comment 1

Action Categories and Chemical Constituents

I must reiterate my love affair with discovering action categories. Action categories “reflect traditional observations of outcomes” (Hoffmann, 483). I find they make Western herbalism more accessible in day to day herbalism and easier to remember because it organizes herbal information. Action categories answer the question that a beginning herbalist may ask often, “what action will this plant have on a body system?”.

Herbs are multifaceted. They are not just card-carrying member of one action category only. Again, knowing the different actions an herb possesses can be indispensable in finding the most applicable herbs. For example, say we are looking for a relaxing nervine to assist someone who is under a lot of stress. If this individual has a racing heart, then choose herbs with a calming action on the cardiovascular system like motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) or linden (Tilia platyphyllos). If the person experiences digestive discomfort along with stress like a “nervous” stomach, then carminative or bitter herbs like chamomile (Marticaria recutita) or lavender (Lavandula officinalis) may be a indicated.

Action categories:

  • Adaptogen – increases the body’s ability to cope with non-specific stress
  • Alterative – alters the body tissues back to it’s proper health
  • Analgesic (anodyne) – reduce pain or the perception of pain
  • Anthelmintic – expels worms
  • Anticatarrhal – removes excess phlegm
  • Anti-inflammatory – reduces inflammation
  • Anti-lithic – reduces urinary stone formation
  • Antimicrobial – aids the body against pathogens
  • Anti-pyretic/febrifuge- reduces feverish states
  • Antirheumatic – helps reduce rheumatic symptoms
  • Antispasmodic – reduces muscle spasms and cramp
  • Astringent – reduces excess secretions and tones tissues by precipitating excess proteins
  • Bitter – stimulates digestive function
  • Cardio-tonic – acts on the cardiovascular system
  • Carminative – supports digestion and relives gas
  • Cholagogue – stimulates bile production and works on digestion
  • Demulcent – soothes irritated tissue
  • Diaphoretic – stimulates perspiration and opens the pores
  • Diuretic – stimulate urine production
  • Emetic – promotes vomiting
  • Emmenagogue – stimulate menstrual activity (some say enriches blood flow in general)
  • Emollient – soothes and softens irritated external tissues
  • Expectorant – removes phlegm from the respiratory system
  • Galactogogue – increases flow of breast mil
  • Hepatic – strengthen the liver and promotes bile production
  • Hypnotic – promote deep sleep
  • Hypotensive – promotes a normalization of blood pressure
  • Laxative – stimulates the bowels
  • Nervine –  works on the nervous system
  • Rubefacient – externally stimulates circulation, often used for reducing topical pain
  • Stimulant – promotes a quickening of physiological fuctions
  • Tonic – steadily strengthens the body or body systems over time
  • Vulnerary – externally promotes the healing of wounds

Herbal actions are more broad than chemical constituents, which are specific active chemical components of plants and can be scientifically observed. It is interesting to learn about chemical constituents, especially if you are more scientifically minded. A little science can go a long way when it comes to herbs. Its best not to over-analyze and expect chemistry to explain all the wonders of plant medicine. Science can be handy when it comes to providing skeptics with something to chew on instead of herbalists putting up their dukes. Yes, handing over some chemical equations and studies is much more peaceful…

Usually when people ask me “where’s the scientific evidence?” , I reach for information about chemical constituents rather than double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. My personal thought it that herbs are not drugs and therefore are not best tested like drug. Pharmaceuticals are more one-size-fits-all while herbs treat the individual, not the disease. I remember a group of professional herbalists in a particularly heated discussion about a study about using turmeric for reducing inflammation. One person lamented, “turmeric may be too hot and stimulating for some people; it messed up the study”.


  • Carbohydrates (monosaccharides, oligosaccharides, polysaccharides. glycoproteins, glycosides, gums and mucilage)
  • Lipids (fatty acids)
  • Terpenes (monoterpenes, iridoid, sespuiterpenes, sesquiterpenes lactones, diterpenes, triterpenes)
  • Phenolics (tannins, lignans, isoflavonoids, flavanoids, anthraquinones, coumarins, phenylpropanoids, simple phenolics)
  • Alkaloids (piperidines, tropanes, purines, isoquinolines, indoles, quinolizidines)

The link between the broad action categories and the specific chemical constituents is materia medica.

Action categories – observable ways that herbs work

Materia medica – individual herbs

Constituents – specific active chemical parts of an herb

Chemical reaction – how the constituents react in the body to cause an effect, which can be obseverd

in the action categories

Astringent – herbs that tone

Blackberry root – used for all sorts of loose stools

Polyphonol compound – gallic acid, a tannin

Precipitate proteins to tone tissues and check excessive secretions


Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.

Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.

1 Comment

  1. http://www.dysmenorrheaonline.com/

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.
    Also welcome visits my website !: Please press the back button and fill the required field for spam protection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *