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.
|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|
|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.|
|Cholagogue||Promotes the flow of bile from the gall bladder that aids in digestion, acts as a gentle laxative|
|Deodorant||Prevents and removes smells|
|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|
|Hepatics||Supports the gall bladder and liver|
|Hypertensive||Raises blood pressure|
|Hypotensive||Lowers blood pressure|
|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|
|Stomachic||Stimulates digestion and increases appetite|
|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.