Essential Concepts and Vocabulary
“Under the most rigorously controlled conditions of pressure, temperature, humidity, and other variables, the organism will do as it damn well pleases.”
– Anonymous –
Each of the major traditions uses key concepts and words to describe how herbs work on the body. I am going to introduce some of these terms in this section. I would like to point out that certain concepts drawn from the Eastern herbal traditions may seem unfamiliar and perhaps even primitive to Western ears. Also, pharmacological words like “proanthocyanin,” though sometimes easier to accept as valid (because we all trust scientific terminology), often are more difficult to recall due to their complexity. Just sound out the words and don’t worry too much about pronunciation.
Unfortunately, the language of our modern Western medical culture seems to have lost some of these descriptive terms illustrating ideas that plant-based societies have embraced over time. Think of this chapter as a map of a foreign country. All the words on the map seem unfamiliar at first, but you need to know some of them to get around. Once learned, they make the world of herbal medicine much easier to understand. My purpose in teaching these ideas is to provide you, as a consumer, access to the traditions of Eastern and Western herbal medicine through familiarity with basic ideas. This will allow you to choose and learn about herbs more effectively.
By introducing concepts from different traditions in the same chapter, I am not giving you license to mix them indiscriminately. This can prove unworkable, as illustrated quite well in the old tale about a young boy’s experience in the jungle. He examines all the wild animals and identifies in each the one characteristic he believes is exceptional. The boy then travels throughout the jungle, taking the “best” feature of each animal. When all is said and done, he has transformed himself into a fantastic creature with the tail of a monkey, the trunk of an elephant, the claws of a lion and the horn of a rhinoceros. Unfortunately, due to the bizarre nature of his new physical form, the boy in unable to walk and all the animals in the jungle are afraid of him.
Why Integrate Knowledge from Different Cultures?
It is clear to those of us who have taken the time to study natural medicine systems from around the world that there is vast clinical benefit in these teachings. Much of what is called “scientific herbalism” is simply the result of scientists personally checking out certain traditional therapeutic claims and deeming them valid or invalid. The concepts themselves are often their own proof. That is, when you learn to apply them, your herb choices will become much more accurate and your results better.
How to Learn from Other Cultural System of Herbology
Contrary to common belief, the human mind does not necessarily learn nor store information in a purely sequential, logical form. Rather, we learn through a succession of experiences that ripen our understanding at each stage, and consequently displace or enhance our knowledge with each progression. The human learns, albeit on a smaller scale, in a manner similar to that in which an entire culture acquires and integrates knowledge.
Humans have an innate desire to conserve energy, a characteristic that can inhibit intellectual growth and development. The manner in which we acquire, internalize and apply new information requires us to tap into the body’s precious energy stores. Therefore, we have a natural anthropological tendency to reject unfamiliar information or avoid opportunities to learn new things in the interest of conserving energy. Interestingly, this is also true of eating unfamiliar foods, such as herbs.
This is not only a detriment to the individual learning process, but also acts as a barrier to the growth and expansion of entire cultures. Oriental teachers thus all ays stress to their reluctant students the necessity of learning basic concepts in depth to build a solid educational foundation.
Upon examination of various herbal medicine teachings from around the world, we discover an obvious universal common thread–the focus of attention on the health of the human body. The advantage of this shared focus is simple. It is easier to accept and integrate concepts from different cultures once you reconcile the notion that, although you think your method is best, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Integrating concepts from other cultures affords us te same variation of perspective as would seeing the world through a new pair of eyeglass lenses every day, each of a different color. Seeing the world through the green of Ayurveda provides a different slant than the yellow of modern science or the red of Chinese medicine.
By applying various principles from each system of thought we can find countless ways to approach the same problems. For instance, a Western-trained doctor might not accept the idea of “dampness” in the muscles or stomach as easily as a Chinese or Ayurvedic practitioner. Consequently, it would be difficult for this Western doctor to establish the correct remedy or even entertain the notion of using certain herbs to treat this problem, especially when the caregiver is not familiar with the nature of the complaint.
However, if you introduce visible physical swelling into the equation, the same Western doctor will have a much easier time diagnosing and treating the problem. To be truly effective, a practitioner must come to understand the coexistence of different physical health principles. This type of acceptance can only be reached through a willingness to incorporate and apply the teachings of different healing traditions. In fact we may already be doing this, but it is better if we make it a conscious effort.
The set of ideas through which we ascribe herbal actions and physical symptoms to particular conditions is known collectively as Herbal Energetics. Herbalists Michael and Lesley Tierra, developers of the “East-West Home Herbal Medicine” study course, were among the first herbal practitioners to tout the need for an eventual integration of the large world medical systems with the publication of their book Planetary Herbology.
In the book, Michael writes about how he told his teachers in China that he believed there was a need for classification of our native North American Herbs into the energetic system of Chinese medicine. They said that what he proposed could not be done, because it had taken the efforts of countless herbalists over many centuries to evolve such a complete system. Tierra tells us that after many years of pondering this problem, he agrees that a single individual cannot accomplish this process. “All I may hope to achieve is a modest beginning,”(Tierra, 1988). But, how do we even begin this process? Part of Dr. Tierra’s effort entailed preliminary classification of many herbs from around the world according to energetic principles. Thanks to his efforts, Planetary Herbology still stands as an excellent model for integration.
A Note on Semantics
It is important when discussing herbs to know and trust the source of your information. In an editorial in “Modern Phyto-Therapist,” herbalists Kerry Bone and Nicholas Burgess point out the very important distinction between knowledge based upon anecdotal information and coincidence, and traditional, proven knowledge. They tell us that “valid traditional use is the refined knowledge of many generations, carefully evaluated and re-evaluated by many of the practitioners of the craft. It is not just the anecdotal accounts of a few practitioners. When traditional use is part of a great system and culture, the information therein should be rated highly because it has evolved over many years and been tried on large numbers of people” (Bone & Burgess 1997). This point can be applied not only to information on specific herbs, but also to the use of herbal concepts like Yin and Yang to differentiate different disease processes.
How Herbs Are Named
To navigate the herbal world successfully, it is very important to understand how herbs are named. The hundreds of thousands of plants and herbs in our world have an unbelievably wide variety of names. The name given to a plant in its local geographic region is known as the common name, and there are no rules for assigning these names. For example, the word echinacea, now a familiar term to many people venturing into the world of herbs, may describe any one of several species of coneflower plants. Fortunately, a plant usually has only one or two Latin names. However, one can easily become confused by common names, which can number into the dozens for a single plant.
To solve the problem of naming plants, the Swedish biologist Linnaeus developed our modern method of taxonomy in the 1700s, using the Latin binomial method. You should note that Latin names are always italicized. In this model, plants are divided into many different families. Within families, each plant is given at least two Latin names. The first Latin name represents the genus–the main subdivision of a plant family–which is comprised of many different species. The particular species of each plant is then reflected in the second Latin name.
For example, the Latin name for the herb kava root is Piper methysticum. Piper is the name for the pepper genus, and methysticum is the particular species. Piper nigrum, on the other hand refers to black pepper. The Latin word ascribed to the species name describes some unique characteristic of the plant, such as its color. For example, Paeonia rubra is red peony, and Echinacea purpurea is purple coneflower. Due to its oval (ovata) shape, the Plantain leaf is called Plantago ovata. Sometimes the geographical location is used to determine the species name, as in Poke root (Phytolacca americana), a plant found in America. The Latin word officinalis or officinale, as in Calendula officinalis (Calendula flower), is drawn from the historical knowledge that these plants were collected and categorized by European monks who kept them in small storerooms called the officina. It is possible for a plant to have two different Latin names. This occurs because every few years, taxonomists revise the “International Code of Botanical Nomenclature,” sometimes even adding new rules for naming plants. There is a transition period following these changes, during which both names are used (Stafleau et al, 1978). For example, guggulu gum refers to the gum of the plant named guggulu in Sanskrit, but guggulu has two Latin names, Commiphora mukul and Balsamodendron mukul.
To make it as easy as possible for you to follow along in this book, I will strive to always refer to herbs by their common names, printed in bold letters to make them easier to spot. You will most likely find the common names easiest to pronounce and understand. The Latin name will follow the common name when appropriate for the sake of proper identification. I will also identify the part of each plant that is actually used, whether it is the root, the leaf, the flower, or some other portion. If not specified, you can assume that we use either multiple parts, or the entire plant, as in the case of black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa). Chinese and Sanskrit names will probably be the most difficult for you grasp, so it will help if you apply your knowledge of common name, plant part and Latin nomenclature to identify herbs. You will then be able to deduce that carthamus flower refers to the flower of Carthamus tinctorius, also known in Chinese as hong hua.
Understanding Herbs by their Dispensing Forms
Herbs come in many different forms. The most common are crude herbs, powders, dried decoctions, tinctures, capsules, gelcaps, salves, oils and teas.
• Crude herbs are simply collected and dried, then cut and sifted. This is the original way herbs have been prepared since the dawn of time. This form is commonly found in traditional herb shops around the world, and in ethnic neighborhoods in major cities in the United States. The advantage of this form is that you can actually see, taste and smell the herbs. Crude herbs are usually taken home and cooked into teas.
• Powders are simply ground crude herbs. You can use powders to make herbal tea, or simply ingest them in their natural form. I like powders because they allow you to experience the taste and smell of the herbs you are using. Another benefit of this form is that you can often take larger doses of the herbs. However, powdered herbs do not last as long in storage as the other forms.
• Teas are aqueous extractions of crude herbs or herbal powders. Most herbs today come in pills or tinctures, so to make sure we do not forget our herbal roots, I always make sure to keep some loose herb teas in the house. There are several methods of preparation for herbal tea. Infusion, better for delicate leaves and flowers, entails bringing water to a light boil, turning off the heat, and letting the herbs steep in the water. Leaving the crude herbs out in the sun for a couple of hours in a tightly sealed container makes Sun tea. Simmering the herbs for anywhere from ten minutes up to an hour (longer is better for the much heavier barks and roots) makes a decoction.
• Tinctures are extracts made by soaking herbs in solutions designed to draw out their virtues. Alcohol is the most common soaking solution for tinctures. Tincture manufacturers must have recipe books to guide them, as the exact method will differ for each herb. Tinctures are valuable because they are easy to digest and absorb. Some herbs can only be used in this form. The strength of a tincture should be listed on the bottle in the form of a ratio, such as 1:5 or 1:2. The first number tells you how much of the herb is present, and the second number tells you how much menstruum (the liquid used to dissolve the herb) is in the preparation. Therefore, a 1:5 tincture is weaker than a 1:2 tincture, because a larger volume of liquid is used.
• Dried decoctions, also called concentrated granules, are used primarily by Chinese (TCM) herbalists. This method of preparing herbs was devised several decades ago in Taiwan by a group of chemists and traditional doctors. Basically, the herbs are cooked as teas in large vats and the solid residues are removed, after which the remaining liquids are dried out until only powders remain. Sometimes certain important components (such as volatile oils) are collected separately by specialized equipment and then added back to the final product. These powders are usually about four times more potent than the crude herbs. The label may list a ratio of 4:1, but concentration can be as low as 2:1 or even as high as 10:1. Dried decoctions still retain the herbs’ basic tastes and smells, and the concentrations of chemicals discourage bacterial growth so they tend to store well. I use these granules frequently in my practice.
• Concentrated herbal extracts are now made using various methods. These extracts, in liquid or solid form, can be anywhere from two to 100 times more concentrated in certain components than crude herbs.
• Capsules are simply powdered herbs, dried decoctions or concentrated herbal extracts that have been put into gelatin capsules.
• Tablets are simply powdered herbs, dried decoctions or concentrated herbal extracts with a binding substance added. They are then are pressed into tablets by a machine
• Gelcaps are sealed gelatin capsules that hold either tinctures or concentrated liquid herbal extracts.
Different ways of Understanding Herbs
Understanding Herbs by Their Chemical Actions
Each individual herbal medicine is a unique package of nutrients capable of acting on the human body in a variety of ways. Following is a list of some common chemical actions of herbal medicines.
•Herbs can promote the action (reduction) of antioxidants, capturing and eliminating the destructive energy of free radicals (unpaired electrons).
• Nutrients in many herbs can nourish specific tissues even to the point of helping repair damaged DNA strands.
• Chemicals found in certain herbs and foods can up- and down-regulate various biological activities, including cell division and genetic expression.
• Herbs can reduce and modulate various inflammatory processes.
• Herbs can alter the activity of the digestive flora, affecting the chemical balance of the digestive system
• Nutrients found in certain herbs can enhance the action of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the basic process necessary for the body to produce energy.
• Herbs can affect the chemical reactions taking place in the liver, necessary for neutralization of toxins.
• Herbs can stimulate all components of the body’s immunity, including every aspect of immune function and every immune cell.
• Herbs can affect intracellular, intercellular and extracellular communication between cells.
• Herbs can stimulate or suppress specific bodily actions, such as urination, defecation, digestion, wake and sleep, night vision, breathing, and muscle tension.
Understanding Some Important Herbal Actions
The word action refers to the influence an herb exerts on the body. There are literally hundreds of terms used to describe herbal actions, but those listed below are the most common, and are necessary for you to understand the process of healing. These words are derived chiefly from Western herbal traditions, and many of the terms are used in modern allopathic medicine.
• Adaptogens are strengthening herbs that bring balance back to the body no matter what the direction of imbalance. They combine both tonic and balancing properties. Examples include Siberian ginseng root bark (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and jiao gulan leaves/stem (Gynostemma pentaphyllum).
• Alteratives are herbs that increase elimination of metabolic waste via the liver, large intestine, lungs, lymphatic system, skin and kidneys. Examples include burdock root (Arctium lappa), dandelion root (Taraxacum officinalis), red clover blossom (Trifolium pratense) and Tu fu ling rhizome (Smilax glabra rhizoma).
• Amphoterics, from the Greek “amphoteros” or “both,” are herbs that normalize hyper- or hypo-function of different organs or regulatory systems. Examples include licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), cordyceps mushroom (Cordyceps sinensis / Dong chong xia cao), and Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus).
• Antimicrobials are herbs that reduce or diminish the activity of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Examples include isatis root (Isatis tinctoria), oregano (Origanum species) and horseradish (Amoracia rusticana).
• Antiseptic herbs are those that can be applied to the body externally to inhibit bacterial growth. Examples include tea tree oil and oregano oil.
• Aphrodisiac herbs are those that stimulate sexual desire and potency. Examples include potency bark (Ptychopetalum olacoides / Muira puama) and ashwaghanda root (Convolvulus arbensis / Withania somnifera).
• Demulcents are soothing mucilaginous or oily substances that can be taken internally to soothe and protect damaged or inflamed tissue. One common example is slippery elm bark (Ulmus rubra).
• Diuretics are herbs that stimulate the flow of urine, and help remove fluids from the body. Common examples are dandelion leaf (Taraxacum officinalis) and coffee (Coffea arabica).
• Emollient herbs are those that are applied externally to soften and soothe the skin. One common example is olive oil (Olea europaea).
• Emmenagogues are herbs that stimulate and promote menstruation. Turmeric root and chaste tree berry are emmenagogues.
• Expectorants are herbs that assist the body in expelling mucus from the upper respiratory tract. One common example is licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra).
Hemostatic herbs are those that stop bleeding. One common example is tian chi root (Panax pseudoginseng).
• Laxative herbs are those that stimulate or promote bowel movements. There are two classes of laxative herbs. Bulk-forming laxatives increase the water and bulk of the stool. One common example is flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum). Stimulant laxatives invigorate the muscles of the lower bowel. One common example is rhubarb root (Rheum emodi).
• Nervines are herbs that calm and soothe the nervous system and emotions. Examples include milky oat seed (Avena sativa) and scullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia).
• Stimulants are herbs that increase metabolism and mental activity. Examples include ephedra (Ephedra sinica / ma huang), coffee bean (Coffea arabica), and ginseng root (Panax Ginseng / ren shen).
• Tonics are herbs that strengthen or tone general energy, specific organs or organ systems. They act to strengthen the immune system, and can even help slow the aging process. Examples include ginseng root, Siberian ginseng, astragalus root (Astragalus membranicus / huang qi), shilajatu and shou wu root (Polygonum multiflorum).
Understanding Yin, Yang and Qi
The triad of Yin, Yang and Qi (pronounced chee) serves as the basis for the medical theory of TCM. Entire textbooks have been written about this subject in China, and one could argue that similar mechanisms are found everywhere in the universe, even at the molecular level. For our purposes we are going to simplify this philosophy as much as possible, while describing the terms as understood by TCM doctors. The most essential thing to know is that TCM doctors use these broad general medical terms to orient their medical thinking, diagnose disease and choose herbs. The purpose is to bring these three into balance. In Chinese theory this process is conceived as bringing Yin and Yang into balance with each other, which results in the production of Qi.
Yin represents the nutritive processes and substances of the body. When the Yin is strong, the body is strong, moist, well nourished and fertile. When the Yin is in excess, the body, or the individual organ, becomes sluggish and damp. When the Yin is weak, the body is weak, dry, deficient, and can flare up with heat. There can be sensitivity to heat, weight loss, insomnia, hot flashes, dryness and sometimes dizziness and heart palpitations. This presentation of symptoms is known as Yin deficiency, a very important TCM medical concept. To treat Yin deficiency, TCM herbalists use Yin tonic herbs. These herbs generally nourish and moisten the tissues and increase nutritive forces.
Some of the most commonly used Yin tonics are raw rehmannia root (sheng di huang / Rehmannia glutinosa), glehnia root (sha shen / Adenophora tetraphylla ), scrophularia root (xuan shen / Scrophularia ningpoensis), ligustum berry (nu shen zi / Ligustrum lucidum) American ginseng root (xi yang shen /Panax quinquifolium), ophiopogon root (mai men dong /Ophiopogon japonicus) and wild asparagus root (tian men dong / Asparagus lucidis).
Notice that many of the Yin tonics are roots, used by plants to absorb nutrients from the soil. Interestingly, the Chinese use seeds, such as sesame seeds, as Yin tonics. At our clinic I often use nutritive oils such as fish oils, flaxseed oil (Linum usitatissimum) or evening primrose oil (Oenothera biennis) along with the other herbs mentioned above to moisturize and reduce inflammation.
Yang represents the heat and metabolic processes of the body. When the Yang is strong the body is energetic, warm and powerful. When the yang is in excess, the body becomes inflamed. When the yang is weak the body is fatigued, cold and weak, often to the point of exhaustion. There can be symptoms of low back pain, impotence, diarrhea, and weakness in the four extremities. These symptoms are known as Yang deficiency. TCM doctor use Yang tonic herbs to treat Yang deficiency. These herbs are generally warming and drying. Chinese research has shown that many of these herbs benefit the endocrine system (Bensky & Gamble 1986).
Some of the most commonly used Yang tonic herbs are prepared aconite (fu zi / Aconitum palmatum), dried ginger root (gan jiang / Zingiber officinalis), cinnamon bark (rou gui / Cinnamon zeylanicum), deer antler (lu rong(Cervus nipon) and morinda root (ba ji tian / Morinda officinalis).
Qi (pronounced “chee,” and sometimes written as “chi”) represents the vital energy of the body flowing along invisible energy channels. The balance of Qi is dependent upon the functional relationship between Yin and Yang. When the Qi is strong, the digestion is strong, the organs are well regulated, and nourishment and energy flow through and vitalize the organs. When the Qi is weak or blocked, the digestion weakens, dampness accumulates, and the corresponding organs exhibit pain, spasm or irregular functioning. There can be extreme fatigue, poor digestion, diarrhea, muscle atrophy, compromised immunity, or weakness in the lungs. This is called Qi deficiency. When Qi is weak, TCM doctors use herbs that supply Qi, known as Qi tonics.
The most common Qi tonic herbs are ginseng root, astragalus root, codonopsis root (dang shen / Codonopsis pilosula), licorice root, and white atractylodes rhizome.
The easiest way to understand the mechanisms of this triad as you learn is to substitute the word “nutrient” when you hear the word Yin, “metabolism/heat” when you hear the word Yang, and “vital force” when you hear the word Qi.
Understanding Vata, Pitta and Kapha
Vata, Pitta, and Kapha (called the Tridoshas) are terms central to the study of health in Traditional Ayurvedic Medicine (TAM). They correspond very closely with the TCM terms Qi, Yang and Yin, respectively. Kapha and Pitta are the respective creative and destructive forces of the Universe. Vata, the third principle, is an animating force that regulates the eternal interplay of the first two. From this basic philosophical idea Ayurvedic doctors proceed to an understanding of how the body works in a very specific and useful way. They understand these philosophical terms to represent both metaphysical and physical realities. Vata, Pitta and Kapha operate at several levels simultaneously, from the universal to the specific, transversing several categories of Western thought. Here you can access a more comprehensive description written by my teacher, now translated into English.
The Susruta Samhita, written over 2,000 years ago, states, “Vata, Pitta and Kapha are the primary essential principles animating the human organism . . . The human body is supported by the three fundamental principles in the same way a house is supported by its foundation (Sutra Asthana, chapter 21, v. 1-3).
One of the many important manifestation of the three principles is at the level of physical regulation. Vata, as regulator of movement, can be equated with nervous system functioning at this level. Kapha, as regulator of creative processes, can be equated with (or seen in action within) the arterial supply of nutrients. Pitta, as regulator of destructive processes, can be equated with venous and hepatic drainage of metabolic wastes. These direct associations make this system of understanding practical.
Specific treatments for specific diseases are recorded in the relevant chapters of all the major Ayurvedic treatment texts. All diseases are categorized in terms of their relationship to Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. At the time the patient visits the TAM doctor, a comprehensive diagnostic process is done to determine the location, degree of severity, and nature of any imbalances among these three.
Depending on the training and experience of the Ayurvedic physician, the examination might include tongue and pulse diagnosis, physical exams, review of symptoms, and extensive questioning. Various tests might also be used. The purpose would be to discover physical, mental, emotional and accidental causes or factors contributing to the problem.
Once the diagnostic profile is completed, the patient would usually be given medicines or treatments for the specific problem, along with treatments to balance the system as a whole, including counseling on diet and lifestyle
Vata is linked to the nervous system. When Vata is out of balance, the result is Vata dosha, which is recognized by the general symptoms of dryness, sharp pain, shooting pulse, coldness, excess movement etc. Herbs that are used to correct Vata imbalances are generally nourishing (sweet), strengthening to the digestion, calming and moisturizing. Important Ayurvedic herbs used to treat Vata imbalances include ashwaghanda root, bala and gokshura fruit (Tribulus terrestris).
Pitta is linked to inflammation and removal of metabolic wastes from the body. Pitta is recognizable by symptoms such as excess heat, movement, burning pain, strong odors, bounding pulse etc. Herbs that reduce Pitta are generally nourishing, cooling, detoxifying and astringent. Important Ayurvedic herbs that correct Pitta imbalances include licorice root (madhukam /Glycyrrhiza glabra), vasaca leaves (Adhatoda vasica), boswellia bark/gum (shallaki / Boswellia serrata), neem leaves (Nimba / Azadirachta indica) , guduchi stem (Tinospora cordifolia), turmeric root (haridra / Curcuma longa), red sandalwood (Rakta Chandanam / Pterocarpus santalinus ) and white sandalwood (chandanam /Santalum album).
Kapha is linked to the arterial supply of nutrients via the blood serum. Kapha disorders invariably involve disordered arterial supply of nutrients to the tissues, and excess production of mucous.Herbs that reduce excess Kapha are generally purifying, warming, mucus reducing and astringent. Important Ayurvedic herbs that correct Kapha imbalances include guggul gum (Commiphora mukul / Balsamodendron mukul), turmeric root (haridra / Curcuma longa), black pepper (maricham /Piper nigrum), long pepper (pipali / Piper longum), and vidanga seeds (Embelia ribes).
Once an herbalist has mastered being able to identify a patients “Ayurvedic body type,” it is invaluable. I cannot tell you how many times I have startled new patients at our Delaware herbal medicine clinic, by telling them things about their personality, their childhood or even their blood pressure after knowing them for less than 5 minutes. This is all because of being able to instantaneously see their Ayurvedic body type.
Understanding Herbs by Their Tastes
Both TAM and TCM doctors describe herbs from the point of view of their tastes, believing that the flavor of the herb provides information about how it will act in the body. To me, any herbalist who doesn’t know the taste of an herb yet still attempts to use it can be compared to a painter who doesn’t know the colors of the rainbow, or a musician who doesn’t know the scales. These terms are generalizations and must be used together with other markers to determine and define the actions of herbs.
Following is a simplified version of how TAM doctors describe the basic tastes:
• Sweet herbs and foods tend to nourish, cool, moisten and heal the tissues and strengthen physical energy. They should be used more when the body is weak and emaciated, and less when the body is heavy and sluggish. Grape juice is sweet.
• Sour herbs and foods tend to warm the body and strengthen digestion. They should be used more when the body is weak and dry, and less when the body is hot and damp. Lemons are sour.
• Salty herbs tend to increase appetite, promote digestion, moisten tissues, and soften and dissolve blockages. They should be used more when the body is dry, and less when the body is hot and damp. Obviously, salt is salty. Most meat is sweet and salty.
• Bitter herbs tend to stimulate appetite and digestion, reduce mucous membrane secretions and perspiration, reduce inflammation and counteract toxins. They should be used more when the body is inflamed and damp, and less when the body is nervous and dry. Coffee and radishes are bitter.
• Pungent (hot, acrid, spicy) herbs tend to warm the body, strongly stimulate the appetite and digestion, disperse blockages, and stimulate the senses. They should be used more when the body is heavy and sluggish, and less when the body is nervous and inflamed. Ginger root and cayenne pepper (Capsicum frutescens) are pungent.
• Astringent herbs and foods tend to heal and strengthen tissues, slow digestion, slow fluid leakage, bowel movements and urination, reduce exudation, and constrict capillaries (enough to stop bleeding in some cases). They should be used more when the body is inflamed and damp, and less when the body is nervous and dry. The astringent taste tends to accompany sweet and sour foods. Pomegranate seeds are sour and astringent. Betel nuts (Areca catechu), guavas and unripe bananas are sweet and astringent.
Understanding the Heating and Cooling Properties of Herbs
All the major traditional systems of herbal medicine recognize that some herbs warm or heat the body, while others cool. Any herb can be classified in this way. Herbs that are warming tend to dilate the capillaries and bring vitality into tissues, while herbs that are cooling tend to constrict the capillaries and/or reduce heat and inflammation. The medical term “inflammation” is a fair equivalent to the herbal medicine term heat, though there are differences in the way it is used in different traditions. For example, in TCM these terms are sometimes further divided according to the strength of the sign in the following sequence: cold, cool, neutral, warm, and hot. Neutral herbs can be used to treat either hot or cold diseases.
TCM doctors point out that there is more importance to this than meets the eye. The human body developed as part of the natural cycle of day and night, living always in the heat of day alternating with the relative cool of night. A problem exists when the body cannot properly regulate its temperatures. Traditional herbal doctors might alter their view of specific symptoms and treat patients with different herbs depending on the seasons. Knowing whether an herb is warming or cooling can be important in making treatment choices. During a spell of summer heat, for example more cooling herbs may be indicated for use in a formula than are usually used during other seasons.
As simple as this seems, it can sometimes be confusing in application. In asthma, for example, it is necessary to dilate (warm) and relax the muscles surrounding the lungs. For menstrual cramping, it is necessary to relax the muscles of the uterus. For hepatitis, it is important to constrict (cool) the dilated vessels in the liver.
Following are some basic guidelines regarding the heating and cooling actions of herbs.
• Heating herbs tend to strongly affect the liver, heart and brain. It is important to make sure that heating herbs do not worsen inflammation.
• Cooling herbs strongly affect the stomach and GI tract, the kidneys and the bladder. It is very important to make sure that cooling herbs do not harm digestion. Long-term use of very cold herbs can definitely weaken digestion.
• Heating herbs are generally used to treat cold diseases while cooling herbs are applied with hot diseases.
• Heating and cooling effects are somewhat subjective, so formulas are adjusted after initial use to reflect changes in heat and cold as they occur in the body.
• If you use other herbs in the formula to balance the temperature characteristics, it is possible to use a cold herb in a cold condition, or a hot herb in a hot condition.
• Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling. Sour, salty and pungent herbs tend to be heating.
Understanding Herbs by their Post-digestion effects
Ayurvedic doctors place great importance on the way herbs affect Vata (nerve function), Pitta (metabolic function) and Kapha (nutritive function) following digestion. Herbs often exhibit delayed or long-term effects, called vipaka in Sanskrit. This phenomenon is most clearly demonstrated with cayenne pepper and ginger root. Both herbs are obviously pungent (hot) in taste when you eat them. After the cooking process, which affects the physical properties of the herbs in a manner similar to digestion, cayenne will remain pungent, while ginger will take on a sweet taste instead. Therefore, the still-pungent pepper can aggravate an acidic intestinal condition if you eat too much of it, while ginger’s anti-inflammatory properties can soothe the same condition (Kiuchi et al., 1992). Several herbs exhibit a pronounced effect that increases therapeutic options in the clinic. For example, ginger can be used to strengthen stomach digestion in a patient with inflammation further down the intestinal tract, while cayenne cannot.
• Herbs that change to a sweet taste after digestion will, like other inherently sweet herbs, stimulate evacuation, nourish the tissues and reduce inflammation. According to Ayurvedic theory this will increase Kapha and decrease Pitta.
• Herbs that change to a sour taste after digestion will increase metabolism, warm the body and stimulate bile flow. Such herbs will increase Pitta and calm Vata.
• Herbs that change to a pungent taste after digestion will dry the stool. In excess they cause dryness, constipation and gas, and reduce nutrient absorption. These herbs increase Vata and decrease Kapha.
Ayurvedic doctors have lists that describe such actions for each of their herbs, but no such lists are available for Western or TCM herbs. Therefore, we must use our powers of deduction to identify these actions. For example, in the clinic, I know that haritaki fruit has a laxative action, yet is highly nourishing due to its sweet post-digestive effect. Since most laxative herbs tend to be weakening, this herb is a good choice for treating a case such as a weak elderly patient with chronic constipation.
More on How to Understand Herbs
Understanding Herbs by Their Chemical Constituents
Following are simplified descriptions of some of the more important nutrients and chemical components of plants, as understood by plant biochemists and botanists. Plants are potpourris of ubiquitous chemicals, and when we describe a particular chemical we are always talking in general terms, because the chemical mentioned may experience numerous variations in nature. If we mention that a plant contains a particular compound, you can take it as an indication that the compound exists in a significant concentration, while numerous other plants not mentioned may contain insignificant amounts of said compound.
The important thing to remember is that this basic knowledge can help you understand what herbs do, and can therefore assist you in navigating the herbal marketplace. You may find this information helpful when attempting to interpret marketing claims. Remember, just because a chemical found in a plant is capable of a certain action does NOT mean any herb containing that specific chemical will have the same effect or exhibit the same action. The chemical may not exist in sufficient quantity in the herb, or other chemicals within the product may modify its action.
• Alkaloids are a diverse group of chemicals, generally alkaline in nature, that have powerful biological effects. Morphine was the first alkaloid isolated, back in 1806. Some of the best-known alkaloids are atropine, caffeine, pilocarpine, lobeline, quinine, berberine, strychnine, nicotine, codeine, and ephedrine. Common uses of alkaloids include painkillers, narcotics, hypotensives, hypertensives, bronchodilators, stimulants, anti-microbials, and anti-inflammatories. Coffee bean (Coffea arabica) and ephedra (Ma huang / Ephedra sinica) contain alkaloids.
• Anthraquinones are laxative chemicals found in plants like rhubarb root (Rheum emodi), cascara sagrada bark (Rhamnus purshiana) and senna leaf (Senna species / Casia tora). These chemicals have topical effects on the large intestine and they are not absorbed well. Anthraquinones can be very potent, and overuse can cause acute pain (called griping) and eventual tolerance and habituation.
• Bitter principles are chemical characteristics unique to a diverse class of plant chemicals that includes the monoterpenes, and specifically, iridoids, sesquiterpenes, and alkaloids. Generally, these chemicals stimulate taste receptors in the mouth, which signal nerves in the stomach to trigger the release of digestive enzymes, which stimulates bile flow. Over a period of time, overuse of bitters may result in over-stimulation, producing a reverse effect and dampening appetite. Coptis rhizome (Huang lian /Coptis chinensis) is very bitter. Some bitters have antibiotic, anti-fungal, liver-protecting and anti-tumor activities. Others are relaxing nervines, such as valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) and hops (Humulus lupulus).
• Cardiac glycosides represent a specific class of steroidal saponins that have a marked action on the heart, strengthening the force and speed of systolic contraction. Herbs that contain them must be used with extreme caution under professional guidance, as the therapeutic dose is very close to the toxic one. Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) contains cardiac glycosides.
• Carotenoid pigments (coloring matter) are found in carrots, red and yellow vegetables, and dark leafy green vegetables. Carotenoids include carotenes and xanthophylls (oxygenated carotenoids). Carrots, squash, tomatoes and spinach are good sources of carotenoids. Carotenoids have an affinity for fatty tissues in the body and help maintain healthy epithelial tissue and mucous membranes. Some carotenoids can be converted into Vitamin A in the human body. (However, the problem of liver toxicity from excess vitamin A is not caused by carotenoids.) There are more than 600 different kinds of carotenoids, but only 30 to 50 varieties, particularly beta-carotenes, exhibit specific Vitamin A activity.
Carotenoids exert a multiplicity of beneficial effects on the body. They aid growth and repair of body tissue, and protect the eyes from dryness. Lutein (a xanthophyll) is particularly important to the health of the eyes because it concentrates in the macula and protects against degeneration. Carotenoids help our bodies fight bacteria and infection, and aid in the formation of bones and teeth. They also assist the regulation of cell differentiation, helping us to form healthy and mature cells as opposed to immature and undifferentiated cells. This is an important factor in cancer prevention.
Carotenoids quench O2-free radicals, improve fertility, and enhance thymus function. Carotenoid deficiency can prevent the mucous coating from forming on your trachea, lungs, rectum, and digestive system. Other problems include night blindness, rough, dry, scaly skin, and increased susceptibility to infections, as well as fatigue, insomnia, depression, loss of smell and appetite, dull hair, brittle nails, and inflamed eyelids.
• Chlorophyll is the pigment found in all green plants which gives plants the ability to capture light energy from the sun. As a medicinal agent, it is known for its purifying and blood-building properties. It aids in liver function and has antiseptic properties. A two-percent solution of chlorophyll taken as a dose of one tablespoon per day is very healing to the intestinal membranes of the digestive system. It is also an excellent intestinal deodorant..
• Plant fixed oils contain high levels of essential fatty acids, the ones your body cannot manufacture by itself. These oils are important components of many herbal treatments. Flaxseed oil (Linum usitatissimum) and evening primrose oil (Oenothera biennis) are very high in omega-3 fatty acids, the ones most often missing in the diet, and are beneficial in reducing inflammation.
• Flavonoids are a diverse set of chemicals which include many brilliant plant pigments that, like carotenoids, are responsible for many of the attractive colors you see in fruits and vegetables (though some are colorless). More than 4,000 flavonoid compounds have been isolated from plants so far.One notable medicinal effect of some flavonoids is their ability to strengthen blood vessel integrity and reduce inflammation. They also have antiviral and antimicrobial effects. Flavonoids are extremely potent antioxidants, and they are often found in plants containing vitamin C.
Darkly colored fruits are loaded with flavonoids. High concentrations of flavonoids are found in red and black grapes, red wine, black elderberries (Sambucus canadensis), hawthorne fruit (shan zha / Cratageous pinnatifida), blueberries (Vaccinium myrtilloides) and bilberries (V. myrtillus), ginkgo leaf (Ginkgo biloba) and green and black teas (Camellia sinensis). These chemicals have potent anti-oxidant activity. Their presence in the basement membranes and surrounding collagen structures is responsible for maintaining proper permeability and stability in capillaries by neutralizing free radical poisons that break down blood vessel walls. Healthy and resilient capillary vessels are able to maintain their shape and function for normal, efficient microcirculation, which prevents water accumulation in the surrounding tissues.
This next one is a mouthful. The class of related flavonoid pigments responsible for the red, blue and violet colors you see in many plants is known by several names, including anthocyans, anthocyanins, anthocyanidins, proanthocyanins and proanthocyanidins. One subgroup, known as oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPSs), represents a type of condensed tannin. These pigments are most notably found in grape seeds and French maritime pine trees. They include the chemicals cyanidin, procyandin, malvadin, petunidin, and delphinidin. Whew – you can breathe now.
• Gum resins are natural plant polysaccharide exudates that are excreted when a plant is injured. Examples include gum arabic from Acacia species, and seaweed gums such as kelp fronds (Nereocystis luetkeana) and Irish moss (Chondrus crispus / carrageenan). Some gums, like those found in guggulu gum (Commiphora mukul gum / Balsamodendron mukul), stimulate the liver cells to burn cholesterol by promoting uptake of LDL (bad) cholesterol from the blood.
• Indoles are found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and turnips. Dithiolthione is an indole that assists in the cells’ release and subsequent replacement of peroxidase, an important component in the body’s detoxification processes. Therefore, vegetables containing indoles can help remove pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals and other chemicals from your body. Recent evidence indicates that, when eaten in sufficient quantities, these vegetables may play a key role in cancer prevention. Indoles also help to inactivate excess estrogens such as isoflavones (Osborne, 1999).
• Lectins are plant proteins that bind to glycoproteins on the surface of human cells causing agglutination, the clumping of cells together with each other or with other particles or bacteria. They often serve as growth factors.
• Lignans (not to be confused with lignin) are plant chemicals commonly found in pulses and grains. Those found in schisandra berries (Wu wei zi /Schisandra chinensis) and milk thistle seed (Silybum marianum) are very important for protecting and repairing liver cells. Other lignans have been shown to exhibit anti-viral, anti-oxidant and anti-cancer activities (Thompson, et. al, 1991).
• Mucilages are slimy, amorphous, carbohydrate substances (polysaccharides) found in plants like slippery elm inner bark (Ulmus rubra), comfrey leaf (Symphytum officinalis) and psyllium seeds (Plantago species). Mucilaginous herbs are used to coat and soothe the digestive tract.
• Phytosterols and sterolins, such as beta-sitosterol, are ubiquitous steroid-like molecules found in plant cell walls. They are relatives of the carotenoids. Some of them are know to be generally energizing, and may help inhibit the growth of tumors, stimulate the immune system and regulate cholesterol levels. Ashwaghanda root (Withania somnifera) and guggul gum contain phytosterols. These compounds have a history of safe use and do not cause any of the side effects associated with the more dangerous animal steroids. More on phytosterols.
• Phyto-estrogens are generally classified as steroidal compounds and as members of the isoflavone group of flavonoids (including genistein, daidzein, biochanin and formononetin). These compounds are found in the legume family, especially in soybeans. They are also found in red clover blossoms (Trifolium pratense), licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and alfalfa leaf (Medicago sativa). Isoflavones are good anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatories. They have structural similarities to estrogens, and have been found to bind to estrogen receptors while only weakly activating them. They seem to aid in the prevention of breast and other tumors, reduce hot flashes, prevent bone loss and strengthen cardiovascular health in menopausal women. Overuse may weaken thryoid function if there is inadequate iodine in the diet (Divi et al., 1997).
• Phyto-progesterones are plant chemicals that bind to intracellular progesterone receptors. They are found in several herbs, including oregano leaf, turmeric root, and red clover blossom, but have not yet been studied nearly as much as phyto-estrogens. One study found that these compounds tended to be either neutral or antagonistic after binding to receptors, meaning that they blocked cell response (Zava et al., 1998).
• Plant coumarins are chemicals that have anti-coagulant, antimicrobial and antispasmodic properties. Dicoumarol, derived from improperly cured sweet clover, is a component of the blood-thinning drug Warfarin. Many coumarins are photo-reactive and can cause skin rashes similar to those caused by members of the umbel family such as celery. Coumarins are used in doses up to one gram to treat edema. Though not all coumarins thin the blood, I still suggest exercising caution with patients taking blood-thinning medication. Red clover blossoms (Trifolium pratense) contain coumarins.
• Plant enzymes are catalytic proteins that make possible many complex chemical reactions in the body. Bromelain (Ananas comusus / pineapple enzymes) and papaya fruit (Carica papaya) contain these protein-digesting enzymes, useful for digestion and reduction of inflammation and edema. Malt extract from barley is an easily digestible nutritive for improving carbohydrate digestion.
• Polyphenols are naturally occurring plant phenol compounds which have antioxdant and antiinflammatory actions which contribute to their chemopreventive or anticancer activity (Surh, 1999). Green tea leaves have polyphenols.
• Polysaccharides are complex starch molecules found in all plants. Some have been shown to help restore depressed immune response, perhaps by feeding and energizing white blood cells or by mimicking the bacterial cell walls to which they are naturally primed to respond.They do not seem to over-stimulate normal immune systems. Scientists determine their effectiveness by measuring the extent to which they stimulate natural killer cells to attack tumors, and by their effect on the proliferation of immune cells. Ganoderma mushroom (Ling zhi / Ganoderma lucidum) and the maitake d-fraction (beta-glucan) derived from maitake mushroom (Grifola frondosa) are among the best examples of polysaccharides studied to date. The results are dose-dependent, and it takes several weeks for them reach peak levels of response in the blood cells.
• Salicylates and salicins are aspirin-like compounds found in plants. They are generally pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory in action, and are used to treat headaches and arthritis. In herbal terms, they reduce heat and dampness, mostly from the blood and joints. Plants containing salicin, like willow bark (Salix species) and meadowsweet herb (Filipendula ulmaria), work more slowly and do not cause the stomach irritation or bleeding sometimes seen with over-the-counter pain relievers.
• Saponins are chemicals whose name is derived from the Latin ‘sapo’ meaning soap. When plants containing saponins are placed in water and shaken, they tend to froth up and form a lather. When acting on internal surfaces of membranes and blood vessels, they lower surface tension and have a mildly irritating effect that helps break up oils and fats. (They are also known to be poisonous to fish, but I wouldn’t worry about this unless you’re a fish.) Their mechanism varies from herb to herb, but saponins generally exhibit anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy properties, improve circulation and digestion, and reduce mucus. Once absorbed, they seem to have important beneficial effects on arterial and venous walls, with the ability to rupture red blood cells and perhaps to help with the removal of cellular debris. Saponins inhibit the formation of lipid peroxides, they decrease blood coagulation, cholesterol and sugar levels in blood, and they stimulate the immune system (Purmova J et al., 1995) Some saponins are beneficial to the liver. Yucca root (Yucca species), bupleurum root (Bupleurum species) and ginseng root (ren shen / Panax ginseng) contain significant amounts of saponins.
• Tannins are condensed flavonoids responsible for the astringent taste of certain herbs. The chemicals bind with proteins and form a protective layer on the skin and mucous membranes. In sufficient doses tannins can reduce diarrhea or intestinal bleeding. Externally, they can be used to treat burns or seal wounds. They are antimicrobial, and can be used to inhibit infections of the eye, mouth, vagina, and rectum. They also have antioxidant effects. Black tea and green tea (Camellia sinensis) contain tannins.
• Triterpenoid saponins represent a particular class of saponins, some of which have a strengthening effect on the adrenal gland where they mimic the activity of adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH). This is an important action for relieving many stress problems. They are also reputed to promote blood circulation and improve oxygen utilization. Ginseng root (ren shen / Panax ginseng), licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and bupleurum root (chai hu /B. chinensis) contain triterpenoid saponins.
• Volatile oils are compounds that evaporate at room temperature, thereby allowing us to enjoy their odors as they turn to gas. They are generally antiseptic and anti-oxidant. Some of them also exhibit anti-fungal and insect-repellent actions. Volatile oils are easily transported throughout the body. Some can increase white blood cell formation, in turn increasing resistance to infection. Others act on the whole nervous system, and are anti-spasmodic and relaxing. When applied externally, some volatile oils are warming and anti-inflammatory, while other will reduce itching. Garlic (Allium sativum), oregano (Origanum species) and teatree (Melaleuca species) contain volatile oils.
Understanding Herbs by their Physical Properties
Ayurvedic doctors have classified all their herbs based on their physical properties. Some herbs properties that are easy to identify and understand include heavy (to digest) and light (to digest), dry and greasy, and the previously discussed hot and cold. Physical properties can sometimes be very important when prescribing herbs. Some examples:
• Herbs that are heavy in property (heavy to digest) should not be used if digestion is sluggish. Bananas are heavy to digest.
• Herbs that are drying in property should not be used when the body is dry. Adding a drying herb to dry skin will make it worse. Teatree oil and acorus root (vacha) are drying.
• Herbs that are light in quality can be used in the presence of solid accumulations. Acorus root and pinellia tuber can lighten the condition by dispersing heavy accumulations of mucus.
Understanding Herbs by Their Colors
Color is as fundamental to life as light. In plants it represents the way the pigments bend and reflect visible light. Color and visual appearance are the most important characteristics of foods used by animals for choice prior to ingestion (reported in Torrissen, 2000). The relationship between color and health is as obvious to many of us in post-industrial societies, because of the dichotomy between human experience (such as color, sound and touch) and scientific values (such as measurement of shape, number and magnitude).
In this dichotomy, measurable entities are real, but experiences are secondary results–simple consequences of the human senses registering values that science can measure. The best example of this is that the food industry recognized long ago that color affects sales, but the solution most often chosen was to use artificial coloring rather than doing the more expensive work of growing highly pigmented foods and delivering them as fresh as possible. Such a solution delivered color devoid of nutritional benefit.
Color can be seen as a sensory division of light and dark. When we look at the sky overhead, we are seeing the black of space changed to the blue of sky by reflection of the white of sunlight through the atmosphere. The lightening of pure darkness creates various shades of blue, which lighten as we move toward the horizon. The thinner the atmosphere, the darker the shade of blue. In the same way, when we try to look at the pure white sun overhead through the relative darkness of the atmosphere, it becomes yellow. As the sun proceeds down towards the horizon, it becomes progressively more red. Thus the darkening of pure white creates various shades of yellow and red. Green is found at the point of pure balance, at the boundaries. This brilliant insight comes from Goethe, who called the polarity which created color “The deeds and suffering of light” (Bortoft, 1986). It does not contradict scientific understanding, but rather places color in the context of human experience. In section three we will go into greater detail about how light and air affect our health.
Normal color vision is tri-chromatic (mediated by the blue, green and red visual pigments present in the corresponding blue, green, and red cone cells of the retina of the eye (Ladekjaer-Mikkelsen et al., 1995). This system allows for a very efficient perception of the broad class of typical colors in nature (Buchsbaum and Gottschalk, 1983). In a sense one could speculate that tri-colored plant pigments originate from the energy of the sun (Yang), travel down to the earth (Yin) into the plants where the shades (interplay of Yin and Yang) divide them into the colors, then into the mouth and deposit themselves in the cone cells in the eye – thus the Ayurvedic perception that the eye is ruled by the God/Element of Fire.
In primate studies, researchers have shown that the color of a leaf is an important indicator of its nutritive value, and that tri-chromatic vision is an important advantage in finding food with the highest nutritive value. It allows us to easily distinguish fruits from leaves, and to identify food sources at different stages of ripeness and maturity. As leaves mature, they change color and toughen. Leaf lightness and yellowness have a strong negative correlation with toughness. Tri-chromatic vision allows us to therefore choose the softest leaves–those highest in protein yet easy to digest (Lucas et al., 1998). Consumers prefer egg yolks with the darkest golden yellow color, indicating pigment levels. By the way, this doesn’t work as well in supermarkets, because there they use bright colors and lights to fool us into buying things.
One of the primary criticisms of traditional herbal medicine is the use of vague “unreal” philosophical concepts instead of “real” science. I must make one thing clear to invalidate this claim. It is not possible to apply large philosophical concepts unless you can relate them directly to observable processes in health and life, a process known in scientific circles as “lumping.” Good lumping makes the incredibly complex minutiae of life understandable. Bad lumping creates cult-like beliefs.
To the herbalist with a traditional background, it seems logical (though unprovable) that the colors of plants are expressions of the polar division of life into Yin and Yang (darkness and light), yielding the energy of Qi. It is important to remember that Yin and Yang are not static properties. They represent processes, with light transforming into dark and vice-versa as the day progresses. Colors vary as light changes. Thus it should be no surprise that after darkness and light turn into color, as described above, within our visual systems our initial three-color detection transforms into an achromatic one (without color) along with two opponent chromatic channels, allowing for oponent processing (light and dark) within our visual cortex. Information theory tells us that this allows for the most efficient transmission of color information (Buchsbaum and Gottschalk, 1983). It should also not be considered just a coincidence that important plant nutrients, such as carotenoids and flavonoids, bend light within the normal visible wavelengths (380-780 nm).
To make it simple for anyone who just got lost, basically, we need to eat lots of colorful fruits and vegetables, and we want to know more about which ones are best for our health. Therefore, the study of color in herbal medicine focuses primarily on the plant pigments–the colorful chemicals generated by plant metabolism–and how they affect the basic life processes. We discussed them in the previous section, where we learned that they are generally anti-inflammatory and helpful in detoxification.
However, we can gain more insight by dividing them up a bit:
Carotenoids are found primarily in red, orange, and yellow fruits and vegetables, and to a lesser extent, in dark leafy green vegetables (De Pee et al., 1998). They protect plants from the free radicals (especially singlet oxygen) generated by the metabolic process of photosynthesis. Animals depend completely on dietary sources for carotenoids. They are fat-soluble and most closely related to Yin. Carotenes have an affinity for, and thus help neutralize, poisons found in the fat cells and soft fatty tissues and membranes, including the intestinal membranes, lungs, and even the membranes around cells and organelles (Bianchi-Santamaria et al., 1999). For these reasons, humans are classified as yellow-fat organisms (Nagai et al., 1999).
Many carotenoids transform into vitamin A, which is necessary for maintaining healthy membranes, and plays an integral role in the formation of the coating on your trachea, lungs, rectum, digestive system and even the inside of your skin. Yellow xanthophylls such as lutein, a type of carotenoid found in such foods as egg yolks and yellow squash, help protect the delicate retinal membrane from UV radiation damage. Interestingly, carotenoid deficiency leads to a reduction in fertility (Mitchell, 1994), a classic Yin deficiency disease.
Various carotenoid supplements, especially red lycopene, have shown benefit in double-blind studies against oral lesions (Garewal et al., 1999). They are also beneficial to general membrane integrity (Wright et al., 1999), and act as protection against epithelial cancers, including breast, cervical, colon, esophageal, oral, pancreatic and rectal (Shi and Maguer, 2000). Scientists now theorize that each of the different carotenoids is capable of antioxidant and singlet oxygen quenching activity, with varying degrees of strength for each function.
Flavonoids are found in dark yet luminous blue, black, red and violet fruits and vegetables. They generally relate most closely to Yang (within this overall cooling group), and help maintain immune function and neutralize poisons. Thus, they act to strengthen blood vessels and capillaries, regulate inflammatory cells, and even modulate gene expression (Ramelet, 2000, Middleton and Kandaswami, 1992). They have a number of functions related to circulation, including vasodilation, and reduction of platelet stickiness and edema. Flavonoids also work in concert with Vitamin C to help fight germs and viruses and reduce inflammation.
The anthocyanins and related flavonoids found in berries are strong enough to protect against vessel-related diseases such as diabetic retinopathy, Alzheimer’s disease, and cardiac artery disease. Various flavonoids have been shown effective in double-blind studies against prostatitis (Shoskes et al., 1999), progressive pigmented purpurea (Reinhold et al., 1999), peripheral arterial occlusive disease (Schweizer and Hautmann, 1999), and chronic venous insufficiency (Janssens et al., 1999).
Green cholorphyll is the main coloring matter in all green plants, and it relates most closely to Qi, the life force. The chlorophyll in plants traps photons of light and uses them to produce ATP, the basic energy used by all our human cells. Plants are high in green-colored pigments, including spirulina and chorella, and have developed a reputation as energy boosting medicines as well as detoxification aids. However, scientific evidence on humans is sparse. One study showed that spirulina supplementation resulted in significantly higher iron storage and increased hemoglobin content in the blood of pregnant rats (Kapoor and Mehta, 1998). Foods and herbs that contain chlorophyll show pharmacological evidence of cancer prevention (Chernomorsky et al., 1999), perhaps because green vegetables such as spinach, kale, broccoli and lettuce bind with and thus stimulate excretion of cancer-causing chemicals (Morita et al, 1999, Hayatsu et al., 1993). Even more interesting is a report from one researcher that “Given their exclusive dietary origin, . . . chlorophyll metabolites may represent essential nutrients that coordinate cellular metabolism (through nuclear receptors)” (Kitareewan et al., 1996).
Understanding Herbs by Their Tissue Affinities
One of the more useful concepts to grasp in herbal medicine is the idea that while many herbs have general systemic effects, certain herbs can also have affinities for specific organs or tissues. Further, tissues store specific nutrients and, just like your bank account, your stores can be high or low. This is called pharmacokinetics.
• Carotenoids may be stored in adipose tissue, skin, liver, adrenals, testes and/or ovaries. When you eat carrots, the carotenes first saturate the blood fats and then go to the tissues.
• The carotenoid called lutein has an affinity for the macula of the eye and has been shown to be very beneficial for eye diseases. Eating spinach can increase macular lutein levels, so it can be said that the healing nutrients in spinach “go to the eyes” (Paiva, 1998).
• The flavonoids in milk thistle seed (Silybum marianum) have an affinity for and are stored in the liver (Flora et. al 1998).
• Ginkgo leaves (Ginkgo biloba) exhibit numerous membrane stabilizing and anti-oxidant effects on neural tissue, as well as increasing the transport of glucose and oxygen into nerve cells (Chatterjee and Gabard, 1982).
Pathologists look for disease by examining specific tissue changes and accumulations of toxic materials such as proteins, fats and other substances. When the concentration of a necessary nutrient in tissues is low, the body cannot fight certain disease-causing processes, and the toxic substances accumulate. Diagnosis rests on establishing the nature of the accumulated materials and their topographic distribution (Ridaura-Sanz 1994).
These finding lend credence to the long-held contention of TCM practitioners that it is possible to assign specific effects or actions (i.e. “nourishing” or “warming”) to herbs used to treat designated areas of the body (upper or lower, for example), or specific organs or groups of organs. Thus a TCM practitioner will not use just any heat-reducing (anti-inflammatory) herb to treat liver inflammation, but will choose an herb known specifically to “cool the liver.”
TCM doctors also make the following generalizations:
• Flower medicines tend to go to the upper areas of the body, especially the lungs, nose and throat.
• Seed medicines tend to go to the TCM kidney system, loosely related to the Western reproductive, adrenal and urinary systems.
• Root medicines tend to go to all the internal organs, heart, liver, lungs, intestines.
• Branches tend to go to the external meridians in the limbs (arms and legs).
I first learned of this process back in the 1960’s, when a peace-loving long-haired artist I knew tried to dodge the draft. He dyed his hair red with henna (an herb powder), turned his skin orange by drinking carrot juice, and turned his urine red by eating beets. Unfortunately, it didn’t fool the army guys. Fortunately, he was able to find an anti-war psychiatrist in Philadelphia who wrote a letter saying he had LSD-induced brain damage.
Understanding Herbs with Intuition
It is often said that medicine is an art, and not a science. This is meant to highlight the fact that factors unbeholden to scientific scrutiny, such as friendship, love, attention and “gut feelings” are not only real, but sometimes crucial to successful medical outcomes. Intuition could be defined as direct knowledge without recourse to ordinary thought. Intuition comes in the form of feelings, mental pictures and/or an “inner voice.” It requires a heart free of fear. Such insights are personal, and generally should not be discussed, only acted upon.
“If you use cooling herbs for hot diseases, warming herbs for cold diseases, and tonics for diseases of deficiency, you will not be far from wrong.”
– Professor Li Bo-ning, former director of the Sichuan Acupuncture Research Institute