Understanding & Identifying Basic Herbal Actions
Herbalism is a healing art with nuances as diverse as the unique relationships we form with the plants around us. Whether we learn from family, a teacher in our community, a collection of books, or simply work with the herbs near us, understanding the language of herbalism can help us better communicate our experiences with medicinal actions.
Using these common categories allows us to recognize patterns that can inform our learning process when using a new herb, making decisions about formulations, or when we’re in need of a substitute for one of our go-to preparations. Many times, a plant will exhibit several actions, like a bitter calming herb for example, making just a cup of that single herb as a tea or a squirt of tincture the perfect remedy on its own.
Here’s a helpful list of basic herbal action categories with examples of uses and herbs. You might find that some of these definitions are a bit different from one herbalist to the next, but this simplified guide is a great place to start the journey.
Herbs that are drying, drawing, and constricting to help create a barrier for healing. Look for that “puckered” feeling. Topical astringents can be used to ease inflamed bug bites and burns, help pull out splinters or infection from a wound, dry out oozing sores, tighten tissue and gums, tone the skin, and stop bleeding. Internally, astringents work to help tone mucus membranes and dry up conditions of excess, like diarrhea, too much urine, or profuse sweating.
A few astringent herbs:
Herbs often with volatile essential oils that present strong aromas. Most often used to stimulate the digestive system, reproductive system, and disinfect the respiratory tract, or help expectorate the lungs. Some aromatics are also excreted through the urinary tract or the skin.
A few aromatic herbs:
Herbs that help stimulate sexual arousal through varied actions including increased circulation, relaxation, stimulation, or tonics that strengthen glandular health.
A few aphrodisiac herbs:
Herbs that support your body’s own natural defenses in the presence of illness and help restore proper function. Sometimes referred to as “blood cleansers” by herbalists, this action can occur through the lymph, glands, or mucus membranes.
A few alterative herbs:
A diverse group of herbs that help us face and handle stress as it happens – although the classification is often complicated and the boundaries difficult to define. These herbs restore overall balance and strengthen the functioning of the body as a whole without impacting the balance of an individual organ or body system. Adaptogens facilitate these changes by a wide range of actions and energetics, rather than one specific action. Adaptogens can be stimulating and/or relaxing, many help improve focus, support immune system functioning, or provide some other broad-spectrum normalizing influence on unbalanced physiological processes.
A few adaptogenic herbs:
Herbs that help stimulate appetite and digestion by getting gastric juices flowing and your peristalsis moving. Just a drop of this often shunned flavor on the tongue is effective in activating the production of beneficial digestive secretions including saliva, gastric acid, and bile. Helpful for constipation, gas related cramping, sluggish digestive movement, and to support a healthy appetite after an illness or while traveling, for example.
A few bitter herbs:
Nervines are herbs that specifically support the nervous system, so not all calming herbs are nervines. Calming herbs have a range of actions including tonic nervines, mildly calming, anti-spasmodic, and strongly sedative. They are used to relieve nagging muscle tension and spasms, some kinds of pain, circular thoughts, insomnia, and occasional worry we can all experience from time to time.
A few calming herbs:
These herbs are often aromatic and help expel gas from the digestive system. This action can help ease bloating and gas related cramping.
A few carminative herbs:
Herbs that are mucilaginous and produce slime that coats, soothes, and protects mucus membranes, as well as ease dry conditions. This slime action triggers a reflex that helps promote natural moistening secretions within the body systems such as respiratory, digestive, renal, and reproductive. Best extracted as an infusion in water rather than in alcohol tincture form. Helpful for supporting a normal respiratory health and coating otherwise dry internal conditions.
A few demulcent herbs:
These herbs help raise your body temperature to make you sweat and stimulate circulation. This action can also cool the body through increased perspiration. Using diaphoretics may be helpful for breaking dry fevers, erupting skin infections, promoting blood flow to cold extremities, and detoxification.
A few diaphoretic herbs:
Herbs that make you urinate. They help promote the elimination of fluid by increasing the amount of urine expelled by the kidneys. This can be helpful for water retention and urinary tract flushing.
A few diuretic herbs:
Similar to demulcents, these herbs are also mucilaginous, but used as topical applications to help soothe, condition, and protect the skin.
A few emollient herbs:
Herbs that encourage productive coughing by breaking up mucus in the lungs and expelling it more effectively.
A few expectorant herbs:
These herbs are nutritive and can be taken regularly to help strengthen a system without harmful side-effects.
A few tonic herbs:
Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health by Rosemary Gladstar
The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook by James Green
Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth by Sharol Tilgner ND
Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech