Actions and Characteristics

There are so many words out there and so little time to figure out what they all mean. Here’s a cheat sheet so that you know what the heck a cholagogue is.


Often, herbs and ingredients are grouped in different ways. The Greeks talked about the four qualities and degrees, Traditional Chinese Medicine classifies according to natures, flavors, and meridians, and other systems use their own words. Many modern western herbalism look to spectrums that herbs can fall on.

Heat – Coolness

The distinction between hot and cold come from Greek, Arab, Chinese, and Indian medicine.

Hot – Stimulating, speeds up processes, increases circulation

Cold – Relaxing, slows down processes, soothes irritations and excess

Damp – Dry

If your body is 75% water – one giant lump of wet stuff – how can there be a difference between wet and dry herbs? Think about the difference between a wet, mucous cough and a dry hack. It’s a pretty big different, right?

Drying – Drying herbs can cause your body to become dryer by releasing fluids or can cause one part of your body to become dryer by retaining fluids. Herbs that cause “constitutional dryness but local dampness” include diuretics (fluid lost through urine), diaphoretics (fluid lost through sweat), bitters (fluid lost through bile), galactagogues (fluid lost through breastmilk), emmenogogues (fluid lost through blood), sialogogues (fluid lost through saliva), expectorants/decongestants (fluid lost through mucus), emetics (fluid lost through vomit), and aphrodisiacs (fluid lost through sexual fluids). Herbs that cause local dryness are astringents.

Damp – Dampening herbs bring moisture to your body either through mucous (like mucilages, demulcents, and emollients) or oil.

Diffusive – Permanent

Diffuse – Diffuse herbs act quickly on the nerves, bringing immediate relief; however, the effect is transient.

Permanent – Permanent herbs act more slowly through absorption. The effect seems to be more long-lasting.

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Primary/Foundational Herbal Actions

Primary actions describe not just the effect of using an herb, but how your body makes use of it. They tell you not just what but why.

Adaptogen Promotes stress management. Supports the adrenal gland which regulates hormonal response to stress.
Alterative In traditional Chinese medicine, a blood purifier. Helps the body to absorb nutrients and excrete waste, promoting a healthy state. Supports function of the  liver, kidneys, lymphatic and immune system.
Aromatic Contains volatile oils that are anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and are “dispersive” in that they help break up stagnation. May be relaxant, stimulating, or both. Aromatics often act as diuretics, as the volatile oils are processed by the kidneys, which find them irritating and increase urine output to “flush” them out of the body.
Astringent Causes tissue to contract. May be used to stop bleeding (In which case they are called styptics/hemostatics). Locally anti-inflammatory. Dry, tense.
Bitter Stimulates the secretion of of digestive acids, juices and enzymes, which improves appetite and digestion.
Diaphoretic Diaphorectics are used to open the pores and promote perspiration. They are usually used in the treatment of fevers, but can be used for in colds and flus as well. Lax.
Diuretic Promotes the production of urine by increasing blood flow to the kidneys, affecting the secretion of fluids in the kidneys, or irritating renal issues to encourage the kidneys to “flush out” the irritant. Dry.
Mucilaginous Lubricates tissues, ease dryness, and soothes inflammation, irritation and injury. Mucilage refers to a carbohydrate that, when moistened with water, becomes viscous and slimy. Herbs containing mucilage are referred to as “demulcents” when used internally, and “emollients” when applied externally. Damp.
Nervine Acts on the nervous system.  The term most often refers to nervous system relaxants.  There are herbs considered to be “tonic” nervines  that when taken long term improve nervous conditions and “sedative” nerviness that actively sedate the central nervous system, and should be used short term to manage acute problems.
Relaxant Relaxes contracted tissues. The opposite of a relaxant is not a stimulant, but an astringent. Lax.
Stimulant Stimulates activity of any sort. Hot.
Tonic “A tonic is usually an herb or food that acts on the body in a slow, nutritive fashion to build up the substance of the body.” – Matthew Wood – Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism. Permanent.

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Secondary Herbal Actions

If primary actions tell you why something works, secondary actions tell you what they can do for specific parts of the body.

Analgesic Relieves pain
Antacid Neutralizes acid to treat indigestion and heartburn
Antibacterial Kills bacteria, prevents bacterial infections
Anti-catarrhal Relieves congestion created by excess mucous production. Typically astringents or aromatics.
Anti-emetic Relieves nausea and prevents vomiting
Anti-fungal Inhibits the growth of fungi
Anti-inflammatory Reduces inflammation. Typically mucilages and astringents.
Anti-lithic Treats and prevents stones
Anti-microbial Kills microorganisms (bacteria, fungi)
Anti-neoplastic Inhibits the growth of tumors
Anti-pyretic Lowers fever
Antisepteic Prevents bacterial growth
Anti-spasmodic Eases muscle spasms and tension
Anti-viral Treats viral infections
Aperient A mild laxitive. Typically mucilage.
Aphrodesiac Increases sex drive
Cardiotonic Supports the heart
Carminative Allows gas to pass. Stimulates digestion. Relieves digestive cramping.
Cathartic Forceful laxative
Cholagogue Promotes the flow of bile from the gall bladder that aids in digestion, acts as a gentle laxative
Deodorant Prevents and removes smells
Emetic Causes vomiting
Emmenagogue Stimulates blood flow in the pelvic area, may stimulate menstruation or end pregnancy
Emollient Smoothes and protects skin
Expectorant Expels mucus from the lungs
Febrifuge Lowers fever. May be diaphoretics or lower body temperature through other means.
Galactagogue Increases breast milk production
Hemostatic Stops bleeding
Hepatics Supports the gall bladder and liver
Hypertensive Raises blood pressure
Hypnotic Induces sleep
Hypotensive Lowers blood pressure
Insecticide Kills insects
Laxitive Stimulates bowel function
Lymphatic Relives lymphatic congestion
Oxytoxic Stimulates uterine contractions
Pectoral Supports the respiratory system
Rubefacient Increases local blood flow to initiate a healing response
Sialagogue Stimulates saliva production
Soporofic Induces sleep
Stomachic Stimulates digestion and increases appetite
Styptic Stops bleeding
Vasoconstrictor Narrows blood vessels
Vasodialator Dilates blood vessels
Vulnerary Aids in wound healing. Often astringents.

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* I write about uses for plants as a novice brujita, not a doctor or scientist; this isn’t medical advice. If you want to use plant-based remedies, find a doctor you trust and respect who also trusts and respects you so that you can work together to make sure you’re the healthiest version of you.


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