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Herbal Actions A-Z: Part I

If you have ever researched natural herbal remedies, you have probably seen a lot of medical words, some of which you might not understand. Most of us have heard of antibiotics, but what does it mean if an herb is described as vulnerary? Or soporific? Or demulcent? With our guide, you can learn all about these words and the different actions herbs can take in the body. This will help you understand terminology when researching herbal remedies, plus you will find examples of herbs within each category.

1. Adaptogen

Copyright Hedwig Storch and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons license

Adaptogens help your body adapt to all types of stressors, be they physical or mental. Clinical trials are starting to prove what traditional healers have known for years– that adaptogenic herbs have the amazing ability to modulate responses, having seemingly contradictory actions. For example, they can provide an energy boost while simultaneously calming down a stress reaction. Since they are meant to normalize over time, these herbs are usually meant for daily use for an extended period of time. This wonderful class of herbs is a favorite of herbalists everywhere, and has inspired entire books, such as those by Donald Yance, David Winston, and Steven Maimes. Some examples of effective adaptogens are holy basil, ashwagandha, ginsengs, eleuthero (sometimes called  Siberian ginseng, although it is not a true ginseng), and rhodiola. Please note that American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, is endangered. Avoid using it, especially since there are many other fantastic plants with similar effects.

2. Alterative

One of the most complicated and debated words in the herbal world, “alterative” can be hard to define. Like adaptogens, they have a generalized beneficial effect on the body. As implied by the word itself, they alter physical function. The way they do this depends on the herb. Basically, they improve chronic dysfunction of internal organs, slowly improving function to aid optimal health. They may help the body dispose of waste products, assimilate nutrients, or help organs work harmoniously. Some examples of alterative herbs are echinacea, burdock, dandelion, cleavers, and stinging nettle.

3. Antibacterial

This word is familiar from mainstream Western medicine. Antibacterials stop or prevent the growth of bacteria. Some antibacterial herbs are garlic, clove, Orgeon grape root, usnea (which is actually a lichen), and yarrow.

4. Anti-inflammatory

Anti-inflammatory means reducing inflammation, which can manifest as swelling, heat, redness, or pain. The best known herb for inflammation is turmeric. Many people also take a concentrated extract from turmeric called curcumin.

5. Antifungal

Antifungals prevent or kill yeasts and other fungal organisms. Examples of fungal conditions include candida (yeast infection, thrush), athlete’s foot, and ringworm. Tea tree, garlic, and oregano are three powerful herbal antifungals.

6. Antimicrobial

Antimicrobial is a general term that includes antibacterials and antifungals. Antimicrobial means that it kills or inhibits the growth of microorganisms. Antimicrobial herbs include garlic, cinnamon, and mustard. It is interesting to note that many of our strong, flavorful culinary herbs have antimicrobial effects. Before modern preservation techniques, cooking with such herbs was probably essential to make safe, microbe-free food.

7. Astringent

Astringents dry and constrict tissue. Different herbs will have different system affinities; for example, witch hazel is often used as an astringent for skin. Other herbal astringents include blackberry, white oak, tea, and willow.

8. Cardiac

Cardiac means “of or relating to the heart.” Hawthorn and garlic are two of the best known cardiac herbs.

9. Carminative

Carminitives relieve gas and bloating. Many of the best carminitive herbs are highly aromatic. Ginger, peppermint, fennel, and cardamom are all great herbal carminatives.

Look out for part 2 of Herbal Actions A-Z in our next post!

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