HERBAL THERAPEUTICS AND MATERIA MEDICA
The therapeutic use of herbs and herbal medicines in the world's great traditional medical systems is guided by the principles and precepts of that system. In Greek Medicine, the therapeutic use of herbs is guided by the principles of humor, temperament and the Four Basic Qualities.
In herbal folk medicine, simple empirical experience guides the therapeutic use of herbs: this herb for this disease or symptom, that herb for that. But the world's great traditional healing systems, including Greek Medicine, have developed sophisticated systems of herbal taste, temperature and energetics that guide the proper selection and use of herbs in the context of holistic healing.
Basic Principles of Herbal Therapeutics
1) The herbal medicines given should be opposite yet complementary in quality to the nature of the imbalance or disorder to bring the organism back into balance.
2) The herbal medicines given should be similar in the strength and degree of their influence to the severity of the imbalance or disorder to correct it to just the right degree.
3) The herbal medicines given should be pertinent to the humor, vital principle, organ or body part being treated to properly target the disease or disorder.
4) The herbal medicines given for conditions of excess should cleanse, purge, or eliminate the morbid superfluities, whether gross or subtle, in a timely, precise, efficient manner.
5) The herbal medicines given for conditions of deficiency should nourish, supplement, strengthen or restore the affected or defective humor, organ, vital principle, tissue or body part.
6) For conditions in between excess and deficiency caused by the faulty metabolism, circulation or distribution ot a humor or vital principle, herbal medicines that balance, harmonize, circulate or metabolize the affected humor or vital principle, to the exact nature and degree that it is affected, should be given.
7) Herbal medicines to clear away any morbid excesses, impurities, obstructions or superfluities that remain should be given before the organism can be properly nourished, restored or rebuilt with the right herbal tonics and restoratives. In patients who are very weak, frail or emaciated, tonics and restoratives can be combined with gentle cleansers.
8) First, do no harm. The herbal medicines given should always be aimed at increasing the overall health, vitality, resiliency and immunity or the organism as the ultimate goal of treatment.
9) Learn as much as you can about an herb or herbal medicine before using it. Not only must you know its indications, or conditions for which it is used, but also its contraindications, or conditions that negate or prohibit its usage, as well as its potency, administration and dosage.
Herbal Qualities and Temperament
In Greek Medicine, every thing or substance has its own inherent nature and temperament. This includes the herbs and other natural substances used as medicines.
The primary parameters used for measuring an herb or medicinal substance's nature, temperament and influence are the Four Basic Qualities. Of these Four Basic Qualities, the temperature polarity of Hot versus Cold is primary and most important, with Wet versus Dry being of secondary importance. An herb or medicinal substance that is balanced or neutral in terms of these polarities, especially the primary polarity of temperature, is said to be temperate.
Herbs and medicinal substances whose qualities and temperament are opposite yet complementary to the nature of the disorder, to the same degree, are used to neutralize the disorder and bring the organism back into balance. Excessive heat must be cooled, and fire quelled; cold must be warmed or heated, and chills dispersed; dryness must be moistened, and dampness dried up.
The excessive or prolonged use of heating medicines will create a condition of secondary dryness. The excessive or prolonged use of cooling medicines will create a condition of secondary wetness.
In herbal treatments, preference must be given to herbs and medicines that are warming or heating, because all living organisms generate heat, and cold is basically inimical to life. Cooling medicines should be used cautiously or sparingly, and only if definite signs of heat, fever, inflammation or hyperfunction are present, and only for as long as they are present.
Similarly, drying medicines should be used with more caution and prudence than moistening medicines, because moisture is necessary for life. However, this provision is not as stringent as the first or primary one; use each appropriately, according to the patient's signs and symptoms.
To help the physician or pharmacist measure more precisely the relative strength and potency of herbs and medicinal substances in formulating and administering herbs and herbal medicines, Galen devised a system known as the Galenic Degrees. Galen assigned four degrees, or levels of potency, to each of the Four Basic Qualities, with the first degree being the mildest, and the fourth the most potent. The Galenic Degree of the herb or medicine used must match the degree of severity of the disorder while being opposite yet complementary in quality.
To give you an experiential feel for how these Galenic Degrees work, here are the qualities and degrees of temperament assigned to some common herbs used in Greek Medicine:
Angelica root - Hot 3, Dry 3
Borage - Hot 1, Wet 1
Dandelion root - Cold 2, Dry 2
Garlic - Hot 4, Dry 4
Wild Lettuce - Cold 2, Wet 2
Rose - Cold 1, Dry 1
Sweet Violet - Cold 1, Wet 2
Yarrow - Cold 1, Dry 1
Source: Culpeper's Medicine, by Graeme Tobyn, pp. 220 - 224
Certain broad associations between the Four Basic Qualities and particular tastes and therapeutic properties of herbs and medicines can also be drawn. These are as follows:
Hot herbs and medicines stimulate and warm the metabolism and disperse chills. Many are pungent and spicy in taste. Many are stimulants, expectorants, adaptogens and energy tonics.
Cold herbs and medicines sedate or slow down the metabolism and cool down fevers, heat and inflammation. Many are antiinflammatories, antipyretics, refrigerants and sedatives. Many are also bitter in taste.
Wet herbs and medicines moisten, soothe and nourish. Many are demulcents, emollients and nutritive tonics. Many also have a bland or mildly sweet taste and an abundant supply of natural mucilage.
Dry herbs and medicines help the body eliminate excess fluids, phlegm and dampness. Many are expectorants, diuretics or astringents.
There are other qualities used to describe or characterize herbs and medicinal substances in Greek Medicine besides these basic four. Most of these qualities are also arranged in pairs of complementary opposites, and most have certain affinities to the basic four. Some of the most important of these qualities are: light / heavy; smooth / rough; sharp / dull; subtle / gross.
These basic qualities of herbs and medicines become the basis for their medicinal actions and effects. Medicinal substances have both qualities and actions inherent in them.
Manifest and Hidden Virtues
Most herbs and natural medicinal substances have medicinal actions and effects that are clearly apparent from their taste, temperature and energetics, which can be perceived by the senses. These have been described above, and are called manifest virtues.
But certain herbs have other medicinal actions and effects that cannot be explained by their observable taste, temperature and energetics. These are called hidden virtues, also known as an occult virtue or special potency.
Many of these herbs with hidden virtues or special potencies are some of the most potent and powerful herbs in the Materia Medica. For example, European Mistletoe (Viscum album) has two special potencies; while being temperate in temperature and bland in taste, it powerfully lowers blood pressure, and can powerfully allay spasms and convulsions, even epileptic seizures. But European Mistletoe is not an herb to be played around with, and must be taken in small doses, like 5 to 10 drops of the standard tincture preparation; take too much European Mistletoe, and your blood pressure will drop too low, even to the point of death. CAUTION: USE UNDER MEDICAL SUPERVISION ONLY.
Certain other herbs can have both manifest and hidden virtues. For example, the Ayurvedic herb Arjuna (Terminalia arjuna) is strongly astringent in taste. The powder can be rubbed into inflamed, bleeding gums to heal and strengthen them; many astringent herbs are good for this purpose. But taken internally, Arjuna is a valuable heart tonic, a medicinal effect that can't be explained by its astringency or other manifest qualities and virtues. And, unlike Mistletoe, Arjuna is much safer and less potent regarding administration and dosage.
Theophrastus and the Eight Tastes
Aristotle's successor as the head of the Peripatetic school of philosophy was Theophrastus, a Greek botanist and natural philosopher. In his studies on herbal medicine and medical botany, Theophrastus identified eight tastes - two for each of the four humors / temperaments - and delineated therapeutic properties for each taste. The eight tastes are: Sweet, Unctuous, Salty, Sour, Pungent, Acrid, Bitter and Astringent. These eight tastes are arranged in order from the most nourishing and anabolic to the most cleansing and catabolic.
The therapeutic properties, according to their manifest virtues, of the eight tastes are as follows, along with typical herbal examples:
Sweet: Mildly sweet is bittersweet or bland. Nourishing and anabolic. Provides quick caloric energy for cellular metabolism and the Vital Function. Moistening and softening, demulcent and emollient. Moderate, temperate and balancing; softens harsh or disagreeable tastes and medicinal effects of other herbs. In excess, can provoke blood sugar imbalances, diabetes; can also impede metabolic heat and digestive fire, being too cooling, heavy and moistening.
Examples: Honey, Carob, Licorice, Fennel, Cinnamon; Ginseng (bittersweet), Arrowroot (bland).
Unctuous: Synonyms are rich, fatty, juicy. Very anabolic and nourishing. Heavy, dull, slow. Can soothe or subside aggravations of melancholy and the Nervous humor. Moistening, softening, lubricating. In excess, can clog vessels and arteries, and the liver and digestive organs, causing high cholesterol, etc...
Examples: Flax seed oil, Castor oil, Ghee (clarified butter), most meats and animal fats.
Salty: Nourishing and anabolic. Heating and drying, but dryness attracts and holds fluids in the body through osmotic pressure. Can dissolve or resolve lumps, hardenings. In excess, can aggravate water retention, edema, choleric and inflammatory conditions, high blood pressure.
Examples: Kelp, Dulse, Bladderwrack, Rock Salt.
Sour: Synonyms are tart, tangy, acidic. Sharp, caustic, penetrating. Heating and moistening. Stimulates flow of salivary, gastric, digestive and bilious secretions by sympathy. In excess, can aggravate heat and choler, sour the stomach, and aggravate muscular and arthritic pains.
Examples: Hawthorn berries, Lemon, Pomegranate, Bitter Orange, Hibiscus.
Pungent: Synonyms are hot, piquant, spicy. Mildly pungent is fragrant, aromatic. Disperses obstructions, opens vessels and pores, stimulates circulation, metabolism. Heating and drying; concocts and resolves phlegm. Stimulates digestion and the gastric fire. In excess, can aggravate heat, choler and inflammation; disperse and dissipate the Vital Force; cause excessive dryness.
Examples: Cloves, Ginger, Garlic, Black Pepper, Cayenne.
Acrid: Synonyms are rough, sharp, harsh. Similar heating and drying influence as pungent, but more drying than heating.
Examples: Bamboo shoots, Baking Soda, Gymnema sylvestre.
Bitter: Cooling and drying, cleansing and detoxifying. Subsides excesses and aggravations of the Choleric humor. Draws out, stimulates the flow of bile, digestive secretions by antipathy. Sedative, calming; subsides aggravated passions, libido. In excess, provokes giddiness, nausea, leads to wasting and emaciation, aggravates melancholy and the Nervous humor. Extremely bitter medicines should be mixed with, moderated by pungent, sweet and aromatic herbs and spices.
Examples: Gentian root, Coptis root, Aloe Vera leaf, Goldenseal, bitters.
Astringent: Cooling, drying and binding. Tones and firms organs and tissues, consolidates the humors and vital principles. Stops bleeding, closes wounds; checks excessive or abnormal sweating, diarrhea, urination, ejaculation, leucorrhea, other fluidic fluxes and secretions. Dries up excess moisture and dampness like a sponge. Draws up prolapsed organs. In excess, can provoke gastrointestinal colic and griping, constipation, aggravate melancholy and the Nervous humor, cause emaciation, withering and dryness.
Examples: Bayberry bark, Pomegranate peel, Tea, Triphala, Agrimony.
The first two tastes, Sweet and Unctuous, are predominantly warming, moistening and Sanguine in their influence.
The second two tastes, Salty and Sour, have profound effects and influences on fluid metabolism. And so, they concern primarily the Phlegmatic humor, although they also have other effects.
The third two tastes, Pungent and Acrid, are heating, drying and dispersing, and very stimulating to the metabolism. And so, their nature is predominantly Choleric.
The last two tastes, Bitter and Astringent, are cooling, drying and Melancholic in their nature and influence.
Taste is an important factor and consideration in understanding the therapeutic properties of herbs in all the world's traditional medical systems. But it's interesting to note how the number and organization of the tastes varies from system to system, and how it is keyed into the basic pathophysiological concepts of the traditional medical system to which it belongs.
Chinese Medicine has Five Elements, and therefore five basic tastes: Sour (Wood), Bitter (Fire), Sweet (Earth), Pungent (Metal) and Salty (Water).
Ayurvedic Medicine has six tastes, two for each of the three doshas. The six tastes of Ayurveda, from most anabolic to most catabolic, are as follows: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent, Bitter and Astringent.
In herbal medicine, there are four basic levels of understanding the medicinal properties of an herb:
The most fundamental and primary level is understanding the herb's basic nature and temperament. This is what is often called taste, temperature and energetics.
The next level is that of herbal actions, or how herbs move, act and behave in the body after ingestion. This is the science of pharmacodynamics.
The third level is that of herbal effects, which is often expressed in the usual terms of diaphoretic, expectorant, stimulant, etc...
The fourth and final level is that of applications, or which conditions and disorders an herb treats or is used for. Knowledge concerning an herb's applications is usually passed down from centuries of clinical experience.
In the first century of our common era, the Greco-Roman physician and herbalist Dioscorides came out with an herbal that was totally different than any pharmacological manual that had preceded it. He named his magnum opus De Materia Medica, which means, "On Medicinal Substances".
What made Dioscorides' herbal so groundbreaking and revolutionary was that it wasn't just an alphabetically arranged encyclopedia of herbs. In it, herbs and other medicinal substances were categorized and arranged according to their basic or predominant therapeutic actions and effects into therapeutic groupings. This, he argued, would facilitate the learning, understanding and assimilation of pharmacological knowledge.
This revolutionary idea spread far and wide, and now it forms the basis for many herbals and pharmaceutical manuals. The modern Physician's Desk Reference follows such an organizational format, and so does Chinese Medicine with its herbals and pharmacopeias.
So, let's look at some of the common therapeutic actions used to classify herbs in Greek Medicine, along with some herbal examples for each:
Dispersing herbs and medicines have a floating, centrifugal energy that works from the interior outwards to release various toxins and pathogens through the skin and the surface of the body. Many of these herbs are pungent, acrid or aromatic. The medicinal effects of these herbs and medicines include: diaphoretic / sudorific, anodyne, discutient, resolvent. Herbal examples include Peppermint, Elder flowers, Camomile, Canela (Spanish Cinnamon), Bay Laurel, and Burdock seeds.
Purging herbs and medicines vigorously eliminate accumulations of morbid humors or toxic matter from the body. Purging medicines are divided into two major groups: those which purge upwards, or emetics which provoke vomiting; and those which purge downwards, usually through the bowels, but also through the urinary tract. Emetics that purge upwards include Ipecac and Malabar nut. Downwards purgatives include Epsom Salts, American Mandrake (CAUTION!), Jalap, Rhubarb root and Cascara Sagrada.
Purgatives, especially the stronger ones, are very vigorous and extreme in their action, and should be used sparingly and cautiously, and only in cases of acute excess accumulation of morbid matter. If the excess or obstruction occurs above the navel, emetics are usually indicated; if below the navel, downwards purgatives are used. Being so vigorous in their action, purging medicines drain a lot of metabolic heat from the body; and so, their temperament is usually Cold.
Softening herbs are also called emollients. Most are moistening and lubricating, neutral to mildly warming in temperament, mildly sweet or bland in taste, and rich in mucilage content. They embody the soft and smooth qualities, and are totally free of any roughness, harshness or astringency. Because of their nourishing mucilage content, many of these herbs are nutritive tonics. Examples are Oats, Barley, Marshmallow root, Flax seed, Fenugreek seed, Slippery Elm, Jujubes and Licorice root.
Hardening herbs and medicines are cooling, drying and astringent, and are the opposite of softening medicines. They dry up excess moisture like a sponge, and thicken and congeal humors that are too thin, dispersed or attenuated. They also firm, tone up and consolidate not only organs and tissues that have become too loose and lax, but also vital principles and pneuma that have become too unfocused and dispersed as well. Warming hardening herbs include Bistort, Chaste Tree berry, Sage and Lady's Mantle. Temperate hardening herbs include Tormentil root and Cinquefoil. Cooling hardening herbs that congeal attenuated humors include Comfrey, Horsetail, Rose and Shepherd's Purse.
Binding herbs and medicines are also cooling, drying and astringent, but their astringent action is stronger. Besides firming and toning up organs and tissues, binding astringents also stop or dry up excessive or abnormal secretions and excretions of the body, like bleeding, sweat, urine, diarrhea, leucorrhea and semen. Herbal examples include Agrimony, Bayberry bark, Sage, Pomegranate peel, and the Three Myrobalans - Beleric, Emblic and Chebulic.
Glutinative medicines have a sticky, glutinous property that acts like glue to help regenerate tissue and aid in the healing of wounds and traumatic injuries. Many are classified as vulneraries or cicatrizants, and are used both topically in plasters, poultices, liniments and wound dressings as well as internally as first aid for injuries and trauma. Herbal examples include Comfrey root, Dragon's Blood, Myrrh and Plantain.
Loosening medicines relax and release nervous and muscular tensions, much like unwinding a taut violin string. They are temperate to warming or heating in temperament. Their loosening action has a lot in common with dispersing medicines, except that they work not on the surface, but on the deeper organs and tissues of the body. Like the dispersing medicines, most loosening medicines also have strong aromatic principles. Loosening medicines that release nervous and muscular tensions are called nervines, sedatives or antispasmodics. Loosening medicines that ease the flow of vital energy in the lungs and chest and stop spasmodic coughs are pectorals and antitussives. Loosening medicines that release colic, distension, and smooth muscle tension in the gut are called carminatives and stomachics. Examples of this fine and useful class of herbs are many: Angelica root, Calamus root, Elecampane, Costus root, Valerian root, European Mistletoe (CAUTION!), Lavender, Coltsfoot, Motherwort, St. John's Wort, Lobelia, Fennel seed, Nigella seed, Dill seed and many of the cooking herbs in your spice rack.
Attenuating medicines cut through and thin out excessively thick or congealed humors. Most of them have a warming or heating temperament and a pungent or acrid taste. Attenuating medicines are also called scraping medicines, because many scrape away accumulations of metabolic excess residues in the body, like high blood sugar and high cholesterol. Other attenuating medicines simply thin and liquefy excessively thick and congealed humors like phlegm or blood to aid in their circulation, metabolism or expulsion. Herbal examples are Turmeric, Fenugreek, Saffron, Hibiscus, Bdellium (Guggulu) and Gymnemma sylvestre.
Concocting herbs and medicines are those that promote the ripening, metabolism, flow and secretion of various humors and vital fluids of the body, improving their physiological function within the organism, as well as facilitating the expulsion of their morbid superfluities.
Herbs that concoct or regenerate the blood are usually pungent and aromatic. Because they also reinvigorate the thymos and other vital principles carried by the blood, they are often called thymogenics. Examples are Angelica root, Lovage root, Elder berries, Turmeric and Saffron.
Herbs that concoct phlegm are called expectorants, and are basically of two kinds: heating pungent herbs that resolve and eliminate cold phlegm, like Fenugreek seed, Horseradish, Wild Ginger or Elecampane; and cooling herbs and medicines that dissolve tough, thick, hot, dry phlegm like Hibiscus, Plantain, Chickweed, Eucalyptus and Comfrey leaves.
Herbs that concoct, circulate or remove obstructions to the flow of lymph and serous fluids are called lymphatics; many are also mild diuretics that improve body fluid metabolism and aid the body in excreting superfluities thereof. Herbal examples are Burdock root, Cleaver's herb, Fumitory, Echinacea and Couchgrass.
Herbs that concoct and improve the flow and secretion of bile, or the Choleric humor, by the liver and gall bladder are called choleretics and cholagogues. Most are cooling and bitter, and are also called bitters or bitter tonics. Examples are Wormwood, Artichoke leaves, Chicory root, Barberry root bark and Gentian root.
Since black bile, or the Melancholic humor, is a recognized clinical entity in Greek Medicine, there are also special herbs that concoct and dispel morbid excesses of black bile from the body. These include Aloe Vera, Senna pods, Cassia Fistula, Lavandula Stoechas, Fumitory, Blessed Thistle, Cyperus rhizome, Chebulic Myrobalan and Tormentil root.
Digestive herbs and medicines use this concocting action to concoct and digest accumulations of stagnant, undigested food in the digestive tract. They clear the stomach and move the bowels. Being pungent, acrid or sour, many digestive herbs are rich in digestive enzymes. Examples are Hawthorn berry, Radish seeds, Bitter Orange, Alfalfa herb or seeds, and Malted Barley.
Herbs that resist poison are strongly heating, and vigorously stimulate the metabolism to neutralize and eliminate poisons and toxins. Traditionally, these herbs include Angelica root, Calamus root, Juniper berries and Rue.
Many say that herbal medicine first grew and evolved as an effort to find effective antidotes to the bites of venomous snakes and insects, as well as other poisons. Often, these antidotes were combined into complex electuary or medicinal paste formulations called Mithridates.
Stimulant herbs are those that are strongly heating, which vigorously stimulate the digestive and metabolic fires of the body. Their applications are threefold:
1) To concoct and eliminate morbid superfluities of cold, wet phlegm due to their heating and drying action;
2) To stimulate the stomach and digestion, and to neutralize and eliminate cold, heavy, thick toxic residues of rich foods and meats;
3) To warm the interior and disperse chills in colds and respiratory infections.
Herbal examples are Cinnamon, Allspice, Nutmeg, Juniper berries, Galangal, Horseradish, Ginger, Cloves, Black Pepper, Long Pepper, and Wild Ginger (Asarum, Asarabacca).
In contrast to these herbal stimulants, many commonly available stimulants, like Coffee, Tea and Cola drinks, although herbally derived, are rich in caffeine. They stimulate not the whole metabolism, but just the nervous system, and their abuse can lead to empty, ungrounded energy and nervous burnout.
Drawing medicines draw out pus and toxins, releasing them through the surface of the body. Many of these substances are used topically in plasters, poultices and cataplasms. They usually draw out these pathogens due to their warming, heating action or their astringency. Examples are Clay, Castor Oil, Comfrey root, Fenugreek and Yellow Dock.
Drawing medicines that are extremely heating and draw out hot, purulent toxins through the skin by sympathy are called vesicants or counterirritants. Examples include Cantharis (Spanish Fly), Croton seeds and Mustard seeds. Through topical application, they form blisters and abscesses, or pustules, whose toxic matter is then drained through lancing. THESE ARE VERY POTENT MEDICINES, AND SHOULD BE USED ONLY BY PHYSICIANS.
You may have noticed that there is a considerable degree of overlap in these herbal action categories. Indeed, a single herb may exhibit multiple actions, as a broad, diverse spectrum of medicinal actions and effects is typical of the herbal kingdom. Like people, herbs, as creatures of Nature, each have their own unique and complex constitutional makeups of qualities, actions and effects.
Herbs for Various Organs and Body Parts
Anyone who has worked with herbs therapeutically for any length of time quickly learns that certain herbs have definite affinities for certain organs and parts of the body. Indeed, one could even draw a diagram of an "herb man" and draw arrows connecting various herbs with different organs and parts of the body.
Sometimes, these affinities between herbs and their pertaining organs and body parts can be explained in terms of the physiological actions and effects of the herb. But many times, the connection is more subtle and mysterious, involving a correspondence of qualities and attributes, or even an energetic resonance of sympathy for the organ or body part being treated.
No herbal treatment can be effective unless it is specific enough to target the organ or body part affected by the disorder. Some disorders will be more generalized and systemic, requiring herbs that are more systemic in their action, whereas other disorders will be localized in a certain organ or body part, requiring herbs that specifically target that area. Many herbal formulas combine herbs that are more generalized in their action to correct underlying systemic imbalances with other herbs that are more specific to the organ or body part being treated.
Greek Medicine has grouped the herbs with strong affinities for certain organs and body parts into various therapeutic categories. From head to toe, they are as follows:
Head - Cephalics: Herbs that target the head and brain are called Cephalics. Since the head is the highest part of the body, many Cephalics, especially those that stimulate brain function and cranial and cerebral circulation, have an ascending energy. Cooling, sedating Cephalics that disperse hot Choleric vapors and inflammation from the head, however, can have a dispersing or descending energy. Warming, drying Cephalics gently disperse and drain excess phlegm and moisture from the head and brain. Common Cephalics include Wood Betony, Ginkgo biloba, Gotu Kola / Bacopa, Feverfew, Skullcap and Eyebright, which improves eyesight.
Chest and Lungs - Pectorals: Pectorals improve the circulation of vital energy in the chest and lungs and help expel phlegm congestion and open the respiratory passageways, although they are not expectorants that specifically act on phlegm. Some pectorals are mildly cooling, soothing and moistening, like Licorice root, Lungwort, Jujubes and Coltsfoot. Other pectorals are heating or warming and drying, like Elecampane, Marshmallow root, Mustard seed, Hyssop and Lemon Balm.
Heart and Circulation - Cordials: Herbs that treat the heart are called Cordials. Most Cordials have an invigorating effect on blood circulation in general, and also cherish, harmonize or sedate the Vital Spirits of the heart, as appropriate. If the heart is troubled by hot, Choleric vapors and fevers, cooling Cordials like Borage, Wild Lettuce, Rose petals and Purslane are used. For pestilential fevers and infectious diseases oppressing the heart, herbs that resist poison, like Angelica root, Saffron, Juniper berries, Rue and Garlic are used. Cordials that cherish and cheer up the heart spirits from excesses of Melancholic vapors include Borage, Lemon Balm and Citron peel; most are sweet and aromatic. Heating Cordials like Angelica root, Saffron, Cinnamon, Lemon Balm, Rosemary and Calendula are given to dispel cold, moist Phlegmatic vapors that cause the heart to be too fearful, timid and passive.
Stomach and Digestion - Stomachics: Stomachic herbs are those that exert a beneficial effect on the stomach and digestion. Some Stomachics improve stomach function by clearing the stomach of morbid or superfluous humors. Some have a loosening and carminative action on the stomach, improving its energy flow and peristaltic movement. And still others are tonics that strengthen the stomach with regular use. These categories are not exclusive, and can overlap.
Pungent Stomachics are hot and spicy, strongly stimulating the digestive fire and removing cold, moist, Phlegmatic humors. Some descend the Metabolic Force of the stomach to provide relief from belching and hiccups. Examples are Ginger, Galangal, Allspice, Juniper berries, Garlic, Cloves and Cinnamon.
Aromatic Stomachics also include many of the cooking herbs in your spice rack. They are warming and drying, dispersing turbid dampness with their fragrant odor. Many contain aromatic essential oils that are strongly disinfectant. Examples are Thyme, Cardamom, Lemon Balm, Basil, Marjoram, Oregano, Patchouly and Peppermint.
Carminative Stomachics are either aromatic, pungent, or pungent and bitter, and have a stronger carminative action for dispersing stagnant energy in the stomach and relieving epigastric fullness, bloating and distension. Examples are Cumin, Caraway, Dill seed, Ajwain, Costus root and Cyperus root.
Sedative Stomachics are beneficial for a nervous, colicky or agitated stomach. Examples are Valerian root, Calamus root, Yarrow, Lavender and Blessed Thistle.
Bitter Stomachics are cooling and soothe inflammatory, hyperacidic and Choleric conditions of the stomach, and promote the secretion of bile and gastric juices. They are also called Bitter Tonics, Bitters, or Aperitifs. Examples are Gentian, Wormwood, Celandine and Centaury.
Binding Stomachics have a certain mild astringency to them that strengthens the stomach and its Retentive Virtue, enabling it to hold onto food and drink long enough to digest them properly. They are valuable in treating chronic atonic diarrhea due to stomach weakness. Examples are Bilberry leaves, Myrtle leaves, Agrimony and Quince fruit.
Liver - Hepatics: The liver is the principal organ of the Natural Faculty, which governs digestion and metabolism, nutrition and growth; this makes it one of the most important organs in the body. Luckily, Mother Nature has provided us with many herbs that benefit the liver and improve its functions of bile metabolism, regulating digestion, and humor generation. This is especially important considering that many modern pharmaceutical drugs are hard on the liver, not to mention the abuses of alcohol, tobacco, recreational drugs and the modern fast food diet.
Many Hepatic herbs are also Hepatoprotectors, or herbs that have been shown to protect the liver from toxins and regenerate liver cells. These herbs include Milk Thistle seed, Turmeric, Tienchi (Pseudoginseng), and Kutki (Picrorrhiza kurroa). This remarkable regenerative capability has gotten Hepatoprotectors considerable attention from the scientific community lately.
In Unani Medicine, the premier Hepatic herb is Chicory root (Chicorium intybus). In improving liver function and bile metabolism, Chicory root is a choleretic and cholagogue; it is also a mild laxative or aperient, urinary tonic, antidiabetic, nutritive tonic and blood builder.
Although literally hundreds of herbs have some beneficial effect on the liver, the term Hepatic is reserved only for the "superstars" with extraordinary healing and regenerative effects on the liver. Besides the ones already mentioned, other Hepatics include Agrimony, Dandelion root and herb, Gentian, Barberry root, Goldenseal root and herb, Groundsel root, Coptis, Bupleurum, Oregon Grape root and Blessed Thistle.
Spleen - Splenicals: Herbs that benefit the spleen and its functioning are called Splenicals. Since the liver and the spleen work so closely together in a balancing, complementary relationship as part of the Natural Faculty, there's a considerable degree of overlap between Hepatic and Splenical herbs. Hepatics that also aid the spleen in purifying the lymph and improving the metabolism of serous fluids can also be Splenicals; many of these herbs are also good for treating chronic skin conditions like eczema. Herbs that expel and purify the organism of morbid accumulations of black bile also benefit the spleen, which is the storage receptacle for black bile, and remove obstructions from it. Splenical herbs include Burdock root and seed, Echinacea, Fumitory, Wormwood and Dandelion root and herb.
Kidneys and Bladder: Herbs to treat the urinary tract are broadly subdivided into herbs and medicines that have a tonic or adaptogenic effect on these organs on the one hand, and herbs that have a diuretic effect that facilitates the flow of water on the other. Some urinary tract herbs have a combination of both aspects.
Many of the urinary tract herbs in the tonic / adaptogenic category are also virilifics, and have a beneficial effect on male sexual function. These herbs and medicines include Celery root, Parsley root, Sea Buckthorn berries, Corn Silk, Solomon's Seal, Juniper berries, Sloe berries, Rowan berries, Fenugreek seeds, Chicory root, Myrtle leaves, Mumio and Buchu. Most of these herbs improve the overall vitality of the urinary tract and its resistance to infection.
The diuretic group within the category of urinary herbs includes Couchgrass, Agrimony, Birch leaves, Uva Ursi, Horsetail, Hydrangea root, Cleaver's herb, Burdock root and Rowan berries. The strength of the diuretic effect of these herbs varies from mild to strong. Some herbs in this category have applications for removing urinary stones, like Hydrangea root, Collinsonia root and Queen of the Meadow herb.
Seeing as urination is the body's main vehicle for eliminating toxins from the blood, many herbs, especially those that purify the blood in some way, work through the urine, and stimulate diuresis to a greater or lesser extent. But the above urinary herbs specialize in treating urinary tract disorders.
Uterus - Womb: Traditionally, the womb was considered to be a very mobile organ. If it was agitated during pregnancy, the foetus would get restless, and the pregnancy could suffer a miscarriage. The uterus can also suffer from prolapse, or conversely, be hiked upwards too far in the pelvic cavity.
The uterus, like the brain, is attracted to sweet smelling herbs and medicines, and repelled by foul smelling ones. If the uterus was prolapsed, for example, the traditional practice was to apply sweet smelling herbs and spices to the head and foul smelling ones like Asafoetida to the labia and mouth of the vagina to draw / pull it upwards; to lower the uterus, these applications would be reversed.
Uterine Tonics strengthen the uterus, improving its tone and resiliency. Motherwort is used after delivery to tone, firm and shrink the uterus back to its original size. Mugwort dispels cold and chills from the uterus, which is responsible for poor fertility, as well as many menstrual cramps, pains and complaints. Both of the above herbs are contraindicated in pregnancy, as are many other herbs that invigorate the blood circulation, thin the blood and dissolve clots, or purge downwards.
Lady's Mantle is a great uterine herb that tones and firms the uterus, and can even be used in cases of threatened miscarriage to save the pregnancy. Red Raspberry leaves improve uterine tone and resiliency during the last trimester of pregnancy to ease the delivery of the baby.
Joints - Arthriticals: Herbs that benefit the joints and improve their flexibility and functioning are called Arthriticals. Some reduce swelling and inflammation; some improve circulation, healing and tissue regeneration; and others dispel cold, damp rheumatic humors from the muscles, bones, tendons and joints. Examples are Wintergreen, Willow bark, Meadowsweet, Myrrh, Frankincense, Mumio, Comfrey root and Couchgrass. Many of these Arthritical herbs can also be used topically.
Eliminative Herbal Therapies
In his Aphorisms, Hippocrates stated that diseases of fullness, or repletion, are cured by depletion, which is elimination. Eliminative herbal therapies are indicated in all disorders of excess, superfluity and obstruction.
There are many different kinds of morbid humors and other forms of toxic matter, which can be either systemic or localized in virtually any organ or part of the body. The eliminative herbal therapies used must be specific both to the kind of toxic superfluous matter being eliminated as well as to its location, eliminating these superfluities or obstructions through the most appropriate organ, channel or orifice. Besides morbid humors and other toxic matter, eliminative herbal therapy also includes eliminating chills, drafts, or other forms of dystemper.
The eliminative therapy used must also be similar in the degree of its strength to the degree of acuteness or severity of the excess or obstruction. In addition, consideration must also be given to the patient's constitutional strength and resiliency, and to how vigorous of a purging he/she is able to withstand. All eliminative herbal therapies, by provoking a catharsis, drain some amount of metabolic heat and energy from the organism in doing so; the stronger the purging or catharsis, the more metabolic heat and energy are drained.
And so, the wise herbal therapist prefers to conserve the basic metabolic heat and energy of the patient as much as possible by giving preference to the gentler forms of eliminative therapy, and using the more vigorous, drastic or extreme forms only when absolutely necessary. The general rule is to never use an eliminative therapy or treatment that is stronger than what's absolutely necessary to do the job. A gentler, more gradual cleansing is usually easier on the basic metabolism and homeostasis of the organism than a quick, extreme catharsis. However, there may be acute crisis situations when vigorous, decisive measures are called for.
To cleanse the body of morbid matter, eliminative herbs must work through the various eliminative organs of the body. These are mainly as follows:
1) The skin and its pores;
2) The lungs and respiratory tract;
3) The stomach, digestive tract and bowels;
4) The liver, gall bladder and hepatobiliary tract;
5) The kidneys, bladder and genitourinary tract.
Most of the eliminative herbs can be used to facilitate, support or enhance one or more of the Six Hygienic Purification Therapies of Greek Medicine:
1) Diaphoresis - Sweating
2) Emesis - Vomiting
3) Diuresis - Urination
4) Purgation - Evacuation through the bowels and GI tract
5) Venesection - Bloodletting
6) Derivation - Drawing out toxins through the skin
Morbid humors or other superfluous toxic matter must be removed through one or more of the eliminative organs. Dystempers and imbalances of qualities and energies can be neutralized by herbs with opposite yet complementary qualities and energies.
In our discussion of eliminative therapies, we will be starting with herbs that work on a more superficial or subtle level first, and progressing to herbs that are deeper and more substantial in their therapeutic actions.
Diaphoretics are herbs that disperse exogenous pathogenic factors such as wind, cold and heat from the surface and superficial regions of the body through sweating. Most of them are rich in fragrant, volatile essential oils that are cleansing and disinfecting, and are released through the pores of the skin. Diaphoretics are generally either warming and stimulating or cooling and sedating; a few are rather neutral or temperate, containing aspects of both.
Warming, Stimulating Diaphoretics are generally used to treat colds caused by catching a chilly draft, with symptoms of coughs and lung congestion, nasal blockage, no sweating or furtive sweating, chills, or chills and fever, muscular aches and pains, and an aversion to wind and cold. Examples are Elder flowers, Fresh Ginger, Pennyroyal, Marjoram and Canela, or Spanish Cinnamon.
Cooling, Sedating Diaphoretics are generally used to treat colds of a hot, febrile nature, caused by catching a hot draft or evil wind, with symptoms of fever, profuse sweating, headache, irritability, sore throat, red eyes and swollen glands. Examples are Peppermint, Chamomile, Mulberry leaves, Catnip and Eucalyptus leaves.
To induce sweating, diaphoretic teas must be drunk hot. Because sweating opens the pores and drains more metabolic energy from the body than you realize, it's a good idea to keep yourself bundled up in warm, protective clothing, and to have a light soup or barley gruel, which the ancient Greeks called ptisan, about 20 minutes to a half hour after sweating.
Other superficial dispersing therapies that are very closely allied to diaphoretic sweating therapy are Discutient and Anodyne therapy. Many diaphoretic herbs can also be used as discutients, and others as anodynes, and there is a high degree of overlap between them.
Discutients are herbs that discuss, or promote the eruption and release of measles or other skin rashes through sweating. Most are also cooling, sedating diaphoretics, or neutral, temperate ones. Examples are Black Cohosh, Burdock seeds and Carline Thistle root. Peppermint and other diaphoretic teas can be drunk from time to time to cleanse the pores and keep the skin beautiful and healthy.
Anodynes are warming diaphoretics that are more warming and not so strongly diaphoretic, which warm the muscular peripheral layer of the body, improve circulation and metabolic heat, and disperse cold, damp rheumatic vapors with their warming aromatic principles, relieving muscular tension and rheumatic aches and pains. Examples are Canela (Spanish Cinnamon), Bay Laurel, Juniper berries and Wintergreen. Besides drinking them as warm herb teas, their essential oils can also be put into medicated massage oils.
Herbs that clear heat are those that subdue fevers and inflammation and dispel hot, Choleric vapors from the body. Herbs that subdue fevers are called febrifuges, whereas those that dispel inflammation are called antiinflammatories. Most of these herbs are cold or cooling in temperament, although a few are neutral, temperate or slightly warming.
Febrifuges are of many kinds, and used to subdue different types of fevers. This group includes herbs that contain salicylates, like Willow bark, Meadowsweet, Balm of Gilead, Poplar buds and Wintergreen, which, in addition relieving ardent and ephemeral fevers, are also antiinlammatories. Other good febrifuges are Olive leaves, Centaury and Borage.
Antiperiodics are herbs that dispel intermittent or periodic fevers like the tertian or quatrain fevers caused by morbid accumulations of yellow and black bile. Not surprisingly, many of these herbs are also bitter tonics and cholagogues. Examples are Wormwood, Yarrow, Goldenseal herb, Boneset and Blue Vervain.
Some fevers are subdued directly, but many fevers are broken with a sweat. And so, many diaphoretics are also febrifuges, especially the ones that are more neutral to cooling in temperament. But if there is a fever with chills, stimulating, warming diaphoretics are indicated. Many febrifugal herbs have some diaphoretic effect, and to emphasize this aspect, the herbs are given as hot teas.
Antiinflammatories cover a broad spectrum of herbs, and like herbs with beneficial effects on the liver, there are also many fine herbs with some beneficial effect on subduing inflammation. As with febrifuges, most of these herbs are cold or cooling in temperament, although some are temperate or warming.
So vast and multifaceted are the range and diversity of antiinlammatory effects obtained by herbs that pharmaceutical antiinflammatory drugs seem crude and primitive by comparison. Modern medicine is truly worse off in this respect for its anti-herbal bias. There are herbs for stronger or weaker, acute or chronic states of inflammation, as well as those that work systemically versus those that relieve inflammation in specific organs, tissues or body parts.
Some antiinflammatory herbs may not be strongly or directly antiinflammatory, but nevertheless help to improve the organism's resistance to inflammation. These herbs are called inflammomodulatory, and many herbs have this capability, to a greater or lesser extent.
Antiinflammatory herbs are mostly cooling and drying in temperament, with the coldness subduing the heat, redness and pain of inflammation, and the dryness dispersing the swelling and congestion. Many antiinflammatory herbs are quite bitter in taste, although quite a few others have a marked astringency to them. Both the bitter and astringent tastes are cooling and drying in temperament.
The antiinflammatory herbs include not only the salicylate containing herbs mentioned earlier, but many others as well. Like the salicylate herbs, many antiinflammatory herbs that are more generalized and systemic in their action are also febrifuges. Antiinflammatory herbs that are more specific in their action are best classified according to the organ or body part they treat:
Head: Feverfew, Gotu Kola, Skullcap, Eyebright
Eyes: Eyebright, Goldenseal, Rose petals
Throat & Respiratory: Comfrey leaf, Bistort, Burdock seed, Plantain, Horehound
Stomach: Goldenseal, Gentian, Agrimony, Centaury, Comfrey
Liver: Goldenseal, Coptis, Barberry, Gentian, Centaury
Bowels: Triphala, Rhubarb root, Goldenseal
Urinary Tract: Goldenseal, Agrimony, Uva Ursi
Joints: Meadowsweet, Blessed Thistle, Gentian, Wintergreen, Wormwood
Stimulants are the complementary opposites to the febrifuges and antiinflammatories in that they have a strongly heating temperament. Stimulants warm the interior and stoke the digestive and metabolic fires of the body to disperse chills, as well as dispel cold, moist Phlegmatic humors and vapors, or the damp, turbid toxic residues of a cold, weak pepsis and digestion. These herbs have already been discussed, and examples given, in the section on Herbal Actions.
Expectorants are closely allied to stimulants in that they dissolve and expel phlegm; to do this, most, but not all, have a warming or heating temperament. Actually, expectorants can be broadly subdivided into warming or heating expectorants that expel cold phlegm, and cooling, moistening expectorants that dissolve and liquefy hot, dry phlegm, facilitating its expectoration. And again, some expectorants can contain aspects of both.
There's a third class of expectorants that aid expectoration and relieve phlegm congestion in the lungs and chest by facilitating the flow of vital energy and fluids in that part of the body. These herbs would be your pectorals, discussed in the previous section.
Examples of warming expectorants are Asarum, Fenugreek, Elecampane, Pine buds, Lobelia and Yerba Santa.
Examples of cooling expectorants are Licorice root, Hibiscus, Comfrey leaf, Coltsfoot and Plantain.
Next, we turn our attention to the bowels, which is what purgatives are all about. A laxative is a mild purgative, which facilitates bowel movements, whereas a true purgative is stronger. Sometimes, the difference between the two therapeutic actions is merely a matter of dosage; smaller doses tend to be milder and more like laxatives, whereas larger doses tend to be stronger and more purgative.
In cleansing and moving the bowels, our aim is to relieve and correct constipation, or the excessive retention of wastes in the colon and intestines, which has been called the Mother of All Diseases. In laxative and purgative therapy, there are three golden rules that must be followed:
1) Try to relieve constipation with dietary measures first.
2) Address and correct the root cause of the constipation.
3) Always use the gentlest herb, formula or medicine that will do the job to avoid dependency.
We will begin our discussion of herbs and medicines to purge and move the bowels with the gentler agents first, and then progress to the more vigorous and drastic ones.
Aperients have a mild loosening or relaxing effect on the bowels, and gently nudge them to have smooth and natural bowel movements. Some aperients gently stimulate the flow of bile, which is the body's own natural laxative. Examples are Carob, Chicory root, Tamarind, Dandelion root, Myrrh, Yellow Dock and Groundsel.
Bulk Laxatives are those that gently provoke the defecation reflex through their content of soluble fiber, which expands to provide bulk in the intestines in the presence of water. Examples are Psyllium husks, Karaya gum and Acacia gum.
Lubricant Laxatives are those that gently lubricate the bowels to move through their softening demulcent or emollient effects. They are very useful in constipation due to a dryness or withering of the bowels, with hard, dry stools; many of them are also stool softeners. Others are actually lubricating oils or oil rich seeds. Examples are Flax seeds, Castor Oil, Mineral Oil, Licorice root, Peach kernels and Slippery Elm bark.
Stimulant Laxatives provoke a vigorous defecation reflex by stimulating or mildly irritating the bowels. Because of their vigorous purging action, most stimulant laxatives are cold in temperament, and drain considerable metabolic energy from the body and the digestive tract. Many abuse harsh stimulant laxatives, developing a dependency on them when they should have used dietary measures or the milder laxatives or aperients instead. Common stimulant laxatives include Rhubarb root, Cascara Sagrada, Aloe Vera resin, Jalap, Bindweed (Convolvulus), Senna pods and Epsom Salts.
The exact effect that these stimulant laxatives have also depends on their formulation, preparation, administration and dosage. In smaller doses, and combined with other herbs, the first three stimulant laxatives on the list can also function as cholagogues that promote the flow of bile, for example. The medium of administration is also important; tinctures, or alcoholic extracts, lessen the downwards purging nature of stimulant laxatives.
Correctives are herbs or medicines that soften, moderate or correct the harsh action of stimulant laxatives and other strong purgatives, relieving the intestinal discomfort, spasm, colic and griping that they can cause. Correctives are usually softening demulcents or emollients, loosening carminatives or stimulating digestive tonics. Common correctives include Licorice root, Fennel, Ginger and Cloves.
Cathartics are drastic purging agents that cause rapid and vigorous evacuations from the stomach and bowels, and also from the urinary tract as well. Some cause purging both upwards, as in vomiting, as well as downwards through the bowels and urinary tract. Cathartics include American Mandrake root, Squills, Spurges, Black Hellebore and Colocynth. The first three are also called Hydrogogue Cathartics because they provoke a vigorous elimination of fluids through the bowels and urinary tract.
In his Aphorisms, Hippocrates says that purgatives don't agree well with those in good health. I suppose that an old American proverb applies here: If it isn't broken, don't fix it. Caution: Purgatives and cathartics are best used under medical supervision, and are to be taken only when necessary and indicated, and only in acute crisis situations.
Therapeutic promise has also been shown from using strong purgatives and cathartics in microdoses, way less than the dose required for vigorous catharsis, to effect beneficial cleansing actions on the organism. In fact, much of homeopathic medicine is based on this therapeutic principle - that harsh, potent or toxic substances in microdoses can be great healers.
In Romania, holistic healers have had promising therapeutic results from treating cancer with microdoses of the herb Black Hellebore. Traditionally, Hippocrates used Black Hellebore to purge the body of morbid excesses of black bile. Greek Medicine has traditionally associated cancer with chronic morbid accumulations of black bile.
Emetics are herbs that purge upwards from the stomach, causing vomiting. Emesis is one of the Six Hygienic Purification Therapies of Greek Medicine, and can be very beneficial for chronic phlegm congestion in the stomach, lungs and respiratory tract. Emetic herbs have already been listed in the Herbal Actions section.
Vermifuges are herbs that purge the intestines of worms and parasites. They are best used under medical supervision, including an initial diagnosis through stool sample, as well as monitoring and follow-up testing. Vermifuges vary from gentle to potent or harsh in the inherent strength of their action. They are also used in combination with the right adjuvants and correctives, not only to soften and moderate their own action if they are harsh or drastic, but also to loosen and lubricate the bowels to facilitate the expulsion of the worms and parasites. Vermifuges include Betel Nut, Wormwood, Neem leaves, Quassia wood, Ash bark, Epazote and Pomegranate peel.
According to Greek Medicine, those whose bodies are heavily encumbered by great accumulations of morbid humors and other forms of toxic matter are usually those who have the greatest problems with worms and other forms of parasite infestation. Not only do these accumulations of morbid humors and toxic matter inhibit the natural immunity of the organism, but they also provide the food for the parasites to feed on. If there are intestinal parasites, a systemic deep cleansing of the entire organism is usually indicated.
Regulating and Balancing Herbal Therapies
In between the extremes of elimination indicated by conditions of excess and supplementation indicated by conditions of deficiency, you have the vast middle ground of regulating, balancing and harmonizing herbal therapies. You could say that these regulating and balancing herbal therapies are indicated for conditions of mixed excess and deficiency, or a poor distribution of humors and/or vital principles.
This poor circulation of vital fluids and energies, which produces an excess in some parts and a deficiency in others, is due to their stagnation and poor circulation. A localized excess will build up behind or at the point of stagnation, congestion or obstruction, and a localized deficiency will be left beyond it or distal to it. The remedy is simple: to improve and restore the proper circulation of these vital fluids and energies, and to relieve or disperse their congestion and obstruction.
Besides improving the circulation of the humors and vital principles, these regulating and balancing herbal therapies also improve their metabolism. And since elimination is the final stage of the metabolic process, many regulating and balancing herbs also naturally eliminate or expel superfluities of the humors and vital fluids they affect. This could be called "elimination lite", and provides a gentle cleansing of the organism without any of the metabolic energy drain of the strong eliminative and purging herbs.
In contrast to modern pharmaceutical drugs, which are single, pure chemical substances that are simple and one-directional in their action, herbs are complex organic substances with a multifaceted spectrum or profile of therapeutic actions and effects. The great stellar virtue of herbs is their therapeutic ability to balance and adjust the functioning of multiple faculties and organ systems of the body simultaneously. And so, herbs are the medicines of choice when the body's various organ systems are run down or deranged, and need to be put back into harmony and balance with each other.
This is the original meaning of the word "tonic". Like tuning the strings of Apollo's lyre, tonics put the whole organism, with its various organs and systems, back into balance, giving it a "tune-up".
Most herbs and herbal medicines have complex therapeutic personalities. The nature of the human being is equally multifaceted and complex - not just in the personality, but also in the constitutional makeup of humor and temperament, and in the conditions and disorders one can suffer from. So much of herbal medicine is simply matching the therapeutic profile of the herb or formula with the syndrome or constellation of signs and symptoms being presented by the patient. Once this is done, the key is found, and the gate to health and recovery is unlocked as the patient's complaints are neutralized, resolved and brought back into balance.
Most of the herbal therapies that fit into the approach of regulating and balancing have already been discussed in earlier sections of this article. I will simply be arranging and classifying them into a different conceptual framework. Please refer back to these earlier discussions for herbal examples of each therapy if I don't enumerate them here.
The regulating and balancing herbal therapies I will discuss here work either in a subtle energetic way with the vital principles, or in a more substantial way with the vital fluids and the Four Humors. And improving the circulation and distribution of the fluids and humors always involves improving their metabolism, or pepsis.
When working with the vital energies, we work with the three forms of pneuma and the three primary faculties of the organism - Psychic, Vital and Natural. Smoothing out the flow and dispersing blockages and obstructions in these vital energies corrects and improves the functioning of their respective faculties.
Herbs that relieve nervous tension and facilitate the flow of the Psychic Force throughout the head, brain and nervous system are called nervines and antispasmodics. The action of nervines is more restorative and invigorating, whereas that of antispasmodics is more loosening and relaxing.
Nervine herbs include Yerba Mate, Gotu Kola, Ginkgo biloba, Wood Betony and Damiana.
Antispasmodic herbs include Lobelia, Black Cohosh, Feverfew and European Mistletoe. The first and last of these herbs are quite potent, and caution is advised with their use.
Herbs that facilitate the flow of the Vital Force in the heart, lungs and chest, and in the Vital Faculty would be classified mainly as Cordials and Pectorals.
Cordials with a more subtle energetic action to them include Angelica root and seed, Calamus root, Camphor, European Mistletoe, and Rue.
Pectorals with a more subtle energetic action to them include Elecampane, Marshmallow root, Eucalyptus leaves, Fir buds and Yerba Santa.
Carminatives are herbs that regulate and balance the flow of the Natural Force in the Natural Faculty and GI tract. They regulate and adjust the functioning of the digestive organs to relieve colic, distension, gas and bloating. Many carminatives are herbs commonly found in your spice rack: Anise seed, Fennel seed, Thyme, Tarragon, Caraway and Oregano. Other more medicinal carminative herbs include Costus root, Cyperus rhizome and Lavender flowers. Carminatives that are more specific to regulating stomach function are called stomachics.
Because the Four Humors are products of the Natural Faculty, many stomachic and carminative herbs not only regulate the flow of the Natural Force in the functioning of the digestive organs but, in improving pepsis, also have a beneficial effect on the generation, coction, flow and metabolism of the humors and other vital fluids. Some carminative and stomachic herbs are more subtle and energetic in their action, whereas others also involve the Four Humors. Still others neutralize and dispel the toxic, turbid residues of faulty digestion and pepsis.
Anise, Dill and Caraway seeds are also galactogogues, or herbs that increase milk production in nursing mothers. Blessed Thistle is another galactogogue herb that not only regulates the flow of the Natural Force and balances the functions of the stomach and liver; it also improves the circulation of blood and promotes the flow of bile.
Fenugreek seed is another carminative galactogogue herb with a multifaceted humoral action. It is also a pectoral and expectorant, as well as a liver tonic that improves bile generation and metabolism.
Many stimulant and aromatic stomachics concoct and dispel the turbid phlegmatic residues of a weak or faulty pepsis and digestion. Examples are Cardamom, Ginger, Hyssop, Thyme, Patchouly and Citrus peel.
Some carminatives are also mild diuretics that improve the metabolism of serous fluids, excreting the superfluities. Dill seed and Coriander are good examples.
Other stomachic and carminative herbs improve the flow of bile, acting also as cholagogues without actually being aperitifs or bitter tonics. Examples are Rosemary, Blessed Thistle and Costus root. Since the liver and gall bladder occupy such a central place in the digestive system, in many ways, the smooth functioning of the entire GI tract is dependent on the smooth flow of bile.
Most cholagogue herbs are also hepatics, aperitifs and bitter tonics. These have been discussed previously, and are the main herbs for regulating, concocting and improving the flow of yellow bile, or the Choleric humor.
Most carminatives treat the gas, colic, distension and bloating caused by morbid aggravations of black bile. Herbs that concoct and expel morbid aggravations and superfluities of black bile have already been discussed in the Herbal Actions section; most of the milder ones are loosening stomachics and carminatives as well.
When it comes to the Sanguine humor, regulating the blood and keeping it in optimum condition is of primary importance, since blood is the essence of good health. There are four basic therapeutic effects an herb can have when it comes to regulating, concocting and balancing the blood:
Hemostatics are herbs that stop bleeding. Many, although not all, hemostatics are binding, and have a considerable astringency to them. Others eliminate aggravations of heat and choler from the blood to calm the blood down and stop bleeding. Other hemostatics have other mechanisms of action. Examples are Comfrey root, Pseudoginseng, Yarrow, Agrimony, Madder root and Burnet root.
Hemostatic herbs like Yarrow can be charred black and powdered and applied locally to stop bleeding, as in nosebleeds, for example. But then again, you can do the same thing with Ginger, or just about any herb, for a hemostatic effect.
Hemolytics are herbs that have the effect of thinning the blood and dissolving clots. Examples are Saffron, Turmeric, Melilot and Pseudoginseng.
Thymogenics are an important class of herbs that vitalize the blood, invigorate its circulation, and regenerate its thymos, or immune force. They are the antidote for old, tired blood, and keep the blood young, fresh and alive. By regenerating the blood and its thymos, thymogenics improve the immune activity of the blood. Examples are Angelica root or seed, Saffron, Safflower, Tree Peony and Lovage root.
Alteratives are herbs that cleanse the blood of toxins. Most alteratives cleanse the blood of hot, purulent toxins, or cool the blood, neutralizing excessive heat and choler; and so, most alteratives tend to be cooling and bitter. Since the liver and kidneys are the main organs that cleanse the blood, many alteratives, besides being bitter tonics, are also tonics for the liver and kidneys. Many alteratives also improve the immune function of the blood, especially phagocytosis and white blood cell activity.
Alteratives are another broad class of herbs, as literally hundreds of herbs show some kind of blood cleansing activity. Alteratives are also commonly categorized according to their applications, which include skin conditions, abscesses and purulent conditions, liver or spleen congestions or obstructions, chronic inflammatory and autoimmune conditions, arthritis and rheumatism. Common alteratives include Gentian root, Barberry root, Centaury, Violet leaves, Fumitory, Burdock root, Peony root, Celandine, Aloe Vera and Madder root.
Another important class of herbs that regulate and balance the blood are emmenagogues, which improve the flow of the menses. Emmenagogues are female tonics. In deficient or repressed menses, thymogenic emmenagogues are usually used; if clots are present, use emenagogues with a hemolytic action. If the menses are deranged, and periods are painful due to toxic blood, then emmenagogues with an alterative blood cleansing action are indicated. If menstrual periods are too profuse, use emmenagogues with a hemostatic action. Examples of each category are as follows:
Thymogenic Emmenagogues: Dong Quai, Angelica root, Lovage root, Purple Sage root, Tree Peony, Blessed Thistle
Hemolytic Emmenagogues: Saffron, Safflower, Melilot, Rue
Alterative Emmenagogues: Aloe Vera, Madder root, Peony root, Gentian root, Rhubarb root
Hemostatic Emmenagogues: Yarrow, Mugwort, Rose petals, Lady's Mantle.
As you have seen, there is a high degree of overlap between the various categories of herbs that regulate the blood, and many herbs contain aspects of multiple categories. Tienchi or Pseudoginseng root, for example, is an herb that encompasses the seemingly contradictory aspects of hemolytic, in that it can dissolve blood clots, with hemostatic, in that it can also stop abnormal bleeding. Pseudoginseng seems to do this by balancing and optimizing blood viscosity and clotting properties.
Tonic and Restorative Herbal Therapies
The strict term for tonic herbal therapy would actually be restorative or supplementing. If one or more of the Four Humors or vital principles has become deficient, or if an organ has become weak, restorative herbs are used to strengthen or supplement the organism where it has become weak or deficient.
This is the original meaning of the words "health", "heal" and "healing", which are all derived from the word "whole". To heal is to make whole, or to restore that which has become weak or deficient. The astute herbal therapist will be able to analyze a patient's various signs and symptoms to know exactly what has become weak or deficient, and to know exactly which herbs or medicines are needed to restore the organism to its original health and wholeness.
As with the regulating and balancing herbal therapies, the tonic and restorative herbal therapies work either more on an energetic level or more on a substantive level. Energy tonics are called stimulant tonics, and restore optimum vitality and function to an organ or body part by strengthening one or more of the vital principles. Substantive tonics are called nutritive tonics, and nourish the various humors, organs or tissues of the body in a structural, material sense.
In human anatomy and physiology, structure supports function, and function begets structure. And so, stimulant tonics are often combined with nutritive tonics in the same herbal formula, to simultaneously restore both proper structure and function to a body that has become depleted in both.
Stimulant tonics tend to be moderately heating and drying in temperament. Besides increasing energy levels on a systemic level, many also stimulate the function of pepsis, of digestion, assimilation and metabolism.
Nutritive tonics tend to be quite moistening, nourishing and emollient; many of them are quite rich and heavy, and can be difficult for those with weak or delicate digestions to digest and assimilate. The stronger nutritive tonics can even nourish the Radical Moisture. Some nutritive tonics are animal products, as these are especially rich and nutrient dense.
Since stimulant tonics tend to strengthen pepsis, whereas many nutritive tonics make considerable demands on pepsis, stimulant and nutritive tonics tend to complement each other very well. Also, the regulating and balancing tonics, by improving the circulation and metabolism of the humors and vital principles that the true tonics supplement or increase, are good compliments to both.
Before beginning a regime of tonification, especially intense tonification, it's a good idea to make sure that any excessive humoral superfluities or lingering exogenous pathogenic factors have been duly eliminated. Hippocrates in his Aphorisms said: In bodies not properly cleansed, the more you nourish, the more you injure.
The only major exception to this rule would be the critically or chronically weak, frail or infirm. They urgently need tonification to stabilize their condition. But even here, one should give preference to the lighter tonics that are easier to digest and assimilate, combined with a light but balanced and nutritious diet, as well as herbs to stimulate the digestion and metabolism.
In herbally facilitating the recovery of someone who is convalescing from chronic illness, emaciation or debility, we must have patience, and can't be too hasty. Mother Nature can't be rushed. Hippocrates told us in his Aphorisms that bodies slowly emaciated must be slowly recruited, or restored and rebuilt.
Many tonic herbs can be seen as superfoods or supplements with special therapeutic effects and benefits for specific humors, organs, tissues or body parts. In general, herbs, especially tonic herbs, are rich in the vitamins, minerals and other nutrient factors that pharmaceutical drugs lack, or drain from the body. This is an important argument for herbal medicine and tonic herbal therapy.
Also, the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients found in herbs are assimilated and retained by the organism much better than the nutrients found in even the finest natural vitamin supplements. This is because the vitamin pills are composed of concentrated, fractionated extracts, whereas herbs are whole superfoods.
Because they are so rich and nutrient dense, many tonic herbs, besides being challenging to the digestion and assimilation, can be contraindicated in certain conditions, or provoke intolerances or allergic reactions in certain individuals. A good example of this is Bee Pollen, which is generally contraindicated for those suffering from hay fever, respiratory allergies or lung congestion, or those who are allergic to it.
When it comes to the Four Humors, the main ones that nutritive tonics tonify are the Phlegmatic humor, especially the serous fluids, including lymph and plasma; and blood, or the Sanguine humor. These are the moist, flourishing humors, an abundant supply of which ensures the health and robustness of the organism; and it is these Phlegmatic and Sanguine humors that are most prone to deficiency.
As for the other two humors, the dry, effete Choleric and Melancholic humors, a regulating, balancing type of approach is taken with them, since true deficiencies of them are relatively rare. For the Choleric humor, you have cholagogues and aperitifs, or bitter tonics. For the Melancholic humor, you have your hepatics, splenicals, alteratives and special black bile herbs mentioned previously.
In terms of true tonification or supplementation, you have three things that can be tonified by nutritive tonics: blood, Phlegmatic or serous fluids, and the Radical Moisture, which is the essence. Actually, these three things exist in a kind of layered arrangement, from the most superficial to the deepest, like the peels of an onion:
Blood, or the Sanguine humor, is the most superficial, and the easiest and quickest to replenish and regenerate. Examples of blood tonics are Elder berries, Black Currants, Nettles, Dong Quai, European Angelica, Barberry berries, Dandelion root and Rehmannia root.
These blood tonics don't simply just increase blood volume or supply; different ones, according to their inherent nature and temperament, also have beneficial effects in various types of blood dyscrasias, or in certain conditions involving deficient, tired or deranged blood:
Barberry berries are cooling in temperament, as well as moistening, and are helpful in consumptive dyscrasias of the blood characterized by deficiency heat.
Elderberries are also good for certain blood fevers, but also have a thymogenic, invigorating effect on the blood. Other thymogenic blood tonics include Dong Quai, especially the root tails, and European Angelica. Nettles and Pseudoginseng root also thicken the blood if it is too thin, and are useful against bleeding disorders.
You may have noticed that there's a high degree of overlap between the blood tonics and the female tonics. Blood tonification and keeping the blood in optimum condition is especially important for women, who lose blood every month in their menstrual cycles.
On the next level deeper, we have the Phlegmatic humor and serous fluids. The serous fluids of the organism, like plasma and lymph, can be seen as the nutritive substrate or wellspring for blood. Serous tonics are indicated in cases of dehydration, wasting and emaciation. Most are moistening and emollient in nature, and neutral or temperate to slightly cooling in temperament. Examples are White Pond Lily, Solomon's Seal, Chicory root, Comfrey root, Scrophularia root and Slippery Elm.
On the deepest level, at the very heart of nutritive tonification, are herbs and medicines that supplement or restore the Radical Moisture, or essence. Many of these substances are of animal origin. Besides greatly enhancing the overall robustness and vitality of the organism, tonics of the Radical Moisture are useful in treating sexual dysfunction, infertility and growth and developmental disorders. Examples are Bee Pollen, Royal Jelly, Human Placenta, Rehmannia root, Fo Ti, Solomon's Seal and Turtle Essence.
Stimulant Tonics, or energy tonics, are best defined by the functions they perform in restoring proper vitality and functioning to the organism. Common therapeutic effects associated with them include adaptogen, digestive tonic, stimulant and virilific.
Adaptogens are herbs that improve the organism's resiliency and resistance to stress. They usually do this either by strengthening the adrenal glands, and/or by strengthening the thymos and the inherent immune resistance of the organism. Actually, these functions are quite closely related, as adrenal function supports immunity. Common adaptogens include Ginseng, Licorice root, Royal Jelly, Bee Pollen, Resihi, Astragalus, Elecampane and Sea Buckthorn berries.
Digestive Tonics are closely related to stomachics, in that they improve the stomach and digestive function. The major difference is that the digestive tonics are deeper and more sustained in their action, and fortify the inherent strength of the stomach and digestion with regular use. Digestive tonics include Ginseng, Codonopsis, Cardamom, Calamus root, Elecampane, Fenugreek seed and herb, Ginger and Dandelion root.
Virilifics are herbs that improve male sexual function and potency. There's a high degree of overlap between virilifics and adaptogens because strong adrenals support healthy male sexual function; many of them are also essence tonics, because fertility is closely related to potency. Virilifics include Ginseng, Bee Pollen, Damiana, Royal Jelly and Human Placenta.
Nervines are tonics and restoratives for the nerves. Many of them have a calming or mildly sedative quality that restores balance to the nervous system by supporting and strengthening the parasympathetic nervous system and vegetative functions of the organism, which are most depleted by the stresses of modern living. Many of them are also adrenal tonics and adaptogens, since strong adrenals support the health and resiliency of the nervous system. Nervines treat stress-related disorders like nervousness, nervous tension and insomnia. Examples are Valerian, Gotu Kola, Damiana, Indian Spikenard, and Lady's Slipper.
A healthy nervous system is very important for optimum health. Neurovegetative dystonia is a condition in which aggravation of the sympathetic nervous system oppresses the parasympathetic and vegetative functions, which become weakened, leading to impaired digestion and assimilation of nutrients, sleep and eating disorders, and an impaired ability of the organism to recuperate and regenerate itself. These neurovegetative disorders are most commonly seen in those of a nervous or Melancholic temperament, although they can afflict anyone.
There's another special class of nervines that clear the mind and open up the orifices of the nerves and senses, which are the channels for the Psychic Force. Most of these substances are strongly aromatic in nature, and some are of animal origin, being their scent glands. They are useful in treating epilepsy, tremors, spasms, cramps and convulsions. These substances include Camphor, Borneol, European Mistletoe, Lobelia, Musk and Castoreum. You could call these herbs anticonvulsants and antispasmodics.
Herbs that are tonics to specific organs would include hepatics, cordials, pectorals, splenicals, and other categories of herbs discussed in the Herbs for Various Organs and Body Parts section.
Astringent Tonics are binding herbs that strengthen, firm and tone the body and its organs and tissues. This is increasing the inherent tone and dynamic tension of the body, much like increasing the tension on Apollo's bow if it has become too lax. Besides toning up the organs and tissues, astringent tonics also increase the Retentive Virtue where it has become weak or deficient, resulting in the excessive loss or discharge of various substances from the body. Astringent tonics are best understood and classified according to the organ or body part they treat:
Throat: subside inflammation, swelling and catarrh, help to expel phlegm. Examples are Sage, Bayberry bark, Cinquefoil.
Lungs: act similarly to astringent tonics for the throat, consolidate the Vital Force in the chest and lungs. Examples are Agrimony, Sage, Astragalus and Ginkgo nut.
Stomach: tones, firms and stimulates stomach and digestive function in chronic atonic stomach disorders. Examples are Sage, Agrimony, Bistort and Comfrey root.
Liver: astringes and tones the liver if it has become too sluggish and congested. Examples are Agrimony, Milk Thistle seed, Centaury and Chebulic Myrobalan.
Kidneys / Urinary: Tones and firms up the kidneys and urinary tract, subsiding catarrh, irritation and inflammation in the urinary passages; reduces urination if it has become too frequent or profuse, improves bladder control. Examples are Pipsissewa, Agrimony, Uva Ursi.
Bowels: improves bowel tone in chronic loose stools and atonic diarrhea; improves bowel control and stool firmness; promotes healing of catarrh and inflammation in chronic enteritis, colitis and dysentery. Examples are Triphala, Chebulic Myrobalan, Comfrey root, Geranium root, Tormentil root.
Male Sexual: improves tone and function of male sexual organs, prevents premature ejaculation and spermatorrhea. Examples are Sloe berries, Sea Buckthorn berries, Lotus seeds.
Female Sexual: tones uterus, reduces excessive menstrual bleeding, dries up leucorrhea or white discharge. Examples are Rose petals, Lady's Mantle, Mugwort, Yarrow.
Skin: prevents excessive fluid loss through sweating, also called anhydrotic. Examples are Astragalus and Sage
Animal Products Used in Greek Medicine
Many animal products used as medicine are very rich, concentrated and nutrient dense. This is because an animal concentrates a lifetime of food eaten into its flesh, organs glands and secretions. And so, many animal products are potent tonics for the Radical Moisture and the endocrine glands of the body.
A key principle governing the use of animal products as medicinal substances is that like nourishes like. When you ingest an animal part into your body, it goes to nourish a similar part within your own body. This is the key principle behind the bovine-derived raw glandular supplements sold in health food stores.
Strict vegetarians avoid the consumption of all animal products, preferring not to harm or even inconvenience any animal. But there is one very healthful, nourishing animal derived substance that can be obtained without even inconveniencing any animal, and that is Human Placenta. Human Placenta is a great hormonal tonic to help postpartum women recuperate from childbirth and replenish their Radical Moisture; it is also a great energy and hormonal tonic for anyone who is tired, devitalized or run-down.
There are several other potent glandular and endocrine tonics that come from the animal kingdom that are used in Greek Medicine. These are Turtle shell and essence and Bee Pollen. One obvious application of these is in increasing male potency.
Dairy Products and other bovine-derived substances are also used in Greek Medicine. Perhaps the best-known and most commonly used of these medicinal dairy products is Whey. It is used internally as a bowel tonic, to relieve constipation, bowel obstructions, edema and obstructions to the spleen. According to Culpeper, Whey attenuates and cleanses the body of morbid superfluities of choler and melancholy.
There are a number of super-aromatic substances of animal origin, most of them derived from the scent glands of animals, like Castoreum, from a beaver, and Musk, from the musk deer. These are used as tonics and restoratives for the mind and senses, brain and nervous system. They cleanse obstructions out of the subtle nerves, vessels and orifices of the nervous system and Psychic Faculty, and are useful in epilepsy, apoplexy, tremors, convulsions and stoppage of the senses. Ambergris, or the aromatic exudate of a whale, is a great restorative for the brain and nervous system, and is heating and drying in temperament.
Os Sepiae, or Cuttlefish Bone, is cooling and drying, binding and astringent. It is used as an antacid in gastritis, acid reflux, and gastroduodenal ulcers.
Earthworms, powdered up and used as medicine, are a diuretic, nervine and vasodilator. They are used in hypertension, apoplexy, neurovegetative disorders, and to pacify an irritable liver.
And, last but not least, there is Apitherapy, or the use of honeybee products in medicine and healing. A wide variety of therapeutically valuable products, with a great diversity of medicinal effects and applications, are obtained from the industrious honeybee.
Honey is widely used in Greek Medicine as a base or medium for making syrups and electuaries, and to make the healing drinks Hydromel (water + honey) and Oxymel (vinegar + honey) - please see the Drink to Your Health article in the Therapies section. Being lighter and sharper in quality than other sweeteners, which are heavier and more dull in nature, Honey isn't as conducive to diabetes and Phlegmatic lethargy. Honey is also mildly laxative and diuretic, and soothes indolent ulcers and catarrhs of the GI tract, while stimulating the appetite and the digestive fire. The ancient Egyptians also used honey as a wound dressing, since it is an antiseptic.
Bee Pollen is a great energy tonic and virilific, which also benefits the Radical Moisture. Its cautions and contraindications have already been covered in the previous section.
Propolis is a mixture of tree resins that the bees gather to protect and disinfect their hives. It is commonly prepared as a concentrated tincture with alcohol, which capitalizes on its resinous and aromatic properties. Propolis tincture can be taken internally or dropped on the tongue to stimulate immunity in colds and flu; it also makes an excellent wound dressing, disinfecting the wound while promoting tissue regeneration and healing.
Royal Jelly is the food-essence of the Queen Bee; similarly, it nourishes our own hormonal essence and the Radical Moisture, while having nervine and adaptogenic effects that strengthen the tone and resiliency of the adrenal glands and autonomic nervous system.
Beeswax is what the bees use to build their hives. It has been used as a humectant, or skin moisturizer, in many skin creams, balms and cosmetics. Galen was the first to use beeswax in a big way when he put it into cold cream, which he invented.
For more information on honey, apitherapy and bee products, see the Greek Health Foods article in the Therapies section.
Mineral Substances Used in Greek Medicine
In his search for medicinal substances, one has to admire man's resourcefulness and ingenuity. The quest for healing medicines has even led men deep into the bowels of the Earth, to mine the minerals there. This discovery that many mineral substances have valuable therapeutic properties came early, as they have been used for centuries, even millennia, in the traditional medical systems of the world.
Sometimes, this bold quest for new magical minerals to be used in healing and medicine has led man over the threshold of reason into the realm of madness and superstition. In illustration of this, one has only to think of the widespread use and abuse of mercurial substances by medieval alchemists, which continued on into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with toxic Calomel purgatives, and even into the twentieth century with mercury amalgam dental fillings. Hopefully, the worst of all that is behind us now.
But the truth of the matter is that many mineral substances have extremely distinctive and beneficial healing properties. To understand the great potency and power of mineral substances to influence the physiology and functioning of the organism, one has only to look at common table salt. It has a profound influence on the fluid balance and metabolism of the organism, even in small doses. In overdose, it can aggravate rheumatic, arthritic and inflammatory conditions, injure liver and kidney function, and lead to arterial hypertension.
In discussing the differences between botanical versus mineral substances, many herbalists draw the distinction that the former are organic and the latter inorganic. Some modern herbalists dogmatically and categorically assert that all mineral substances are too harsh, toxic and somehow alien and unfriendly to the organic substances and tissues of the body to be used in healing.
But the herbalist trained in Greek Medicine or in other traditional healing systems knows better, and knows that this dogmatic assertion is, at best, a misleading half truth. He knows that whether or not a mineral substance is friend or foe to the body and its tissues, or whether it is therapeutic or toxic, depends on which mineral substance it is.
Inorganic substances are relatively pure, simple chemical elements or compounds; organic substances, on the other hand, are much more complex. Inorganic mineral substances tend to be simple, focused and potent in their medicinal actions and effects, whereas organic botanical substances are usually, but not always, milder and more moderate in their action.
When a strong, focused action is desired in an herbal formula, adding the right mineral substance, in the right dose and context, can provide the solution. It can give a strong therapeutic accent or driving power to a formula, and increase its potency and effectiveness. In return, the organic botanical ingredients soften and moderate the actions of the mineral substances, making them more gentle and friendly to the physiology, metabolism and homeostasis of the organism.
Unani medicine, with its traditional herbal formulas, has developed combined mineral-botanical formulation to a high art. The result is the production of valuable healing medicines to treat a number of difficult and recalcitrant medical conditions, such as various chronic skin diseases like eczema and psoriasis.
When viewed from the perspective of the traditional chemistry of Greek Medicine, mineral substances in general, as products of the earth, are under the domain of the Earth element. The Earth element is cooling, drying and astringent in nature; and so, we find that many mineral substances have astringent, binding, drawing or chelating properties. The cooling, soothing nature of many mineral substances also gives them valuable febrifugal, antiinflammatory and antiphlogistic properties.
Rocks and mineral substances are also heavy, which gives them a ponderous, sinking action. This sinking action can manifest either as a calming, sedative effect, or as a tendency to purge or sink downwards to activate the lower pelvic and eliminative organs.
Mineral substances that are soluble in water are your various mineral salts. All these mineral salts have profound effects on fluid dynamics, circulation and metabolism in various ways. These mineral salts include Epsom Salts, Glauber's Salts, Saltpetre, Sal Ammoniac and Gypsum.
So, let's take a look at some of the common mineral substances used in Greek Medicine:
Alum is Potassium Aluminum Sulfate. An astringent and hemostatic used to stop diarrhea and bleeding, it is also an expectorant used to resolve dampness and eliminate phlegm. It's also used internally for jaundice, hepatitis and gastroduodenal ulcers.Topically, Alum toughens and dries the skin, and treats scabies and fungal skin infections.
Baking Soda, or Sodium Bicarbonate, taken internally, is a handy antacid in gastritis, hyperacidity and acid reflux. For this purpose, combine it with soothing stomachics like Peppermint and Fennel seed. Topically, use Baking Soda as a powder for brushing the teeth.
Black Salt isn't actually black, but rather pink. It is salty with a slightly sulfurous, pungent taste and odor. Black salt is used as a digestive tonic and stimulant in formulas to treat dyspepsia and indigestion in Melancholic individuals.
Borax is used extensively in Unani Medicine, where it is usually burnt, or calcined. Its use is mainly topical, to cool down heat, swelling and inflammation, and to detoxify. It can be used internally in coughs and lung congestion with thick sputum. Borax is also used in laundry detergents, as it also cuts through grease.
Calamine is also known as Smithsonite. It is mainly made into lotions where its cooling, drying mildly astringent action soothes inflammation and subdues and dries up swelling and exudations in weeping eczema, poison oak or poison ivy.
Clay, also known as Bentonite, is commonly used in topical pastes, poultices and cataplasms to draw out toxins through its negatively charged ionic action. Apply Clay paste to acne blemishes to subside and remove them. Internally, a little Clay dissolved in a glass of water can be taken to detoxify the bowels and GI tract.
Copper Rust, or the blue-green patina that forms on tarnished copper, was used as a topical antiseptic and disinfectant in wound dressings by the ancient Egyptians.
Epsom Salts are known chemically as Magnesium Sulfate. Epsom Salts are strongly cooling and moistening in temperament; they are a strong laxative and purgative that provokes a vigorous defecation reflex by drawing water out through the intestinal mucosa to flush out the stool. Those with a weak or delicate digestion, or chronic digestive sluggishness and atony, should not use or abuse Epsom Salts. Externally, a warm bath of Epsom Salts will draw out toxins from the body, or the bathed part.
Glauber's Salts are also known as Mirabilite; chemically, they are Sodium Sulfate. They are very similar to Epsom Salts, but slightly milder.
Gypsum is another sulfate salt - Calcium Sulfate. It is used in medicinal decoctions to bring down high, ardent fevers. Externally, Gypsum is burnt or calcined to dehydrate it and applied topically to heal burns, eczema and abscesses. Gypsum, or Calcarea Sulfuricum, is also used in microdoses homeopathically to promote the suppuration of abscesses and purulent infections, and to cleanse the blood of purulent toxins.
Magnetite is also called Lodestone; it is magnetized iron ore. It is a sedative useful in insomnia, palpitations, vertigo, epilepsy and mania. It strengthens the kidneys and replenishes the Radical Moisture, making it useful in treating asthma, anemia, neuraesthenia, deafness and blurring vision.
Sal Ammoniac is Ammonium Salts, or Smelling Salts. It can be inhaled to revive consciousness in fainting and syncope, or to dispel certain types of headaches in combination with certain other aromatic substances like Camphor. It is also used in aromatic chest rubs for bronchitis and lung congestion. In small doses, in combination with antacids like Baking Soda, it can relieve a stomachache.
Saltpetre, or Potassium Nitrate, is an ingredient of gunpowder. Medicinally, it is taken internally in small doses to deaden one's libido and sexual desire.
Sulfur is classically known as Brimstone. It is of a fiery, Choleric nature, being pungent in taste and heating and drying in temperament. Topically, Sulfur is most commonly used as a disinfectant and antiparasitic in scabies, itchy scalp, fungal infections and other skin diseases. Taken internally, it is used to relieve chronic atonic diarrhea caused by coldness; but for internal use, Sulfur should first be chelated with organic proteins.
Talc is also called Soapstone, due to its soft, smooth, lubricating quality; chemically, it is Magnesium Silicate. Topically, Talcum powder is famous for its drying, cooling and soothing action in treating itchy, inflamed , chaffed or irritated skin. Internally, Talc can lubricate and soothe the urinary passages in urinary infections, oliguria and in the passing of urinary stones; it also soothes the bowels in acute enteritis and watery diarrhea.
Principles of Herbal Formulation
Among herbalists, there have always been traditions and schools of thought that favored using single herbs versus others that favored herbal combining and formulas. The use of single herbal remedies to effect a cure is called the art of simpling; often, the best remedy is also the simplest one. Then, at the other end of the complexity spectrum, Galen's Theriac Electuary contained a whopping 64 ingredients, of animal, vegetable and mineral origin.
Why combine herbs into formulas? We make herbal formulas to obtain complex medicinal actions and effects that can't be matched by any single herb in Nature. This is much like the way a skilled artist blends his paints together to obtain just the right shade or hue. Or, it's like how a machinist or tool maker takes a number of different raw materials and fashions them into a useful tool.
Another very important reason for combining herbs into formulas is to use other herbs to neutralize, moderate, or offset the harsh, toxic or undesirable effects of the principal herb, or to transform these undesirable effects into desirable ones. Herbs that do this are called correctives.
Or, one may wish to circulate or guide the medicinal effects of the principal herb more effectively or efficiently to a certain organ, tissue or body part where it's needed. Herbs that do this are called guiding herbs. Often, the medium in which an herbal medicine is prepared or administered, such as a tea, powder, syrup or tincture, will be very influential in deciding how its medicinal actions and effects will be guided and delivered to the body.
Clinical experience has also shown that certain herbs work together in combination as synergists, and mutually enhance or expand each other's potency and range of effects. The combined effect of two or more synergists working together is greater than the simple sum of their individual effects.
Certain other herbs may also work together in a complementary relationship. Take, for example, Chinese Angelica root, or Dong Quai, which is a blood tonic, and Ginseng, which tonifies or restores the Vital Force. Since the Vital Force and its humoral vehicle, the blood, work so closely together, so do these two tonic herbs.
The simplest approach to herbal formulation is just to throw together every herb you can think of that treats the given disorder. But this approach is very crude and unsophisticated, and simply creates herbal chaos and cacophony.
Clinical experience shows that the herbs selected to be in a formula must be well chosen, with inherent natures and temperaments, as well as actions and effects that are harmonious and supportive of each other, and work together. The individual ingredients of an herbal formula must work well together and have a game plan to get the job done, much like the members of a football team.
First of all, the formula as a whole must have a clear, coherent function or purpose; it shouldn't try to do too much, or try to be all things, or else it winds up being nothing of any consequence. One or two basic actions, three at the most, should be the general rule. Once the overall vision and purpose of the formula is clearly defined, then the right herbs can be selected to fulfill that purpose.
As in any government or organization, there must be a clearly defined hierarchy of ingredients in an herbal formula, with a clear chain of command. The roles that the individual herbs play within the formula can be likened to the offices of government, or to the roles of actors in a movie or drama.
The principal herbs are those that form the bulk of the formula, and carry out the principal therapeutic actions and effects. In a diuretic formula, for example, the principal herbs are diuretics.
Supporting herbs are those whose actions and effects support those of the principal herbs, while broadening their scope of action. Adjuvant herbs are those that alter or moderate the medicinal actions and effects of the principal and supporting herbs, and take care of side jobs as needed. Guiding herbs guide the medicinal actions and effects of the other herbs to the right organ, tissue or part of the body; they can also blend the medicinal effects of all the herbs in a formula into one coherent whole.
Much like people and the social circles they move in, herbs can also act and behave differently depending on the other herbs they're associated with. As an illustration, let's take a very Greek herb, the Laurel leaf, which the Greeks call Daphne:
In combination with Spanish Cinnamon, or Canela, Daphne's anodyne and diaphoretic properties come to the fore. In a hot tea with a little fresh Ginger root, you have the perfect remedy for a cold with chills and rheumatic aches and pains; throw in some Juniper berries to increase the power and effect, and to add a mild diuretic action to expel the cold, moist rheumatic humors from the body.
In combination with Peppermint and taken as a powder, Daphne both stimulates and harmonizes the stomach and digestion. Substitute Hyssop for Peppermint to concoct and eliminate turbid Phlegmatic residues in the stomach. Combine Daphne with Cumin and Fennel seeds in the form of a tea to eliminate gas, distension and bloating; if a more tonic and stimulant effect is desired, substitute Caraway or Ajwain seeds for the Cumin.
In closing, let's analyze a traditional Greco-Roman and Unani herbal formula, called Jawarish Jalinus, or Galen's Electuary. Below are the ingredients and their dosages:
Mastic (Pistachia lentiscus) 25 gms.
Indian Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) 10 gms.
Cardamom (Eletteria cardamomum) 10 gms.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia) 10 gms.
Canela (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) 10 gms.
Galangal (Alpinia galanga) 10 gms.
Cloves (Eugenia caryophyllata) 10 gms.
Cyperus rhizome (Cyperus rotundus) 10 gms.
Ginger (Zingiberis officinalis) 10 gms.
Long Pepper (Piper longum) 10 gms.
Black Pepper (Piper nigrum) 10 gms.
Costus root (Saussurea lappa) 10 gms.
Balsam Wood (Commiphora opobalsamum) 10 gms.
Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) 10 gms.
Myrtle leaves (Myrtus communis) 10 gms.
Gentian root (Gentiana lutea) 10 gms.
Saffron (Crocus sativus) 10 gms.
Honey (Mel) enough to make a paste
The actions of this formula are: hepatic, hepatotonic and hepatoprotector; general tonic, carminative and digestive.
The applications of this formula are: weakness of the principal organs (heart, brain and liver), weakness of the stomach, weakness of the liver and hepatitis, flatulence in the stomach, heart palpitations.
Source: National Formulary of Unani Medicine, Part One Published by Government of India, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Department of AYUSH, New Delhi, @2006, pg. 100
Analysis: Since Mastic is present in the greatest dosage and concentration, you could say that it is the principal herb of this formula. Mastic is a great stomachic and digestive tonic, and strengthens the stomach and intestines with regular use.
Most of the other herbs in this formula support and expand on the action of Mastic in strengthening and improving the stomach and digestion. Chief among these stomach and digestive tonics are Cardamom, Ginger, Cyperus and Costus root.
Cloves, Galangal, Canela, Cinnamon, Long Pepper and Black Pepper are strongly heating stimulants that stimulate digestion and metabolism while dispelling cold, damp Phlegmatic humors and turbidity.
Jawarish Jalinus is also a hepatic and hepatoprotector, as enhancing liver function is also important in regulating and improving digestion and metabolism. The chief herb that acts on the liver is Gentian root, which is supported mainly by Indian Spikenard and Valerian root, with an assist from Costus root and Cyperus. Myrtle leaves also support the liver, stomach and digestion, while being an astringent tonic to the kidneys and bladder.
Saffron is the chief tonic herb for the heart and circulation in this formula, and is supported by Balsam Wood. If Balsam Wood, or Opobalsamum, a favorite herb of Galen, is unavailable, you can substitute its close botanical relative, Myrrh. Valerian is also a heart tonic.
Jawarish Jalinus is also a tonic for the brain, nervous system and Psychic Faculty. The chief herbs that perform this function are Valerian root and Indian Spikenard.
Reference Books on Herbal Medicine
The professional herbalist needs several good herbals, or source texts and reference books, to study and consult when necessary. When it comes to herbs and herbal medicines, one can never be too well informed.
Some of my favorite books on herbal medicine include the following:
The Herb Book by John Lust. @2001 by Benedict Lust Publications, published by Beneficial Books, New York, NY
Back to Eden by Jethro Kloss. @1995 by Promise Kloss Moffet and Doris Kloss Gardner. Published by Back to Eden Publishing Co., Loma Linda, CA USA
The Way of Herbs by Michael Tierra, L. Ac., OMD. @1998 by Michael Tierra. Published by Pocket Books, New York, NY
A Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Grieve in Two Volumes. Published in 1982 by Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY
Culpeper's Complete Herbal by Nicholas Culpeper. Enlarged and expanded edition. Published by Meyerbooks, Glenwood, IL, USA. @1990
Al Qanun Fi'l Tibb / The Canon of Medicine by Avicenna. Book II - Materia Medica. Book V - Herbal Formulary. @1998 by Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi, India
A Handbook of Common Remedies in Unani System of Medicine @2004 by Central Council for Research in Unani Medicine (C.C.R.U.M.), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, Dept. of AYUSH, New Delhi
The Traditional Healer's Handbook: A Classic Guide to the Medicine of Avicenna by Hakim G. M. Chishti, N.D. @1991 by Hakim G. M. Chishti. Published by Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont USA
Several of the above works were consulted as references in the preparation of this article.
The internet is a great information superhighway in which many fine websites and online e-books dispense information on herbs and herbal medicine. For reference purposes, I would like to recommend the following sites:
Culpeper's Complete Herbal, online edition. Includes auxiliary works, instructions and formularies, and Galen's Key to Physick.
Henriette's Herbal Homepage is a great internet nexus and clearing house for all kinds of herbal information, including articles, blogs, classic texts, and herbal pharmacopeias, including King's American Dispensatory, Felter's Eclectic Materia Medica, and Ellingwood's American Materia Medica.
Michael Tierra's East West School of Planetary Herbology Michael Tierra, author of The Way of Herbs, was my first teacher of herbal medicine, and probably the greatest influence on my basic philosophy and approach to this ancient and universal healing art. His website address is:
The Mohsin Institute, located in Leicester, UK, is the leading center in Europe for the teaching and practice of Tibb, or Unani Medicine. Under the direction of Hakim M. Salim Khan, the Mohsin Institute offers distance learning courses in Unani phytotherapy, or herbal medicine, as well as in traditional Unani psychotherapy. Their website address is: