Medical Actions of Herbs — Terminology You Need to Know

Part 4 of the Our Healthy Home Series

Today’s post is really just a bit of a dictionary of terms that you will run into and need to know before you start creating remedies, tonics and such.   The Medical actions of herbs are usually mentioned under “Actions” any time you do research on a particular herb.   If you don’t know what the words mean, however, you won’t get very far.   So here are some of the most common ones you will run into.

If you have not already read them please see Part One and Part Two and Part Three for important warnings, disclaimers and helpful getting started information before proceeding.

Following many of these descriptions are examples of herbs that can be used.   These are general guidelines.  You should always fully research every herb before use to be sure of its particular contraindications and warnings which are not listed here.

Alteratives — Typically referred to as blood cleaners or blood purifiers.  They help you liver and body take in nutrients and get rid of waste.   Some common ones:  Burdock Root, Dandelion leaf and root, Echinacea, Oregon Grape Root, Nettles, and Yellow Dock Root

Analgesics/Anodynes — reduce pain.  Some internally, others externally.  May also reduce pain by  providing anti-spasm actions and reducing cramping in muscles.   Examples:  Skullcap, Valerian, Chamomile, Clove

Anaphrodesiac — reduces sexual desire

Antacids — Neutralize excess acids in the stomach and intestines.  Examples:  Slippery Elm, Fennel Seed, Dandelion leaf and root, most seaweeds

Anthelmintic/ Parasiticides — Herbs that destroy or get rid of worms and parasites    Examples:  Aloe, Garlic, Chaparral, Wormwood, Thyme Oil, Tansy

Antiasthmatic —  relieve symptoms of asthma by dilating bronchioles and breaking up mucus.  Examples:  Lobelia, Mullein, Yerba Santa, Pleurisy Root, Comfrey leaf and root

Antibiotic — Stimulate the body’s immune system (and some may have direct germ killing ability).  Examples:  Echinacea, Golden Seal, Thyme

Anticatarrhals — Aid in elimination and prevention of  thick mucus build up.  Examples:  Ginger, Sage, Echinacea, Golden Seal, Garlic, Mullein, Yarrow

Anti-fungal — destroys or inhibits fungal growth

Antihistamine — chemical that blocks the action of histamine in the body

Anti-Lithic/Lithotriptics — Herbs that help prevent and eliminate urinary tract or billiard tract stones and gravel.  Examples:  Gravel root, parsley root, marshmallow root, cleavers, cornsilk, Oregon Grape Root

Antiseptics/ anti-microbial — herbs that help prevent the growth of bacteria and resist pathogenic microorganisms. They help the body strengthen its own resistance to infective organisms and throw off illness.   Examples:  Golden Seal, Chaparral, Calendula, Myrrh, Sage, garlic, and some essential oils such as Pine, Clove, and Thyme.

Antiperspirant — reduces sweating

Anti-spasmodics — ease cramps and muscle spasms.  Examples:  Cramp bark, Lobelia, Skullcap, Wild Yam, and Valerian

Antitussive —  relieves coughs

Aperitive — stimulates the appetite

Astringents — constrict tissue and reduce secretions and discharge.  Examples:  Witch Hazel Bark, Bayberry Bark, Oak Gall, Uva Ursi

Bitters — cause a reaction in the taste buds that then stimulates digestion.  Examples:  Gentian, Golden Seal, Horehound

Carminatives–  stimulate the digestive tract and calm the stomach.  Reduces inflammation in the stomach and intestines.  Help to rid the body of excess gas.  Examples:  Angelica, Anise, Cardamon, Ginger, Dill, Cayenne, Peppermint

Cholagogue — promotes the flow of bile

Demulcents — Soothing and healing for irritated and inflamed tissue.  Examples:  Comfrey, Slippery Elm, Licorice, Chickweed, Aloe, Mullein, Oatmeal

Diaphoretics– Induce sweating (when taken hot) to bring down high fevers.  When given cold they act as diuretics instead.  Examples:  Yarrow, Catnip, Ginger, Peppermint

Diuretics–  Increase the flow of urine.  Examples:  Parsley, Cleavers, Bochu, Dandelion, Nettles, Yarrow

Emmenagogues — Promote Menstrual flow and bring on the cycle.  Tonics for the female system.  Examples:  Pennyroyal, Rue, Black Cohash, Angelica, Blessed Thistle, Motherwort, Yarrow

Emolients — Applied externally for softening and soothing skin.  Examples:  Flax seed, Slippery Elm, Comfrey, Chickweed

Expectorants–  help to expel mucus.  Examples:  Eucalyptus, Elecampane, Lobelia, Coltsfoot

Febrifuge — reduces or prevents fever

Galactogogues — Increase mother’s milk secretion.  Examples:  Fennel, Blessed Thistle, Raspberry

Hallucinogenic — causes visions or delusions

Hepatics — Herbs that help the liver.  They tone, strengthen, and increase bile flow.  Examples:  Dandelion, Oregon Grape Root, Golden Seal, Yellow Dock.

Hemostatics– Help Stop Hemorrhaging and internal bleeding.  Can also include astringents.  Examples:  Cayenne, Yarrow, Shepherds Purse, White Oak Bark

Laxatives —  Promote Bowel Movement.  Examples:  Cascara Sagrada, Senna, Flax seed, Rhubarb root

Nervines — calm, strengthen, and tone the nervous system.  Examples:  Catnip, Chamomile, Oat Straw

Pectorals– General healing and strengthening of the respiratory system.  Examples:  Coltsfoot, Elecampane, Mullein, and Licorice

Rubefacients — Stimulates dilation of the capillaries of the skin causing reddening and warming of the skin.  They draw inflammation and congestion from deeper tissue.  Increase circulation.  Examples:  Cayenne, clove, ginger, mustard

Sedatives — Reduce stress and nervous disorders.  Sleep aid.  Examples:  Valerian, Passion Flower, Chamomile, Skullcap

Sialagogues — stimulate salivation.  Aid in digestion.   Examples:  Cayenne, Black Pepper, Ginger

Spasmolytic — relieves spasm of the smooth muscle

Stimulants — Increase energy of the body.  Examples:  Cayenne, Peppermint, Ginseng, Sage, Horseradish

Styptics — Reduce or stop external bleeding.  Examples:  Yarrow, Cobwebs, Shepherd’s Purse

Sudorific — causes sweating

Tonics– strengthen and nourish specific organs of the body.  Usually will have general effect on the entire body however.  Examples:  Ginseng, Nettle, Dandelion, Raspberry Leaf

Vulneraries — Promote cell growth and repair.  Helps stop bleeding and heals wounds. Examples:  Aloe, Comfrey, Golden Seal, Chickweed, Calendula, St. John’s Wort.


We’ll be continuing our series on herbs soon!  Check back here soon.

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