When I first started reading about herbs, I was overwhelmed by how much there was to learn. This herb was good for this, that herb is good for that. I felt overwhelmed with the idea of having to remember every single one of these herbs – AND remember what they were good for! I quickly decided that I needed to figure out a system of learning that worked for me, and that ended up being this: Learn about Herbal Actions, then go from there.


You see, Herbs are made up of a number of different active chemical constituents. To put it simply, these chemical constituents work alone or together to result in certain “actions”. Below you will find a partial list of herbal actions, listed in alphabetical order and not in order of importance. The ways that these actions work are varied, and time spent working with herbs will help you better understand their ways. Feel free to print this list and keep it as a reference – It is very useful!


It’s important to remember that every single human/animal being has their own personal constitution. Aspects of lifestyle, diet, and genetics should be taken into account when creating remedies.

That is to say: herbs are not “one-size-fits-all.”


Alterative – gradually restores the proper function of the body and increase health and vitality. At one time, they were known as the “blood cleansers”. Helps the body cope with external stress (such as pollution, traffic, etc).

Anti-Bacterial – active against bacteria – in the pharmaceutical world, these are known as “antibiotics”.

Anti-Catarrhal – helps the body remove excess catarrhal build-ups, whether these occur in the sinus area or in the other parts of the body.

Anti-Emetic – can reduce a feeling of nausea and can help to relieve or prevent vomiting.

Anti-Inflammatory – helps the body combat inflammation.

Anti-Microbial – can help the body destroy or resist pathogenic microorganisms.

Anti-Septic – prevent the growth of disease-causing microorganisms.

Anti-Spasmodic – can prevent or ease spasms and/or cramps.

Anti-Viral – herbs which are effective against viruses. Unlike antibiotics, they do not destroy specific pathogens, but are effective in inhibiting their development.

Astringent – contract tissues, reducing secretions and discharges.

Bitter – stimulate the flow of bile + digestive juices. Incredibly important for proper digestion and largely lacking in the American diet.

Carminative – herbs that are rich in volatile oils which stimulate the peristalsis (the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestine or another canal, creating wavelike movements that push the contents of the canal forward) of the digestive system and relax the stomach, thereby greatly supporting digestion and helping against gas in the digestive tract.

Demulcent – usually rich in mucilage, these herbs can soothe and protect irritated or inflamed internal tissue. Like an emollient (topical skin softener) for your insides.

Diaphoretic – aid the skin in the elimination of toxins and promote perspiration. Important allies when feverish.

Diuretic – increase the secretion & elimination of urine.

Emmenagogue – stimulate and normalize menstrual flow. Because of the action on the uterus, it is important to avoid these herbs during pregnancy.

Expectorant – support the body in the removal of excess mucus from the respiratory system.

Hepatic – help to detoxify the liver (the work-horse organ).

Nervine – herbs which have a beneficial effect on the nervous system. These herbs tone and strengthen the nervous system, with some acting as stimulants, while others act as relaxants.

Rubefacient – when applied to the skin, these herbs cause a gentle local irritation and stimulate the dilation of the capillaries, thus increasing circulation to the skin. The blood is drawn from deeper parts of the body into the skin and thus, often internal pain is relieved. Important allies for those with joint pain.

Stimulant – herbs which quicken and enliven the physiological functions of the body.

Tonic – strengthen & enliven specific organs or the whole body.

Vulnerary – applied externally, these herbs aid the body in the healing of wounds and cuts. Can be applied as salves, oils, teas, liniments, etc.


I hope this list eventually simplifies herbalism for you. What are your favorite ways to get to know herbs?

Follow Vicky Salcido-Cobbe:

Hedge-witch, passionate gardener, advocate for the wild, and professional belly laugher, I strives to live my life with purpose and joy. After years of chronic illness and self-destructive habits, my life changed in an instant when a clinician offered me a bottle of herbal extract as medicine in 2009. Since then, I’ve been amazed time and again by the effectiveness and power of nature’s medicine. Motivated by the ever-quickening loss of our intricate web of life, I am often a passionate (and sometimes frank) voice for local, regenerative herbalism in the name of earth renewal. I strongly believe that a village herbalist belongs in every community and am happy to support this dream’s birth in to reality.

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