The recognition of herbal energetics is a twentieth-century phenomenon when combined with the nutritionist’s view of the healing power of plant foods. Combining nutrition and herbalism has recently become key to understanding how the body uses herbs as food and medicine.
Addressed on this website and blog are publications and articles from major herbal traditions worldwide. These include the sciences and practices of Ayurveda, Chinese traditional medicine, and Western herbalism. Herbal traditions not mentioned are not excluded, and whenever possible they are introduced.
In the Western sense, the term “herb” may have different meanings, according to culinary and medicinal pathways. In our kitchens, adding herbs to salad dressings, sauces, vegetables, and drinks provides subtleties of flavor, but also adds another level of nutrition to the meal which normally includes plants typically recognized as foods. In the medicine cabinet, herbs provide cough and cold medicine, relief from all sorts of pains and discomforts, a means to relax, to fall asleep, boost libido, enhance immunity, detoxify, improve memory… the list goes on to include reversing disease and alleviating acute and chronic conditions, the common cold, stomach distresses. There is hardly a bodily need not provided for by herbs. So it would seem obvious that everyone, worldwide, would recognize the word (in any language) and sense the same meaning.
Yet in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine pathways, the term “herb” incorporates substances as well as plants, animal parts, and minerals. A doctor of Chinese acupuncture prescribes herbs in formulas, or mixtures of several herbs, in an effort to balance you or address wayward energy in your body.
An Ayurvedic physician sees the human body as a complex of three different types of energy and would likely prescribe herbs to balance the primary energy of the person, be they Vata, Pitta or Kapha. Restructuring the diet and an appropriate choice of herbs is only part of their approach. In Ayurvedic terms, a human is more than the sum of its parts, as spiritual energies and subtle energies from the environment are noted influencers of health.
In contrast, Western herbalists have been known to choose individual herbs to alleviate the presenting condition of a person when they are in ill-health. Certainly Western herbalists use tonics, or herbal mixtures or blends, seen as affecting bodily systems and alleviating disharmony.
In the West, the term herb signifies a green plant—one that is perennial or annual—and the entire plant is considered: seeds, roots, stems, leaves, flowers and fruit. “Herbs” also encompasses fungus, lichen, vines, aqueous, and woody plants, shrubs and trees. Herbs for medicines are administered in a variety of forms for internal use: they’re made into capsules, powders, granules, or plain teas infused from the plant parts, or broths. And for external use, a range of applications are given: as prepared compresses, infused in washes or oils, in creams or lotions, prepared for baths, or steam inhalation.
Herbs are milder or stronger in action according to their form. A food-grade teaspoon of oregano may not have the intensity of an oil infusion of the herb, the essential oil of the herb, or even a tincture of the herb. Similarly, basil, fresh or dried and Holy Basil may each have the fragrance you recognize, and yet Holy Basil is recognized as an adaptogen: it belongs to a special class of herbs that do not in themselves heal wounds, but they repair worn-out bodies and generally renew them.
Medicinal Herbs are not only green plants, flowers and fruits, but also are known by the term spice. A spice plant yields a single feature such as fruit, bark or seed that contains concentrated elements we like the taste of or are medicinal in nature. Spices are made from seeds, barks or roots that have been dried whole or dried and ground to powder. Some spices are used fresh such as chilies, Kaffir lime leaves, fenugreek leaves, curry leaves, citrus fruit rinds.
Some plants are not safe to consume in quantities, on a regular basis, or at all by some individuals. These include those on certain medications which might have synergistic reaction to an herb; pregnancy, the young and the elderly all should be cautioned against using herbs.
Not all plants are wonderful for human use: some herbs are poisonous, or skin-, internal organ, or mucus- irritating, or have poisonous plant parts, such as seeds, leaves, stems, flowers or roots. Be sure of the identity of an herb you intend to use or take internally to avoid having to call the Poison Hot-Line or worse.
There is a valiant effort to uncover adulteration in herbs, even today. Adulteration is an age-old practice among mal-intents who seek to make fortunes by substituting look-alike plants for the desired herb, thereby exposing the unwary buyer to potentially harmful, or at least totally ineffective herbs. The institution working on this effort is the Botanical Adulterants Program (see more at the website Herbalgram).