One of the first books I read on herbalism and health was Elson Haas’ Staying Healthy with the Seasons. There were many interesting little bits of knowledge and graphics in that book, including one relating parts of herbs to actions in the body systems. Here is how I remember it:
Plant parts along a surface-deep continuum from a Western view.
A week ago, I checked out a neat book to help me learn more about Chinese herbal formulations. Traditional Chinese Medicine Formula Study Guide by Qiao Yi walks the reader through all angles of formulating and a bit about pathology. The more I read about Chinese herbalism, the more I see similarities with what I’ve learned studying Western herbalism. Take this categorization about plant parts and actions from the study guide:
Plant part actions, Chinese medicine view.
I have looked in a few other sources in attempt to find more information about plant part and action/direction for both Western and Chinese herbalism, to no avail. (If you know of a resource, let me know!) One aspect in particular I’d like to get more information about is the Chinese medicine view about seeds, nuts and fruits. Why were they not mentioned along with flowers, roots and the rest? Are they included in flowers (which is where they originate)? There are a plethora of fruits and seeds in the pharmacopoeia, which is why I am confused.
Speaking of seeds…
Over the years there have been times when I relied on aromatic herbs and seeds/fruits. Kitchen spices like coriander, fennel, anise, dill, cardamom were my go-to’s for abdominal distention, gas and lack of appetite, ect. It seems to me that many seeds are very centering and assist the digestive process. The aromatic qualities of many seeds seem to be earthy, grounding, spicy, musty, as opposed to pungent roots like ginger, floral high notes like lavender, or bitter, stinging goldenseal. Of course not all seeds are aromatic, and not all aromatics are seeds, but perhaps there happens to be a digestive quality to them. Hmmm… Milk thistle seeds support the liver and detoxification (important for digestion) and even hawthorn berries are used to help ease the effects of over-eating or eating too much fatty food. Seeds, nuts and beans are a good source of fiber, too. Yet another good reason to eat your herbs!
When I first saw Haas’ continuum of cleansing herb part-deeper acting one, I felt there were important exceptions. I have to remember that models are just that, models, not rules. That’s one thing I like about herbalism – the lack of rules!
Tender springtime growth of common weeds and herbs have been used for centuries as cleansing “spring tonics”. A few examples are nettle, chickweed, cleavers, dandelion greens, burdock, purslane, lamb’s quarters and violets. Most spring tonics are have at least two things in common; they’re bitter and nourishing.
The bitter taste stimulates and often improves digestion, as it promotes bile secretion (an earlier post about bitters is here). As the years go on and my taste repertoire expands, I find myself appreciating and even craving the bitter taste, especially if I’ve had too much fried or heavy food. The nutrition from some spring tonic herbs makes sense in the scheme of cleansing, too. Cleansing becomes counterproductive if what you are cleansing with is nutrient-devoid and does not support the body. Even strict fasts include something your body needs -pure water.
Below are a few lymphatic and/or alterative herbs that can be helpful during a cleanse to address your individual needs. Years ago when I first started taking herbs, the herbs I used during a period of cleansing were very different than what I use now. Echinacea, red root, figwort, blue flag and wild indigo were key players for me then, as I needed “cleanse the blood” and address chronic sore throats, infections, skin problems and tender, swollen lymph nodes. Now I like a yellow dock, licorice, ginger and cardamon decoction as well as an infusion of red clover to support digestion, liver and lymph.
It seems that many alteratives and lymphatics support digestion, assimilation and elimination, by promoting liver and gallbladder function, which increases bile, the main lubricant and promoter of the bowels. They also assisit the kidneys and lymph system in removing. Many promote healthy skin, and are useful in mild (acne) to chronic (eczema) skin conditions.
I like taking general liver/alteratives/lymphatic herbs first in a cleanse, then hone on the body system that presents itself as needing further assistance. Many body systems tie back to digestion, blood and lymph anyways and can be indirectly strengthened by alteratives. Take hormones and the endocrine system, for example. Alteratives support digestion, which in turn supports nutrient absorption and bowel motility, which reduces re-absorption of waste-product hormones. They also support the liver, and the healthier the liver is, the healthier our blood is and the better it can process the hormones that pass through it.
- Dandelion root – A bitter tonic, stimulates the liver and bile production making it useful for sluggish liver and digestion. Dandelion contains inulin and FOS, which stimulate the growth of beneficial bowel flora.
- Burdock root – Burdock also has inulin and FOS. Indicated in swollen lymph nodes, cystic breast disease and skin conditions. Supports the kidneys as well as the liver. The seed is also quite useful, especially for chronic skin problems like eczema, though a little more difficult to harvest (unless you like to sift through burdock burrs!).
- Yellow dock – Bitter and earthy yellow dock increases iron absorption and storage, often used as iron tonic. Use it similarly as dandelion and burdock: skin conditions (acne, eczema, ect…) and poor digestion (constipation, sluggish liver).
- Oregon grape root – Good liver tonic and cholagogue. Oregon grape supports digestive symptoms of PMS, especially constipation. Soothes the genito-urinary mucus membranes, useful for UTI. Specific for acne on back and chest (Winston).
- Sarsaparilla – Sarsaparilla is a noted anti-inflammatory and can be soothing to hot skin conditions like psoriasis, arthritis, inflammation of the connective tissue (Winston).
- Figwort – A great lymph, blood and skin tonic. I like figwort for times my lymph feels particularly overburdened with chronic swollen glands, sore throat, stiff neck or acne.
- Sillingia – A small dose (5-15 drops of tinctures) of stillingia alone or in a lymph formula has been used for assisting lymph, kidney, skin and liver.
- Echinacea – Echinacea is known as an immune modulator but is also as an alterative, blood cleanser and lympatic. Especially useful for skin infections and conditions; boils, hives, eczema, psoriasis and septicemia (Smith, 33).
- Red Clover – Red clover is in my first line of support for singular swollen lymph nodes (rather than a bunch of little swollen lymph nodes, which, according to Matthew Wood, calls for calendula). Also useful for chronic coughs and postnasal drip.
- Cleavers – Gentle but effective lymphatic and diuretic. Can be soothing to the nerves, too.
- Chickweed – Chickweed can be used externally for inflammation and itching, but is also a mild diuretic, vulnerary and anti-inflammatory. Not the strongest acting herb, but it is very prolific and quite tasty as a salad green.
- Calendula – A bit bitter, calendula is a liver tonic, anti-inflammatory and lymphatic. Externally, it is renowned for disinfecting and soothing cuts, rashes and infections.
- Poke – Poke oil is externally stimulating and soothing to areas of lymph stagnation, especially breast tissue.
- Red root – This herb is specific for the mucosa and lymphatic congestion.
- Alder – Alterative and cholagogue called for in cases of skin conditions and infections and chronic constipation or sluggish digestion.
Finding herbs to use as part of a cleanse can seem complicated, especially when you consider the many “herbal detox” products that line the shelves at a health foods store. I suggest herbs be kept simple and individualized. “Treat the person, not the disease”.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.
Winston, David. Herbal Therapeutics.
Smith, Ed. Therapeutic Herb Manual.
If you’ve been to a natural food store, you’ve probably seen boxes of raspberry leaf tea sitting on a shelf. You may of looked at that box and read words like “uterine tonic”, or “pregnancy tonic”. Perhaps you even tried the delicately sweet, slightly sour and astringent (but mostly just…green tasting) member of the rose family.
Raspberry leaf is a perfect tonic for during pregnancy. Generally, it is demulcent (soothing to tissues), astringent, tonic to smooth muscles (especially uterus and large intestine). Since it is rich in vitamins and minerals, raspberry is a well-known nutritive herb. It is also helpful as an astringent tonic is excessive urination and diarrhea, and when the uterus and bladder feel heavy or prolapsed. Raspberry’s more thorny cousin blackberry is one of the most effective remedies for diarrhea for whatever the cause, in childhood contagious bugs, food poising, traveler’s diarrhea, or digestive diseases. It is a good thing to have in your globe trotting first-aid kit – and it’s cheaper and easier on the body then antibiotics.
Raspberry leaf has been used for hundreds of years during and after pregnancy. It can reduce morning sickness in the early months of pregnancy, and can also be helpful in arresting post-partum bleeding. Australian nurse-practitioner Ruth Tricky says that researchers “…suggested that Rubus would prevent or reduce the risk of in-coordinate uterine action (a common cause of difficulty and failure to progress in labor), by regulating the action of the uterine muscles.” (Tricky, 423).
To use raspberry leaf tea during pregnancy, start drinking it after the first trimester. Don’t hesitate–steep strong! One tea bag in one cup of hot water steeped 10 minuets is definitely not going to have the same effect as a medicinally prepared tea. Dried raspberry is quite fluffy, so go more for a fourth or third cup of the dried herb steeped, covered, in 3-4 cups hot water for 2 – 4 hours. Strain and drink daily. Blend with other nutritious tonic herbs like nettle, oatstraw, or alfalfa if desired. Midwife Aviva Romm suggest drinking the tea with a slice of fresh orange or lemon, since the vitamin C of the citrus will increase the rate of absorption of the vitamins and minerals in raspberry leaf tea (iron, for one).
Tonic seems like a quint word of Victorian yesteryear, but it is used often in herbalism. Tonics are called so because they tone or strengthen a body system(s) or the body as a whole over a period of time. To be considered a tonic, an herb usually has a medium to high nutritive profile (like nettle, for instance) and must be safe and mild enough to take everyday indeterminately. Another important feature of tonics are that they seem to have a rich ethnobotanical history of use. Basically, they have been safely used by people for hundreds or thousands of years.
As far I know, every herbal system has tonics, but Chinese medicine has a disproportionate amount of tonics to offer. Ginseng, He-Shou-Wu, Dang Qui, and Astragalus are a few examples. From Roy Upton:
”Chinese herbal medicine has long revered the use of herbal tonics to promote health, longevity, and counter the effects of aging. The highest ideal of Chinese medicine is to promote the highest level of health for the longest period of time, in contrast to simply applying herbs or therapies for the treatment of disease”(124, Medicines from the Earth 2006).
There are many types of tonics; lung tonics, uterine tonics, cardiotonics and so on. Herbs that are used as tonics also have other uses. For example, cordyceps is a yang tonic used to increase warmth, energy and growth when deficient, but is also used for restoring adrenal activity, strengthening the immune system and enhancing athletic output. As you can see, the underlying tonic action is often related to the short term uses of the herb.
There are a few similarities tonics share with each other, but we can’t overgeneralize their actions. Some are astringent (raspberry leaf, a uterine tonic), some are adaptogenic, others are nutritive. Here are a few examples: Schisandra, reishi and shiitake mushrooms, milky oats, licorice, raspberry leaf, alfalfa, astragalus, red clover, licorice, ashwaganda, skullcap, motherwort, linden, hawthorn, gingko.
It may seem that herbal tonics might not be strong action or illicit marked change in the body because they are food-like, relatively safe in large and continual doses (1-4 cups of tea a day for a year or more), and act generally to promote health. This is definitely not the case. Each of these herbs (even alfalfa or raspberry leaf) have their unique medicinal actions. It is through understanding the action and energetic details (like its taste or temperature) of the plant that can help you find the herbal tonic right for you.
Romm, Aviva Jill. The Natural Pregnancy Book.
Tricky, Ruth. Women, Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle.
The herbs in this entry share at least two commonalities, they are alteratives and they are purple-tinged. Coincidence? I think not.
As I have mentioned earlier, I am enthralled with action categories. Alteratives were the first action category I learned, well before I even knew there were such things as herbal actions. We became aquatinted because I needed them; I had suffered from recurring bouts of strep throat and tonsillitis with an inflamed and sore throat and swollen glands for the better part of a year. To top it off, I had developed acne at the age of 19 after having a clear complexion up until then. The herbalist in my town made me a root tea with yellow dock, echinacea, oregon grape, burdock, dandelion, barberry and some others. After a while I was on the road to recovery.
“Although independent pharmacological activities in these areas [alteratives] have been observed, most the herbal remedies used for such problems almost certainly work to change the environment so as to depress such pathological disturbances as much as to directly attack pathogens or malignancy.” (Mills, 486).
In general, aleratives promotes elimination, detoxifying, cleansing, acting on the liver, lymph, blood used often to treat chronic and acute skin diseases, joint problems, and may work against infection and immune problems. Of course, not all alteratives are purple-tinged. Matthew Wood writes on the color’s significance:
“Purple, indigo, lavender, and purple-red usually indicate low-grade, septic toxic heat and fever. When the stalk is red or purple-red we often have a plant which will pull out toxic heat, detoxify the interior, perhaps working through the portal vein and often the liver.”
Burdock Arctium lappa
Burdock's purple-lined stems
There are many uses for this common, wide-spread biennial weed in the aster family. The tap root, either fresh (called gobo at the grocery store) or dried, is what I use the most, although the seeds and leaf are also used. The seeds are exceedingly useful in acute or chronic skin conditions, and I have witnessed cases of eczema and alopecia (used topically) lessen in severity after at least a month of use. To harvest burdock seeds, gather some burrs in the autumn, place in a grocery bag, and back over it with a car a few times to aid in the separation of burr and seed. In addition to being helpful in cases of heavy perspiration, inflammation and fever. The seeds are indicated for “dry, crusty, itchy, itchy, flaky skin conditions” (Winston, 68). Wood also says:
“…the seed has the capacity to penetrate to the core, stimulating metabolism and digestion, promoting waste removal, moving waste product towards the periphery and out through the sweat pores, urine and stool.” (144)
Back to the roots. Like most roots, harvest the first year plant after the first frost. From there I either eat them, decoct them, cut and dry them, or make a fresh tincture in brandy. Slightly sweet and earthy in taste, this root makes it a lot of tinctures and teas around my house. Burdock is a classic “blood and liver cleaner”, thus it is helpful in skin conditions including acne, itchy or dry skin, eczema and psoriasis (143). It is also used for increasing kidney and bladder function, as it is a “non-irritating diuretic for cystitis and scalding urine” (Winston, 68).
Echinacea Echinacea angustifolia
Young echinacea with purple-red stems
Here in another member of the Asteraceae family, not as wide spread as burdock but certainly more popular by the masses as an “immune booster”. I cannot bear to dig up my echinaceas for the roots, so I make tinctures from the leaves and flowers.
The test for a high quality echinacea product, whether it be a home-made tincture, dried root or store-bough capsule is to hold it on your tongue and wait for the tingling (open dried capsules and puncture gel caps). This tingling sensation is a little numbing (drop the tincture down the back of the throat for easing the pain of a sore, raw throat) and means it is diffusive. The diffusives are all tingly on the tongue and act quickly through the nervous system, concentrating on certain areas. They include lobelia (muscles), prickly ash (nerves), bayberry (mucosa), cayenne (cardiovascular) (Wood, 247).
Echinacea diffusive action works on the blood and the lymphatics. Like burdock, echinacea assists skin conditions, septic fevers. Echinacea’s purple-redness on the stem is darker then the violet purple of burdock, which indicates it is for more infected, hot and inflamed states. For instance, echinacea may be used topically for boils, pimples, infected old bug bites, dark and swollen veins (248), when the blood seems to be infected or “toxic”.
Echinaceas in late summer
When I was a child my mother was bitten by a poisonous spider. Over the course of a few days, a vein running from the bite up the side of her torso, over the armpit, down the underside of the arm, wrapping around the hand and up the top of her arm swelled and turned purple-red. At this point she went into the hospital and had intravenous antibiotics, where she was informed that if the swelling of the vein would’ve reached her head she could’ve died. This story makes me think of echinacea and the its early reputation along the prairie as being a cure for snake bites. From Dr. Harvey Felter in 1927:
“Echinacea is a remedy for auto-infection, and where the bloodstream becomes slowly infected from within or without the blood, elimination is imperfect, the body tissues become altered, and there is developed within the fluids and tissues septic action…” (244)
Wood also says that echinacea is indicated for prostrated, exhausted and tired people, with or without poor work habits like working too hard then being exhausted (249). This makes sense, especially when I think of all the people who work hard and play hard, get sick, and then reach for the echinacea bottle.
Wild Indigo Baptisia tinctoria
Purple-hued wild indigo flower buds
A member of the pea family, wild indigo contains immuno- stimulating polysaccharides like echinacea (Mills, 273). I had a difficult time finding info about this herb in my references. Years ago, I tried it out after reading about it in the Herb Pharm herbal book. It seemed to align with what I was dealing with (skin problems, swollen lymph nodes, sluggish digestion). There was a little disclaimer on the bottom of the page, something to the tune of, “use sparingly and gradually increase dose, as it can cause headaches due to its strong alterative properties.”
It did help with the congestion, and I did develop headaches until I combined it with other gentler alternatives (burdock and dandelion).
“Wild indigo has beautiful green leaves and pods, which on ripening or injury, turn completely black. This plant was used for necrosis, gangrene, typhoid, putrid deterioration.” (Wood, p 26).
Wild indigo has been mentioned as useful as other alteratives are, in abscess, auto-immune disease, glandular fever, mumps, pelvic inflammation, pleurisy, and tonsillitis (Mills).
Figwort Scrophularia nodosa
Emerging figwort leaves
Figwort is an distinctive smelling member of the snapdragon family with delicate little purple-tinged yellow flowers. The purple-red color is seen on the stem, newly emerged leaves, and leaf tips. I have found it growing tall and lush in a big stand by a dirt road in a damp ditch. I first met it at Sage Mountain in Vermont. I liked it so much that I brought seeds home to spread in the garden, and now I have my own ankle-high stand of about six plants.
It is not a widely used herb; in fact it is barely mentioned in any herbals that I have. Nicholas Shnerr spoke highly of it as an alterative in his herbs for cleansing lecture at the Mid-America Herb Symposium of 2008, used with buckthorn, alder and echinacea as lymphatics. It is in what is know as Scudder’s Alterative, along with corydalis, yellow dock, black alder, and mayapple. He asked us if any of us have used figwort. I raised my hand and blurted, “I do! It smells so yummy”. The whole class stated to laugh; it turns out most everyone hates the smell of figwort but me; it was liked to “rotting meat” and a “dead skunk”. Personally, I think it smells delicious like buffalo meatloaf, or some other tender, wild meat.
I took my liking the supposedly un-likable smell as a sign and started to take a few drops of the tincture morning at night. Nothing notable changed, except a slight improvement in my digestion. Perhaps I’ll try it again.
Sometimes we need to follow our senses. One of the tasks at the herb shop was stocking bulk herbs. I was new to herbalism and didn’t know a lot of the plants or their uses. When I opened the shepherd’s purse jar to top it off, I fell in love with the smell, sticking my nose and inhaling long and deep as if it were the most exquisite, heavenly perfume. The herbalist laughed and said, “looks like someone needs to take some shepherd’s purse”. At the time I was experiencing a bout of heavy bleeding and spotting, which disappeared after a cups of shepherd’s purse tea. Incidentally, now I despise the sour, cabbage-like smell and taste of shepherd’s purse.
Mills says figwort is useful in cold-dampness of digestion as a warming eliminiative herb. It also conains saponins that are anti-inflammatory. Like it’s cousin foxglove, it contains a cardiac glycoside, but unlike foxglove, it’s glycoside is not potenitally toxic (139). As an alterative, it is decongesting to the glands and used for liver diseases, skin problems espeically eruptions with heat, and lymphatic stagnation with heat like hemorrhoids (Tierra, 187, Winston, 77). Winston combines figwort with self heal and red root to use for lipomas; which I’d like to try since I’ve only used chickweed for this.
Yellow figwort flowers on a purple-red stem
Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.
Scalzo, Richard and Michael Cronin. Traditional Medicines from the Earth.
Tierra, Michael. Planetary Herbology.
Winston, David. Herbal Therapeutics.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.