Description of Herbs

Herbs are generally defined as any plant or plant part that may be used for medicinal, nutritional, culinary, or other beneficial purposes. The active constituents of plants (if known) may be found in varying amounts in the root, stem, leaf, flower, and fruit, etc. of the plant. Herbs may be classified into many different categories. Some Western herbalists categorize herbal remedies according to their strength, action, and characteristics. Categories may include sedatives, stimulants, laxatives, febrifuges (to reduce fever ), and many others. One system of classification is based on a principle in traditional Chinese medicine that categorizes herbs into four classes: tonics, specifics, heroics, or cleansers and protectors. Within these broad classifications are the numerous medicinal actions of the whole herb, which may be due to a specific chemical or combination of chemicals in the plant.

  • Tonics. Herbs in this classification are also known as alteratives in western herbalism. They are generally mild in their action and act slowly in the body, providing gentle stimulation and nutrition to specific organs and systems. Tonic herbs act over time to strengthen and nourish the whole body. These herbs are generally safe and may be used regularly, even in large quantities. These tonic herbs are known as “superior” remedies in traditional Chinese medicine. The therapeutic dose of tonic remedies is far removed from the possible toxic dose. American ginseng is an example of a tonic herb.
  • Specifics. Herbs in this classification are strong and specific in their therapeutic action. They are generally used for short periods of time in smaller dosages to treat acute conditions. Herbs classified as specifics are not used beyond the therapeutic treatment period. Echinacea is a specific herb.
  • Heroic. These herbs offer high potency but are potentially toxic, and should not be used in self-treatment. Because the therapeutic dosage may be close to the lethal dosage, these herbs are presented cautiously and closely monitored or avoided by trained clinicians. They should not be used continuously or without expert supervision. Poke (Phytolacca americana ) is an example of a heroic remedy.
  • Cleansers and protectors. These herbs, plants, and plant tissues remove wastes and pollutants, while minimally affecting regular body processes. An example of a cleanser is pectin. Pectins are the water-soluble substances that bind cell walls in plant tissues, and some researchers believe that they help remove heavy metals and environmental toxins from the body.

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