This page gives the definition of herbal energetics, or herbal actions, and is essentially a guide to the language of an herbalist. Many of these terms have deeper nuances that lead to a more in-depth understanding but I’ve tried to keep them simple so that the lay person can easily understand what these terms mean without having to study herbalism for the next couple of years.
Keep in mind that herbs are not limited by our category systems! Whenever we use language to put a box around plants they will rebel. As a result, many of these terms should never be considered exclusive or opposite one another.
For example, herbs can be both a relaxing nervine and a stimulating nervine. They could be both astringent and demulcent. They could be an immunomodulator and an immunostimulant.
Herbs generally have many different herbal energetics, not only one!
Herbal energetics terms give us a common language for discussing plants and how we interpret their action in the body. However, they are one tool of many for matching an herb to a person.
Here are some considerations when choosing an herb or herbs to work with:
Adaptogen herbs are building herbs that strengthen the HPO axis (hypothalamus, pituitary, gonadal). Taken over time they build up your overall health and wellness and help you have more resiliency to the negative effects of stress.
Not all adaptogens are created equal. Each herb has its own specific indications and herbal energetics that are better suited for one person or another. Especially when these herbs are matched to you from an energetic perspective these are safe plants that can be taken in larger quantities for an extended period of time.
Alterative herbs support specific elimination pathways of the body. Depending on their specific action they may clear a congested liver, encourage urination, support the lungs for increased breath (and release of CO2), open the pores in the skin, move the lymph and move the bowels. By creating a clear running river of elimination in our bodies we avoid becoming a stagnant mucky pond. Alterative herbs are often used for damp heat problems such as constipation, eczema, acne, boils, etc.
Herbs in this category are generally safe but if used too aggressively or for a prolonged period of time they could possibly imbalance someone energetically (e.g. becoming too drying or too cooling). Think of watermelon. It’s a healthy safe food, but if you ate a lot of it every day the diuretic properties would be too drying and as the seasons change this cooling food would no longer be appropriate.
Anodyne herbs dull the sense of pain. Herbs in this category range from completely safe to being low-dose botanicals that should never be used beyond one or two drops. Herbs may also have a special affinity for different types of pain as some herbs are better suited to nervous system pain while others to muscle pain.
Anti-inflammatory herbs work in a variety of ways to lessen the inflammatory response in the body. Note that anytime a glossary term contains the word “anti” it lets us know what it does but rarely does this classification break herbs down into HOW they do it.
Antimicrobial herbs negatively effect pathogens in the body through various mechanisms. These herbs can be useful against viral infections, bacteria and fungal infections.
Antispasmodic herbs effect the nervous system to relieve muscle tension and cramping. Each of these herbs has an affinity to specific uses (e.g. menstrual cramping, ureter cramping, leg cramps, tense muscle shoulders, etc)
Antihelminthic herbs are used to combat parasitical worms in the body. Optimal treatment will be designed for the particular parasite and will also include dietary arrangements as well.
Astringent herbs tighten and tone tissues. Herbalists use these herbs whenever there are lax tissues. Tightening and toning tissues can also help to prevent infection. Think of these for spongy gums, infections of the mucosal membranes such as a sore throat, vaginal infection, ulcers in the digestive tract, urinary tract infections, varicose veins and diarrhea.
Bitters refers to the taste of a plant. The bitter taste creates a cascade of digestive events, from increased salivation, to increased HCL in the stomach, to the release of bile and pancreatic enzymes. The bitter taste is beneficial to everyone at mealtimes and many digestive problems can be corrected by simply adding the bitter taste into meals. You can read more about bitters in this fantastic article by herbalist jim mcdonald.
Cardio tonic herbs are used to support cardiac function. They have observable beneficial actions on the heart but do not contain cardiac glycosides found in our more dramatic acting plants. Although generally safe they can interact with some pharmaceutical drugs.
Carminative herbs are used for stagnant digestion such as bloating and gas. Have you ever eaten a meal that just feels like it is stuck in your stomach? Or had aches in your belly due to gas? That’s when carminatives come in handy. These herbs are often aromatic (meaning they have a strong scent) and contain volatile oils.
Cholagogue herbs increase the production and release of bile. Most bitters are cholagogues. Because these herbs stimulate bile secretion they also stimulate peristalsis and are therefore somewhat laxative in nature. They help to improve hepatic function and can increase a person’s ability to digest fats.
These herbs are used for stagnant circulation. They are often added in small amounts to formulas to diffuse the herbs throughout the body.
Demulcent herbs are slimy and mucilaginous in quality. Have you ever left oatmeal on the counter for too long and it becomes sort of gloppy? That is demulcent. These herbs are used to soothe hot and irritated tissues. Think of aloe vera gel on a hot sunburn. Demulcent herbs are also used for a sore throat, digestive ulcers, dry and unproductive coughs, irritated intestines and an irritated urinary tract.
The term diaphoretic broadly means an herb that is used for fevers. Fevers are a beneficial immune system response and most of the time do not need to be treated by artificially lowering a person’s temperature.
Herbs can be used to support a person going through a fever. More advanced herbalists seek to understand the type of fever and then use herbs to match the particular circumstance. Diaphoretics are thus divided into two general categories: relaxing diaphoretics and stimulating diaphoretics.
Relaxing diaphoretics are used when a person has a fever and they feel hot and look hot but they are not sweating. They may have a red face and be tense or restless. Relaxing diaphoretic herbs may increase peripheral circulation to release the exterior and open the pores. In this way they are releasing the heat in the body akin to opening a window of a hot house. Some relaxing diaphoretic herbs also specifically relieve the aches and pains associated with fevers.
Stimulating diaphoretics are used when a person has a fever but they feel chilled and are shivering. These spicy herbs support the body’s desire to increase our internal temperature.
Diffusive herbs break up stagnant energy and move it throughout the body. Have you ever eaten a hot pepper and felt the heat in your toes and fingers? That’s diffusive. Diffusive herbs are often used for stagnant digestion (like if you feel you have a bowling ball in your stomach after eating) and are often added in small quantities to formulas.
Diuretic herbs increase urine output. They can be used to lower blood pressure, resolve damp conditions in the body (edema) or for infections of the urinary system. These generally work best as a lukewarm tea.
Emmenagogue herbs promote menstruation and are used for irregular or stagnant menstruation. These herbs should be avoided in pregnancy.
Expectorants are used to expel congested mucus. The quality and condition of the mucus helps to determine if relaxing expectorants or stimulating expectorants would be more appropriate. Yellow mucus indicates heat and cooling herbs may be of benefit. Clear or white mucus indicates coldness and warming herbs may be of benefit.
Relaxing expectorants are often demulcent, anti-tussive and anti-inflammatory. They soothe bronchial tissues (via a reflexive action) and can move dry stuck mucus. Often times these herbs are cooling.
Stimulating expectorants stimulate mucus expectoration, especially for stuffy conditions. Have you even eaten spicy mustard or wasabi (horseradish) and then felt your sinuses drain? That’s a stimulating expectorant. Oftentimes these are warming in nature and can work by irritating the bronchial tissues. These herbs often have volatile oils and alkaloids.
These herbs lower blood pressure. Best results are seen when combined with a more holistic approach (diet, sleep, exercise, etc).
Immunomodulating herbs build and strengthen the immune system. They are generally used for people who get sick all the time with colds and flus or have other symptoms of immune system dysfunction such as seasonal allergies, environmental allergies, food intolerances, cancer and autoimmunity problems. Think of these as deeply nourishing food and herbs for the immune system.
Immunostimulant herbs boost the immune system in the short term. These may work by increasing phagocytosis (Echinacea) or disrupting viral replication (elderberry). Immunostimulant herbs are generally not taken in the long term and should not be used to compensate for a weakened and unhealthy immune system. Instead, immunomodulating herbs should be considered.
Laxative herbs increase bowel movements. They can range from supportive and gentle to more purgative in effect. Some laxative herbs increase peristalsis of the bowels, others may provide lubrication. In general it is always good to start with the most gentle and work up. It is imperative not to rely on stimulating or cathartic laxatives to move the bowels since they can easily create dependency.
Use of these herbs may cause griping or pain and so they are usually used in a formula to offset those effects. Using these herbs for more than 10 consecutive days may cause dependency.
Lymphatic herbs are a specialized type of alterative. Lymphatic herbs move congested lymph and can be used to shrink swollen lymph glands and dissolve benign cysts.
Nervine herbs are herbs that effect the nervous system. Sometimes this general term is used to describe relaxing nervines, but I found it useful to distinguish this category more fully between relaxing and stimulating nervines.
Stimulating nervine herbs stimulate the nervous system. This may be through direct stimulation, such as caffeine from tea or coffee, or stimulating nervine herbs may promote circulation or have a diffusive effect that wakes up the nervous system.
Tonic is a troublesome word in the herbal arena as this term is used differently between western and eastern herbal systems.
Some western herbalists use it to describe alterative or eliminating or draining herbs (see alteratives). They also might use it to describe herbs that strengthen a system. Raspberry leaf is considered to be toning to the uterus. Dandelion root tones the digestive system.
Eastern herbal traditions use the term tonic to describe herbs that are building and nourishing (see adaptogens). These herbs tend to be sweet in taste and are taken over a long time by people who have signs of deficiency.
Trophorestorative herbs bring balance to a particular organ or system in a person whether that function is excess or deficient.
Vulnerary herbs are used to heal wounds. They can be used for external wounds on the skin, or internal wounds such as ulcers or hemorrhoids.