Basic Concepts in Herbal Medicine: Herbal Energetics

The various constituents that give herbs their various actions can be detected using human senses. The effects of these basic constituents can be felt and observed in one’s own body. We refer to this as herbal energetics.

Herbs can be divided into broad energetic categories based on their taste, constituents, and basic effects on the body. These effects form the basis for understanding the language of herbalism. 


How Herbs Effect Energy Production

Warming: refers to herbs that stimulate or speed up metabolism, increase energy production and warmth, and bring blood flow and vitality to tissues that are cool and pale.

Cooling: refers to herbs that sedate or slow down metabolism to decrease energy production while cooling or soothing irritation or redness.

Neutral: describes herbs that are neither warm nor cool. Neutral herbs do not have a strong effect on circulation or cellular metabolism.


How Herbs Effect the Density of Tissues

Moistening: refers to herbs that increase the moisture content of tissues, which means they lubricate and soften dry, brittle, or hardened tissues.

Drying: refers to herbs that remove excess fluid from tissue, causing it to become more firm and dense, relieving conditions of dampness and swelling.

Balancing: is the term we use for herbs that normalize tissues that are either damp or dry, helping to balance the amount of moisture and solids (minerals) within the tissues.


Describing Herbs by Taste

Pungent Herbs

Pungent herbs have a spicy or hot taste and typically have a sharp aroma. These are plants that are used to add spiciness to dishes, such as capsicum (cayenne pepper), ginger, mustard, and onions. The pungent flavor of these herbs is due to the presence of resins, alkamides, allyl sulfides, or monoterpene essential oils.

Herbs with a pungent taste are warming and drying. They move blood and energy upward toward the head and outward from the interior of the body to induce perspiration, and stimulate blood circulation. They stimulate the production of digestive secretions, which enhances appetite, expels gas, and increases intestinal peristalsis.

Overuse of pungent herbs depletes the body’s energy reserves and cools the body. Pungent herbs are contraindicated for people who tend to be hot, flushed, and irritable and who have a reddish complexion.


Aromatic Herbs

Aromatic herbs contain volatile oils (essential oils). These oils evaporate when they are exposed to heat and light. Like pungent herbs, many aromatics are used as seasonings in food. The mint and carrot families contain many aromatic herbs, including dill, peppermint, and lemon balm.

Aromatic herbs are also normally warming and drying, but they have a milder action than pungent herbs.  They tend to have strong effects on the nervous system, either calming or stimulating. Many essential oils are antimicrobial, which makes aromatic herbs helpful in fighting infections. Aromatics can induce perspiration and they stimulate blood circulation and expel intestinal gas.


Simple Bitters

Simple bitters are herbs that are bitter due to compounds as diterpenes and various glycosides. Anthraquinone glycosides are responsible for the action of stimulant laxatives. Stimulant laxatives include cascara sagrada, Turkey rhubarb, buckthorn, butternut bark, and aloe leaf.

Most simple bitters are cooling and drying. A few contain aromatic compounds that make them warming and drying, including dong quai, and turmeric.

Bitters cause energy to move downward (toward the eliminative organs) and inward (toward the digestive organs. Simple bitters tend to be detoxifying. Some have sedative or calming effects and a few are anodynes, which means they help to relieve pain. One of their primary uses is to stimulate the production of hydrochloric acid, bile, and pancreatic enzymes. This happens only when they bitters are tasted; bitter herbs that are sweetened or swallowed in capsules do not stimulate digestive secretions. 

Cooling bitters can deplete digestion over time. Traditional digestive tonics include warming bitters, aromatic or pungent herbs to modulate the depleting effects of cooling bitters. Bitters should be avoided by thin, weak, emaciated, and dry people.


Alkaloidal Bitters

Alkaloidal bitters taste bitter due to the presence of alkaloids. These compounds have names ending in -ine, such as caffeine, nicotine, and berberine. Coffee and chocolate are alkaloidal bitters. Herbs that contain alkaloids include goldenseal, Oregon grape, and California poppy.

Alkaloidal bitters tend to be cooling and drying. Alkaloidal bitters that contain berberine, such as goldenseal and Oregon grape, are used to fight infections. Alkaloids have very specific effects on the nervous and glandular systems and can mimic hormones, neurotransmitters, stimulating or sedating specific body processes.


Fragrant Bitters

Fragrant bitters are a cross between simple bitters and aromatics. Their primary constituents are sesquiterpene lactones and triterpenes. Examples of fragrant bitters include elecampane, black walnut hulls, wormwood, tansy, and wormseed.

Fragrant bitters are warming and drying. They are used in small amounts to stimulate appetite and digestion. Many are used to expel parasites. Most fragrant bitters are contraindicated in pregnancy, and many are not suitable for longterm use. 


Acrid Herbs

Acrid herbs are characterized by a bitter, nasty, burning taste that is much like the taste of bile. These herbs contain resins and alkaloids. The best examples of this taste are lobelia and kava-kava, but this characteristic is found to a lesser degree in black cohosh, skunk cabbage, and blue vervain.

Acrid herbs tend to be relaxing, which means they are diffusive, opening up the flow of blood, lymph, and energy. They may be cooling and drying. Their primary action tends to be antispasmodic, which means they relax cramps. They are used to relieve disorders that involve alternating symptoms like fever and chills or diarrhea and constipation. Acrid herbs often induce vomiting in large doses, and large doses or long-term use may adversely affect nerves.


Astringent Herbs

Astringent herbs are herbs that contain tannins. Tannic acid gives plants a slightly bitter taste and produces a drying, slightly puckering sensation in the mouth. Green tea is astringent. Other astringent herbs include white oak bark, uva ursi, and sage.

Astringent herbs constrict and dry tissues. They are used to arrest excessive secretions, tighten loose tissue, reduce swelling, and help blood coagulate. They are anti venomous when applied topically to bites and stings. Internally, they slow intestinal peristalsis and tone up intestinal membranes.


Sour Herbs

Many berries and fruits have a sour taste due to the presence of various fruit acids (citric, malic, and absorbic acid), which are accompanied by flavonoids, which are antioxidant and fever-reducing.

Sour herbs are cooling and nourishing. They may be balancing, slightly moistening, or slightly drying. They are used to reduce tissue inflammation and irritation and reduce free radical damage. They can strengthen capillary integrity and tone weak tissues. Sour herbs are considered good for the liver and eyes, two organs that use more antioxidants than any other organs.


Salty Herbs

The salty taste in plants isn’t like the taste of table salt. It is a more subtle flavor that is sort of a grassy or green taste. Think of the flavor of celery or spinach. The subtle salty flavor in these foods is due to the presence of mineral salts: Magnesium, potassium, sodium, and calcium. Salty herbs are green herbs like alfalfa, mullein, and seaweeds.

Salty herbs are balancing and nourishing. They can moisten dry tissues and can dry damp tissues. They are nutritive because they supply minerals that help to tone and heal tissues. They are nutritive because they supply minerals that help to tone and heal tissues. They clear the lymphatics, promote lymph flow, loosen mucus, and soften swollen lymph nodes. Many salty herbs are nonirritating diuretics that nourish and support kidney function. They are generally mild in action and have no contraindications. 


Sweet Herbs

Sweet Herbs aren’t sweet in the same way that sugar or honey is sweet. It is more like the sweetness of a bar of dark chocolate. This sweetness is due to the presence of polysaccharides or saponins. Obvious examples include licorice or stevia, and many tonic or adaptogenic remedies such as American or Korean ginseng, codonopsis, and astragalus are sweet as well.

Sweet herbs tend to be moistening and neutral, but they may be slightly warming or cooling. Sweet herbs are used to build weakened conditions, counteract wasting, strengthen glands, and replenish energy reserves. They counteract dryness and aging in tissues and often act as immune tonics to either stimulate or balance immune function.

Most sweet herbs are very benign and suitable for longterm use in small doses. Larger doses can overstimulate the body.


Demulcent Herbs

Also known as mucilaginous herbs, they have a bland or slightly sweet taste, but their most important feature is their texture. When moistened they have a slippery or slimy texture. This is due to water-loving polysaccharides or mucopolysaccharides such as gums, mucilage, or pectin. They may also contain glycosaminoglycans. Okra is an example as well as aloe vera, slippery elm, and kelp. Demulcents are moistening, cooling, and nourishing. They are used to soothe tissues that are hot, red, dry, and irritated. Taken internally, they add water-soluble fiber to the stool; they are bulk laxatives when they are taken with plenty of water. They can help to arrest diarrhea. Demulcents feed and support friendly gut bacteria and promote general intestinal health. They absorb bile from the gallbladder and liver to help reduce cholesterol and remove toxins from the body. Demulcents protect mucus membranes and are applied topically as poultices to soothe irritated or damaged skin and promote healing.

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