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Herbal Medicine Terminology... A-B

Some commentary on the actions of herbs… In recent times, much research has been conducted on how herbs work, with attempt to identify the key chemicals constituents in an herb associated with the main action of each plant, science is discovering that it is largely the synergistic action of the various chemical constituents in a single plant which contributes to the desired effect. Most herbalists are in agreement that the “whole herb” offers the best support (as nature provides, with fewer adverse effects), rather than isolating a single chemical constituent.

One single herb can have numerous benefits and applications in the body, addressing more than one organ system. One plant can often be used for more than one health concern, with more than one mode of application. Two plants can assist the same organ system, with different secondary effects in the body.

For example, Peppermint Leaf (Mentha piperita) is not only a digestive aid but also has anti catarrhal, antimicrobial, carminative, and diaphoretic / febrifuge properties.

Boneset Herb (Eupatorium perfoliatum) is a diaphoretic, with anti spasmodic properties used traditionally for sore aching muscles and symptoms of a cold and flu. It is anti-catatarrhal in nature, and its diaphoretic properties can assist in reducing a fever. Boneset is also a bitter diuretic (which Peppermint -mentioned above- is NOT) and can be used for symptoms of mild constipation.

Herbs generally have a main use, (ie. used a certain way, for a certain condition in a specific culture, or at a certain time in history) and a secondary use (ideally combined with other herbs to offer ‘support’ to the main use of the other plant).

Burdock Root (Arctium lappa) is an adaptogen herb, traditionally used to ‘clean the blood’, while supporting liver and kidney function (assisting the removal of uric acid from the body) and also used for skin conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis.

Yellow Dock Root (Rumex crispus) is also an adaptogen herb, used for skin conditions, and a bitter herb (containing anthraquinone glycosides), stimulating to digestion, with gentle laxative and cleansing properties. Yellow Dock is an ideal herb blended with Burdock to support the bodies organs of elimination and detoxification. 

The beauty of herbal medicine is that plants offer support for the whole body. By visiting a Medical Herbalist, in a clinic environment, the herbalist can select which herbs are most appropriate for your body and your unique health history. A Medical Herbalist can also combine herbs in synergistic formulations for added support, address specific ailments, or be used as holistic tools supporting the function of the whole body.

By understanding the actions of plant medicine and learning of the “personality” of each specific plant, knowing what organ systems each herb supports, can provide a life long tool for preventative medicine. Herbal medicines can be used in tea or tincture form to help the body function optimally, restore balance in times of depletion and support specific organ systems, in short, when used mindfully, herbs provide an excellent strategy for preventative medicine and health care maintenance.

The actions of herbs and herbal terminology listed below mentions certain ‘key’ herbs (from the European/ Western paradigm) used for specific conditions. The herbs are not listed in any order of importance. Information given here is for consumer education only. It is not meant to replace the advice of a qualified health care professional in a clinic environment nor is it intended to treat or claim to treat illness.

Traditional Herbal Medicine Terminology:

Adaptogens: Herbs that help our bodies adapt to stress (both internal and external stress) by supporting the adrenal glands, immune system function, the endocrine system, and enhance the stamina and vitality of the whole person. Examples include: siberian ginseng root, schisandra berries, sarsaparilla root, licorice root, rhodiola, maca root, dong quai root, royal jelly, shiitake mushroom and ashwagandha root.

Alterative: Traditionally known as blood cleansers, these herbs help to improve the health and vitality of the body by supporting the organs of elimination (the liver, kidneys, lymph, skin, colon and lungs) and aiding the removal of metabolic toxins. Gradually facilitate a beneficial change in the body by improving or altering the process of nutrition and promote the renewal of healthy tissues. Blood cleansers are often used for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions, stubborn skin conditions, arthritic and auto immune conditions. Examples include: burdock root, cleavers herb, nettles leaf, red clover herb, fumitory herb, yellow dock root, bayberry, dandelion leaf and root, marigold flower, wild indigo, oregon grape root and chaparral.

Amphoteric: A normaliser. A herb which harmonizes and normalizes the function of an organ or body system, balancing to two seemingly contradictory conditions such as diarrhea and constipation, or high and low blood pressure for example. An herb which acts in two seemingly different ways, to bring about balance to the body. Many herbal medicines work to normalize and balance optimal organ functioning, bringing an excess or a depletion state back into balance.

Analgesic or anodynes: These herbs reduce or eliminate pain (used internally or externally) in the digestive, nervous system, and of assistance for muscle, tooth pain and headaches. Some herbs are strong pain relievers; others are mild analgesics or antispasmodics. Examples: black cohosh root, white willow bark, cramp bark, jamacian dogwood, lobelia herb, st. john’s wort herb, skullcap herb, chamomile flowers, lavender flower, feverfew herb and passionflower herb.

Anaphrodisiac: Herbs that reduce sexual desire.

Anthelmintic: Herbs that destroy and dispel worms and parasites from the body. (Also known as vermicides or vermifuges). Examples are: wormwood herb, garlic, rue, tansy and pumpkin seeds.

Anodyne: Herbs that relieve pain and reduce sensitivity of the nerves. (See analgesic)

Antacid: Agents that neutralize the acid produced by the stomach and relieve indigestion. Examples are: marshmallow root, meadowsweet herb, barberry, fennel, sweet flag and slippery elm.

Anthelmintic: An agent that destroys and expels worms from the intestines. (Same as a vermifuge).

Antibilious: Herbs which work with the liver and gallbladder to help promote the flow of bile. Examples include barberry, centaury, chamomile, dandelion, fringe tree and wild yam.

Antibiotic: Inhibits the growth of germs, bacteria, and harmful microbes (used either internally or topically). Examples include echinacea, thyme, blue flag, goldenseal, wild indigo and myrrh.

Anticatarrhal: Herbs which assist in the removal of excess catarrhal build up (or phlegm) from the nose, throat, sinuses. Excess mucous production is the body’s natural response in protecting irritated or inflamed mucous membranes from irritation (from foreign pathogens, food irritation or other irritants). Examples include: goldenrod, elderflowers, peppermint, boneset, elecampane, thyme, yarrow, and marshmallow.

Antidiabetic: Agents which assist in blood sugar management. Examples include: goat’s rue, fenugreek, cinnamon, dandelion root, nettle and garlic.

Antidiarrheals: Herbs which astringe and soothe an irritated bowel. Examples are: avens, cinnamon, blackberry, comfrey, red raspberry, tormentil, bistort, and ginger.

Antiemetic: Prevents, helps to reduce or alleviates nausea and vomiting. Examples are: cloves, coriander, ginger, black horehound, lemon balm, meadowsweet and raspberry.

Antifungal: Herbal agents that can destroy fungus, candida and thrush (for both internal and external use). Examples are marigold, echinacea, myrrh, wild indigo, thuja, garlic and pau d’arco.

Antihaemorrhagic: Agents which are powerful astringents able to arrest mild to moderate bleeding. Examples include: cayenne, marigold, shepherd’s purse, american cranesbill, pilewort, plantain, tormentil, ladies mantle, beth root and lung wort.

Antihistamines: Non sedating herbals and supplements which arrest production of histamine in the body, used in allergic conditions and seasonal allergies. Examples are: garlic, nettles, elderflowers, peppermint, quercetin, hyssop, eyebright, black cohosh, chamomile and devils claw.

Antiinflammatory: Herbals which help to minimize inflammation, and support rather than hinder the bodies natural cleansing and healing process. There are numerous groups of anti inflammatories, some herbal examples include: chamomile, licorice, white willow, wild yam, meadowsweet, black cohosh, devils claw and lignum vitae.

Antilithic: Assist to prevent the formation of stones in the kidneys and bladder and can assist in the removal of stones once present. Examples include: stoneroot, hydrangea, gravel root, chanca piedra.

Antimicrobial: Agents which help the body resist or destroy foreign pathogens by increasing the body’s resistance to infection, (through a strong antiseptic or antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal action). Examples are: echinacea, myrrh, goldenseal, thuja, thyme, propolis, marigold, wild indigo.

Antiperiodic: Prevents the periodic return of a recurrent disease; as in malaria. Examples: barberry, peruvian bark, yarrow.

Antiperspirants: Herbs that reduce sweating. Examples include sage, chlorophyll. Essential oils used topically, include rose geranium, rosemary, sage, pine and lavender.

Antiphlogistic: Herbs that counteract inflammation.

Antipyretic: reduces fever by reducing the production of heat; destroying fever, eliminating toxins, help to induce sweating to increase the heat loss; assist in the drawing out of heat (e.g., cold baths). (Same as febrifuge or refrigerant.)

Antirheumatic: Herbs that relieve or cure rheumatism. Examples include black cohosh, white willow, guaiacum, devils claw, wild yam, prickly ash.

Antiscorbutic: Effective in the prevention or treatment of scurvy.

Antiscrofulous: agents to reduce imflammation and swelling. (See lymphatics)

Antiseptic: prevents decay or putrefaction. A substance that inhibits the growth and development of microorganisms. Examples are: thyme, Peruvian bark, barberry, wild indigo.

Antispasmodic: Relieves or prevents involuntary muscle spasm or smooth muscle cramps. Examples: cramp bark, black haw, black cohosh, lobelia, valerian, skullcap, hyssop, chamomile, peppermint and spearmint.

Antisyphilitic: Herbs that traditionally were used to improve or cure syphilis. Also called antiluetic. 

Antitussive: Prevents or improves a cough. Examples include fenugreek, mullein, pleurisy root, marshmallow, licorice, white horehound, thyme, coltsfoot.

Antivenomous: Acts against poisonous matter from animals.

Antizymotic: Herbs that destroy disease-producing organisms.

Aperient: A mild or gentle laxative which promotes natural function and movement of the bowels. Also called aperitive. Example: rhubarb, yellow dock, dandelion root, figs, licorice, dandelion, flaxseed.

Aphrodisiac: An agent that restores or increases libido, sexual power and desire. Two types: Tonics and stimulants: tonify the tissues and increase the functioning of the reproductive organs. Examples include: Angelica, bee pollen, royal jelly, damiana, saw palmetto, muira puama, fo-ti, ginseng, hibiscus, rose, fo-ti, licorice. Aromatherapy includes Ylang Ylang, Patchouli and Jasmine essential oil. 

Appetizer: Herbs used for stimulating the appetite. Examples: Cardamom, coriander, gentian, fenugreek, caraway, chamomile, lemon balm.

Aromatic: Herbs containing volatile oils creating a pleasant, fragrant scent. Examples: aniseed, cardamom, caraway, chamomile, ginger, dill, spearmint, cinnamon, cloves, fennel, peppermint, and turmeric.

Astringent: Herbs which are known to cause a local contraction and tightening of the tissues, blood vessels and mucous membranes. Astringents traditionally were used to stop internal bleeding or hemorrhage, reduce secretions and excretions, used externally to tighten tissues, reduce inflammation and catarrhal discharge, stops diarrhea. Examples are agrimony, beth root, golden rod, pilewort, witch hazel, white oak bark, american cranesbill, plantain, tormentil and yarrow.

Ayurvedic medicine: Ayur (life) vedic (science) sacred traditional medicine originating from India dating back to Babylonian times, incorporating the use of yoga, herbs, meditation, fasting to balance the mind, body and spirit. Ayurveda is deeply integrated into the Hindu philosophy.

Balsam: The resin of a tree that is healing and soothing. For example: myrrh, peru balsam.

Balsamic: a healing or soothing agent.

Bitter: a bitter needs to be tasted to effectively stimulate the digestive processes. Taken before a meal to help stimulate the appetite, assist in enhancing the sense of smell and taste. Examples: avens, barberry, wormwood, rue, tansy, gentain and golden seal. Do not use in pregnancy, avoid use in conditions of digestive ulceration, or excess stomach acid.

Information given here is for consumer education only. It is not meant to replace the advice of a qualified health care professional in a clinic environment nor is it intended to treat or claim to treat illness.