tract infections, water retention, and kidney stones. Diuretics often are used with demulcents, one herb to increase urine flow and one herb to soothe internal tissues. Example: Dandelion
Expectorant herbs assist the body in expelling excess mucus from the respiratory system. Especially useful when mucus is stagnant or stuck. Example: Mullein
Hepatic herbs tone the liver by strengthening and increasing bile flow. Useful for chronic liver diseases. Example: Barberry
Immunomodulator herbs promote healthy function of the immune system. These herbs are extremely important to people who 'get sick alot', and helpful at the first onset of cold or flu. Example: Echinacea
Nervine herbs are specific to the nervous system. These herbs build and tone the nervous system, providing relaxation and calming of anxiety and tension. Example: Lemon Balm
Styptic herbs stop hemorrhaging. They literally staunch blood flow, externally and internally. Example: Yarrow
If you have a desire to utilize herbs in your life I urge you to seek out tonic herbs. Tonic herbs are nutritive, dense in vitamins and minerals. They build and tone the body systems. Tonic herbs are simple additions to a healthy lifestyle. You cannot take too much of a tonic herb. Example: Oatstraw
Although there are many more terms defining herbal actions, these listed above will get you started on your immersion into herbal energetics and body balance. Herbs are also known to be heating and cooling, and so there is a great deal of knowledge necessary to truly understand the wondrous healing effects of herbs. The beauty of the science of herbalism is that it doesn't hurt to experiment. Herbs are safe, and it is through our experience of them that we begin to truly know their value. I was taught it is better to know one-hundred ways to use one herb, than one way to use one-hundred herbs. After years of working with herbs I have found this to be very true. One herb, on it's own, is such a wonderfully complex and diversified life, capable of providing a multitude of benefits to the human body. Pick an herb and begin your journey in herbalism. Do you hear a plant calling to you?
Credit to the learning institutions of Southwest Herb, and the Herbal Academy for their lessons in herbalism.