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Herbology 101: Definitions to Know

Before diving into the world of herbs it is best to have at least a basic understanding of the terminology used . Understanding the terminology, will better equip you with the knowledge you need in order to understand special characteristics of certain herbs, especially in combining them for a specific health conditions. Below we have included a quick flash course on what you need to know before buying, mixing, and those herbs!

Actions in Plant Science Terminology

These definition are the mechanism of actions of the plant herbs. Within this herbal blog, the mechanism of action can be use synonymously with therapeutic actions, as both will be defined as the primary healing characteristics of an herbal medicine. Knowing the terms used for each therapeutic actions will improve your understanding of how the special herbs work and interact with the body.

Herbal mechanism of actions include, but may not be limited to:

adaptogen increases resistance and resilience to stress; as a tonic, it increases the overall sense of well-being

alterative gradually restores proper functioning of the body, increasing health and vitality; sometimes referred to as a blood cleanser

analgesic relieves pain

anti-asthmatic treats or prevents asthma

antibacterial destroys or stops the growth of bacteria

antibilious helps the body remove excess bile

anticatarrhal reduces inflamed mucous membranes of the head and throat, and often reduces phlegm

antidepressant helps to prevent, cure, or alleviate mental depression

antiemetic stops vomiting

antifungal destroys or inhibits fungal growth

antihemorrhagic helps control hemorrhaging or bleeding

anti-inflammatory helps control inflammation

antimicrobial helps destroy microbes (germs)

antioxidant protects cells from damage

antipruritic prevents or relieves itching

antirheumatic helps ease pain of rheumatism and inflammation of joints and muscles

antiseptic removes toxins from the body and waste accumulations such as pus

antispasmodic calms nervous and muscular spasms or convulsions

antitussive relieves coughs

antiviral opposes the action of a virus

aperient helps promote bowel movements; a very mild laxative

aperitive stimulates the appetite

aphrodisiac increases the capacity for sexual arousal

aromatic presents strong aromas, often because of the presence of volatile oil

astringent constricts and pulls tissues together and helps decrease secretions

bitter stimulates appetite or gastrointestinal function

cardiotonic increases the strength and tone of the heart

carminative soothes digestion and helps to expel gas and relieve bloating

cathartic active purgative that produces bowel movements

cholagogue increases bile flow from the gallbladder

counterirritant produces an inflammatory response

decongestant removes mucus congestion

demulcent soothes inflammation of mucous membranes

deobstruent removes obstructions from the alimentary canal (the digestive organs)

depurative removes impurities and cleanses the blood

diaphoretic increases perspiration and opens the pores of the skin

diuretic increases urine flow

emetic produces vomiting

emmenagogue regulates and at times induces normal menstruation

emollient softens and soothes the skin

expectorant facilitates removal of secretions and phlegm

febrifuge reduces or relieves fever

galactagogue promotes the flow of breast milk

hemostatic controls or stops the flow of blood

hepatic supports the liver

laxative helps loosen the bowel contents for easier elimination

mucolytic helps break down thick mucus

nervine calms the body, mind, and spirit

nutritive provides nutrition, and is often high in vitamins and minerals

pectoral helps heal the lungs

purgative causes fast evacuation of the bowels

relaxant induces relaxation

restorative brings balance to a particular organ or system

rubefacient reddens skin, dilates blood vessels, and increases local blood supply

secretolytic increases the production of mucus in the respiratory tract

sedative exerts a soothing, tranquilizing effect on the bod

stimulant temporarily increases body or organ function

stomachic supports the stomach

styptic stops bleeding

tonic increases systemic strength

Naturopathic Properties of Plants

Another very important aspect of herbal science and creating herbal medicine is understanding the plant’s climatic nature. This ‘nature’ is the elemental affect that the herb may have on your body, such a cooling, warming, and drying . As seen in Ayurveda, utilizing plants based on their elemental affect on the body will give you a better understanding of the potential therapeutic changes that the herb may impose on each system.

Cooling: If an herb is cooling in nature, the herb will have a cooling effect on the body. Examples: chamomile, blue vervain, and marshmallow.

Warming: If an herb is warming in nature, the herb will have a warming effect on the body. Examples: Cinnamon and Ginger.

Drying: If the herb is dry in nature, then you could expect it to help dry tissues of the body when needed.

Moisturizing: If the herb is moist in nature, they you could expect it to have a moisturizing affect on the tissues and mucous membranes.

Keep in mind that herbs may carry multiple properties at once depending on the system that is being targeted.

Flower Essence

When utilizing herbs, we must understand that the emotions may be affected just as the physical body. Flower essence are considered the energetic plant imprints that interact with our spiritual being in order to bring out certain qualities. We use the flower essence of herbs to help us connect the physical body to the emotional and psychological aspects of our existence. When using flower essence in plants, think of it as the energetic attribute.

Plant Constituents

Once you are understanding the mechanism of action and the nature of herbs, learning about the plant constituents will bring everything together. These herbs are filled with a number of medicinal properties thanks to the many antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and more. Learning about these constituents (or components) may provide you with indications to what actions the plant will perform in the body. When you learn this, you will know how the plant works as a healing agent.

Plant constituents can help you predict what will happen to your body when you apply or ingest it. Using your senses, while in contact with these herbs, may give you an idea of what constituent is present. According to Pursell, “ a plant’s appearance, taste, and smell can offer clues about which constituents are present”. Plants that are very aromatic usually contain volatile oils. Plants that have a sweet taste, indicate that there are carbohydrates present and a sour plant probably contains tannins.

A few common plant constituents you could expect to see in herbal medicine are:

Acid: used as a antimicrobial to heal wounds and reduce inflammation

Alkaloid: acts on every system, reducing inflammation

Anthraquinone: stimulates bowels and quickens stool transit time

Bitters: increases gastric secretion and improves digestion

Carbohydrates: provides systemic energy and reduce tissue inflammation and irritation

Coumarin: used as an anti-inflammatory, anticoagulant, and antispasmodic

Flavinoid: used as an antioxidant

Glycoside : encourages cellular absorption

Saponin : used to heal skin wounds

Tannin: used as an astringent

Volatile Oils: used as an antiseptic

Additional constituents may include essential amino acids, minerals, salts, vitamins, phyto-nutrients, macros, and more.

Herb Sentiments

The herb sentiment can be thought to be similar to the flower essence, but it has a different meaning to us. The sentiment also involves the emotions, but it is mostly related to the symbolic relation behind an certain situation or a feeling. While flower essences are used to spark certain energies and emotions with in ourselves, herb sentiments are used to transfer energies to another form of life.

Body Systems

Once you have a general understanding of the above terminologies and their importance in herbal medicine, it is time to learn what each system will potentially need. Below you will find a quick description of the appropriate actions to look for in order to heal each body system.

Respiratory System

Organs Involved: lungs, pharynx, larynx, trachea, bronchi, alveoli, nose and nasal cavity.

Functionality: exchange of the gases oxygen and carbon dioxide into and out the body

Actions needed: tonic, mucolytic, demulcent, relaxants, bronchodilator, decongestant, expectorants, anticatarrhals, antitussive and antimicrobial.

Cardiovascular System

Organs Involved: heart, blood vessels (veins, arteries, and capillaries)

functionality: pumping and circulating the blood

actions needed: stimulants, vasodilators, cardiotonic, hypotensives, diuretics, tonics, and nervines

The Gastrointestinal System

Organs Involved: Esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder.

Functionality: receive and digestive food, produce digestive enzymes, absorb nutrients, and remove toxins

Actions Needed: Bitters, carminatives, cathartic, demulcents, stomachic purgative and laxatives, hepatics, astringents and antispasmodics

The Endocrine System

Glands Involved: Pituitary, pineal gland, hypothalamus, thyroid gland, parathyroid, thymus, adrenals, pancreas (islet tissue), ovaries, and testes (male)

Functionality: secrete hormones that regulate body growth, metabolism, sexual maturation and function.

Actions Needed: adaptogen, bitters, alterative, and nervine

The Nervous System

Organs Involved: brain, spinal cord, sensory organs, and nerves 

Functionality: control the body and foster communication amongst all parts by collecting, processing and responding to sensory input

Actions Needed: adaptogen, nervine stimulants, nerve tonics, nerve sedatives, and nervine demulcents

The Reproductive System

Organs Included: breast, vagina, uterus, Fallopian tubes, ovaries, penis, testicles, epididymis, prostate, seminal vesicles, and urethra.

Functionality: (female)- ensure survival of the species

Actions needed: emmenagogue, antispasmodic, anti-fungal, antibacterial, anti-hemorrhagic, anti-inflammatory, aphrodisiac, astringent, demulcent, galactagogue, restorative and relaxant

The Musculoskeletal System

Organs Included: skeleton bones, muscles, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, joints, and other connective tissue 

Functionality: provides form, support, stability, and movement to the body

Actions needed: anti-inflammatory, antirheumatic, analgesic, and antispasmodic

The Immune System

Organs included: lymphoid tissue, lymph nodes, thymus, spleen and bone marrow

Functionality: defend against infectious organisms and other invaders to prevent dys-function

Actions needed: Nutritive, Tonic, longevity, immunomodulators, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory

The Genitourinary System

Organs included: kidneys, ureters, urinary bladder, and urethra, 

Functionality: produce, store, and eliminate urine and other toxic waste and balance electrolytes and hydration

Actions needed: diuretic, diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory

Integument System

Organs included: skin, hair, nails, sense receptors, sweat gland, oil glands

Functionality: a barrier to protect the body from the outside forces also helps to retain body fluids, protect against disease, eliminate waste products, and regulate body temperature.

Actions needed: diaphoretic, vulnerary, astringent, tonic, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and antimicrobial

Keep in mind that the action needed per system stated here are not all inclusive and multiple body systems may require other variations of actions as well. Individualize your choices based on your body’s specific needs.

Continued Learning

While the information of this blog was meant to be just thorough enough for understanding, there is deeper realm of herbal medicine that would need a thousand more blog post. Just understand that with herbal medicine and science, the learning is lifelong as there are thousands of herbs to learn about from the deep jungles of the Amazons to the pristine water of the Caribbean islands. As long as you apply the basics to what you know and then continue to build on it, then you will be well on your way to herbal healing in the most appropriate manner.


Pursell, JJ. The Herbal Apothecary: 100 Medicinal Herbs and How to Use Them (p. 45). Timber Press. Kindle Edition.


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