Thursday, March 14, 2013

Herbal Actions 101: Useful words in the Herbal World


            While recently thinking of what herbal blog to put up next, I remembered all the past typed-up herbal adventures from my internship in Ohio, along with my copious amounts of written notes from my recently completed herbalism program, so I thought I would share with you some excerpts about herbal actions!
            Even if you are a pro-herbalist and know all the ins and outs of herbal actions, hopefully this blog can still be informative and interesting, otherwise you may wonder what are “herbal actions” anyways?
            The most simple definition I can think of is this. An herbal action is essentially: how the herb acts upon the body; and thus by taking it what changes occur after using it?
An example may be: you are constipated, and you took an herb such as peppermint or ginger, though you find yourself not being immediately relieved and passing lots of gas, and think that didn’t work at all! Well, maybe not. Gas is a symptom of constipation, and thus at the passing of it, means those herbs probably helped your body to gently “move it through”. As I have learned many times from many wise herbal teachers “Symptoms are the body healing itself, not the disease”, or from your body being OUT of balance, so if you support the body in helping it to do what it does best, than you’ll get a healthy outcome! 
            The following, in alphabetical order, are the major herbal actions I have learned over time, their definition, how it affects the body, examples of herbs with this action, recipes and a break-down of several herbs!
Witch Hazel  at Goldenseal Sanctuary
Rutland, Ohio
            An herb that is Astringent means it tightens the bodies’ tissues, which is why when drinking something astringent you can feel yourself having a dry mouth. Astringency can also be due to eating something with tannins in it, such as chokecherry, oak leaves, or even white willow tincture/tea. The tannins bind to proteins, so if you drink it they bind to your salivary proteins essentially and they dissipate, causing the ‘tight/dry mouth’ feeling. This can be prevented when drinking black tea by adding milk, being a common practice in Britain. Also, astringent herbs are usually found in beauty products, such as toner, to tighten your faces’ skin, and also have a gentle cleaning effect. Some times in which using an astringent herb is helpful is whenever something is overly “oozy” or needs to be tightened so: loose gums, diarrhea,. Astrigent herbs include: Blackberry, Raspberry (anything else in Rose family), Witch Hazel, White Willow bark, to name a few.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
Adaptogen, anti-catarrhal & Tonic
Findhorn Ecovillage, Scotland
            An herb that is an Adaptogen is a gentle- tonic that builds one’s health over time, but can also help with acute ailments, this action can also be called a tonic, common herbs of this category include Holy Basil (Tulsi), Stinging Nettle, Burdock, Dandelion and Red Clover. This herb you may want to use to slowly heal chronic-health conditions over time. Next is the action of Anodyne, which really just means to externally relieve pain. This is a loose definition to be sure, but there are many useful pain-relieving herbs, depending on the situation at hand. An common example including a sun-burn, so some herbs that would help are burn herbs, St John’s Wort, Yarrow and Lavender come to mind, and a burn is usually hot so a cooling herb also; another excellent herb could be Plantain because it pulls out whatever there is excess of, and is generally cooling in nature. An Antispasmodic herb is one that helps minimize/treat involuntary muscle movements, generally of the uterus or stomach area. I have no personal experience in dealing with this, though from books and past teachers I have learned several of these herbs to be Black Haw, Black Cohosh.
The herbal action Analgesic is really a synonym to Anodyne. Next is an interesting one, Anti-catarrhal. You may wonder what on earth catarrhal refers to—inflammed mucous membranes. So an herb that treats anti-catarrhal, would also likely help with allergies (to mold, dust, pollen and animals; as well as food allergies), asthma, and other bronchial ailments when inflamed mucous membranes are at hand. Some anti-catarrhal herbs include Stinging Nettle, and Echinacea. My personal favorite way to treat allergies though is with a neti-pot and Allergy Tea!
            Thymes Ancient Remedies’
                        Allergy Tea~              For one pot of tea I put in the following…
            -3/4 tsp Yarrow  *NOTE don’t take Yarrow if pregnant*
            -1 tsp Mullein leaf or flower
            -3/4 tsp Sage
            -1/2 tsp Stinging Nettle (dried)
            - ¼ tsp Thyme
            Brew…Pour boiling water over the herbs, steep for 10-25 minutes and Enjoy!

            Next comes Alterative, which is an action that changes the ‘nature’ of the disease you have, to improve it’s nature, or get rid of it all together. It works by stimulating the liver, cleaning blood and metabolism; eliminates waste through kidneys, bowels and other organs, so overall has detoxifying nature and balances long-standing imbalances. Some of these herbs can include Burdock, Cleavers, Dandelion, Echinacea, and Stinging Nettle.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Alterative, Tonic, Adaptogen & Cholagogue
            A Carminative herb, relaxes your bodies’ muscles to help stimulate secretions to get your digestion doing, helps you pass gas to move constipation through. Usually rich in volatile oils many common carminative herbs include Fennel, Spearmint, Peppermint, Catnip, Cinnamon and Ginger. My favorite way to enjoy the health benefits of these warming herbs is in the form of Chai tea!
                     Thymes Ancient Remedies’
                                      Chai Tea~       
    simmer in a pot with 4 cups of water for 25-35 minutes.
            -1 cinnamon stock
            -1 tsp cloves
            -1 tsp cardamom
            -2-3 tsp fennel seed
            -1 tsp black tea
            -2 tsp licorice root
            -1/4 tsp burdock, dandelion and yellowdock root
            -1/8th tsp cumin
            -dash of nutmeg
           
            A Cholagogue herb is one that acts upon bile, liver and gallbladder to name a few. Includes herbs such as Dandelion, Burdock, Yellowdock. These are just a few of them, though the ones I have more experience using. These cholagogue herbs are earthy, very root based (lower region of our body is where the major digestive and filter organs are), and when you find Burdock and Yellowdock, I’ve learned their properties solely from taking a leaf, rubbing it and than chewing it, see how it tastes, what is stimulated…and we found lots of bile and saliva! So it must get your bile in lower organs going, why I like adding these herbs to my chai, to get lots of digestion going smoothly and secreting the bile that helps to do it!
Coltsfoot in Rutland, Ohio
Demulcent Expectorant (cooling)
            An herb that is Demulcent (external version of Emollient), meaning it soothes tissue internally. An example where this would be useful is if you have a dry, hacking cough and sore throat, so taking an internally soothing of the tissue, cooling moist herb is a very good idea. Demulcent –cooling herbs include Marshmallow root, Plantain, Coltsfoot…and other general Demulcent herbs include: Comfrey, and Echinacea. Diaphoretic goes hand-in-hand with Anti-catarrhal a lot of times because if you have inflamed mucous membranes, not due to allergies, so you have a cold or flu, you’ll most likely need to sweat it out, and that is a diaphoretic herb; one that stimulates your body to make you sweat out a disease. Very common herbs for this include Boneset, Yarrow and Elderberry/flower. My favorite way of taking this is as an Elderberry honey, or syrup (recipe here). Next is Diuretic, this action is commonly thought to “make you pee”, which is a common misconception. An herb that is Diuretic actually stimulates the kidneys, which makes you have to urinate more, by increasing the rate at which the kidneys filters blood. Examples include: Cleavers, Mullein, Dandelion, Horsetail, Linden and Stinging Nettle.  
            An Emetic, is an herb that makes you vomit, I never work with these, but knowing if an herb does this is helpful…to know what to stay away from (common one is Elder BARK)! The action of Emmenagogue means this herb brings on the menses (period), so you should AVOID WHEN PREGNANT! These herbs can include Yarrow, Black Cohosh and Motherwort are the main ones I know of. Motherwort is excellent at bringing the period of, as well as helping with cramps, and comforts the emotional rollercoaster (so helps the heart)*NOTE Stinging Nettle is excellent in not bring on the menses but lessening blood flow if you have a heavy ‘flow’, because it diverts blood away from the pelvis*
Boneset at Northland College in Ashland, WI
            An herb that is an Expectorant helps you cough up excess phlegm, by loosening it, and adding more mucus (say if a dry hacking cough) to help alleviate these symptoms. So if you had a cold, phelgmy cough, it could be good to take a warming expectorant to help balance this cold, wet tissue state, so ginger would be a good choice, along with licorice, anise or even cayenne. Though, if you had a dry hot cough with little phlegm, a cooling moistening expectorant, such as Marshmallow root would be good. Other herbs are: Boneset, Yarrow, Mullein, Elderberry/flower. Febrifuge is an herb that helps to cool the body, so not exactly sweating a fever out, because you could just have heat-exhaustion or heat-stroke. Peppermint, Yarrow, Elderberry/flower, Hibiscus and Boneset are good for this. A Galactagogue herb increases the secretion of milk, so it’s obviously helpful for nursing mothers, and includes: Fennel, Milkweed, and Stinging Nettle; though if you want to dry up your milk Sage and Parsley are good.
            A Hemostatic herb—stops bleeding. Includes the herbs Yarrow and Cayenne, which are the best two I know from learning, and hearing excellent success stories of using Yarrow especially.
            Next are laxative herbs, (also see below Purgative). A Laxative herb overall works by cleaning you out via the gallbladder. Some more gentle and bulk-forming laxatives includes psyllium seed and husk, these aren’t as hard on the body, and still shouldn’t be used more than needed. The next level of laxatives includes the herb Senna; after that the third level is a very strong laxative including Castor oil (internally), Rhubarb Root and Cascara sagrada. Lastly is purgative, the strongest (see below). **NOTE Do NOT use laxatives without doctors approval/assistance** Some herbs that can prevent the need for using laxatives include Burdock, (any of the carminatives, and cholagogue).
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Emmenagogue, Febrifuge, Hemostatic & Vulnerary
            An herb that has the action of Mucilage, really is how it sounds, it coats and soothes the membranes, and thus calms inflamed areas. Oats is an excellent example, as are Marshmallow, Slippery Elm and Plantain. These herbs also commonly replenish one’s electrolyes, some of these hers also include: lemon, honey, maple syrup, and dandelion.A Purgative being the MOST powerful of the laxatives majorly irritates the bowels, and can include Cascada sagrada, senna. **DON’T use a LAXATIVE without DOCTORS APPROVAL/supervision!!!**



 An herb that is Rubafacient in nature brings blood to area of wound to heal, helps improve poor circulation also to cold hands and feet. Some of these herbs include: Yarrow, Cayenne, Mullein, and Ginger. A herb that is Tonic in nature helps to build the body of nutrition, thus slowly healing chronic ailments, also can be an Adaptogen (see above). Herbs include: Red Clover, Stinging Nettle, Dandelion and Burdock. I have had a lot of personal success with Stinging Nettle, and for more information see a previously published article (http://www.motherearthliving.com/natural-health/stinging-nettle-plant-underappreciated-green-of-the-wild.aspx). A Vermifuge is an herb that specifically kills worms and parasites, Black Walnut is an excellent example, Myrrh and Goldenseal also are helpful for this. Lastly, Vulnerary, is an herbal action of healing wounds, and one might think if you have a good one why not use it for all situations. The fact of the matter is it depends. For example, if you had a very clean wound, but it needed to be healed quickly, a good herb could be Comfrey; BUT if it is not clean you wouldn’t want to use an herb that makes your body regenerate it’s cells which could lead to a nasty infection. If you have a dirty wound, Yarrow is excellent at cleaning it out but slowly healing. Other good herbs include Calendula, Echinacea and Goldenseal; and herbs that heal wounds and relieve pain includes: White Willow bark, Yucca, Silk Tassel, Passionflower and Birch (Also see above Anodyne).

Examples:
            Peppermint is a cooling carminative…also being a
                                    Diaphoretic
                                    Nervine
                                    Carminative
                                    Anti-spasmodic
                                    ---helps the nervous system, digestive system (stomach, bowels)

            Prickly Ash happens to be a nerve stimulant
                 So also a…
                        Alterative
                        Stimulant (secretion, circulation)
                        Stimulates saliva
                        Mild laxative
                        Pancreatic and biliuary actions (gets secretions going)
                        Cardiac activity
                                    --stimulates heart, lymph, circulation, kidneys
                        Diaphoretic
                        Strengthen one’s “vital force”
                        Bowel spasms (constipation; gas is a symptom)—thus a carminative
                        Dysentery (loose bowels)
                        Neuralgic dysmenorrhia (nerv cramps in menstruation)


Resources:
-Therapeutic Herb Manual by Ed Smith. An excellent informational book many major herbs and their medicinal actions the author found when taken as a tincture
-Native American Medicinal Plants by Daniel E. Moerman. An excellent book about traditional uses of native North American plants, includes herbal actions under each tribe and loosely how it was taken
-101 Herbal teas…by Kathleen Brown is a good basic herbal-book about common herbs, their medicinal uses and fun tea recipes to make with them!

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