The Basic Action of Herbs

The Basic Action of Herbs

By Arianne Koven, N.D., C.N.H.P

The science and art of using plants for healing is known as Herbology. From the perspective of this science, all plants fall into three basic categories: Some are used for food to provide calories for the body to burn. Others are poisonous and we soon learn to leave them alone. The third category lies somewhere between the two and includes the portion of the plant world used as medicinal herbs. These are nature’s nutritional supplements, special resource foods. In essence, they supply chemical substances in a natural form that the body can use to strengthen its vital internal systems and repair damaged tissue. Generally, these medicinal herbs are also high in vitamins and minerals.

The four basic actions of herbs are:

  1. To stimulate body tissue to restore energy when the tissue is sluggish and cold.
  2. To contract tissue that is loose, spongy or discharging.
  3. To relax and open tense, blocked, or obstructed tissue.
  4. To soothe tissue that is irritated, sore or inflamed.

Herbs, which stimulate have aromatic or spicy qualities. These include most of our kitchen spices such as garlic, thyme, peppermint, mint, spearmint, cayenne pepper (capsicum), rosemary, cinnamon, horseradish, mustard powder, ginger, cloves, and oregano. This variety of spice helps to increase the energy of body tissue, improve digestion, expel gas from the bowel, promote perspiration, clear blocked respiratory passages and fight infection. Adults commonly use “hot aromatics” like ginger and cayenne pepper. These should be used sparingly with children who generally respond far better to pleasantly “sweet” or mildly aromatic herbs such as: peppermint, spearmint, cinnamon and lemon grass.

Herbs that contract tissue have a sour or astringent (drying and tightening) taste. Think of biting into a lemon and how it puckers your mouth and you will have an excellent idea of what these tightening herbs do. They help to arrest bleeding, stop discharges, reduce swelling, arrest diarrhea, counteract bites and stings and restore tone to flabby organs.

Examples of these kinds of herbs include:

Lemon, orange, oak bark, raspberry leaves, bayberry root bark, and yarrow. For children, many berries and fruits can be used as they have a milder toning action. Try lemon juice, rose hips, blackberries, raspberries or elderberries.

Herbs that open, relax, clean and detoxify are generally bitter and nasty tasting. They open obstructions in the body, relax tissue, clean out the liver, bowels and blood and detoxify the system.

Examples of these kinds of herbs include:

Black tea, celery, sage, alfalfa, parsley, dandelion, golden seal, echinacea, safflower, senna, yellow dock, and yucca.

Herbs which soothe, build, heal are generally sweet tasting and/or have a slippery feel to them when moistened in the mouth. They soothe irritations, build up weakened and depleted bodies, help tissue heal faster, pull poisons out to the body through the bowel or skin and some even act as bulk forming laxatives.

Herbs in this category include:

Aloe vera juice or gel, basil, slippery elm, marshmallow, licorice root, comfrey, fenugreek, kelp and psyllium.

As you learn these basic actions of herbs you can begin to use them more in your daily lives. The more I witness the remarkable benefits these herbs provide for my clients, the stronger my conviction in the power of nature and naturopathic medicine becomes. This continues to be an exciting road of discovery filled with humility, awe, wonder, joy and respect as I continue to uncover the true beauty and harmony that exists all around us.

The four basic actions of herbs and how they can be used:

1. STIMULATING HERBS are easily recognized by their pungent, dry, aromatic qualities. For example: Mint (Often identified as peppermint or spearmint) can be used as an:

INFUSION: Steeped in hot water, the leaves can be used to help alleviate the symptoms of nausea, travel sickness, indigestion, feverish conditions, flatulence, colic and migraines. Discontinue use after one week for children as mint can irritate their mucous membranes. Do not use for infants.

COMPRESS: Soak a pad in the infusion to cool inflamed joints, rheumatism or neuralgia.

WASH: The essential oil (2 3 drops in water) is excellent for skin irritations, itching burns, inflammations, scabies and ringworm, or to repel mosquitoes.

INHALATION: 2 3 drops of oil in a saucer of water left in the room at night will help reduce nasal congestion. Avoid prolonged use.

MASSAGE: Dilute 5 10 drops peppermint oil in almond or sunflower oil for headaches, fever, or menstrual pain. This oil combination also helps relieve milk congestion when breast-feeding.

Garlic is another stimulating herb that has been used throughout recorded history and is arguably one of the most extensively studied herbs in the world. It is prized for its antimicrobial properties, particularly in the gut, where it kills bacteria while having little effect on the beneficial flora! It is also reported to lower blood cholesterol and reduce blood pressure. I call this herb, Nature’s antibiotic!

FRESH: Rub on acne or mash and use on warts or to draw out corns. Freely add garlic cloves to your diet as a prophylactic against infection, to help reduce high cholesterol levels, improve the quality of the cardiovascular system and lower your blood sugar levels. For severe digestive disorders (gastroenteritis dysentery, worms), and infections. Try eating 3 – 6 crushed cloves daily.

JUICE: drink for digestive disorders and infections, or to help combat atherosclerosis.

MACERATIONS: Steep 3 4 garlic cloves in water or milk overnight and drink the liquor the next day to help you get rid of intestinal parasites.

CAUTION: Garlic is heating and can irritate the stomach. Do not use during pregnancy. In therapeutic doses it can sometimes cause digestive problems and heartburn. Its strong aromatic compounds are excreted via the lungs and skin. Parsley can help greatly in diminishing the unpleasant odors.

2. ASTRINGENT HERBS are dry and sour and contract the tissue. A typical example is Lemon Balm that can be used as:

INFUSION: Helpful for depression, nervous exhaustion, indigestion, nausea and the early stages of colds and influenza.

COMPRESS: Use a pad soaked in the infusion to relieve painful swellings such as gout.

OINTMENT: Recommended for sores, insect bites, or to repel insects.

INFUSED OIL: Use hot infused oil as an ointment or gentle massage oil to help relieve the symptoms of depression, tension, asthma and bronchitis.

3. BITTER HERBS (also categorized as bitter-sweet) are valued for their ability to cool, open, relax, clean and detoxify the body. For example, Celery is particularly useful:

SEEDS as an INFUSION: A mixture of 2 tsp. of celery seed in a cup of boiling water is highly recommended to help in the symptomatic relief of rheumatoid arthritis and gout.

OIL: For painful gout in the feet or toes, add 15 drops oil to a bowl of warm water and soak the feet.

MASSAGE OIL: Dilute 5 10 drops celery oil in almond or sunflower oil and massage into arthritic joints.

ROOT TINCTURE: Used in the past primarily as a diuretic in hypertension and urinary disorders. It was also valued as a component in arthritic remedies or as a kidney stimulant and cleanser.

JUICE: Liquefy the whole fresh plant (seeds, root. stalks and leaves) and drink the juice to help heal joint and urinary tract inflammations such as rheumatoid arthritis, cystitis or urethritis, for weak conditions and for nervous exhaustion. Do not use large doses of seeds and oil during pregnancy, as they have been known to act as a uterine stimulant.

Sage is another highly versatile healing herb:

LEAVES: Mix 20 gm leaves into 50 ml water as a tonic and liver stimulant or to improve digestive functions and circulation. Sage is also useful to help reduce lactation when weaning and relieve night sweats during menopause.

TINCTURE: Use for Menopausal problems.

COMPRESS: Apply a pad soaked in the infusion onto slow-to-heal wounds.

GARGLE/MOUTHWASH: Use a weak infusion for sore throats, tonsillitis, mouth ulcers, or gum disease.

HAIR RINSE: Use the infusion as a rinse for dandruff or to restore color to graying hair.

CAUTION: Avoid therapeutic doses in pregnancy. Small amounts in cooking are tasty and quite safe.

4. MUCILAGINOUS HERBS are cool, moist and sweet tasting. They are particularly valued for their soothing, building and healing properties.

Aloe Vera is a prime example:

GEL: Apply the fresh split leaf directly onto burns, wounds, dry skin, fungal infections and insect bites. Take up to 2 tsp. in a glass of water or fruit juice 3 times a day as a tonic.

OINTMENT: Split several leaves to collect a large quantity of gel and boil it down to a thick paste. Store in clean jar in a cool place and use in place of the gel taken from fresh leaves.

TONIC: Fermented aloe gel with honey and spices is often recommended as a tonic for anemia, poor digestive function and liver disorders.

INHALANT: Use the gel in steam inhalant to help alleviate the symptoms of bronchial congestion.

LEAF TINCTURE: Use 1 3 tsp. per dose as an appetite stimulant or help relieve constipation. The taste is unpleasant!

POWDER: Use 100 500 mg. per dose or in capsules as a purgative for stubborn constipation and to stimulate bile flow.

Avoid in pregnancy and taking high doses as leaves can cause vomiting.

Basil is another common herb with uncommon medicinal properties:

FRESH LEAVES: Good for rubbing on insect bites to reduce itching and inflammation.

TINCTURE: for coughs and bronchitis, nervous conditions

WASH: Combine the juice with an equal quantity of honey and use for ringworm and itching skin.

JUICE: Mix with a decoction (infusion) of cinnamon and cloves for chills.

INHALATION: Pour boiling water onto the leaves and inhale the steam for head colds.

ESSENTIAL OILS: Add 5-10 drops to a bath for nervous exhaustion, mental fatigue, melancholy or uneasiness.

CHEST RUB: Dilute 5 drops basil oil in 10 ml almond or sunflower oil for asthma and bronchitis

MASSAGE OIL: Use the diluted oil for nervous weakness; can also be applied as an insect repellent.

CAUTION: Do not use the essential oil in pregnancy.

The use of common herbal remedies is an excellent way for us to take more responsibility for our own health. Instead of trying to obliterate symptoms after they become severe, we need to be sufficiently in tune with our bodies to recognize the early signs and treat likely causes — whether physical, emotional or spiritual — to help restore balance. It=s time to wake up and smell the roses, sage, rosemary and all the other delightful gifts of nature!



© 2012. All Rights Reserved. Arianne Koven is a Traditional Naturopath, Certified Natural Health Practitioner and Voice Dialogue Facilitator practicing in the Vilcabamba Valley, Ecuador. She has been involved in the holistic field for the past thirty years and has been trained in a broad spectrum of healing modalities. This article may be freely reprinted, copied, or distributed in either print or electronic form provided this notice is included in full. For more information, see:

Any information provided in this article is not intended to be used for the diagnosis or treatment of any specific medical condition and is not intended as a substitute for the advice and counseling of your own health care practitioner. Before you treat any illness or make changes in your current medication, seek the advice of a qualified health care practitioner who is familiar with your medical condition.