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Herbal Properties and Actions


EGAD!  This (below) is old and not up to my current thinking, which I've been elaborating on in depth in Plant Healer Magazine; you can get a pdf file containing 100 pages (and formatted for printing out and binding) from me for $10 if you'd like to see the more refined telling of my take on energetics and actions; just drop me an email and ask...   jim


I don’t think I could possibly overstate how important it is to understand the properties by which herbs work.  This knowledge is what separates a mediocre herbalist (someone who memorizes the name of a problem and the name of the herb that is listed next to it and says use this for that) from a good herbalist (someone who says, “Ah… dry, enflamed tissues… which mucilaginous herb should I use for this?”).  Understanding these properties opens up new worlds of possibility to the herbal student.  It allows one to more deeply understand the herbs they’re using, and see patterns in both plants and people more clearly.   It also clears up that head scratching that occurs when you’re reading herbal books and have no idea what they’re referring to when they say “anticatarrhal”.


While you could go through this list and try to memorize terms and definitions, the best way to gain an understanding of this material is to do so experientially.  You can read what an astringent is, or you can chew on a green banana peel or wild geranium root and know from experience.  Or you can understand that a mucilage is a viscid, slippery carbohydrate, but making a strong infusion of Marshmallow or Slippery Elm and playing around with the resulting goo will allow you to not only understand with your head, but with your body as well.  And who would want to pass up the opportunity to compare and contrast the varying degrees of bitter?


So… learn this stuff.  Years later, you’ll either be glad you did, or wish you had.


Primal Energetics

I should state that while I've presented these initial energetic considerations as polarities (hot/cold, dry/damp, tense/lax), there are so many exceptions and distinctions to be made when practically applying these concepts that visualizing these qualities on opposing ends of a spectrum is going to cause confusion and frustration and teeth gnashing.  As an example, we could say that demulcent herbs are moistening and astringent herbs are drying, but while moistening and drying is a polarity, astringents and demulcents are not... astringents are really the opposite of relaxants, not demulcents.


If you don't get that, please read on, and hopefully I can clear up and elucidate herbal energetics into the rather commonsense recognition of patterns that it is...


hot ~ cold

It is clear that some herbs are warming and some are cooling.  Give anyone some cayenne pepper and, given the two options, they're sure to pick correctly.  Same goes for iceberg lettuce, or cucumbers... they're just clearly cooling, and you're likely to find wide agreement on this fact.  But, as you move in from the extremes to the middle ground, you'll start to see differences of opinion, even among the wisest of plant people.  To me, that just makes sense, in the same way that everyone will agree that Palm Springs, California in July is hot and Lake Superior in late March is really very cold.  But put them in a "room temperature" hotel and any group of two or more will often disagree as to whether its a bit warm or a bit chill.  When learning to apply the ideas of "heating" and "cooling" to herbs, start with the obvious extremes and work you way in.


Still, there are some general observations about these two categories that can be clarifying and offer insight:


Heating herbs generally speed up processes, increase peripheral circulation, are generally stimulating in nature...........


Cooling herbs slow down processes, soothe either irritations or excess.................


damp ~ dry

Imbalances in the body are often characteristically dry or damp.  This applies throughout the body, but nowhere, perhaps, is it as readily discernable as in the respiratory tract, since when someone coughs, you can often clearly hear which end of the spectrum is manifest.  Likewise, the herbs we use tend to possess either a drying or moistening action.

As it turns out, most herbs are drying, though they can vary greatly not only in degree, but in nature of the "dryness" they impart.  Drying herbs tend to cause dryness via one of two processes:

1.) They result in the release of fluids from the body, like diuretics (fluid lost through pee), diaphoretics (fluid lost through sweat), bitters (fluid lost through bile), galactagogues (fluid lost through breastmilk), emmenogogues (fluid lost through blood), sialogogues (fluid lost through drool), expectorants/decongestants (fluid lost through mucous), emetics (fluid lost through vomit), aphrodisiacs (fluid lost through... you probably get the picture).

But, of course, we need to thicken the plot a bit...


The same drying herbs that release fluids from the body in some ways moisten tissues as the fluids are released.  For example, the skin will go from dry to moist with the use of an appropriate diaphoretic. This, though, is a local and transient phenomenon, one to be utilized for a limited duration of time; if it makes you secrete a fluid or stimulates some type of evacuation, it’s still constitutionally drying, because there is less fluid in the body as a result of its action.  But sometimes just establishing - or reestablishing - the flow of fluids through a given tissue will restore proper function, and with that, moisture.


Another consideration is that the "dampness" in the body calling for the use of this class of "drying" herbs can often be seen as a "stagnation" of some sort.  By stimulating the flow of fluids associated with a given organ, system or tissue, we help to break up that stagnation and resolve the problems that go along with it; as a general rule of thumb, anywhere you have stagnation in the body, you have an imbalance that needs to be addressed.

2.) Astringents are considered drying. This is both a correct and misleading way to understand what they do. Astringent herbs don't really cause the loss of fluids from the body... in fact, they often are used to help retain fluid from being lost (for example, blackberry root being used to stop diarrhea, shepherd's purse to staunch uterine bleeding, or staghorn sumach to help resolve excessive urination). But a simple taste of an astringent leaves the mouth (i.e. the mucous membranes) dry (think about the dryness you get from sipping green tea, or from taking a bite of a too green banana). What astringents do is restore tone to tissues by causing them to constrict. It is this constriction - generally of the outer surface of the tissues - causes dryness. In western herbalism, these herbs were sometimes referred to as "tonics": herbs that restored tone to tissues. In most cases, short term use of astringents causes a localized dryness, while helping to preserve fluids constitutionally. Prolonged use, however, or the use of very strong astringents can constrict tissues too much (and not just on the surface), and in doing so impairs their proper function by both robbing them of fluids and impairing their ability to absorb or secrete fluids.

So we might say that "drying herbs" that cause loss of fluids from the body a constitutionally drying while sometimes moistening locally, and astringents are locally drying while they initially help to retain fluids on a constitutional level... this distinction is exceptionally important, as lumping together these differing qualities under the simplified assessment "drying" can lead to inappropriate use or inappropriate avoidance.


That insight is worth re-reading until you get it.

Moistening herbs generally come in four types:

1.) Demulcent/emollient herbs that moisten via mucilage.  We should be aware, though, that this is not always a direct effect of the mucilage coming into contact with tissues. In the GI tract, there's a moistening effect via contact, but this isn't the case with, say, the lungs. Still, mucilages almost universally moisten mucous membranes, even if they don't come into contact with them. Degrees to which mucilaginous herbs moisten is roughly proportional to how mucilaginous they are; slippery elm and marshmallow a very mucilaginous and very moistening, plantain is mildly mucilaginous and mildly moistening.  Sassafras and violet leaves are in the middle.

2.) "Sweet tonics" are mildly moistening. Think of "yin tonic" in the TCM sense - herbs like American Ginseng, Codonopsis, licorice.

3.) Herbs rich in fixed oils (think of most seeds and nuts), or that affect oil utilization are moistening.  Flax (the freshly ground seeds, not the probably rancid oil), in addition to fixed oils is rich in mucilage, and so especially useful.  Some herbs may not actually contain a lot of fixed oils, but somehow help in there optimal utilization.  Burdock is an example of an herb that affects oil utilization.  Also, we should consider the incredibly important role of Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids found in wild fatty fish, wild game, and other animals with a free ranging wild eating lifestyle.

4.) Some warming, oily aromatics can moisten, if only superficially. Angelica and Osha are examples. This may seem strange, because these are herbs that are generally used to treat wet coughs (and they do indeed have a notable drying action). But they are really oily herbs, and the moisture they offer is oil moisture, not water moisture. So, if someone needs water moisture, they won't help much and might aggravate, but if someone needs oil moisture for some acute situation, they can be very helpful. I (who tends to be dry) can use these without much aggravation, but their potential to aggravate if there's water dryness can be tempered by adding a bit of mucilage.  A practical example of this is to use Osha on a dry cough; the mucous dries up, but the lung tissues are moistened to a degree by the clearance of Osha's antimicrobial oils.



Tissues can become too tense, or too lax/weak. 


Tension or spasm in tissues impedes the flow of the circulation and the body's vital energy.  Relaxants are usually called for here... normally people refer to these as "antispasmodics", but I feel that relaxants more faithfully conveys the nature of there action: they relax resistance to the healthy flow of energy in the body.  Aromatic herbs can ease tension via their inherently dispersive nature (think of chamomile relieving tension and expelling gas in the gut), acrid herbs are often notable antispasmodics (kava and lobelia being notable here), and stinky/skunky smelling herbs (valerian, cannabis, poppy) are often pain relievers and sedatives, helping to resolve tension as a reaction to pain.


We should also consider that demulcents can result in a lessening of tension, because dry tissues are more prone to be tight; just think about an old, dried out piece of leather; it lacks pliability and gets "stiff".  In such a case, the strongest antispasmodics available will do little good if the underlying cause of dryness is not addressed.  On a similar note, nervine herbs will be needed if tension arises from mental stress of agaitation.


Laxity or weakness in tissues calls for astringents, as astringents help to cause the tissues to constrict and tighten up; think of the puckering, tightening sensation you get if you eat a banana that's not ripe enough, or the milder expression of this that accompanies sipping on green tea.  Prolapse is a form of laxity (think about the way a balloon looks that's been blown up for a week and then deflated).  Other tissues may get "spongy" when they lose tone (such as the gums or prostates).



In William Cook's Physio-Medical Dispensatory, he discusses the difference between herbs he calls "diffusives" and "permanents":


"Impressions made upon the nerves are conveyed with rapidity.  Sometimes, this rapidity may be so great as almost to resemble a shock.  Hence agents that are principally conveyed by the nerves, manifest themselves speedily; while those that act principally by absorption, are more tardy in working their effects.  A great many agents act through both media, and that in every conceivable ratio; hence these may first manifest a prompt, sudden action, which will apparently have passed away, and subsequently be absorbed, and make a renewal of the original impression in a less intense but more persistent manner.  Agents acting principally on the nerves are, therefore, more diffusive and transient, while those relying upon the slower process of absorption are more permanent.  These terms are, of course, merely relative; for some agents which are absorbed (as capsicum) may first make a diffusive impression through the nerves, and follow this by an influence of a slower and more persistent kind through the entire frame.  But, while this nomenclature is not absolute, it is sufficiently explicit to warrant its general use - employing the terms only as referring to time, and not to extent."


An interesting example of this relationship is found in Burdock; the seeds are diffusive, while the root is permanent.


Foundational Actions

An herb'



Aromatic herbs are those that contain strong smelling volatile essential oils. These oils tend to be anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and are “dispersive” in nature, which is to say that they help break up stagnation of all sorts.  This can be respiratory congestion, intestinal gas, or even cluttered minds & cloudy thinking.  Although not exclusively so, aromatics are often relaxants, acting perhaps as antispasmodics to help relieve tension and spasm, perhaps as calming nerviness to allay nervous stress and anxiety (and frequently both). Though it sounds strange to say, aromatic herbs are also very often stimulating, and some are both relaxant and stimulant (to wrap your head around this apparent contradiction, try vigorously scratching your head. You’ll find that any tension there is relaxed, but that the scratching also stimulates increased blood & energy flow). Aromatics often act as diuretics as well, as the volatile oils are processed by the kidneys, which find them irritating and increase urine output to “flush” them out of the body. This is what provides aromatic’s antimicrobial effect; the antiseptic oils in the urine bathe the tissues of the urinary system as they are swept out of the body.  Examples are innumerable… Sage and Fennel are a couple.



Astringents are herbs that cause tissue to contract, and so are indicated when tissues are weak, atonic and/or “leaking” (the tissues don’t have the tone they need to hold in fluids), swollen or injured. They may be used to stop bleeding (In which case they are called styptics/hemostatics).  A good way to conceptualize tissues that need “astringing” is to think about a balloon that’s been blown up and emptied out so many times it’s lost its resiliency; the latex is weakened and lax.  Or, sometimes weak tissues get "spongy" (think of spongy, bleeding gums).

Most people are quite familiar with astringency… that bite of green banana that you thought was ripe enough? That sensation of puckering and dryness is astringency. The strength of astringent herbs varies widely, from the very gentle strawberry to the moderate green tea to the significantly strong oak. Pretty much all things that taste sour are astringent to some degree.

Astringents are generally considered “drying” in nature because of the sensation they offer, though they can help the body retain fluid on a larger scale by preventing excessive urination caused by weak renal tissues. They have a local anti-inflammatory action, and can also act as antimicrobials by toning tissues, they make it harder for bacteria to adhere to them.  Cranesbill, Sumach, Oak, and most of the rose family are examples.



Herbs containing mucilage are referred to as “demulcents” when used internally, and “emollients” when applied externally. Mucilage refers to a carbohydrate that, when moistened with water, becomes viscid and slimy. Michigan herbalist Joyce Wardwell calls these herbs “slimaceous”, which is both an appropriate and memorable term. Mucilaginous herbs lubricate tissues, ease dryness, and soothe inflammation, irritation and injury. Though it makes sense that demulcents coat tissues, the physical mucilage is actually very poorly absorbed by the body, and certainly isn’t traveling through the blood to the kidneys. Rather, the ingestion of mucilage seems to promote a systemic moistening of tissues throughout the body, with some demulcents being more specific to particular organ systems.  Mucilages can help loosen/relax tissues that are tight due to dryness.  Slippery Elm and Marshmallow are archetypal.


regarding astringents and demulcents…

Because astringents are generally considered “drying” and mucilaginous herbs considered “moistening”, it can seem confusing to use them together (which is often done) and even more confusing that some herbs are both astringent and demulcent. To wrap your head around this seeming contradiction, don’t view astringent/dry – mucilage/moisten as opposite ends of a polarity... that simplification doesn’t work. Instead, consider that astringents tighten and tone, and demulcents coat and soothe. The moistening effect of the demulcents is perfectly appropriate to balance the dryness that comes with astringency, and the lubrication offered protects the tissues as they are being strengthened.


Bitter herbs stimulate the secretion of of pretty much all the digestive acids, juices and enzymes, which generally improves appetite & digestion, especially of fats/oils/lipids.  They also increase absorption of nutrients by supporting the processes that breakdown and absorb nutrients.  Bitters stimulate tissue repair in the GI, and also can have a mood stabilizing/"antidepressant" effect by increasing the production of mood related hormones by the enteric nervous system in the gut.  They have a grounding, downward energy.  You must taste bitters to receive their medicinal virtues.  There are nutritive bitters (dandelion greens), aromatic bitters (Calamus), bittersweet bitters (Celastrus), and just plain bitter bitters (Boneset).



”Relaxant” is a term commonly used in Eclectic and Physiomedical herbal texts.  It does not refer to herbs that are sedative, but rather herbs that relax contracted tissues, such as antispasmodics.  This doesn’t seem confusing, but when you look up and herb in Cook’s Physiomedical Dispensatory and it says “this herb is stimulating and mildly relaxing”, you get kind of disoriented.  What such a sentence means is that the herb stimulates activity and relaxes resistance to that activity.  Lobelia is a famous one.



Here’s a doosey of a term.  Obviously, stimulants stimulate activity.  However, while nowadays people almost always associate stimulants with caffeine, Ephedra and other cerebral or metabolic stimulants, most old herbal texts use the word stimulant to describe an herb that stimulates activity of any sort of tissue or process... sialagogues are therefore stimulants.


Primary Actions

An herb's primary actions are those that correlate directly to an system, organ, or tissue.  While the energetics of the herb aren't indicated by the name of the primary action, we can determine these rather simply by pondering which foundational actions are represented.  So, "expectorant" is a primary action, because it relates to the lungs and respiratory system.  But all on it's own, we can't know who to give what expectorant to.  So we break expectorants into categories based on foundational actions: aromatic expectorants, demulcent expectorants, relaxing expectorants, stimulating expectorants, bitter expectorants (hmm... not as many), and astringent expectorants (how often do we use astringents specifically for lung problems?)

Here are some primary actions:

  adaptogens (affecting the neuroendocrine system)
  alteratives (affecting the metabolism)
  trophorestoratives (each herb acting on a specific system/organ/tissue)
  diaphoretics (affecting the immune & endocrine systems)
  diuretics (affecting the urinary system)
  expectorants (affecting the respiratory system)
  lymphatics (affecting... really, I shouldn't have to say...)
 nervines (affecting the nervous & limbic systems)
 laxative (affecting the digestive system)
chol/sial/galact/emmen/agogues" (each releasing a fluid from a gland)
  vulneraries (affecting the skin/mucosa)

Again, for each of these actions, we'd consider the plants unique conbination of foundational actions to understand it's energetic indications.

Secondary Actions

An herb's secondary actions can be said, more or less, to be a simple statement about the end result of using an herb, without any indication given as to how or where this action manifests.  As an example, people often refer to an herb as possessing an "anti-inflammatory action".  While this tells us something of what might be achieved by using the plant, it really tells us very little else.  Is the herb anti-inflammatory because it contains a mucilage that coats and soothes enflamed tissues?  Or perhaps its astringent?  Maybe the anti-inflammatory agent resides in the plants aromatic oils,  or maybe it contains salicin or some other compound that inhibits inflammation... we don't know.  We don;t know whether the herb is warming or cooling, we don;t know what system(s) it works on.  We just know that somehow, inflammation is reduced. 

It is in all of these differing possibilities that the answer to the question, "How do I choose the right anti-inflammatory for this person expressing these specific symptoms lies.  So, if you know a plant possesses some secondary action, try to understand which primary actions lead it to this end.


Most of our secondary actions start with "anti-"...






Analgesics and anodynes describe herbs that ease or relieve pain.  They may do this through a variety of mechanisms; for example, antispasmodics, anti-inflammatories and herbs containing salicylic acid are all anodynes.  Willow & Black Cohosh are examples of analgesic/anodyes.  Narcotics inhibit central nervous system activity, and are generally dangerous in excess.  Opium and Henbane are examples… not for the home herbalist.



Antacids are herbs that contain constituents that bind with and neutralize acids.  These herbs are usually used in the treatment of heartburn, and include Chamomile, Fennel and Peach.  Some, such as Meadowsweet, are also astringent, and have the added benefit of strengthening a weakened sphincter that is allowing stomach acids to escape into the esophagus, as well as helping to heal any ulcerations that have resulted from this.




These herbs help resolve congestion arising from excess mucous production (“catarrh” being mucous), as in sinusitis.   Often, they are astringents (which tighten tissues to lessen secretions) and/or contain volatile oils (which disperse congestion).  Goldenrod and Goldenseal are anticatarrhal.



Obviously, herbs that help resolve inflammation.  This action may be the result of mucilages that coat and soothe inflamed tissues (Slippery Elm), astringents that tighten tissues (Vinca), or of constituents like salicylic acid (Meadowsweet). 



“Lithiasis” refers to the production of “stones” or “gravel”; precipitations of minerals in the body that (for the most part) cause excruciating pain that most agree rivals or surpasses childbirth. In reference to the urinary system, this would include not only kidney stones but also gout and some types of nonspecific joint pain. Antilithics are therefore understood to be herbs that in some manner or another help to resolve this condition. This can be achieved in a number of ways.

In a sense, any diuretic herb is going to be antilithic to a certain degree, because it increases the volume of urine and helps flush stones from the body. Demulcents, by causing the moistening/lubrication of urinary tissues, helps as well to facilitate the expulsion of stones. Relaxants help ease resistance to the stones passage.

But some plants are considered specifically “antilithic”, in addition to other actions that may be related. These herbs are sometimes said to “dissolve” stones. This, I feel, is a special action, but one that requires some looking into. It is probably unlikely that any herb will reliably dissolve a stone that’s being passed like salt or sugar dissolving in water. There just doesn’t seem to be evidence that this occurs with any reliability (though I do account to exceptions). However, I do think that some herbs can help to dissolve stones to a degree. This might result in taking some of the sharper edges off a stone, or perhaps breaking a large stone into smaller, easier to pass pieces.

Herbs I’d consider specifically antilithic include goldenrod, queen anne’s lace, gravel root & burdock seed.



Nowadays, people refer to “antibiotics” and “antivirals”.  Antimicrobial is a more general term that refers to herbs that kill or inhibit invading microorganisms, without specifically referring to which type of microorganism the herbs are active against.   The mechanisms by which they work are too varied to list.



These herbs kill worms and parasites.  They should be used when they are needed, and not based upon the mistaken belief that we’re all full of parasites that are causing all of mankind’s ills.  Black Walnut is probably the most widely used.  



Herbs that kill or inhibit the growth of fungi.  Cedar, Wild Bergamot and Black Walnut come to mind.  They most often require consistent, long term use to work curatively.



Herbs that prevent bacterial growth.  “Septic” infections are usually considered “damp”, being purulent (having puss)… staph-type infections.  Echinacea and Wild Indigo are antiseptics.



Herbs that help inhibit the growth of tumors.  Red Clover is considered antineoplastic.



Rubefacient/Counter Irritant

These herbs are applied topically and have an irritating and/or heating effect on the skin.  By causing local irritation, these plants draw the attention of the body (usually via blood) to the area they are applied, and so initiate a healing response.  Cayenne and Arnica are popular counter irritants.  Some plants that have been used as counter irritants, such as Buttercups, are exceedingly strong and will blister the skin.



jim mcdonald

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