An Introduction to Herbal Actions

  1. All About Herbs
  2. An Introduction to Herbal Actions
  3. Garlic, The Superb Herb
  4. Ginger
  5. Lavender
  6. Oregano
  7. Plantain
  8. Echinacea
  9. Parsley
  10. Tarragon
  11. Moringa
  12. Comfrey
  13. Mugwort

Herbal Actions Overview

Herbal actions, so they are called, is the general tendency of the herb in the body.  Each herb will have a specific herbal action, which we will take a deeper look into further down in the article, and some herbs will have many herbal actions.  The key is to understand that these actions, and the potency of each herb, can vary based on conditions such as climate, altitude, the degree of freshness and many other variables.

In addition to an herbs primary action, there are also secondary actions as well, which deal with the specific organs of the body.  For example, pectoral (lungs) or hepatic (liver) are secondary actions.  I won’t spend a long time on this, as the purpose this series is how to grow herbs in our climate, not a course directly about herbalism or herbal medicine.  Although, with each herb, I will list its action and how to make a medicine with it as well as culinary uses and instructions on how, where and when to grow.

Herbal Actions List

  • Adaptagen – This improved the body’s adaptability, enabling the body to avoid collapse or over-stress.  The core of this action is in helping the body deal with the physiology of stress by restoring normal tone and function to the hypothalamic, pituitary & adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathoadrenal system (SAS) and therefore the entire body since these systems underlie much of the body’s response to stressors.  Since they help reduce stress, they can help improve symptoms of stress such as poor concentration, fatigue, sleeplessness, decreased immune response and therefore resistance to infections.  Borage and Licorice are 2 examples.


  • Alterative – Alteratives gradually restore the proper function of the body and revive health and vitality.  This may sound overly broad, and it might be.  Many herbs have alterative actions through their secondary and even tertiary actions.  These herbs alter the body’s processes of metabolism so that tissues can best deal with a wide range of functions from nutrition to elimination.   Alterative mainly focus on circulatory, respiratory, digestive, urinary, reproductive, musculoskeletal, nervous system, and integumentary systems while skin conditions, arthritis, and auto-immune diseases are especially improved.  Dandelion and stinging nettles are in this group.


  • Antelmentics – These herbs kill or repel worms in the digestive system.  Many are toxic in high doses but some are still ok.  Garlic is an example.  Vermifuge and antiparasitics are other ways to describe this action.


  • Anti-catarrhal – Anti-catarrhals aid in removal of excess mucas in the body and are mainly geared toward ear, nose and throat issues but can also play a role in a wider based treatment.  Goldenrod, plantain and peppermint are examples.


  • Anti-depressant – Helps relieve or prevent depressed states of mind.  St. John’s wort, basil and Saffron are a few examples.


  • Anti-emetic – These reduce nausea by settling the digestive processes of the stomach.  Lemon balm, chamomille and ginger all fill this role.


  • Anti-hemorrhagic – an agent is a substance that stops bleeding.  Yarrow is a styptic.


  • Anti-inflammatory – This is a powerful group of herbs that, obviously, fight inflammation.  We all know inflammation is regarded as our archenemy by modern medicine and must be stopped.  However, inflammation is a natural and curative part of our body’s process.  It helps eliminate and boosts immune response.  These natural anti-inflammatories offer us the possibility of achieving a balance between the complex chemical mediators involved and working with the body rather than against it.  Anti-inflammatory herbs are categorized by the different ways they work and those categories are:
    • Sulfer (Alliums, mustards)
    • Resins (Frankincense, cayenne, ginger)
    • Salicylates – (Wintergreen & meadowsweet)
    • Steroidal Saponins (Wild yams & Fenugreek)
    • Triterpenoid Saponins (Licorice & Marigold)
    • Essential Fatty Acids (Borage seeds & evening primrose seeds)
    • Volatile Oils (Cinnamon, turmeric & rosemary)
    • Flavonoids (Cranberry, blueberry & raspberry)


  • Anti-lithic – Help prevent the formation of stones in the urinary system and can help remove those that have already formed.  Silver birch and celery are examples.


  • Anti-microbials – Herbs that help the body to destroy or resist pathogenic microorganisms.  Some of these work by directly ridding the body of microbials while others strengthen the immune system, helping the body itself heal.  Echinacea, myrhh and thyme are examples.   These can be further divided into the following categories:
    • Anti-bacterial
    • Anti-fungal
    • Anti-parasitic
    • Anti-viral, etc.


  • Anti-spasmodic – The ability to ease or prevent spasms as well as reduction of physical and psychological tension.  They are often found to be high in volatile oils as well.  Hops and passionflower are examples.


  • Anodyne – Synonymous with analgesics, these herbs soothe and suppress pain primarily by lessening the sensitivity of the brain and/or nervous system.  California poppy and wild lettuce are anodynes.


  • Aperient – These are mild and gentle laxatives that stimulate the appetite.  They do not stimulate digestion directly but natural bowel movements and functions are promoted.  Juniper fits in here.


  • Aromatic – These are high in volatile oils and have a strong and often pleasant odor.  They can stimulate or relax the body via digestive and/or nervous systems.  Aniseed and cinnamon are examples.


  • Astringent – These are herbs that have a binding effect on mucous membranes, skin and other exposed tissue.  This is usually due to tannins and play a role in a wide range of problems many parts of the body but are primarily used for healing of wounds and conditions of the digestive system.  Avoid longterm internal use as it could inhibit proper food absorption through the gut wall. Red and white oaks, as well as red raspberries, are in this category.


  • Bitter – Yes, this action is directly related to taste.  Bitters work by sending a message via the central nervous system that sends out a message to the gut telling it to raise the digestive hormone, gastrin, which leads to a whole range of ramifications, all of value to the digestive system and overall body health.  Wormwood and goldenseal are bitters.  Bitters have important secondary actions which are:
    • Nervines
    • Warming
    • Cooling
    • Anti-microbial
    • Anti-inflammatory


  • Cardiac Tonic – These have an overall health boost and benefit to the heart and circulatory system.  Lily of the Valley, hawthorne and motherwort are cardiac tonics.


  • Carminative – High in volatile oils, these herbs help in relieving stomach and gut pains by regulating contractions in the gut and expelling gas.  Anise and fennel are carminatives.


  • Cholagogue – These stimulate the flow of bile from the liver. Turmeric and fringetree are cholagogues.


  • Choleretic – These herbs are related to cholagogues but specifically increase the amount of bile produced by the liver.  They aid in detoxing.  Goldenseal, as well as the 2 listed above, are choleretics.


  • Demulcent – Rich in mucilage, these herbs soothe and protect irritated an inflamed internal tissues.  They are cooling and relaxing.  They reduce irritation down the whole length of the bowel, reduce sensativity of the digestive tract to gastric acid, prevent diarreah and releave digestive contractions, eases coughing by soothing bronchial tension and relaxes and eases painful spasms in the bladder, urinary system and sometimes even the uterus.  Comfrey and marshmallow are demulcents.


  • Diaphoretic – Promotes sweating. This action helps in aiding the skin to expel toxins.  Cayenne (actually any pepper with enough capsaicin) and boneset are diaphoretics.


  • Diuretic – Strictly speaking, aids in increasing the secretion and elimination of urine from the body.  They are classified into 3 different categories:
    • Stimulating – Bearberry
    • Osmotic – Couch grass
    • Cardiac or peripheral circulatory system stimulants – Scotchbroom


  • Emetic – These induce vomiting.  Lobelia will help empty the contents of the stomach.


  • Emmenagogue – These stimulate and regulate menstrual flow and function.  Mugwort is an example.


  • Emollient – Similar to demulcents but used externally to soothe, soften and protect the skin usually through the use of a mucilage or oil.  Aloe and plantain are emollients.


  • Expectorant – These remove excess mucous from the lungs, but this term is commonly referred to as any action that helps the overall respiratory system.  They work in three ways:
    • Stimulating (hyssop)
    • Soothing/Relaxing (mullein)
    • Respiratory tonic or amphoteric (horsetail)


  • Febrifuge – These herbs reduce fevers.  While herbs are great at reducing fevers, it’s best to combine these herbs with others that aid in general recuperative healing rather than just reducing the temperature.  Elderberry and flower are febrifuges.


  • Galactagogue –  Increases brest milk in lactating women.  This is done without putting the body through any additional hormonal stress.  Fennel is a galactagogue.


  • Hepatic – These aid the work of the liver.  Dandelion root, artichoke and milk thistle all belong here.


  • Hypnotic – These induce a deep and healing state of sleep.  Valerian and passionflower are hypnotics.


  • Laxative – These herbs promote bowel movements and are They work by stimulant or osmotic/bulking.  An example is burdock.


  • Nervine – A beneficial plant that has an effect on the nervous system in some beneficial way.  To narrow this down, they are categorized in 3 areas:
    • Nervine Tonic (or trophorestoratives) – these benefit the entire area of stress & anxiety by strengthening and “feeding” the nervous system.  Adaptogens should be considered a nervine tonic since they promote overall health in body and mind and the demands placed upon it.  Oats and gotu kola are in this group.
    •  Nervine Relaxant – A tranquilizer of the nervous system.  Works well in high stress but should be avoided for the long term.  Lavendar and Kava Kava are examples.
    • Nervine Stimulant – These cause a direct stimulation of the nervous system and are not often needed in these modern times of hyperactivity.  It is more appropriate nowadays to use adaptogens or even nervine or digestive tonics that promote overall body vitality and harmony for a much deeper and longer lasting effect.  Common examples here are coffee and tea.


  • Rubefacient – These are herbs that when applied to the skin will, in some form, cause a gentle and localized increase in blood flow.  This usually shows in a reddening of the skin and historically have been sub-divided by the power of the herb.  A vesicant will even cause blistering and is mostly used in the treatment of arthritis.  Mustard seed and castor bean oil are rubefacients.


  • Sedative – As the name implies, these calm the nervous system, reducing stress and nervousness throughout the body.  Yellow Jasmine is a sedative and some others are actually illegal in the US.


  • Stimulant – Quickens and enlivens the physiological activity in the body in some way.  They are sub-categorized as:
    • Nervine Stimulants (as described above)
    • Cerebral Circulatory Stimulant (Ginko)
    • Peripheral or Diffuse Circulatory Stimulant (Prickly Ash)
    • Central Circulatory Stimulant (Korean Ginseng)
    • Immune Stimulant (Pokeroot)
    • Glandular Stimulant (Borage)


  • Tonic – A broad action that will either strengthen or enliven a specific organ or the whole body.  When referring to an organ system, they are known as trophorestoratives.  These are also subdivided:
    • Mucous Membrane Tonic (Eyebright)
    • Thyroid Tonic (Kelp)
    • Immune Tonic (Shitake Mushroom)
    • Connective Tissue Tonic (Horsetail)
    • Vascular Tonic (Bilberry)
    • Cardiac Tonic (Hawthorne)
    • Liver Tonic (Milk Thistle)
    • Adrenal Tonic (Ashwaganda)
    • Respiratory Tonic (Hyssop)
    • Uterine Tonic (Black or Blue Cohosh)


  • Trophorestorative – The trophic state is representative of the vital capacity of a system or tissue in the body.  These herbs have tissue-specific properties and as such are classified accordingly:
    • Nervous System (Damiana)
    • Endocrine (Licorice)
    • Skin (Chickweed)
    • Connective Tissue (Gotu Kola)
    • Cardiovascular (Hawthorne)
    • Lungs (Mullein)
    • Stomach (Meadowsweet)
    • Liver (Dandelion Root)
    • Uterus (False Unicorn Root)


  • Vulnerary – These herbs bring about healing in wounds and inflammation.  Sometimes these work because of the presence of tannin, which produces an impervious layer, under which the natural healing process can occur. With others, it is the soothing mucilage or a chemical called allantoin that stimulates cell growth and division. This will speed the healing of wounds and even in some cases, bone.  Comfrey, plantain and marigold are examples and personally, we use comfrey all the time!

And finally…

So there you have it, the herbal actions, their definitions and some examples.  I wanted to give you this primer on herbal actions before I started in with the herbs that are beneficial and can grow in our area because as I go through these herbs each week I will be giving you their benefits for both the environment, the edible landscape and yourself.  I hope this primer will help you in your herbal journey.

Up Next!

Up next we will take a look at herbs you should be growing in and around your garden and more specifically how to grow them.