Medicinal Activities of Herbs and their Systemic Affinities

In Western herbalism, the effects that plant materials have in or on the body are called “medicinal actions” or “active properties”.  By becoming familiar with the medicinal actions of the herbs you have access to, you will have a good idea where to look for an appropriate course of therapy when a need arises.  In addition to the manner by which herbs work in the body, it is also important to begin learning each herb’s specialty, or systemic affinity; its special kinship with certain portions of the anatomy.  For instance, we may know that slippery elm has a general astringent action (meaning that it shrinks tissues), but its effective usefulness is really pronounced when we know that it has a special affinity to the digestive tract— where its astringent actions are particularly well suited to shrinking the inner wall of the small intestine to relieve diarrhea and other discomforts.

Adaptogens – Herbs that improve immune system functions and generally improve the body’s responsiveness and adaptability to stress.

Note:  Most adaptogens are immune supportive, but not all immunostimulant herbs are adaptogenic.

Astragalus

Ginseng (Panax)

Siberian ginseng (Eleuthero root)

Licorice

Ashwaganda(Withania somnifera)

Alteratives – Herbs that gradually alter an existing condition  in the body by strengthening or stimulating various systems and eliminating waste from the bloodstream.  For skin and coat disorders, rheumatoid conditions, cancer, and other disorders where the body may benefited from improved blood structure and elimination of toxic excess and systemic waste.

Most alteratives are nutritive and have an affinity to the blood, lymph system and/or the liver.

Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) – arthritis, blood disorders

Burdock (Arctium lappa) – seborrhea, pyoderma, rheumatoid diseases

Dandelion (Taraxacum off.) – seborrhea, pyoderma, rheumatoid diseases

Red Clover(Trifolium pratense) – tumors, blood disorders

Gotu-kola(Centella asiatica) – dermatitis

CHOLAGOGUES

LYMPHATICS

NUTRITIVES

Analgesics – Herbs that help reduce pain.

Joint pain

Willow bark

Cayenne

Camphor

Peppermint (essential oil)

Post-op & post traumatic pain

Bugleweed

Skullcap

Feverfew

Nerve damage/neuralgia/sciatica

St. John’s wort

Rosemary

Burn pain

St. John’s wort

aloe vera

Lavender (essential oil)

Skin injury/dermatitis

Calendula

Aloe vera

Lavender

Anesthetics – Herbs that reduce painful sensitivity. Unlike general analgesics, anesthetics often can be applied locally.

Mouth

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa)

Sage

Thyme

Myhrr

Mouth and Urinary Tract

Kava kava

Anticoagulants – Herbs that inhibit blood clotting, usually by their effects on platelet aggregation factor (PAF).

Feverfew

Ginkgo

Arnica

Red clover

Alfalfa ( when fed in very large amounts)

Antihistamines – An herbs that alter histamine responses in the body, with the effect of reducing the discomforts of allergic reactions.

Nettle

Oxeye daisy

Antilithics – Herbs that aid in the elimination of gravel or stones in the urinary system.

Demulcents that soothe, protect, and lubricate urinary tissues:

Marshmallow

Cornsilk

Plantain

Ginkgo

Diuretics to help “flush out” crystals:

Dandelion leaf

Parsley root

Hops

Antiinflammatory/astringent herbs to reduce inflammation:

Couchgrass

Raspberry leaf

Goldenrod

Uva-ursi

Cranberry

To increase urine pH (reduce acidity)

Mullein leaf

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) NOT FOR CATS!

Anti-inflammatories – Herbs that reduce inflammation, usually symptomatically.

With special affinities to…

Gastrointestinal

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) – Excellent for upper GI inflammation and inflammatory bowel.

Chamomile – gentle & safe… good for mild to moderately severe cases of colitis

Slippery elm (Ulmus fulva) – works by astringent and demulcent activities.  “At risk” in the                                               wild.

Plantain (Plantago major) – an earth-friendly alternative to slippery elm, especially when                                  combined with marshmallow.

Marshmallow (Althea off.) – safe and effective… especially for inflammation that is secondary                                      to ingestion of non-digestible materials.

Joints

Alfalfa (Medicao sativa) – works through tonic/alterative activities.  Good for long term use.

Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) – tends to be unreliable because of problems at the                                      source. Very, very bitter. May be at risk in the wild.

Yucca (Yucca schidigera) – reliable.  Can be used long term in small doses.  High in steroidal                                           saponins.

Turmeric – good for acute flare-ups of arthritic joints, especially if used in conjunction with                                              bromelain.  A good liver tonic.  A hot herb that can be irritating to the stomach.

Boswellia (B. serrata) – a relaible and proven antiinflammatory.  Symptomatic remedy.

Licorice – considered a somewhat weak, herbal alternative to corticosteroid drugs.

Liver

Licorice

Milk thistle

Mucous membranes

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)  CERTIFIED ORGANIC ONLY, PLEASE! – for inflammation of                                             the eyes, mouth, throat, and other mucous membranes.

Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) – for inflammation of the eyes, mouth, throat, and other                                        mucous membranes.

Raspberry leaf or Nettle – work by their astringent activities.  Good replacements for                                                          eyebright (Euphrasia spp.); an herb that is being over-harvested from the wild.

Also see:

ASTRINGENTS

Skin

Aloe – a general purpose topical antiinflammatory for the skin.

Calendula –  a general purpose topical antiinflammatory for the skin.

Chamomile –  a general purpose topical antiinflammatory for the skin.

Licorice – sweet tasting… animals tend to lick it off when used topically

Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) – systemic skin tonic

Also see:

ASTRINGENT HERBS

EMOLLIENTS

VULNERARIES

ALTERATIVES

TONICS

Urinary

Cornsilk (Zea mays) – specific for the bladder, urethra, urinary sphincters.

Couchgrass (Agropyron repens) – specific for FLUTDS.  Antiinflammatory to the kidneys                                                 without risk of irritation from long term use.

Also See…

ASTRINGENTS

ANTIINFLAMATORIES

Antimicrobials – A general term for herbs that are active against two or more groups of pathogenic microorganisms (i.e., bacteria, fungi, protozoa, etc.).  Most bacteriostatic herbs have an appreciable effect against fungi as well.   Because viruses and parasites are very much different in the way they reproduce, behave, and must be approached, herbs with strong antiviral or antiparasitic properties are grouped in their own catagory.

Ears

Garlic (Allium sativum)

Mullein flowers (Verbascum thapsis) – specific for staph infections and/or mites.

Eyes

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) – CERTIFIED ORGANIC ONLY, PLEASE!

Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) – an earth-friendly alternative to goldenseal.

SEE MUCOUS MEMBRANES

Gastrointestinal

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) – CERTIFIED ORGANIC ONLY, PLEASE!

Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) – an earth-friendly alternative to goldenseal.

Goldenseal or Oregon grape are general purpose antimicrobials for the digestive tract.                                        Both have antifungal and antibacterial properties, and both are effective against                                   giardia.

Garlic (Allium sativum) – a broad spectrum “herbal antibiotic”, especially when used fresh.                                                Garlic is not detrimental to beneficial digestive flora.

Mouth

Sage (Salvia off.)

Bee balm  (Monarda fistulosa)

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) – CERTIFIED ORGANIC ONLY, PLEASE!

Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) – an earth-friendly alternative to goldenseal.

Myrrh – the strongest disinfectant for the mouth— specific for gingivitis.  Also anesthetic to                                              mouth tissues.

Thyme (Thymus spp.) –  contains thymol.

Mucous membranes

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) – CERTIFIED ORGANIC ONLY, PLEASE!

Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) – an earth-friendly alternative to goldenseal.

Usnea lichen (Usnea spp.) – for the eyes

Respiratory

Garlic

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) – CERTIFIED ORGANIC ONLY, PLEASE!

Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) – an earth-friendly alternative to goldenseal.

Thyme

Coltsfoot

Yarrow

Eucalyptus

Tea tree

Skin

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) – CERTIFIED ORGANIC ONLY, PLEASE!

Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) – an earth-friendly alternative to goldenseal.

Chapparal (Creosote Bush) – Larrea tridentata

Juniper (Juniperis spp.)

Calendula

Aloe vera (A. barbardensis)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Urinary

Echinacea (E. species) –  an excellental antibacterial agent for the urinary tract, with the added                       plus of immunostimulant activity.

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) – CERTIFIED ORGANIC ONLY, PLEASE! – bacteriostatic,                       antifungal, anti-amoebic/protozoic.

Juniper berries or leaves (Juniperis spp.)

Marshmallow (Althea off.) – low grade infections of the urinary tract, esp. where inflammation                       is evident

Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) – an earth-friendly alternative to goldenseal.

Uva-ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Antioxidant – A general, perhaps worn-out term referring to the ability of a substance to control or eliminate free radicals or reduce cellular oxidation in the body.  Most are nutritive/tonic.

Alfalfa

Garlic

Burdock

Red clover

Milk thistle

Licorice

Dandelion root

Aloe

EFA-rich seed oils of:

Borage

Flax

Evening primrose

Black current

Antipyretic – Herbs that help reduce a fever (symptomatically).  Most are analgesics, working in the same manner as aspirin.

Willow bark

Yarrow

Antirheumatic – Herbs that are capable of relieving the symptoms of rheumatic conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Yucca (Y. schidigera)

Turmeric (Cucurma longa)

Alfalfa

Licorice

Celery seed

Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)

Devil’s claw

Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)

Boswellia (B. serrata)

Burdock root

Dandelion root

Antiparasitic/Insecticidal – Herbs that repel, kill, or inhibit reproduction of parasites.

Gastrointestinal

Pumpkin seeds (raw; fresh)

Garlic

Chamomile

Pineapple weed  (Matricaria matricoides)

Black walnut (Juglans nigra – green hulls)

Thyme

Oregon Grape (Mahonia spp.) – an earth-friendly alternative to goldenseal.

Wormwood (Artemesia spp.)

ALSO SEE ANTITHELMINTIC/VERMIFUGE

Skin

Sweet Orange (essential oil)

Rosemary (Rosemarinus off.)

Lavender (Lavandula off.)

Pyrethrum Daisy

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)

Pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides)

Neem

Mullein (Verbascum thapsis)

Antispasmodics – Herbs that help relieve spasms.

Gastrointestinal

Chamomile

Fennel

Sage

Peppermint

Caraway seed

Dill

Valerian

Heart (arrythmia)

Bugleweed (Lycopus virginicum)

Rosemary

Hawthorn

Musculoskeletal

Skullcap (Scutellaria spp.)

Passion flower

Hops

Catnip

Lavender

Rosemary

The effects/toxicity issues of these herbs in animals are largely unknown:

Kava kava

Black cohosh

Betony (Pedicularis spp.)

Reproductive

Rosemary

Chamomile

The effects/toxicity issues of these herbs in animals are largely unknown:

Blue cohosh

Black cohosh

Respiratory

Thyme (useful for asthma)

Mullein (asthma; kennel cough)

Grindelia  (asthma; kennel cough)

Coltsfoot  (asthma; kennel cough)

Elecampane

Lobelia (for acute asthma— use carefully!)

Passion flower

Antitussive – Herbs that suppress coughing by altering the cough reflex mechanisms (usually an allopathic activity).

Wild cherry bark

Grindelia (in large doses)

Mullein (very mild antitussive)

Thyme (Mild)

Antiviral – Herbs that inhibit viral activity.  NOTE:  Nothing actually kills viruses!

Blood/ Respiratory/Systemic viral infections

Echinacea

Licorice

Astragalus

Garlic

St. John’s wort

Viruses that Infect the skin and/or nerve endings

St. John’s wort (specific for herpes virus)

Astringents – Herbs that tighten tissues (especially skin and mucous membranes)

They are useful for reducing inflammations of the skin, eyes (conjunctivitis) and mucous membranes, treat diarrhea, irritable bowel, and colic; and to tonify smooth muscles of the urinary tract and uterus.

Gastrointestinal

Slippery elm (Ulmus fulva)

Plantain (Plantago major)

Rose (Rosa spp.) – leaves or bark.

Uva-ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Juniper (leaf or berries)

Witch hazel

Eyes

Raspberry leaf

Nettle (Urtica spp.)

Chamomile

Mouth

Sage (Salvia off.)

Rose

Mucous membranes

Raspberry leaf

Nettle (Urtica spp.)

Chamomile

Plantain

Uva-ursi

Reproductive

Raspberry leaf

Uva-ursi

Skin

Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Rose (Rosa spp.) – leaves or bark.

Uva-ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Juniper (leaf or berries)

Witch hazel

Urinary

Cranberry

Slippery elm (Ulmus fulva)

Plantain (Plantago major)

Rose (Rosa spp.) – leaves or bark.

Uva-ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Juniper (leaf or berries)

Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)

Cornsilk (Zea mays)

Witch hazel

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)

Vascular System (subcutaneous capillaries)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

To Stop Bleeding

SEE HEMOSTATICS

Carminatives – Herbs that help relieve intestinal gas, indigestion, and are antispasmodic to the digestive tract.

Fennel – (Foeniculum vulgare) – for dyspepsia, flatulence, colic

Dill – (Anethum graveolens) – for dyspepsia, flatulence, colic

Peppermint – (Mentha piperita) – for dyspepsia, flatulence, colic

Chamomile – (Matricaria recutita) – for dyspepsia, flatulence, colic.

Cholagogues – Herbs that stimulate bile and enzyme production in the liver.

Dandelion root

Chicory root

Oregon grape

Goldenseal  (Hydrastis canadensis) – CERTIFIED ORGANIC ONLY, PLEASE!

Yellow dock (Rumex crispus)

Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

Demulcents – Herbs that provide a protective, lubricating barrier in the digestive and urinary tracts— for the passage of waste and to help relieve irritation of mucous membranes.

Marshmallow (Althea off.)

Plantain  (Plantago major) /Psyllium husk

Slippery elm (Ulmus fulva)

Ginkgo  (Ginkgo biloba)

Flax seed

Diuretics – To stimulate diuresis in kidney disorders and water retention problems, and to help eliminate excess waste and superfluous materials from body and urinary tract.

Dandelion leaf (Taraxacum off. ) – the strongest herbal diuretic available!

Cornsilk (Zea mays) – for calculi.

Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)  – especially good for water retention secondary to rheumatoid conditions

Emmenagogues –  Herbs that promote menstruation.  The emmenogogue activities of most herbs are attributable to their tonic/contracting effects on uterine smooth muscle tissues.  However, a few may effect hormone levels, which in turn may effect menstruation as well.  All have an affinity to the reproductive system.

Black cohosh (estrogenic)

Blue cohosh (estrogenic)

Shepherd’s purse

calendula

parsley

raspberry leaf

Emollients – Herbs that soothe, nourish, moisturize, and heal the skin when applied topically.

SEE ALSO ANALGESICS; VULNERARY

Calendula

Marshmallow

Aloe vera

Comfrey

Chickweed

Plantain

Expectorants – Herbs that help to expel mucus from the respiratory tract.  Also known as “Respiratory Stimulants”.  All have an affinity to the respiratory tract.

Elecampane (Inula helenium)

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara or Petasites spp.)

Mullein

Grindelia

Horehound

Goldenrod

Ginger

Yarrow

Galactagogues – Herbs that may increase lactation.

Borage

Fennel seed

Dill

Caraway

Fenugreek(Trigonella foenum-graecum)

Yucca root

Hemostatics – Herbs that stop or slow bleeding from internal or external injuries.

Cayenne (Capsicum spp.)

Yarrow

Shepherd’s purse (coagulant)

Goldenrod

Mustard seed

Uva-ursi

Rose bark

Oak bark

Hypotensives – Herbs that are capable of reducing blood pressure.  All have an affinity toward supporting cardiovascular functions

Garlic

Hawthorn

Yarrow

Immune modulators (or “immunotonics”) – Often used synonymously with the term “immunostimulant”, this term is earning its own place in the herbalist’s vocabulary as we begin to understand more about how certain immune-supporting herbs work in the body.  An immune modulator is an herb that acts to help the immune system by optimizing it’s ability to respond and adjust to the presence of antigens.

Astragalus

Siberian ginseng

Panax ginseng

Garlic

Boneset

Immunostimulants – Herbs that strengthen the body’s resistance to infection by stimulating and increasing immune system responses. In herbal medicine, this term specifically refers to the medicinal support of infection-fighting antibodies in the blood stream and overall tonification of the lymph system.

Echinacea

Yerba mansa

Cat’s claw

Laxatives – Herbs that increase the frequency or urgency of bowel evacuation.  The holistic herbalist places them into two catagories:

1) “Heroic” laxatives that force the expulsion of stool by perastalsis:

Senna

Cascara sagrada

Aloes

2)  Herbs that assist in the body’s effort to eliminate stool:

Marshmallow,  Flax seed, or Psyllium husks – by lubrication of the digestive tract

Oregon grape or dandelion root – by stimulation of the liver and increased production of                                           digestive chemicals

Lymphatics – Herbs that assist with lymph production and circulation— for draining and healing lymph-engorged tissues and masses (tumors, cysts, ulcers); useful in the systemic treatment of chronic dermatitis.

Cleavers (Gallium aparine)

Red clover (Trifolium pratense)

Echinacea

Red root (Ceanothus velutinus)

SEE “TONIC HERBS”

Nervines/Sedatives – Herbs that moderate, improve, or inhibit CNS or other nervous system activities.

Skullcap (Scutellaria sp.) – jittery anxiety; helps reduce severity of seizures; to relieve pain.

Valerian –  (Valeriana off.) – for acute anxiety and hyperactivity; helps reduce severity of                        seizures; to relieve pain.

Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) – A relaxing, mood elevator— for fear, post-traumatic                   depression, and a good alternative for animals that respond unfavorably to valerian.

St. John’s wort (Hypericum sp.) – for nerve injuries.

Oatstraw (Avena sativa)  – an especially good nervous system tonic for older animals.

Nutritives – herbs that lend rich nutritional values, or that improve nutritional absorption and/or assimilation.  Nutritive herbs are also considered “tonic” in nature.

Nettle  (Urtica sp.)  – broad spectrum minerals, vitamins, and proteins

Alfalfa  (Medicago sativa) – broad spectrum minerals, vitamins, and proteins

Burdock (Arctium lappa or minor)

Flax seed  (Linum species) – rich source of Omega-3 essential fatty acids; special affinity to the                              skin

Dandelion  (Taraxacum off.) – broad spectrum minerals (especially potassium), vitamins, and                                 proteins

Hawthorn – rich with flavonoids— special affinity to the heart.

Rubifacients – Herbs that redden and heats the skin when applied topically.

Cayenne

Mustard

Ginger

Stimulant – A general term used to describe the increase of functional activity.

Herbs that stimulate digestive functions:

Dandelion

Gentian

Calendula

Hops

Oregon grape

Endocrine

Licorice (adrenals)

Borage (adrenals)

Kelp (thyroid)

Heart/Cardiovascular

Hawthorn

Cayenne

Ginger

Ginkgo

Bugleweed

Lymph System

Calendula

Red Clover

Cleavers

Red Root (Ceanothus spp.)

Nervous System (CNS)

Ginkgo

Ginseng

Siberian ginseng

Gotu cola

Peppermint

Pulmonary (improve pulmonary efficiency)

Yarrow

Cayenne

Hawthorn

Elecampane

Respiratory elimination

SEE EXPECTORANTS

Urinary

SEE DIURETICS

Vascular System

SEE VASOCONSTRICTORS/DILATORS

Tonics – Herbs that strengthen, tighten, or otherwise improve the function or physical structure of organs or tissues.  SEE THE SECTION ON TONICS THAT FOLLOWS.

Vasodilators

Arnica

Hawthorn

Ginger (peripheral)

Cayenne (selective vasodilator)

Yarrow (selective vasodilator)

Ginkgo (small capillaries – extremeties)

Vasoconstrictors

Cayenne (selective vasoconstrictor)

Yarrow (selective vasoconstrictor)

Bugleweed (very selective vasoconstrictor in humans)

Vulnerary – Herbs that promote healing; internally or externally

Aloe vera – externally for burns, wounds, dermatitis; internally for ulcers

Arnica (Arnica sp.). – for external treatment of closed tissue injuries ONLY

Comfrey (Symphytum off.) – for external use on open & closed tissue injuries.

Calendula (Calendula off.) – for dermatitis, burns, wounds.

St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) – for crushing soft tissue injuries, and any type of trauma where nerve damage is evident.

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