So far, we’ve covered 7 herb groups (diuretic, cathartic, hepatic, expectorant, emmenagogue, alterative, and cardiac/hypotensive) and 5 organ systems (urinary, digestive, respiratory, reproductive, and circulatory). Let’s keep going, shall we?
- Nervous system: Nervine and antispasmodic herbs have a particular fondness for the nervous system. Nervine herbs tone and strengthen the nervous system, while antispasmodics help relieve pain by preventing involuntary or voluntary muscle spasms throughout the body. Example herbs include Catnip (Nepeta cataria), Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), Hops (Humulus lupulus), Lobelia or Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata), Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), and Valerian (Valeriana officinalis).
- Integumentary system: This organ system consists of our hair, skin, and nails, and is most loved by demulcent herbs. Demulcent herbs contain mucilaginous (translation: smooshy, slippery, goopy) substances that help coat and soothe mucous membranes inside the body. Demulcent is the word we use for the action these herbs have on our bodies internally; when used externally to coat, soothe, and heal, they’re called emollients. As such, demulcent herbs are also wonderful for topical use, especially poultices, in the presence of skin irritations, inflammations, or infections. Examples of demulcent herbs include Chickweed (Stellaria media), Comfrey (Symphytum officinale), Hollyhock (Althaea rosea), Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis), and Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra).
- Lymphatic (or immune) system: The lymphatic system is vital to maintaining immunity and optimum health, and is one of those organ systems lucky enough to have THREE supporting herb groups. One group, alteratives, we already talked about yesterday. Alteratives actually benefit ALL eliminative organ systems (of which the lymphatic system is one). A second group is tonic herbs, which have the ability to vitalize the several organ systems, including the lymphatic, endocrine, and digestive systems. Tonic herbs are similar to alteratives in that they build up strength and energy over a period of time, and are also useful while recuperating from acute illness. And lastly, antiseptic herbs also benefit the immune system; some of them prevent the formation of or outright destroy microorganisms, while others stimulate the immune system itself. Examples of herbal tonics include Barberry (Berberis vulgaris), Gentian (Gentiana lutea), Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), and Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha). Examples of herbal antiseptics include Black Walnut (Juglans nigra), Calendula (Calendula officinalis), Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea), and Nasturtium (Tropaeolum major). Incidentally, Barberry and Goldenseal are also powerful antiseptics (I think of them as herbal “superheroes”).
- Endocrine system: Like the nervous system, the endocrine system also seeks to control and regulate physiological processes in the body, but unlike the nervous system, it does this through glands that release hormones into the blood. The endocrine system is also supported by tonic herbs, especially Barberry, Myrrh, and Gentian.
- Muscular and skeletal systems: I’m going to lump these last two systems together and talk about them at once, because they share the same group of support herbs: astringents. Astringents tighten and contract body tissues and reduce discharge (such as blood). Powerful astringents (styptics) can actually stop bleeding altogether, while other astringents direct their toning and strengthening actions towards particular muscles – such as the uterus, for which Red Raspberry (Rubus idaeus) is particularly known. Other astringents include Bayberry (Myrica cerifera), Cranesbill (Geranium maculatum), Mullein (Verbascum thapsus), and Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).
Armed with the knowledge of which herbs support which organ systems, you are now well on your way to answering the question, “Which herbs should I use?” One easy way to approach this would be, “Which organ systems are you wanting to support?” If your answer is, “I just want to be in a state of optimized wellness and vitality,” then you might want to consider using a tonic herb that strengthens your endocrine, lymphatic, and digestive organs, which in turn supports overall health. If you have a diagnosis from a doctor and want to try herbal support for that condition (such as high blood pressure, for example), then you might research cardiac herbs such as Hawthorn, Mistletoe, and Olive (and let your doctor know you are taking these in conjunction with whatever medicine they are prescribing). If you have an acute problem, such as a bladder infection, for example, then you might choose to work with an herb that supports the urinary system in general, but also fights the infection in particular. In such a case, I would choose Uva Ursi, which has the component arbutin in it that can help disinfect the urinary tract (when the urine is alkaline). Are you starting to get the picture? Here, I’ll draw you a picture:
Stay tuned for my next post, where we’ll discuss the remaining 3 groups of herbs that act as specialists for solving a particular problem or generalists for helping other herbs do a better job (anthelmintics, diaphoretics, and stimulants). Until next time…