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Understanding Herbal Terminology

There are many words used to describe herbs and their actions on the body. The following is a guide to understanding these unique terms.

Adaptogen

a substance that invigorates or strengthens the system (also called a tonic).

Alterative

a substance that produces a gradual, beneficial change in the body.

Alkaloid

heterogeneous group of alkaline, organic, compounds containing nitrogen and usually oxygen; generally colorless and bitter-tasting; especially found in seed plants.

Analgesic

a substance that reduces or relieves pain.

Anodyne

a pain relieving agent, less potent than an anesthetic or narcotic.

Antihelmintic, anthelmintic

a substance that expels or destroys intestinal worms (also called a vermifuge).

Antihydrotic

a substance that reduces or suppresses perspiration.

Antipyretic

an agent that reduces or prevents fever (also called a febrifuge).

Antispasmodic

an agent that relieves spasms or cramps.

Aperient

a mild and gentle-acting laxative.

Aperitif

an agent that stimulates the appetite.

Aphrodisiac

a substance that increases sexual desire or potency.

Aromatic

a substance with a strong, volatile, fragrant aroma; often with stimulant properties.

Astringent

an agent that contracts or shrinks tissues; it is used to decrease secretions or control bleeding.

Bitter tonic

a substance with an acrid, astringent or disagreeable taste that stimulates flow of saliva and gastric juices.

Bolus

a suppository poultice used for vaginal or rectal application; made by mixing powdered herb material in melted cocoa butter or similar base and hand-forming suppositories as the matrix cools.

Calmative

an agent with mild sedative or hypnotic properties.

Carminative

a substance that stops the formation of intestinal gas and helps expel gas that has already formed.

Catarrh

inflammation of a mucous membrane, especially of the respiratory tract.

Cathartic

a powerful agent used to relieve severe constipation (also called a purgative).

Cholegogue

an agent that stimulates secretion and release of bile.

Choleretic

an agent that stimulates the formation of bile.

Concentration

the amount of material in a solution in relationship to the amount of solvent; expressed as the ratio.

For example:

  • 1:5 concentration means that 5 parts of an extract contains the equivalent of one part of the raw herb;
  • 4:1 concentration means that 1 part of an extract contains the equivalent of 4 parts of the raw herb.

Counterirritant

an agent that causes a distracting irritation intended to relieve another irritation.

Decoction

extract of a crude drug made by boiling or simmering (cooking) herbs in water; stronger than a tea or infusion.

Demulcent

an oily or mucilaginous substance that soothes irritated tissue, especially mucous membranes.

Diaphoretic

an agent, taken internally to promote sweating (also called sudorific).

Diuretic

an agent that promotes urine production and flow.

Emetic

a substance that induces vomiting.

Emmenogogue

an agent, taken internally, to promote menstrual flow.

Emollient

an externally applied agent that softens or soothes skin.

Essential oil

any of a class of volatile oils that impart the characteristic odors of plants; used especially in perfumes, food flavorings and aromatherapy; also called volatile oil.

Expectorant

an agent that increases bronchial secretions and facilitates their expulsion through coughing, spitting or sneezing.

Extract

a concentrate, made by steeping raw plant material(s) in solvent (alcohol and/or water), after which the solvent is allowed to evaporate.

Febrifuge

an agent that reduces fever (also called an antipyretic).

Flatulence

gas in the stomach or intestines.

Fluid extract

a liquid extract of raw plant material(s), usually of a concentration ratio of 1 part raw herb to 1 part solvent (1:1).

Fomentation

application of a warm and moist cloth, soaked in an infusion or decoction, as treatment.

Galactogogue

an agent that increases secretion of milk (synonym for lactagogue).

Galenical

herb and other vegetable drugs as distinguished from mineral or chemical remedies; crude drugs and the tinctures, decoctions, and other preparations made from them, as distinguished from the alkaloids and other active principles.

Glycoside

esters containing a sugar component (glycol) and a nonsugar (aglycone) component attached via oxygen or nitrogen bond; hydrolysis of a glycoside yields one or more sugars.

Hemostatic

an agent used to stop internal bleeding.

Herb

plant or part of a plant used for medicinal, taste or aromatic purposes.

Humectant

a substance used to obtain a moistening effect.

Hygroscopic

a substance that readily attracts and retains water.

Infusion

tea made by steeping herb(s) in hot water.

Lactagogue

an agent that increases secretion of milk (synonym for galactogogue).

Laxative

a substance that promotes bowel movements.

Maceration

a process of softening tissues by soaking in liquid.

Mucilage

a gelatinous substance, containing proteins and polysaccharides, that soothes inflammation.

Mucilaginous

an agent characterized by a gummy or gelatinous consistency.

Nervine

an agent that calms nervousness, tension or excitement.

Oleoresin

a homogenous mixture of resin(s) and volatile oil(s).

Pharmacognosy

the study of the biochemistry and pharmacology of plant drugs, herbs, and spices.

Phlogistic

referring to inflammation or fever.

Poultice

a soft, moist mass applied to the skin to provide heat and moisture.

Purgative

a powerful agent used to relieve severe constipation (also called a cathartic).

Raw herb

the form of the plant, or plant parts, unchanged by processing other than separation of parts, drying or grinding.

Resin

any of several solid or semi-solid, flammable, natural organic substances soluble in organic solvents and not water; commonly formed in plant secretions; complex chemical mixtures of acrid resins, resin alcohols, resinol, tannols, esters, and resenes.

Rubefacient

an agent, applied to the skin, causing a local irritation and redness; for relief of internal pain.

Salve

an herbal preparation mixed in oil and thickened with bees wax applied to the skin.

Saponin

any of several surfactant glycosides that produce a soapy lather; found in plants.

Sedative

a substance that reduces nervous tension; usually stronger than a calmative.

Sialogogue

an agent that stimulates secretion of saliva.

Solid extract

an extract of plant material(s) made by removing the solvent from a fluid extract.

Soporific

a substance that induces sleep.

Stimulant

an agent that excites or quickens a process or activity of the body.

Stomachic

an agent that gives strength and tone to the stomach or stimulates the appetite by promoting digestive secretions.

Styptic

a substance that stops external bleeding (usually an astringent).

Sudorific

an agent, taken internally, to promote sweating (also called diaphoretic).

Tannin

a complex mixture of polyphenols; gives a color reaction to iron-containing substances.

Terpene

any of several isomeric hydrocarbons; most volatile oils consist primarily of terpenes.

Tincture

a solution prepared by steeping or soaking (maceration) plant materials in alcohol and water.

Tonic

a substance that invigorates or strengthens the system (also called adaptogen); tonics often act as stimulants or aleratives.

Vermifuge

a substance that expels or destroys intestinal worms (also called antihelmintic or anthelmintic).

Volatile oil

an odorous plant oil that evaporates readily; also called essential oil.

Vulnerary

a substance used in the treatment or healing of wounds.

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