Be Your Own Herbal Expert
Herbal medicine is the medicine of the people. It is simple, safe, effective, and free. Our ancestors knew how to use an enormous variety of plants for health and well-being. Our neighbors around the world continue to use local plants for healing and health maintenance, and you can too.
In your first lesson, you learned how to “listen” to the messages of plant’s tastes. And you discovered that using plants in water bases (as teas, infusions, vinegars, and soups) – and as simples – allows you to experiment with and explore herbal medicine safely.
In your second lesson, you learned about herbs for teas and how to preserve and use their volatile oils. You leaned about vitamin- and mineral-rich herbal infusions, and how to use them to promote health and longevity. And you continued to think about using herbs simply.
In this lesson you will explore the differences between nourishing, tonifying, stimulating/sedating, and potentially-poisonous plants. You will learn how to prepare and use them for greatest effect and most safety.
All Herbs Are Not Equal
All herbs are not equal: some contain poisons, some don’t; some of the poisons are not so bad, some can kill you dead. I divide herbs into four categories for ease in remembering how (and how much) to use. Some herbs nourish us, some tonify, some bring us up or ease us down, and some are frighteningly strong.
Nourishing herbs are the safest of all herbs. They contain few or no alkaloids, glycosides, resins, or essential oils (poisons).
Nourishing herbs are eaten as foods, cooked into soups, dried and infused, or, occasionally, made into vinegars. They provide high-level nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, trace minerals, proteins, phytoestrogens and phytosterols, starches, simple and complex sugars, bioflavonoids, carotenes, and essential fatty acids (EFAs).
Nourishing herbs in water bases (infusions, soups, vinegars) may generally be taken in any quantity for any period of time. Side-effects – even from excessive use – are quite rare. Nourishing herbs are rarely used as tinctures (in alcohol), but when they are, their effects may be quite different.
It is generally considered safe to use nourishing herbs in water bases with prescription drugs. They may also be taken even if you are using tonifying, stimulating/sedating, or potentially poisonous herbs.
Some examples of nourishing herbs include:
- burdock roots
- chickweed herb; tincture dissolves cysts
- comfrey leaf
- elder blossoms and berries
- fenugreek seeds
- mallow leaves and roots
- nettle leaves and seeds
- plantain leaves and seeds
- red clover blossoms
- rose hips
- slippery elm bark
- violet leaves and blossoms.
Tonifying herbs are generally considered safe when used in moderation. They may contain alkaloids or glycosides or essential oils, but rarely in quantities sufficient to harm us.
Tonifying herbs act slowly in the body and have a cumulative, rather than immediate, effect. They are most beneficial when used for extended periods of time. Tonifying herbs may be used regularly (but usually not daily) for decades if desired.
Tonifying herbs are prepared in water and alcohol bases: tinctures and wines, as well as infusions, vinegars, and soups.
The more bitter the tonic tastes, the less you need to take of it. The more bland the tonic tastes, the more you can use of it.
Side effects from overuse and misuse of tonics is uncommon but quite possible. The dividing line between what is tonifying and what is stimulating differs from person to person. Ginseng is tonifying to my sweetheart, but stimulating to me. Even herbal authorities disagree on which herbs are tonifying and which stimulating.
Take care to counter any tendency to overuse tonifying herbs or you may experience unwanted side effects.
It is generally considered safe to use tonifying herbs in water bases if you are taking prescription drugs. You may also use tonifying herbs while using nourishing, stimulating/sedating, and even potentially poisonous herbs. Tonifying herbs in alcohol bases are considered safe to use with nourishing herbs, but may produce unexpected results if combined with drugs or strong herbs.
Some examples of tonifying herbs include:
- burdock seeds, especially in an oil base
- mug/cronewort herb, especially in vinegar
- dandelion leaf, root and flowers
- echinacea root
- ginseng root
- hawthorn berries, leaves, and flowers
- horsetail herb
- lady’s mantle
- motherwort leaves and flowers
- sarsaparilla root
- yellow dock leaves, roots, and seeds
Stimulating/sedating herbs frequently contain essential oils, alkaloids, glycosides, or resins. Because these substances cause strong physical reactions, stimulating/sedating herbs are known from their rapid and pronounced effects, some of which may be unwanted.
Stimulating/sedating herbs are most often prepared as tinctures (and wines), vinegars, teas, and infusions. Many stimulating/sedating herbs are used as seasonings in cooking as well. Despite my cookbook’s injunction to use only a little, I long ago learned that more aromatic herbs in my soups gave a “livelier” result.
Because long-term use of stimulating/sedating herbs can lead to dependency, dose and duration of use must be carefully watched. A moderate to large dose, taken infrequently will produce better results than a small dose taken over a longer period.
Side effects from the use of stimulating/sedating herbs in water bases are not common but possible. Side effects from use in alcohol bases are frequent. Whenever stimulating/sedating herbs are used regularly, health is compromised.
It is not safe to take prescription drugs with stimulating/sedating herbs, but they may be taken even if you are using nourishing and/or tonifying herbs.
Some examples of stimulating/sedating herbs include:
- leaves of aromatic mints such as catnip, lemon balm, lavender, sage, skullcap
- cinnamon bark
- coffee beans
- ginger root
- kava kava root
- licorice root
- passion flower
- tobacco leaves
- uva ursi leaves
- valerian root
- willow bark and leaves
Potentially poisonous herbs always contain alkaloids, glycosides, resins, or essential oils. And they contain large quantities of those poisons, or in very potent forms.
Potentially poisonous plants can cause death directly, through the actions of their poisons on their targets (such as cardiac glycosides which stop the heart) or indirectly, by causing the liver and/or the kidneys to fail (as they attempt to cope with and clear the poison from the system).
Potentially poisonous herbs are usually extracted into alcohol (tinctures) and used in minute doses (1-3 drops). For safety sake use potentially poisonous herbs as infrequently as possible and for the shortest possible time.
Powdering and encapsulating increases the risk of side effects from any herb, but when we take stimulating/sedating and potentially poisonous herbs in capsules, the side effects can be deadly.
Homeopathic pharmacy uses many potentially poisonous plants, but in such dilute doses that death is impossible. Side effects can occur, even with homeopathically tiny doses, however.
Potentially poisonous herbs activate intense effort on the part of the body and spirit and may cause nausea, visual disturbances, digestive woes, and allergic reactions even when used correctly.
Always be extremely cautious when using potentially poisonous herbs. Consult with at least three other knowledgeable herbalists who have used the plant in question before proceeding.
In general it is not considered safe to take potentially poisonous herbs while taking prescription drugs, other potentially poisonous herbs, or stimulating/sedating herbs. It is generally safe to use potentially poisonous herbs while using nourishing and tonifying herbs.
Some examples of potentially poisonous herbs:
- castor beans
- cotton root
- poke root
- rue leaves and flowers
- tansy leaves and flowers
Experiment Number One
Spend some time alone quietly breathing. Tune into your body piece by piece (toes, feet, calves, knees, thighs, and so on). Use colors to draw yourself. Don’t worry about making art.
For the next month include some nourishing herb in your diet. Example: on Monday include seaweed as a vegetable for dinner, on Tuesday drink a quart of nettle infusion, on Wednesday make a soup with burdock and other roots, on Thursday drink a quart of red clover infusion, on Friday make garlic bread with at least one clove of freshly chopped garlic per slice, on Saturday drink a quart of oatstraw infusion, on Sunday drink a quart of comfrey/mint infusion. And so on.
One month later, sit alone and breathe quietly. Tune into your body piece by piece. Use colors to draw yourself. Has anything changed? You can continue this experiment for as long as you like.
Experiment Number Two
Repeat experiment number one, but instead use any one tonic (preferably one that lives where you do) at least four times a week for one month. Again, note any changes in how you feel, how much energy and stamina you have, how much curiosity and delight you experience in life. You can continue this experiment for as long as you like also.
Experiment Number Three
What stimulants and sedatives do you use regularly? What happens if you give up one or more of them for a week? For a month? Try – on different days – at least one herbal stimulant and one herbal sedative and keep notes of your reactions.
Experiment Number Four
Choose one potentially poisonous plant that grows near you and cultivate a relationship with it. Read about it. Talk about it with others who have a relationship with it. Keep a special book for writing about your poisonous ally.
- Name five more nourishing herbs. Specify part used, preparation, and dosage.
- Name five more tonifying herbs. Specify part used, preparation, and dosage.
- Name five more stimulating/sedating herbs. Specify part used, preparation, and dosage.
- Name five more potentially poisonous herbs. Specify part used, preparation, and dosage. In what case and how would you use each?
- What is the difference between a tonic and a stimulant?
1 Give the botanical name (genus and species) for each plant listed.
² List five nourishing herbs commonly sold in tincture form and describe what they are used for in that form.
3 Learn more about homeopathy.