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The Theory of Herbology

posted on 8 April 2004 | posted in Health Articles


THE THEORY OF HERBOLOGY

What determines whether an herb is a food or a medicine?
Well we know that most foods have nutritional value to either a greater or lesser extent (the exception being refined sugar and refined carbohydrate foods). So do herbs. Some are rich in nutrients and therefore could be classed as medicinal foods since they give extra nutrients as ‘raw materials’ for the body to utilise to balance and heal itself. In one aspect, life can be thought of as a series of highly controlled chemical changes. These processes take two basic forms. Anabolism – the building up of tissues and catabolism – the breaking down of tissue to provide the energy and building blocks for anabolism. These chemical reactions are called collectively metabolism. The food we eat contains fats, carbohydrates and protein of course, but also vitamins and minerals that are needed to catalyse body processes. Many plants contain substantial amounts of vital trace minerals that are essential for synthesising hormones and other chemicals or breaking them down. 

We have said above that foods contain nutrients. Some foods can be used as herbs as well as food. Think of garlic, ginger or capsicum for example. A lot of the spices we use were used in India for medicinal purposes in food. Then we have some herbs that don’t taste so nice, but are high in certain chemicals that mean that the properties in them have definite therapeutic effects. 

Herbology is based on the principle that if the systems (digestive, circulatory etc.) of the human body are functioning properly, the body will maintain or achieve optimum health. Herbalists use medicinal plants to effect changes in body systems that allow the body to heal itself. The herbs are ingested orally or applied externally. 
The focus of western herbology has been to eliminate toxins from the various organ systems of the body. This is accomplished by the use of aromatic and bitter herbs that usually stimulate the purging mechanism of a particular system. These herbs promote the evacuation of toxins from the body. Once the toxic substances are eliminated from the body herbalists use astringent, mucilaginous and nutritative herbs to revitalise systems by soothing, tightening and strengthening inflamed and flaccid tissues. This is largely achieved by treating the digestive system. 
Herbs from other cultures are now widely used in the western world. The Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine philosophies mean that many treat the body according to the Doshas (individual typing) or according to excesses and deficiencies in yin or yang.

CLASSIFYING HERBS

AROMATIC HERBS
These herbs owe their properties mainly to the volatile oils obtained from the soft part of the plant such as the flowers or leaves. They have a short shelf life. They often smell nice. 

These fall into two sub categories.
Stimulant herbs that often affect the respiratory, digestive and circulatory systems. They are often taken as teas. The oils are often extracted and concentrated and used in foods and medicinal preparations. Examples of stimulant herbs include capsicum damiana, fennel, garlic, ginger, peppermint, sage, thyme, catnip, feverfew, penny royal and lemon grass. 

Nervine herbs often affect the respiratory digestive, circulatory and nervous system. Their identification as aromatic herbs isn’t as obvious as stimulants since they often are derived from roots and must be bruised to release their odour. Examples of nervine herbs are chamomile, crampbark, dong quai, ginger, hops, lobelia, skullcap, valerian, catnip, lady’s slipper and sarsaparilla.

ASTRINGENT HERBS
These herbs owe their properties to tannins. Tannin was used to cure leather. It has a similar effect on tissues in that it tightens or tones them. Tannins are mainly phenolic and sugar compounds. Their properties are often found in tree bark or roots and sometimes leaves. The plant has them to protect it from bacteria, parasites and fungal attack. They can be bitter in taste but are different from bitter herbs since they are more likely to be constipating. Bitter herbs tend to relax tissue, the opposite effect.

They have an effect on the digestive, urinary and circulatory systems. Some properties of these herbs are analgesic, antiseptic, antiabortive, astringent, emmenagogue, hemostatic, and styptic (stops bleeding).

Examples of astringent herbs are bayberry, comfrey, eyebright, golden seal, pau d’arco (lapacho), peppermint, red raspberry, slippery elm, white oak, white willow, yarrow, black walnut, crampbark, mullein, penny royal.

BITTER HERBS
These herbs owe their properties to the presence of phenols and phenolic glycosides, alkaloids or saponins. These herbs, as the name suggests taste bitter, and was originally limited to herbs that stimulated gastric secretions. But we are using it in a much broader sense. 

They fall into four categories

Laxative herbs fall into two categories. Bulk laxatives (see mucilaginous herbs) or stimulant laxatives. The bitter herb laxatives act by causing contraction and stimulation to the gut. The action of this is caused by the phenolic derivatives, anthraquinones.  These herbs if taken at bed time, can  initiate a purge 6-8 hours later.  Properties of laxative herbs can be also anticatarrhal, antipyretic, cholagogue, laxative, purgative, hepatonic, vermifuge, blood purifier. Examples are aloe, cascara, liquorice, pumpkin, senna, yellow dock, yucca, barberry, gentian, golden seal safflowers. 

Diuretic herbs induce loss of fluid – but in a much milder ways than the diuretic drugs. The fluids released through urine eliminate toxins and excess liquid. This is a popular way of cleansing the vascular system, the kidneys and the liver. The phenolic derivatives called flavinoids exert an irritant action.  The properties include alterative, antibiotic, anticatarrhal, aantipyretic, diuretic, lithotriptic, blood purifier. Examples of herbs include asparagus, blessed thistle, burdock, butcher’s bfoom, buchu, chaparral, chickweed, cornsilk, dandelion, dog grass, grapevine, hawthorn, horsetail ho shou wu, hydrangea, juniper berries, milk thistle, nettle, peach bark, parsley, uva ursi.

Saponin containing herbs produce frothing aqueous solutions resembling soap. They act like a detergent and emulsify fat-soluble molecules in the digestive tract. They are noted for their haemolytic properties. They dissolve the cell walls of red blood cells and disrupt them. When taken orally, however they are comparatively harmless or they are not absorbed at all. Saponin’s most important property is to accelerate the body’s ability to absorb other active compounds in the herb. The properties include alterative, anticatarrhal, antispasmodic, aphrodisiac, emmenagogue, cardiac stimulant, increased longevity. Examples include wild yam, schizandra, blue cohoshe, devil’s claw, liquorice, alfalfa, black cohosh, yucca, ginseng, gotu kola.
Alkaloid containing herbs contains nitrogen and has physiologic activity. Purified alkaloids used in the most potent drugs known to man. You may see some alkaloid containing herbs under other categories too. For example valerian and capsicum. The properties include emetic, astringent, expectorant, antiseptic, respiratory tonic, stimulant, nervine. Examples include ephedra, golden seal, lobelia, pau d’arco, valerian, capsicum.

MUCILAGINOUS HERBS
These herbs derived their properties from polysaccharides – complex sugars. They have a slippery, mild taste and swell in water. Most mucilages are not broken down by the body but excreted. In the process though, they absorb toxins from the bowel and give bulk to the stool.

The major effects of these herbs are to:
1. Lower bowel transit time
2. Absorb toxins
3. Regulate intestinal flora
4. Demulcent/vulnerary action 

Properties of mucilaginous herbs include antibiotic, antacid, demulcent, emollient, vulnerary, detoxifier. Examples include althea, aloe, burdock, comfrey, dandelion, Echinacea, fenugreek, kelp, psyllium, slippery elm, dulse, glucomannan from konjak root, Irish moss, mullein. 

NUTRITATIVE HERBS
These herbs are specifically used for their high level of nutrients. They are true foods but have a mild medicinal effect by falling into one or more of the categories above. Examples are rosehips, acerola, apple, asparagus, banana, barley grass, bee pollen, bilberry, broccoli, cabbage, grapefruit, hibiscus, lemon, oatstraw, onion, garlic, papaya, pineapple, red clover, spirulina, stevia, wheat germ.

The quality of the herbs used is of paramount importance - otherwise they just won't work. To find out more about how to find good quality herbs read this article

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