Glossary of Actions

Herbal Medicine

Actions of herbs may be due, in part, to particular chemical constituents. Many individual constituents have been pharmaceutically researched. However, as a traditional medical herbalist, I consider the herbal action of a plant to be due to the synergy of the whole plant part rather than any one individual chemical constituent.

Adaptogens/Adaptogenic: This group of herbs help the body to ‘adapt’ to pressure and/or tension. They increase resistance to physical or emotional stressors and promote normal physiological functioning of the body.

Alterative/Depurative: Help detoxification, aid elimination and reduce accumulation of waste products in the body. Previously known as blood cleansers or blood purifiers.

Anti-spasmodic: Herbs which relieve spasms or cramps by reducing involuntary contractions of smooth muscle.

Astringent: Astringent herbs usually include tannins. These contract tissue (e.g. mucous membranes) and therefore can be useful for reducing discharges or secretions.

Bitter or Bitter Tonic: Any herbs with a bitter taste have a toning effect on the digestive system. The bitter taste stimulates taste buds.

Carminative: Carminative herbs support digestion by stimulation of peristalsis. They are often high in volatile oils.

Choleretic: Herbs increasing the production of bile by the liver.

Depurative: Herbs with a depurative or alterative action were initially known as blood cleansers. They ‘cleanse’ or nowadays we tend to say ‘detoxify’.

Diaphoretic: A diaphoretic action helps the skin to rid the body of toxins by promoting perspiration (sweating). Also known as sudorifics.

Diuretic: Diuretic herbs encourage urination and increase urinary output. Some of the more common examples are cucumber, lemon, parsley.

Emollient: Emollient herbs are used externally to soothe or protect the skin.

Expectorant: Herbs with an expectorant action essentially ‘expel’ excess, or sticky,  mucus from the lungs. They are most often used for coughs to aid removal of heavy sputum. They can either alter production or consistency of mucus or improve the cough reflex.

Febrifuge: Herbs with a febrifuge action help the body to bring down and reduce fevers. Also known as anti-pyretic.

Hepatic: Herbs with a hepatic action strengthen the liver.

Lymphatic: These assist in detoxification through lymphatic tissue. They are useful for improving immune function or for reducing swelling in the limbs. Often used for swollen or enlarged lymph glands (nodes).

Sedative: Herbs with a sedative action calm the nerves by reducing activity. Sedative herbs may be used in conjunction with other herbs to reduce anxiety, alleviate pain or spasms or induce sleep.

Styptic: Any herb with a styptic property is used to reduce external bleeding. They are also known as haemostatic herbs.

Tonic: Any herb described as tonic works to strength the body. This could be either a particular organ e.g. ‘heart tonic’ or particular system of the body e.g. ‘circulatory tonic’.