Western herbalism is based both on ancient wisdom and modern biomedical knowledge. It is multi-faceted and aims to soothe, balance and restore people’s whole being. In this doctrine of medicine, it is not only herbs which are used, but also nutrition and holistic healthcare techniques are often incorporated into a treatment plan.
Plant and fungi medicine works on many different levels, from pharmacologically to energetically. Patterns in one’s constitution and in a condition are identified, and then plants with the appropriate herbal action are blended to make healing formulas with complex chemodiversity.
Importantly, it also offers us a way back to the Earth.
Traditional Western medicinal herbal terms and actions
Here is a non-exhaustive list of plant/substance classification terms according to Western herbal actions and pharmacology. Click on the name of the herbal action to see a list of all herbs with this action.
Adaptogens are strengthening herbs that help us adapt to stress by interacting with the endocrine system. They help normalise metabolism and nourish the tissues. Examples include licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), ashwagandha root (Withania somnifera), rhodiola root (Rhodiola rosea) and ginseng root (Panax ginseng)
Alteratives are herbs that ‘alter’ the condition in a tissue by eliminating metabolic waste via the liver, large intestine, lungs, lymphatic system, skin and kidneys. Examples include burdock root (Arctium lappa), dandelion root (Taraxacum officinalis), cleavers (Galium aparine), poke (Phytolacca decandra) and nettle leaf (Urtica dioica).
Amphoterics are herbs that bring balance to different organs, tissues and systems by regulating hyper and hypo functioning. Amphoterics create harmony. Examples include licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), oatstraw flowering tops (Avena sativa), hawthorn berry (Crataegus oxycanthoides).
Analgesics are medications that are applied internally or externally to reduce pain, Many of them work by depressing the functions of the central nervous system. Examples of effective analgesics include Jamaican dogwood (Piscidia erythrina), pasqueflower (Anenome pulsatilla), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), corydalis (Corydalis yanghusuo) and wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa). Topically, aconite (Aconitum napellus) and cayenne (Capsicum minimum) are powerful anodynes.
Anthelmintic plants kill or assist in the expulsion of intestinal worms. These plants include andrographis (Andrographis paniculata), cloves (syzygium aromaticum), feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) and myrrh (commiphora molmol).
Anti-inflammatory herbs reduce inflammation in the body. There are different systems in the body that anti-inflammatory plants target. For example for the gastrointestinal tract chamomile, fenugreek and meadowsweet are useful. For the musculoskeletal system rosehips, turmeric and celery seed are useful. For inflammation against immune mediated inflammation gotu kola (centella asiatica), rehmannia (rehmannia glutinosa) and feverfew (tanacetum parthenium) can be useful.
Antimicrobials are herbs that interfere with the proliferation and life-cycle of microbes; bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Examples include thyme leaf (Thymus vulgaris), echinacea (Echinacea species), elderberry (Sambucus nigra).
Antioxidant substances that protect against oxidation and degradation from free radical damage. Plants rich in antioxidant include bacopa (bacopa monnieri), bilberry (vaccinium myrtillus), green tea (camelia sinensis) and thyme (thymus vulgaris).
Antirheumatic medicines prevent or relieve rheumatic symptoms such as joint pains, limited mobility and swelling. Plants that have this effect include celery seed (apium graveolens), black cohosh (cimicifuga racemose), nettle leaf (urtica dioca), devils claw (harpagophytum procumbens) and willow bark (salix alba).
Antispasmodic plants reduce or relieve smooth muscle spasm. They can be helpful for an array of issues including menstrual cramps. Also known as spasmolytics, these plants include aniseed (Pimpinella anisum), blue cohosh (caulophyllum thalictroides), cramp bark (viburnum opulus) and lavender (Lavandula angustofolia).
Astringents contain tannins that act to precipitate proteins and draw tissues together, tightening and toning them to reduce secretions and discharge. Astringents also tend to stop bleeding and can act on tissues with which there is no direct contact. Examples include raspberry leaf (Rubus ideaus), Lady’s Mantle leaf (Alchemilla vulgaris), agrimony leaf (Agrimonia eupatoria), shepherd’s purse leaf (Capsella bursa-pastoris), witch hazel leaf (Hamamelis virginiana) and yarrow leaf (Achillea millefolium).
Bitters stimulate digestion by enhancing digestive secretion and peristaltic movements of the gut. They act via a reflex from the taste buds to the brain then through the vagus nerve to the whole digestive system. Often these herbs are combined with warming digestives to balance the cold nature of bitters. Examples include artichoke leaf (Cynara scolymus), gentian root (Gentiana lutea), wormwood leaf (Artemisia absinthium), Oregon grape root (Mahonia aquifolium), goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis).
Bronchodilator plants cause widening of the bronchi. The bronchi are any of the major air passages of the lungs which diverge from the windpipe. Plants with this action include ephedra (ephedra sinica), nigella sativa and bala (Sida cordifolia).
Cardiotonics are herbs that bring order and strength to the cardiovascular system, speed up or slow down the heart as needed. Examples include hawthorn berry and leaf (Crataegus oxycanthoides), motherwort leaf (Leonurus cardiaca), Lily of the Valley leaf (Convalleria majalis), garlic bulb (Allium sativum), lime flower (Tilia platyphyllos), mistletoe leaf and berry (Viscum album).
Carminative herbs are high in essential oils and help ease digestion by relieving gas, spasms and cramps. Examples include aniseed (Pimpinella anisum), fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare) and peppermint leaf (Mentha piperita).
Cholagogues and choleretics: Cholagogues promote the production of bile in the liver. A choleretic a type of cholagogue that promotes the release of bile from the gall bladder into the duodenum. Cholagogues have an alterative and laxative effect. Cholagogues are contra-indicated if there is acute liver failure, obstructive jaundice, painful gallstones or cholecystitis. Examples include celandine leaf (Chelidonium majus), barberry root (Berberis vulgaris), dandelion root and leaf (Taraxacum officinalis root), and blue flag root (Iris versicolor).
Demulcents are soothing mucilaginous and silky herbs that can be taken internally to soothe and protect damaged or inflamed tissue. Examples include slippery elm bark (Ulmus rubra), marshmallow root (Althea officinalis) and limeflower (Tilia cordata).
Depurative is a substance that improves detoxification and aids elimination to reduce the accumulation of metabolic waste products within the body. They were formerly known as alteratives or blood purifiers and are largely used to treat chronic skin and musculoskeletal disorders. Depurative plants include burdock, echinacea root (echinacea angustofolia), nettle leaf (urtica diocia) and yellow dock (rumex crispus).
Diaphoretics are herbs that cause sweating by increasing circulation in the periphery of the body. Usually used to help to relieve fevers, some examples are Yarrow aerial parts (Achillea millefolium), Elder flowers (Sambucus niger), ginger root (Zingiber officinalis).
Diuretics are herbs that stimulate the flow of urine, and help remove fluids from the body. Common examples are dandelion leaf (Taraxacum officinalis), burdock root (Arctium lappa) and corn silk (Zea mays).
Expectorants are herbs that assist the body in expelling mucus from the upper respiratory tract. Examples include licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), elecampane root (Inula helenium) and Thyme leaf (Thymus vulgaris).
Febrifuge or antipyretic plants reduce or prevent fever. Rehmannia (rehmannia glutinosa), rhubarb root (rheum palmatum), yarrow (achillea millefolium) and willow bark (salix alba) all have antipyretic properties.
Galactagogues are herbs that encourage the flow of breast milk. Examples include Fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare), Celery seed (Apium graveolens) and Shatavari root (Asparagus racemosus).
Hepatics are herbs that generally support liver function by decongesting as well as supporting bile flow. Examples include dandelion root (Taraxacum officinalis), yellow dock root (Rumex crispus), turmeric root (Curcuma longa).
Hypnotics and sedatives are plants that promote a deep and relaxing sleep. They may work through muscle relaxant properties, through the action of volatile oils on the limbic system, or through the presence of alkaloids that affect the central nervous system. Chamomile flowers (Matricaria recutita), lime flower (Tilia platyphyllos), lemon balm leaf (Melissa officinalis), wood betony aerial parts (Stachys betonica), skullcap leaf (Scutelleria lateriflora), wild lettuce leaf (Lactuca virosa), passionflower aerial parts (Passiflora incarnata), ashwagandha root (Withania somnifera), valerian root (Valeriana officinalis), corydalis root (Corydalis yanhusuo), Californian poppy aerial parts (Eschscholzia californica).
Hypolipidemics are herbs which mildly reduce serum lipids, including triglycerides and cholesterol. Examples include hawthorn berry and leaf (Crataegus oxycanthoides), turmeric root (Curcuma longa), guggulu resin (Commiphora mukul), garlic bulb (Allium sativum), and cayenne fruit (Capsicum annuum).
Hypotensives act to reduce high blood pressure by relaxing muscles or through a calming effect upon the central nervous system. Examples include hawthorn berry and leaf (Crataegus oxycanthoides), garlic bulb (Allium sativum), lime flower (Tilia platyphyllos), cramp bark (Viburnum opulus), valerian root (Valeriana officinalis), motherwort leaf (Leonorus cardiaca) and mistletoe leaf and berry (Viscum album)
Immunomodulants restore balance to a dysfunctional immune system. These are often used in chronic autoimmunity, such as Crohn’s and multiple sclerosis. Many immunomodulants are adaptogens, and vice versa. Examples include reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), Astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus), licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Siberian ginseng root (Eleuthrococcus senticosus), ashwagandha root (Withania somnifera) and cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis).
Immunostimulants stimulate the immune system to protect against infection, including non-specific mechanisms, and the specific mechanisms of humoral and cell-mediated immunity. Many immunostimulants are antimicrobials and vice versa, and are used in both acute and chronic infection. Examples include echinacea root and leaf (Echinacea spp.), Garlic bulb (Allium sativum), myrrh resin (Commiphora myrrha), thyme (Thymus vulgaris, andrographis leaf (Andrographis paniculata) and wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria).
Laxative herbs are those that stimulate or promote bowel movements. There are different types of herbs; gentle aperients, like dandelion root (taraxacum officinalis), that have a mild effect; bulk-forming laxatives, like flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum), that increase the water and bulk of the stool; stimulant laxatives is senna leaf (Senna alexandria) that invigorate the muscles of the lower bowel to create a stronger motion.
Nervines are herbs that soothe the nervous system and have a calming effect on the emotions. Examples include oatstraw flowering tops (Avena sativa), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), lavender (Lavandula officinalis), St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), Rosemary leaf (Rosmarinus officinalis), and gotu kola leaf (Centella asiatica).
Relaxant plants promote relaxation and can reduce tension. Herbs with this property include passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) and valerian (valeriana officinalis).
Rubefacients are applied externally and cause a mild local irritation and draw blood to the area through capillary dilation. Rubefacients are used to enhance blood supply to localized areas to remove congestion and promote healing. Examples include cayenne fruit (Capsicum minimum), mustard seed (Brassica spp.), ginger root (Zingiber officinalis), and peppermint leaf (Mentha piperita oil).
Sedatives are substances that reduces activity, particularly in the nervous system and decreases nervous tension. It may alleviate pain, anxiety or spasm and induce sleep. Sedatives include Californian poppy (eschscholzia californica), hops (humulus lupulus), true unicorn (aletris farinosa), and valerian (valeriana officinalis).
Sialogogues are medications that stimulate the production of saliva to treat dry mouth, poor digestion, receding gums and infection including prickly ash bark (Zanthoxylum americanum), echinacea root (Echinacea spp) and spilanthes flower (Spilanthes acmella).
Stimulant substances raise levels of physiological or nervous activity in the body. Plants that are stimulating include cacao, coffee, green tea (camelia sinensis), yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis), kola nut (cola nitida) and guarana (Paullinia cupana).
Thymoleptic medicines modify people’s moods, and oftentimes are antidepressants. Plants that have this action include St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and saffron (Crocus sativus).
Tonics is a slightly controversial term as it seems to apply to herbs that bring tone to an organ or tissue. It is also used to refer to herbs that help the whole system to function better acting as general energy boosters. Examples of herbs that bring tone to the tissues are the astringent goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea). Those that bring energy are cacao (Theobroma cacao), oatstraw flowering tops (Avena sativa) and ashwagandha root (Withania somnifera).
Trophorestorative are substances that which has a healing and restorative action on a specific organ or tissue. Nervous system restoratives include oat straw (avena sativa), skullcap (scuttelaria lateriflora) and damiana (turnera diffusa).
Uterine tonics are substances that increase the tone of the uterine muscle. Uterine tonics include black cohosh (cimicifuga racemose), blue cohosh (caulophyllum thalictroides), false unicorn root (chamaelirium luteum) and true unicorn (aletris farinosa).
Vasodilators are substances that dilates or widens the blood vessels, for example olive leaves (olea europea).
Vulneraries are wound-healing herbs used internally and externally. Astringent herbs such as witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) and shepherd’s purse leaf (Capsella bursa-pastoris) directly stop bleeding and promote the formation of an eschar (scab). Mucilaginous herbs such as plantain leaf (Plantago lanceolata) and selfheal leaf (Prunella vulgaris) soothe inflammation. Some vulneraries are used internally to speed tissue healing, including marigold flower (Calendula officinalis), plantain leaf (Plantago lanceolata), selfheal leaf (Prunella vulgaris), and marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis).
Traditional Western treatment methods
These are based on a combination of Galenic, Thompsonian, Eclectic and Physiomedical approaches.
Treatment plans developed within the Thompsonian and Eclectic traditions looked to find harmony and vitality within the tissue states, with a focus on:
- relaxation of tissues
- contraction of tissues
- stimulation of circulation and vital force
- soothing irritated tissues where there is excess
- nourishing and deficiency in the tissues, organs and vital force
- neutralisation of excess toxins and stagnation
Over time, and with enhanced knowledge of anatomy and physiology, the Physiomedicalists developed a specific set of therapeutics to restore health:
Eliminative functions at the intra-cellular, organ and specific organs of elimination (skin, lungs, bowels and kidneys).
Circulatory dynamics involve the state of capillary contraction or relaxation. Relaxing diaphoretics or stimulating astringents are used to restore balance to the circulatory system.
Nervous equilibrium through regulating levels of irritation or depression of the nervous system. Nervine relaxants and sedatives as well as nervine stimulants focusing on specific organs are utilised.
Trophorestoration is required when any tissue or organ expresses a deficiency of vitality and tone caused by hereditary patterns or overexposure to irritation or depression.
Alteratives enhance the eliminative function of the organs as well as enhance digestion and nutritional absorption.
Traditional Western 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 in herbalism does not just refer to somebodies body temperature, it also refers to their level of metabolic activity.
Tone (energetic diagnostics) 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- see the definitions of ‘relaxants’ and ‘tonics’ for more information on herbal energetics relating to tone.
Moisture (energetic diagnostics) as a word used in energetic diagnostics may be relating to over production of fluids in the body (i.e. phlegm, mucous, digestive fluid). Excess fluid production is often also associated with poor tone and flaccidity in the tissues. There may also be problems with tissue function. It can also be as a result of overstimulation or be associated with specific environmental or dietary triggers such as allergens. Patients may also experience symptoms of congestion and stagnation in the tissues. Mineral imbalance, heart or kidney problems may also be indicated where there is ‘excess moisture’, congestion or fluid retention in the body. The nature of the condition would require specific treatment that targets the unique condition of the patient.
Heat (energetic diagnostics)is the term used to describe inflammation and excitation in the tissues. This pathological heat may be caused by excess toxins in circulation around the body, viruses and other pathogens but it classically refers to inflammation or excitation in the tissues which may have a number of different causes. For example, it may also be linked with hormonal or immunological imbalances or excess stress hormones which can lead to over function and inflammation. Indicators of excitation and heat can include inflammation in the joints, irritation, swelling, dryness (e.g in hair and skin, or if one is abnormally thirsty), an overactive thyroid and irritability. Allergic reactions can also be thought of as excessive excitation in tissues. Cooling herbs may be used to decrease inflammation or heat as well as herbs that moderate the activity of the tissues. Not all cooling herbs are suitable in all cases of heat and excitation. A herbalist will select a combination of herbs to address the unique circumstances of the patient.
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 and dandelion have a systemic cooling effect due to their ability to enhance metabolic function and support liver detoxification which reduces inflammatory toxins in circulation around the body. The nature of the herbs chosen depends on the affected tissues and the unique presentation of the patient.
Coldness (energetic diagnostics) is the opposite of heat and excitation in the tissues of the human body. It is present when there are deficient or inadequate levels of activity and metabolic function. It can indicate low vitality and over time may lead to damage and death in tissues. Characteristics include being unusually physically cold, patients may also have low energy levels and suffer from fatigue, being prone to illness and infection and low metabolic rates. Warming herbs may be used to increase the circulation or stimulate tissue function depending on what is required. However- not all warming herbs are suitable in all cases of coldness. For example, sometimes the issue is more associated with damage and fragility in the cardiovascular system- hot stimulating herbs in this circumstance may be too pushy before work has begun to address the structural integrity of the cardiovascular system. A herbalist will always select a combination of herbs based on the unique circumstances of the patient.
Warming (herbs) Warming herbsare 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. Due to their potent nature, a herbalist will usually only use a small amount of aromatically hot, warming herbs in a formula.
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.
Dry (energetic diagnostics) in energetic herbalism dryness means tissues are atrophied or insufficiently nourished. This leads to the, ineffective balance of fluids in the cells. This either be relating to a deficiency in fats, oils or fluids but it is also sometimes related to under function of the tissues. Some herbal actions that cause drying are diuretics and astringents as they stimulate the release of fluids. Indicators of dryness and atrophy can be dry skin/hair/eyes, constipation with hard stools, joint stiffness and cracking, dry skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. Moistening herbs are indicated for dry tissue states to nourish and support the effective balance of fluid and oils in the tissues.
Damp stagnation occurs when too many fluids build up, which leads to a lack of proper clearance and movement and therefore becomes stagnant. Elimination and detoxification is reduced, as is nutrient absorption. It is similar to what happens to a pool of water if it is not flowing or is not drained. Characteristics include swollen tissues, oedema, brain fog and lethargy.
Moist (herbs) 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 effect different tissues so the nature of the herbs chosen depends on the affected tissues and unique presentation of the patient.
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.
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.
- Bone, K. (2007) The ultimate herbal compendium: A desktop guide for herbal prescribers. Warwick, Qld.: Phytotherapy Press.
- Maier, K. and Gladstar, R. (2021) Energetic herbalism: A guide to sacred plant traditions integrating elements of vitalism, ayurveda, and Chinese medicine. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
- Priest, A and Priest, L. (1983) Herbal Medication, A clinical dispensary handbook. Daniel Company for National Institute of Medical Herbalists, UK.
- For more information on Western herbal formulations, read our article The art and science of herbal formulation: Western herbal medicine