Herbal Actions Defined

Some of the constituents of herbs produce certain actions in the body. The actions are grouped into the following categories.

Adaptogen: increase resistance and resilience to stress. They seem to work by supporting the adrenal glands

Alterative: gradually restore the proper functioning of the body and increasing health and vitality. Some support the natural elimination of waste through the kidneys, liver, lungs and skin. Others stimulate digestion or are antimicrobial.

Anticatarrhal: helps to remove excessive mucus from the body in particular from the respiratory tract.

Anti-inflammatory: reduces the body's natural inflammatory response. They do not stop the natural reaction but assist the body to do its work.

Antimicrobial: helps the body to either resist or destroy pathogenic micro-organisms. Some have antiseptic properties while others work by supporting the body's immune system.

Antispasmodic: ease muscle cramps and helps to relieve muscle tension.

Astringent: has a bracing action on the mucous membranes, skin and other tissue. The chemicals called tannins bind with proteins thus reducing irritation and inflammation and creating a barrier against infection.

Bitter: The taste of a bitter herb triggers a sensory response in the central nervous system and this causes the intestines to release digestive hormones.

Cardiac remedy: is the general term for herbs that benefit the heart.

Calminative: stimulates the digestive system, soothes the digestive tract and reduces inflammation.

Demulcent: soothes and protects irritated or inflamed tissue. They reduce irritation in the digestive tract, reduce sensitivity to potentially corrosive gastric acids and help to prevent diarrhea. They also reduce muscle spasms that cause colic and bronchial tension that causes coughing.

Diaphoretic: promotes perspiration, helping the skin to eliminate waste from the body. They often promote the dilation of surface blood vessels, which improves circulation. They support the work of the kidneys by increasing cleansing through the skin.

Diuretic: increases the production and elimination of urine. Diuretics help the body to eliminate waste and support the process of inner cleansing.

Emmenagogue: Stimulates menstrual flow and the normalisation of the menstrual cycle.

Expectorant: stimulates the removal of mucus from the lungs and acts as a tonic for the respiratory system.

Hepatic: aids the liver by toning, strengthening and in some cases by increasing the flow of bile.

Hypotensive: lowers elevated blood pressure.

Laxative: stimulates a bowel movement.

Nervine: There are three types of nervines all of which aid the nervous system. Nervine tonics strengthen and restore the nervous system, nervine relaxants ease tension and anxiety by soothing both the mind and the body and nervine stimulants directly stimulate nerve activity.

Rubefacient: generates a localised increase in blood flow when applied to the skin, encouraging healing, cleansing and nourishment. Rubefacients are used to ease the pain and swelling of arthritic joints.

Tonic: nurtures and invigorates.

Vulnerary: promotes wound healing, particularly skin wounds but they also work on internal wounds such as stomach ulcers.


Hoffman, D. 2000, The New Holistic Herbal. Element Pub.

Hoffman, D. 2001, Healthy Bones and Joints. Newleaf.




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