(For a PDF handout version, see Resources.) Plants are complex, living beings—just as we are. And their interactions with our bodies in the context of healing can begin to be understood in terms of patterns of basic energetics: heating & cooling, drying & moistening.
Herbal actions describe the observable effects of herbs in the body. Energetics refers to the overall characteristic or quality of an herb— for example, we know cucumbers are cooling and ginger is warming. This language of energetics & actions gives us a way to understand the broad spectrum of plants in a healing context. It also allows us to get creative with plants and determine substitutes when our first choice isn’t available. A number of bitter plants can be used to assist digestion. Similarly, a wide range of antiinflammatories can be called in to relievethe pain & tension associated with certain types of inflammation. Familiarity with the language of herbal actions and energetics opens our senses & imaginations to the plants around us, and ultimately helps deepen our practice with them.
Botanical medicine is an art & a science. And this is the art part. The way plants flow through us can be perceived & described in several ways.
Adaptogens improve the body’s response to internal & external stressors. They’re used in cases of nervous exhaustion, adrenal burnout, chronic illness (especially infections), whenever one is feeling ‘run down.’ They tend to act on the endocrine & immune systems. (Ashwaganda root, Eleuthro root, Rhodiola root, Licorice root.)
Alteratives support the body’s detoxification and elimination pathways, particularly the liver, kidneys, lymphatic system & adrenals. They’re known to some as ‘blood purifiers’ and are used in treating skin conditions, allergies, and joint inflammation. As a class of herbs, they’re regarded as cooling & drying. (Red Root bark, Red Clover blossoms, Echinacea root, Burdock root.)
Anti-inflammatory herbs mediate the inflammatory response. They can act through a variety of mechanisms, and are used whenever relief from excessive inflammation is needed. can be cooling or warming herbs, depending on the nature of the inflammation. (White Willow bark, Ginger root, Meadowsweet leaves & flowers, Tumeric root.)
Aromatics contain volatile oils, which can be anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and dispersive in nature (break up congestion in different parts of the body). This can be respiratory congestion, intestinal gas (in this context they’re known as carminatives), even foggy thinking. They’re broadly considered to be warming & drying. (Rosemary leaf, Sage leaf, Lavender flowers, Elecampane root.)
Astringents contain compounds called tannins, which cause tissues to contract. They’re indicated when tissues are weak, lax, swollen or injured. They are considered to be drying in character. (Red Raspberry leaf, Plantain leaf, Yarrow leaf & flower.)
Bitters stimulate the secretion of gastric juices, which improves appetite, digestion (especially of fats/oils/lipids) and nutrient absorption. They’re used when digestion is sluggish and help improve the digestive fire. They also support liver function, which is vital for many of our body’s systems & processes. They’re considered to be cooling & drying. (Dandelion leaf & root, Burdock root, Gentian root.)
Demulcents lubricate tissues, ease dryness, and soothe inflammation, irritation & injury. They contain mucilage, a polysaccharide that becomes slimy when water is added. Broadly speaking, they’re cooling & moistening. (Slippery Elm bark, Marshmallow root & leaf, Violet leaf.)
Diuretics increase the quantity of urine expelled from the body and help treat fluid retention. They are classified as drying herbs. (Dandelion leaf, Tea leaf, Nettle leaf.)
Nervines help tone & strengthen the nervous system. Nervines can be used in any situation where tension, stress & anxiety are present. They can be stimulating, relaxing or tonifying. (Rose petals, Oatstraw, Skullcap leaf & flowers, Passionflower leaves.)
Tonics nourish & strengthen a particular organ or system over time. These herbs are primarily nutritive in nature, and are very safe & gentle to use. Energetically, they’re regarded as neutral. (Nettle leaf, Hawthorn berry, Oatstraw.)
- Jim McDonald on energetics & primary/secondary actions
- Kiva Rose (Terms of the Trade series)
- Rosalee de la Foret (Herbal Energetics post & Taste of Herbs course on HerbMentor)
- Paul Bergner- Fundamentals of Vitalism: Herbal Actions (PDF notes)
- Michael Moore on Constitutional Physiology & Organ System Energetics (PDF book)
Illustrations are by me or Britton & Brown Illustrated Flora – 2nd Edition (1913).