Action Categories and Chemical Constituents

May 14th, 2009 § 1 comment § permalink

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”.

Constituents:

  • 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

References:

Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.

Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.

Mustard Oil Glucosinolates

February 14th, 2009 § 2 comments § permalink

mustard.jpg

I have been rekindling both my love of chemistry and my love of brassicas. Brassica is the ‘new’ botanical term for the Cruciferae, or cabbage/mustard family. A few members of the Brassica family:

  • Black mustard (Brassica nigra)
  • Cabbage, cauliflower, kale, broccoli, kohlrabi, bok choy, brussel sprouts, (Brassica oleracea)
  • Turnip (B. rapa)
  • Horseradish (Cochlearia armoracia)
  • Wasabi (W. japonica)
  • Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
  • Shepheard’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
  • Watercress (Nasturtium offcinale)
  • Rape/canola (B.napus)
  • Mustard greens (B. juncea)

Glycosides are a main chemical constituent of the mustard family. In short, glycosides are basically carbohydrate glycones (which is a sugar part) bonded to an another part called an aglycone. The bond between them breaks by an enzyme and hydrolysis (hydro-, water; -lysis, breaks) which frees the aglycone group to be used by the body. Many biochemists use the aglycone group to categorizes glycosides; it is what gives them their special actions.

Glycosides are a well-known herbal chemical constituent group. The powerful steroidal cardiac glycosides get a lot of press, after an English herbalist discovered the use of foxglove (Digitalis spp.) for right heart failure in 1785 (Mills, 310). Then there are the well-known poisonous cyanogenic glycosides amygdalin of the Rosacea family and others, mostly in the stone fruits like bitter almond. Prunasin is a glycoside found in another Rosecea member, wild cherry (Prunus serotina), that “…exhibit expectorant, sedative and digestive properties” (Hoffmann, 49). Alcohol glycosides are a part of willow and other salycilic acid-containing plants. The glycosides called anthraquinones are laxatives, as found in senna , aloe and rhubarb (48).

In the mustard family, the glycosides are called glucosilinates and are very pungent. Mostly in the stem and seeds (315).When the plant is damaged, it produces a acrid vapor from the volatile isothiocyanates.

Glucosinolates, also called isothiocyanates, are the glycosides present in the mustard family. Most people don’t need a scientist to tell them that sulfur is a key element of glucosilinates. The pungent onion and garlic of Liliacea also contain sulfur. The glucosinolates are found mostly in the stem and seed and are released when the plant tissue is damaged. Botanically, they act to protect them against predators. Anyone who gardens knows there is an exception to the brassicas best efforts: the white cabbage butterfly and caterpillar. Old farmers know that livestock that eat too much brassicas can develop thyroid, liver and kidney problems. They are, after all, goitergenic; they depress thyroid function. This action can be used to advantage in cases of hyperthyroidism (Hoffmann, 50).

And as anyone who has eating a bit too much wasabi (Wasabia japonica) on their California roll knows that when taken internally, the mustard family is helpful for decongesting the sinuses (50). Externally, mustard oils act as rubefacients that encourage local increase of blood flow. The blisters that can sometimes happen when a mustard poultice is applied too long are the obvious result of this action. Mustard poultices work quite well to break up congestion and pain in the lungs, see here for directions. I have always heard not to use hot water to make to poultice, but until now I never knew why; combining with water above 113 F or 45 C can produce poisonous nitriles. Interestingly, Mills comments that low levels of the same nitriles are produced when boiling cabbage, but nobody seems to be concerned about it (316).

Do we need any more reason to eat our broccoli? Various studies have shown that diets high in brassicas decrease the risk of cancer. This site give a a good overview of some of the different findings, and lots of references. For those of you who wonder how this actually occurs, David Hoffmann explains glucosinolates ‘ role as such:

“Experimental tumor production is greatly inhibited by pretreatment with isothiocyanates. The isothiocyanates interfere with the metabolism of carcinogens by enhancing the activity of several cytochrome P450 enzymes involved in the detoxification processes. They inhibit pro-carcinogen activation…” (50).

References:

Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.

Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.

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