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An introduction to herbal energetics

  • Sebastian Pole
    Sebastian Pole

    I am a registered member of the Ayurvedic Professionals Association, Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine and a Fellow of the Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners. I qualified as a herbalist with the aim of using the principles of Ayurveda (the ancient art of living wisely) and the Herbal tradition to help transform health. I have been in clinical practice since 1998.

    Having co-founded Pukka Herbs in 2001 I have become experienced in organic herb growing, practitioner grade quality and sustainable value chains. I am a Trustee of the FairWild Foundation, a Director of The Betonica School of Herbal Medicine and an Advisor to The American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and The Sustainable Herbs Project. Fluent in Hindi, a qualified Yoga therapist and passionate about projects with a higher purpose, I am on a mission to bring the incredible power of plants into people’s life. And that is why I started Herbal Reality and what it is all about.

    I live in a forest garden farm in Somerset growing over 100 species of medicinal plants and trees. And a lot of weeds!

    Author of Ayurvedic Medicine, The Principles of Traditional Practice (Elsevier 2006), A Pukka Life (Quadrille 2011), Celebrating 10 Pukka years (2012) and Cleanse, Nurture, Restore with Herbal Tea (Frances Lincoln 2016).

    Listen to our Herbcast podcast with Sebastian as the host.

  • 24:51 reading time (ish)
  • Ayurvedic Herbal Medicine Chinese Herbal Medicine Western Herbal Medicine

Herbal energetics are the descriptions Herbalists have given to plants, mushrooms, lichens, foods and some minerals based on the direct experience of how they taste, feel and work in the body. All traditional health systems use these principles to explain how the environment we live in and absorb, impacts our health. Unsurprisingly for cultures deeply rooted in Nature, a natural and elemental language is used to describe the tastes, qualities and effects of these plants and ingredients. You might consider that energetics are a way to describe the therapeutic character and personality of a plant.

An introduction to herbal energetics

Traditional healing systems understand that human health is an extension of environmental health and that it is the relationship between the two which health depends upon. Understanding the patterns expressed in our ecosystem and whether it is dry, humid, warm or cold, offers valuable insights into how our human organism might respond in our environment. Understanding how these patterns are expressed in individual plants leads to expertise in herbal energetics. Ultimately, on our co-evolutionary path we have developed complex physiological and psychological systems to understand and benefit from plants.

Deduced by acute sensory observation and the direct experience of generations of practitioners, herbal energetics are the way we describe nature’s natural pharmacology. The character of a plant is often described in terms of the polar opposites of temperature, moisture, direction and texture; hot-cold, wet-dry, up-down, rough-smooth but also including tastes, colour, smell, feeling and sound. The language of energetics is the language of nature, it’s the language we use to describe how we experience life and how it makes us feel.  As the Chinese Traditional Inner Classic says ‘Hot diseases must be cooled and cold diseases must be warmed’, so these herbal classifications guide the herbs to be used in a treatment.

This approach to interpreting nature’s pharmacology emphasises the qualitative nature of the plant as opposed to how much of what molecule is in it. However, there are quantitative assessments in terms of strength and hierarchy of some energetics; for example the Galenical classification of ranking extremes of hot or cold in the first, second or third degree. This energetic approach is certainly more macrocosmic than microcosmic, more holistic than reductionist, more vitalistic than chemical, more systemic than cellular. And its just one of the ways that herbalists interpret how to use herbs; herbal energetics are always used in conjunction with the other aspects of knowledge based on the collective insights into specific herbal actions and doses.

We share detail on how Traditional Western, Chinese and Ayurvedic approaches describe the energetics of health. (Whilst broadly in agreement, other Galenic, Eclectic, Physiomedical, Kanpo, Native American and other health traditions contain their own particular insights we have not been able to cover here). The detail can be quite technical and nuanced so a real understanding of energetics must be learnt from a good teacher and directly experienced. It is important to remember that energetic classifications need to be interpreted in the context of the individual’s constitution and presenting patterns, as well as the seasonal climate and the dose. Herbalists always consider ‘who’ is having ‘how much’ of ‘what’ and ‘when’ in order to individualise the theory into practice.

Whilst exploring this world of energetics, experiment for yourself; some plants are hot, heating and lively – just chew some fresh ginger-, and some are much more cooling and calming – sip some chamomile tea. Some plants dry our mouth like a strong cup of black tea and some moisten it by chewing on a few linseeds or a bit of marshmallow root. All sorts of other physiological and emotional responses may be felt at more subtle levels with each herb.  This polarity is also seen in concepts of yin-yang  in Chinese culture  and purusha-prakriti in Indian world views.

The best books on energetics are the original classics of traditional medicine (e.g. Galen, Culpepper, Charaka, Sushruta, Bhavaprakasha, Huang-ti Nei Ching, Shen Nong Bencao, Shang Han lun, Li Shizhen’s Bencao Cangmu).

Some of our favourite modern books on energetics are:

Traditional herbal medicine energetics

The three primary energetic qualities are temperature, tone and moisture. These are used to describe body systems, organs and tissues in the body. They help herbalists understands the patterns of a patient’s condition, so they can prescribe herbs personalised for them and their constitution. 

Temperature 

Temperature in the context of herbal energetics refers to the heating or cooling effects of herbs and foods.

Warming herbs are typically ‘hot’, ‘spicy’ or ‘pungent’ due to the presence of aromatic oils. Generally these herbs bring ‘warmth’ to the tissues by stimulating circulation and dilating the micro-capillaries thus creating an opening effect within the cardiovascular system that increases blood movement and therefore perfusion to the tissues. Warming herbs are often also diaphoretic- meaning that they stimulate the sweat reflex- this action could be seen as a contradictory as it is essentially ‘cooling’. However, the action of warming herbs remains to increase peripheral circulation and therefore is classified as warming to the body tissues. Some examples include chilli, garlic, horseradish, cinnamon and ginger. The nature of the herbs chosen depends on the affected tissues and unique presentation of the patient.

Horseradish (Amoracia rusticana/Cochlearia armoracia)
Horseradish (Amoracia rusticana/Cochlearia armoracia)

In Ayurveda, hot substances are usually used to treat cold, contracted and hypo or sluggish conditions. Beneficial to kapha and vata, it dries damp, phlegm and warms cold. As ‘like increases like’ pungent herbs encourage agni and digestion to function at optimum level. Herbs that are heating usually contain volatile oils or mustard glycosides that stimulate gastric secretions as well as assimilation of nutrients.  Heating herbs have a particular affinity for the heart, head, liver and lungs and are commonly used when they are imbalanced but may damage them if used unjudiciously. Pungent, sour and salty herbs tend to be heating. In TCM warming herbs heat the body, stimulates qi and move the blood. 

Cooling herbs may be used for conditions that are classified as hot or inflammatory by nature. They work via a number of different actions – some by reducing inflammation, others by detoxifying the blood or lymph or by moderating the function of specific tissues. Diaphoresis is another cooling action of herbs which works by stimulating the sweat reflex and reducing heat in the body through the skin. Examples of cooling herbs include; cleavers or  burdock due to their ability to help decrease toxicity and stagnation in the tissues via the lymphatic system. Bitter herbs such as andrographis, dandelion and golden seal root have a systemic cooling effect due to their ability to enhance metabolic function and support liver detoxification which reduces inflammatory heat toxins in circulation around the body. The nature of the herbs chosen depends on the affected tissues and the unique presentation of the patient. 

According to Ayurveda cooling herbs benefit pitta whilst aggravating kapha and vata; cold natured herbs soothe painful and inflammatory heat conditions. Digestion is easily damaged by cold natured herbs and should be used cautiously when there is diarrhoea and sluggish digestion from cold. Cold herbs have an affinity for the stomach, the kidneys and the bladder and can weaken them if used excessively. Bitter, astringent and sweet herbs tend to be cooling. In TCM cooling herbs cool the body, remove heat, reduces redness and bleeding. They also consider that they can slow digestion and increase urination.

Moisture

Moisture refers to the drying or moistening effects of herbs that may be astringent or unctuous, heating or cooling, in their qualities.

Drying herbs tend to have astringent or tonic qualities. This means that they pucker the tissues thus increasing their barrier functions. Drying herbs may have diuretic actions which work by increasing the output of fluid from the body. They may also be astringent due to tannin content. Drying herbs are used to help tonify the tissues to reduce excess secretions, phlegm or mucous. Drying herbs may also be used to help in tissue healing particularly where they have become flaccid and lacking in tone. Drying herbs include rose, lady’s mantle, blackberry leaf, raspberry leaf, agrimony and elderflower. Not all drying herbs will be suitable in all cases of moist/ excess fluid type conditions. Tannin rich herbs are also limited to short term use. A herbalist will select a combination of herbs based on the unique circumstances of the patient.

Any plant with a dry quality is naturally astringent, absorbs moisture and therefore reduces damp-kapha and increases dry-vata. They are usually high in tannins and may also be heating as well (as heat dries fluids). Most plants have tannins in but certain barks and fruits are especially astringent. Haritaki (Terminalia chebula) is dry.

Moistening herbs bring a demulcent or soothing effect to inflamed or dry tissues. These herbs may be used where there is irritation due to dryness or lack of productivity in the tissues. Moistening herbs tend to be rich in mucilage (a carbohydrate rich plant substance) that forms a slippery and softening protective layer over the tissues. Sometimes herbs have a moistening effect due to oil content or by their ability to nourish the tissues- others by their ability to deliver or stimulate fluid production in certain tissues. Moistening herbs that are rich in mucilage include herbs such as marshmallow, slippery elm, psyllium and aloe vera. Oily moistening herbs coconut oil and castor oil. Herbs that stimulate the production of fluids may include; fenugreek  and maca. These all impact different tissues so the nature of the herbs chosen depends on the affected tissues and unique presentation of the patient.

In Ayurveda these moist herbs are referred to as Unctuous (snigdha). These herbs are soft, demulcent and oily. They are strengthening, increase virility, fertility and kapha. They are usually sweet, heavy and contain a high content of volatile oils, mucilage or essential fatty acids. Hemp seeds (Cannabis sativa) and oil are unctuous.

Tone 

Tone refers to how tense or relaxed tissues are. Tone is used to describe the status of the lining of organs called epithelium or to describe the level of integrity of muscles and other tissues. Healthy tone of the tissues or muscles will usually correspond with balanced function of the organs and with a relaxed, and easy composure or stance. Too much tension impedes flow, and flaccidity means that function is at less than optimum. Herbs can affect tone in many different ways. Some herbs are able to increase tone and others are able to relax the tissues where there is excess tension or constriction. Tonics are often confused with toning herbs as ‘toning’ refers to tissue quality whereas ‘tonics’ generally refers to herbs that bring energy and are more like adaptogens.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
Catnip (Nepeta cataria)

Relaxing herbs are used when there is too much tension, tightness and constriction. Constriction can be both physically restricting and mentally and emotionally. For example, it can restrict the movement of fluids and blood, as well as creativity. Symptoms of this tissue state can include muscle tension, spasms, insomnia, anxiety, emotional irritability and exhaustion. Relaxing herbs are numerous from lemon balm and chamomile to motherwort and Valerian.

Neutralising herbs are neither relaxing or toning as they operate in a neutral field with regard to tissue quality. They may however be warming, cooling , ascending descending etc.

Toning herbs are used when there is excessive slackness, softness and weakness. Atony is used to describe states where tissues are without tone, flaccid, and too relaxed to be working at optimum. They often overflow with fluids as they can’t hold onto them, and this can include runny mucus or diarrhoea. Indicators of lax/atony include poor muscle tone, weak tissues, clammy skin and random sweats.  Toning herbs vary from astringents such as agrimony and meadowsweet to adaptogens such as astragalus and rhodiola.

Tastes

All traditional herbal systems use taste as a means to understand how herbs work and influence health. The Sanskrit word for taste is rasa, and it is a very pregnant word: as well as meaning taste, it can mean ‘essence’, ‘juice’, ‘sap’, ‘lymphatic fluid’, ‘flavour’ and ‘delicious’. Just saying the word sounds ‘juicy’ … raa-ssa, rasa, RASA. Flavour is the essence of life – it affects everything. 

Sweet: Ayurveda considers the sweet flavour is made from the elements of earth and water. This means that it has the qualities of these two building blocks; ie earth is heavy and descending and, like water, it is wet and cold (when water is subjected to heat it becomes hot but in its ‘primordial’ state it is cold). Sweet is the flavour of love, of sharing and of compassion. We give sweets to friends as an act of sharing and companionship. It is considered the most spiritually sattvic of flavours and is used to heighten experience of clarity and awareness of the spiritual aspect of life. In TCM sweet herbs are often Qi and Spleen tonics.

We all know the sweet flavour. Its main receptors are at the front of the tongue. Sweet comes from sugars; glucose, sucrose, fructose, maltose. They are made up of short (mono) and long (poly) chains of saccharides. It is the flavour of energy. Many carbohydrates, fats and proteins are sweet and their potential energy is measured in kilajoules. Foods and herbs with the sweet flavour are considered to be tonics; they build and nourish all the tissues; licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), beetroot (Beta vulgaris) and shatavari (Asparagus racemosa) are sweet and nourish the deeper reproductive tissues. The sweet flavour increases ojas and the integrity of the immune system. Many renowned immune tonics have a sweet flavour and are full of immune-modulating saponins and polysaccharides – such as ginseng/ren shen (Panax ginseng) and astragalus/huang qi (Astragalus membranaceus).

Sweet substances and experiences increase fluid-kapha and reduce hot-pitta and nervous-vata. As a demulcent, soft, soothing and wet flavour it reduces some of the dryness and weakness associated with nervous imbalance. It is a tissue healer and sweet herbs are often used for hastening wound repair (eg aloe vera or licorice). Sweet benefits the mucus membranes lining the mouth, lungs, digestive, urinary and reproductive systems. The sweet taste can help to clear a dry throat and lungs by enhancing expectoration. Its cooling anti-inflammatory tendencies help to remove the intense heat of pitta or ‘-itis’ conditions (eg bronchitis). This is also helped by its softening mild laxative effect. It benefits the complexion, improves hair and nail quality and is the best flavour for a smooth voice. Following the principle of ‘like increases like’ you want to increase your sweet experiences and flavours in life to be truly nourished, loved and cherished. 

Used in concentrated excess, such as with refined sugar/pastries/ice creams, it can increase mucus and promote congestion. It can cause congestion, ama, fever, chest and breathing problems, swollen lymph glands, flaccidity, heaviness, worms, fungal infections, obesity, and diabetes. Exceptions to this rule of sweet substances increasing kapha are honey, mung beans and barley; they are actually considered to balance excess moisture.

Elderberries (Sambucus nigra)
Elderberries (Sambucus nigra)

Sour: Ayurveda considers the sour flavour is made from the elements of earth and fire. Its qualities are hot, oily and light. It creates both dampness and heat in the body and mind. It stimulates digestion and clears dryness. Sour foods make the mouth moist and increase the flow of saliva. When taken in excess it draws the tissues inwards and ‘puckers’ the lips, making the body horripilate all over. This contraction creates an emotional reluctance to share things. Eating too much sour flavoured food encourages envy and can make your experience of life feel like ‘sour grapes’.  According to TCM the sour flavour astringe and prevent leakage of fluids and qi, travels in the sinews, entering the Liver.

The sour flavour is found in acids; citric, lactic, malic, oxalic and ascorbic. The receptors for the sour flavour are found on taste buds on the sides of the tongue. The acids have a direct effect on digestion by promoting liver function through various mechanisms; as sour flavours can reduce stomach acid it also means that the liver needs to produce less acid neutralising alkaline fluids. Sour flavours also increase the flow of bile that helps to encourage digestion of fats. Unripe fruits are sour and are commonly used as digestive chutnies in India. Sour fruits such as amalaki (Emblica officinalis) are high in Vitamin C and protective polyphenols considered to be rejuvenating and tonic herbs. Wu wei zi (Schizandra spp) are one of the sourest and most binding of TCM herbs.

As the sour flavour aggravates heat and liquifies mucus it is not usually beneficial in hot and damp conditions. It is also considered to vitiate the blood and it is recommended that the sour flavour is avoided in skin diseases. Most fermented foods are sour; fermented yoghurt, sour dough breads, vinegar, pickles and alcohol are sour foods that increase heat and mucus in the body. Sour nourishes all the tissues bar the deepest reproductive tissue (shukra). It alleviates aggravations of the nervous system as it is said to draw scattered vitality back. It is a specific carminative useful to promote digestion whilst also removing gas and indigestion. Amalaki, lemons and pomegranate seeds (Punica granatum) are the exception to the rule that the sour flavour aggravates pitta as they actually reduce heat and inflammation.

In excess sour can cause dizziness, thirst, burning sensations, fever, itching, anaemia and skin diseases.

Salty: Ayurveda considers that the salty flavour is predominantly made from the water and fire elements. It creates moisture and heat and is heavy and sinking. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening. A sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. It is an easily recognisable flavour and its receptors are at the front of the tongue. Its sinking and heavy effect is very grounding for the nervous system and this encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth’. In TCM salt purges and softens, travels in the blood and enters the Kidneys.

The use of salt is a good lesson in the importance of dosage. In correct quantities it is vital to our very existence and is as essential to our health as water and food. It can save life when there is dehydration. In contrast to this a sprinkle too much will cause an ulcer and aggravate stomach acidity. Excess salt consumption also causes water retention with the concomitant results of oedema and High Blood Pressure. This physical holding is reflected in its emotional effects as it causes greed and encourages the desire for more flavour. 

Salt is found in minerals and there are different types of salt classified in Ayurveda; rock, sea, black, pink and sonchala. Rock is considered the best as it is very high in minerals and, unlike the other salts, does not cause such water retention and it is not detrimental to the eyes. Salty is the rarest flavour in the Ayurvedic materia medica, not found in many herbs. It is found in shilajit, a natural mineral rock exudate, full of numerous nourishing minerals. Horsetail (Equisetum arvense), seaweeds, and celery are other examples of the salty flavour.

Salt aggravates heat-pitta and fluid-kapha. It also disrupts the blood and is contraindicated in skin diseases as well as bleeding problems. Its use in marinades reflects its softening quality and it is used to soften masses and as a demulcent to liquefy mucus. It stimulating the appetite, moistening dryness and nourishing the nervous system. It is a mild laxative at a medium dose (3g) and an emetic at higher dose (5-10g).

In excess it causes ulcers, skin diseases, grey hair, baldness and thirst.

Pungent/Acrid: Ayurveda considers the pungent flavour is a combination of the fire and air elements. Its qualities are hot, dry and light as well as penetrating and ascending. The acrid heat of hot foods and spices spreads throughout the whole system. Too much heat, whether climatic or dietary, is known to cause ‘hot’ emotions ranging from passion and excitement to anger and irritation. It is the most excitatory and volatile of the tastes. In TCM the acrid flavour disperses and moves, travels in the qi, enters the Lungs.

It is primarily found in the aromatic volatile oils, resins, oleo-resins and mustard glycosides. All these compounds are used to stimulate, invigorate, dry and clear the accumulation of wet, stagnant and congestive conditions. The essential oils of ginger (Zingiber officinale) and black pepper (Piper nigrum) are often used for clearing mucus congestion or warming a cold condition. Pungent resins such as guggul (Commiphora mukul) and frankincense (Boswellia serrata) also invigorate the flow of blood, scrape out toxins and reduce cholesterol. The aromatic cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) is an excellent digestive for encouraging sluggish digestion. Unlike the other tastes it does not have a specific taste bud receptor site but works through irritation of local tissue and nerve endings.

Trikatu (Zingiber officinale, Piper longum and Piper nigrum)
Trikatu (Zingiber officinale, Piper longum and Piper nigrum)

Pungent herbs and foods are a panacea for excess dampness as they dry the excess moisture and mucus. Pungent herbs are vital for any weight-balancing programme as they stimulate the metabolism and reduce fat. They directly cook and burn toxic-ama as well as also clearing it via diaphoresis. The heat encourages vasodilation of the pores of the skin and encourages the body to sweat, therefore throwing off unmetabolised wastes through the skin. The pungent flavour usually increases vata but, in moderation, it can also help to remove the cold stiffness of the joints whilst also encouraging the elimination of wind and digestive cramps. The heat of pungent herbs irritates pitta and should not usually be used where there is inflammation, especially with aggravation of the plasma (rasa) and blood (rakta) tissues. Its drying effect on bodily fluids can cause constipation.

In excess it creates burning, dizziness, thirst and excessive dryness. Ginger (Zingiberis officinale) and cooked garlic (Allium sativum) are the exceptions to the rule that pungent flavours aggravate vata; in fact they benefit it as they increase digestion and reduce intestinal gases.

Bitter: Ayurveda teaches that bitter is created from a combination of space and air elements. Its dominant qualities are cooling, drying and light. It creates space in the body by draining and drying excess fluids. Too many bitter herbs can literally ‘space you out’ and leave you feeling disorientated. Many psychotropics are bitter; eg Psilocybe spp. It has a particular affinity for the blood (rakta). Bitters are usually classified as ‘alteratives’ as they alter the chemical balance of the blood by clearing stagnation and torpor. As they encourage the flow of bile and the activity of the liver this may account for some of bitter’s detoxifying activity. Too much bitter flavour can weaken the kidneys, cause excess urination and emotionally encourages fear and anxiety. In TCM the bitter flavour drains and dries, travels in the bones and enters the Heart.

Whereas in Western herbalism bitters are associated with a tonic effect, in Ayurveda they are considered depleting. The tonic affiliation comes from the low dose, digestive stimulating and liver promoting perspective bitters are associated with. The depleting and cleansing view comes from the experience that relatively larger doses of bitter herbs are cooling, reducing, detoxifying, laxative and diuretic. This is a reminder that any substance can be a food, a medicine or a poison depending on how much is given, who is eating it, when it is eaten and where it is taken.

The bitter flavour is found in sesquiterpenes, anthraquinones, alkaloids and some glycosides. Plants with these properties are renowned for their anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-pyretic and digestive secretion enhancing activities. These compounds are usually found intermixed with pungent and aromatic or astringent tasting plants; all drying flavours. Neem (Azadiracthta indicia), andrographis (Andrographis paniculata) and chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) are well-known bitters famed for their ability to clear infection, heal skin problems and purify the blood. 

Bitter herbs clear damp-kapha and hot-pitta whilst aggravating dry-vata. Excess dampness and heat are reduced as the bitter flavour drains them out of the system. Bitters also promote peristalsis and urination. They are often indicated in lung conditions, especially with infections manifesting with green and sticky mucus. They excel at clearing itching, swelling and oozing on the skin. A little is used as a stimulant to the appetite as the light quality can enhance the appetite and clear the palate. Higher doses are used to kill worms and parasites in the intestines and blood. Bitter herbs also benefit overweight conditions as they can dry and scrape away the adhesions and fatty accumulations.

When misused or incorrectly prescribed they can cause too much dryness and wasting in the body and mind; this can upset the nervous system causing constipation, dizziness, weakness, reduction in semen and dryness of the whole body.

Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)

Astringent:  Astringent is the driest flavour. Ayurveda considers that the astringent flavour is created from a predominance of the earth and air elements it is heavy, cold and dry. As it draws inwards, it dries and reduces. On eating something astringent your whole mouth contracts and draws the mucus membranes closer together. Having too many ‘dry’ and unfulfilling experiences can leave you with a lack of taste for life and even resentful at its lack of zest. 

The astringent flavour is found in tannins. These polyphenols are particularly concentrated in the bark, leaves and outer rind of fruits of plants and trees. They appear to offer some form of outer protection by repairing wounds and neutralising bacteria. They are especially soluble in water; hence the drying nature of a strong cup of tea left to steep for too long. Astringency is often found in combination with plants that also taste sweet or sour. Bibhitaki (Terminalia belerica), haritaki (Terminalia chebula), arjuna (Terminalia arjuna) and guggul (Commiphora mukul) are especially astringent. 

Therapeutically the astringent flavour clears damp-kapha and hot-pitta whilst aggravating dry-vata. It is very useful where there is any leakage of body fluids; bleeding (externally and internally), excessive sweating, enuresis, diarrhoea, excess catarrh, leucorrhoea and premature ejaculation. It holds tissues together and astringent herbs are often used as a wash to help heal wounds. This holding effect also prevents loose and flaccid tissue from accumulating. Using astringent herbs is appropriate to treat sinking problems such as prolapses. Its effect on the digestive system benefits diarrhoea by astringing the bowel and stopping excessive downward flow. This also helps absorption by drawing fluids and nutrients inwards. Astringents are used for pitta inflammations to draw the swelling inwards, cool the heat and also drying any damp suppuration. 

These dry, rough and light qualities are similar to vata.  Because astringent tastes contract the tissues and obstruct the flow of prana and nervous energy in the system it is detrimental to vata. In excess it can cause vata diseases like rigidity, pain in the heart, convulsions and retention of gas, urine and faeces.

Guna: The qualities of the herbs

The specific ‘quality’ of a herb indicates its potential therapeutic activity.

There are twenty qualities listed in Sushruta but these five listed below are the main ones used in Ayurvedic herbal energetics:

Light (laghu)

Plants, foods and minerals that are light have a quality that moves upwards, are easily digested and also remove sluggishness and heavy-kapha. Aromatic and warming herbs often have a light quality. The bitter and astringent flavoured herbs are usually light in nature. Leaves, seeds and fruits are mainly light.  The aromatic Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) seeds are light.

Heavy (guru)

Substances that are heavy sink downwards, are difficult to digest, increase kapha and nourish the whole system. They benefit nervous-vata by opposing its light, dry qualities. Heavy natured herbs are often sweet, salty or sour. Roots, resins, nuts and barks are often heavy. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), is heavy.

Penetrating or Sharp (tikshna)

Herbs with a penetrating or sharp quality are usually pungent, acrid and aromatic. They spread deeply into the tissues, open the channels and by their intense nature increase hot-pitta and reduce sluggish-kapha and stuck-vata. Lemons and vacha (Acorus calamus) have penetrating properties.

Sebastian Pole

I am a registered member of the Ayurvedic Professionals Association, Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine and a Fellow of the Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners. I qualified as a herbalist with... Read more

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