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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). Alerative: a substance that produces a gradual, beneficial change in the body. Alkaloid: heterogeneous group of alkaline, organic, compounds containing nitrogen and usually oxygen; usually 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 used to decrease secretions or control bleeding. Basalmic: a substance that heals or soothes. Bitter tonic: a substance with an acrid, astringent, or disagreeable taste that stimulates flow of saliva and gastric juice. 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 (also called a choleretic). Choleretic: an agent that stimulates secretion and release of bile (also called a cholegogue). 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. Deobstruent: an agent that clears obstruction from ducts of the body. 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 to 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. Hepatic: any substance that affects the liver. 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 gently 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: homogenous mixture of resin(s) and volatile oil(s). Pectoral: a substance that relieves ailments of the chest and lungs. Pharmacognosy: study of the biochemistry and pharmacology of plant drugs, herbs, and spices. Phlogistic: referring to inflammation or fever. Poultice: soft, moist mass applied to the skin to provide heat and moisture. Polypharmacy: combinations of medicinal plants, formulated to gain synergistic effects. 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. Refrigerant: a cooling remedy; an agent relieving fever or thirst. Resin: any of several solid or semisolid, 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: complex mixture of polyphenols; give a color reaction to iron-containing substances. Terpene: any of several isomeric hydrocarbons (C10H16); most volatile oils consist primarily of terpenes. Thoratic: remedy for a respiratory ailment. 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. Tisane: an herbal infusion drunk as a beverage or for its mildly medicinal effect. Vermifuge: a substance that expels or destroys intestinal worms (also called antihelmintic or anthelmintic). Vesicant: a substance that causes blisters or sores (i.e., poison oak or ivy). Volatile oil: odorous plant oil that evaporates readily; also called ethereal or essential oil. Vulnerary: a substance used in the treatment or healing of wounds.

References:

French M. The power of plants. Adv Nurse Prac 1998;July:16–21.
Goldfrank L, et al. The pernicious panacea: herbal medicine. Hosp Phys 1982;18:64–78.
Kowalchik C, Hylton WH, eds. Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. Rodale Press, 1987.
Spraycar M, ed. Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, 26th Edition. Williams & Wilkins, 1993.
Youngkin EQ, Israel DS. A review and critique of common herbal alternative therapies. Nurse Pract 1996;21:39–62.


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