Understanding terms or words commonly used in herbal literature provides a basic foundation for people new to herbs and reinforces the basics for those with some experience with herbal medicine. The following terminology categories offer a comprehensive understanding of herbal medicine’s role in healthcare.
Healthcare Systems — Lists the basic theory or school of thought underlying healthcare systems throughout the world. Some systems include herbal medicine as an approach.
Approaches — Describes approaches applied to various healthcare systems that use medicinal plants or plant-derived preparations.
General Herbal Terms — Defines some common terms used when discussing or learning about herbal medicine
Plant Parts — Lists the crude drug or phytopharmaceutical names that describe the part of the plant that is used in the herbal preparation. This name is not always synonymous with the botanical description of that plant part.
Preparations — Describes various plant preparations used to make herbal products both at home and for the marketplace.
Herbal Actions and Properties — Defines the most common terms associated with the properties of medicinal herbs in order to provide a better understanding of the herbal properties, proper use of the herbs and under what conditions they might be utilized.
Allopathy: Also known as "conventional medicine" in Western societies, allopathy focuses on treating the symptoms of diseases primarily through prescription drugs and surgery. This approach utilizes a process of reductionism (focusing on the symptoms exhibited in a part of the organism rather than focusing on the organism as a whole.)
Ayurvedic Medicine: Literally meaning the "science of life." Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old system of medicine originating in India that combines natural therapies with a highly personalized, holistic approach to the treatment of disease, which is believed to be the result of disharmony between the person and the environment. Ayurvedic medicine works to balance the three basic types of energy (doshas) that occur in everyone and everything: vata, pitta, and kapha.
Eclectic Medicine: A branch of American medicine popular in the latter half of the 19th and first half of the 20th century that made use of therapies found to be beneficial to patients including medicinal plants, as well as physical therapy practices. “Eclectics” were doctors who practiced with a philosophy based on “alignment with nature.”
Homeopathy: A system of medicine founded in the late 18th century in which remedies consist of diluted substances from plants, minerals and animals. It is based on a theory that "like cures like." Remedies specifically match different symptom pattern profiles of illness to stimulate the body’s natural healing process.
Indigenous or Tribal Medicine: A healthcare system that tends to incorporate various methods of botanical and animal medicines as well as specific ceremonial rituals of the culture to cure disease. The medicinal knowledge is passed from generation to generation primarily through oral traditions. The system tends to be unique to each tribe.
Kampo: Japan’s traditional medicine system which has been used since the Han period (206 BC to 220 CE of ancient China. The Shang han lun is a therapeutic handbook for the application of herbal prescriptions based on the use of raw herbs.
Naturopathy: A holistic medical system that treats health conditions by utilizing what is believed to be the body’s innate ability to heal. Naturopathic physicians aid healing processes by incorporating a variety of natural methods based on the patient’s individual needs.
Traditional Chinese Medicine: A 3,000-year-old holistic system of medicine combining the use of medicinal herbs, acupuncture, food therapy, massage, and therapeutic exercise. Chinese physicians look for the underlying causes of imbalance in the "yin" and "yang" which lead to disharmony in the "qi" (energy) in the body. Traditional Chinese Medicine addresses how illness manifests itself in a patient and treats the patient, not the ailment or disease.
Unani-Tibb: Also known as Unani Medicine, Arabian medicine, or Islamic medicine, Unani is a Persian word meaning Greek and Tibb is an Arabic word meaning medicine. The origins of Unani-Tibb are based on the system of Greek medicine developed by Hippocrates and Galen and later refined by the Persian scholar-physician, Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna (980-1037 CE). (top)
Aromatherapy: The art and science of the controlled use of essential oils extracted from plants to promote physical and psychological well-being. The oils are generally diluted in a carrier or base oil and used topically or via inhalation. While it is still unclear how aromatherapy works, it may be that the essential oils interact with receptor sites in the central nervous system.
Flower Essences: In the 1930s, Dr. Edward Bach developed an approach to healing using vibrational medicine from flowers known as "flower essences." Flower essences are made by a sun infusion of flowers in a bowl of spring water and preserved with alcohol. The essences are believed to embody the distinct imprint or energetic pattern of each flower species, and are used internally or topically to balance emotional states. The underlying philosophy focuses on stabilizing emotions in order to dissipate illness and stimulate internal healing processes.
Food as Medicine: Considered the foundation of good health in numerous traditional medicine systems, eating a diverse and colorful whole foods diet offers an array of nutrients and phytochemicals known to be fundamental to preventing and treating disease.
Herbal Medicine: An approach to wellness and healing which uses plant or plant-derived preparations to treat, prevent, or cure various health conditions and ailments, herbal medicine is incorporated into various medical systems. Although it does not have a specific point of conception, it is estimated that 80% of the world’s population relies on medicinal plant preparations for their primary healthcare needs, according to the World Health Organization. Despite the extensive use which can be attributed to the use of plants in traditional medical systems, our knowledge of the plants and their values remain largely unexplored.
Homeopathy: A system of therapeutics introduced by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann in 1796 based on the “law of similar,” homeopathy or homeopathic medicine states that all diseases are best treated by diluted drugs or substances that produces effects similar to the symptoms of specific conditions or diseases in healthy individuals. This is similar to the theories applied to the use of vaccinations. (top)
General Herbal Terms
Binomial, or Latin binomial: The two-part scientific Latin name used to identify plants. The first name is the genus and is a general name that may be shared by a number of related plants. The second is the species name, which refers to the name that is specific to that individual plant, e.g., Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia.
Crude drug: A naturally occurring substance that has undergone only the process of collection and drying, i.e., plants, parts of plants, extracts, or exudates.
Drug: a pure substance or combination of pure substances (isolated from natural sources, semi-synthetic, or purely chemical in origin) intended to mitigate, treat, cure or prevent a disease in humans and/or other animals.
Garble: to remove the useful part of the plant from that which has less potent or no medicinal effects. e.g., removing petals from the calyx or removing leaves from the stem.
Formula: A combination of foods or herbs that can both enhance and neutralize potential effects of other ingredients in the preparation; where the formula as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts
Herb: The word herb (sometimes referred to as a botanical) has several different meanings depending on the perspective:
- In commercial terms, herb generally refers to the leafy part of the plant used for culinary purposes. Seeds, bark, roots, etc. are usually referred to as spices and may have tropical or sub-tropical origins
- In horticultural terms, herb refers to the plant being herbaceous, i.e., a non-woody, vascular plant.
- In taxonomic terms, herb generally refers to the aboveground or aerial parts of the plant, i.e., the flower, leaf, and stem.
- In terms of herbal medicine, herb refers to plants used in various forms or preparations, valued for their therapeutic benefits, and sold as dietary supplements in the US marketplace. This includes trees, fungi, and marine substances.
Maceration: An extraction process that occurs for a specified period of time during which fresh or dried plant material, cut into small pieces, are immersed in a liquid solvent or menstruum so that the medicinally active plant material maintains contact with the liquid component, releasing its chemical components into it.
Marc: The plant material that is used in making an herbal extraction or preparation.
Materia Medica: a Latin term from early pharmacy meaning medical material/substance
Pharmacopoeia – a medical textbook or official publication containing a list of medicinal drugs or herbal medicines with their properties, inherent effects and instructions for use.
Menstruum: A naturally-derived substance used as a solvent to extract compounds from plant material when making herbal extractions or preparations.
Pharmacognosy: The study of natural products, i.e., plant, animal, organism, or mineral in nature, used as drugs or for the preparation of drugs. Derived from the Greek pharmakon meaning drug and gnosis meaning knowledge.
Pharmacology: the study of the origin, nature, chemistry, uses and biochemical effects of drugs; it includes pharmacognosy, pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, pharmacotherapeutics, and toxicology.
Phytochemicals: Chemical compounds or chemical constituents produced as a result of the plant’s normal metabolic processes. The chemicals are often referred to as secondary metabolites, of which there are several classes including alkaloids, anthraquinones, coumarins, fats, flavonoids, glycosides, gums, iridoids, mucilages, phenols, phytoestrogens, tannins, terpenes, terpenoids, and others. Extracts contain many chemical constituents, while chemicals that have been isolated from the plant are considered pharmaceutical drugs, e.g., salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, originally isolated from the meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria, syn. Spiraea ulmaria, Rosaceae).
Phytoestrogens: A type of phytochemical with some influence on the estrogenic activity or hormonal system in humans. This rather broad term does not mean that the plant mimics human estrogen, but rather can compete for estrogen receptor site access blocking harmful estrogens, such as xenoestrogens, which can result in harmful effects.
Phytomedicines: Medicinal substances that originate from plants. This may include specific phytochemicals as well as whole plants or herbal preparations. (top)
Plant Parts (crude drug terminology)
Aetheroleum: Refers to the essential or volatile oil as a distinct aromatic product obtained from the plant.
Balsamum: Refers to a solution of resin and volatile oil usually produced by special cells in some plants.
Bulbus: Refers to the bulb or an underground bud (specialized stem structure) of a plant, from which both a shoot and roots may extend.
Cortex: Refers to the bark of the plant. Bark can be collected from the root, stem, or branches.
Flos: Refers to the flowers of the plant usually consisting of a single flower or the entire inflorescences (e.g., head, umbel, panicle, spike, etc.).
Folium: Refers to the leaves of the plant. Usually the middle leaves of plants are collected.
Fructus: Refers to the fruit (the ripened ovary of the flower-bearing seeds) or berry of the plant. In pharmacognosy, fructus is not always synonymous with the botanical definition.
Herba: Refers to the aerial parts or the aboveground parts of plants which may include the flower, leaf, and the stem of the plant, and occasionally fruits too.
Lignum: Refers to the wood or the secondary thickening of the stem. This may or may not include the bark.
Oleum: Refers to the fixed oil preparation pressed or squeezed from the plant material.
Pericarpium: Refers to the peel or rind of the fruit.
Pyroleum: Refers to the tar from dry distilled plant material.
Radix: Refers to the root of a plant, though radix is sometimes synonymous with rhizome
Resina: Refers to the resin that is secreted by the plant or by distillation of the balsamum.
Rhizoma: Refers to the rhizome or a creeping horizontal stem, generally bearing roots on its underside.
Semen: Refers to the seed of a plant, usually removed from the fruit, and may or may not contain the seed coat. (top)
Acetract: a herbal preparation that uses vinegar to extract minerals and aromatic compounds from fresh or dried plant material.
Carrier oil: Vegetable oils derived from seeds, kernels, or nuts of a plant, such as avocado, sunflower, apricot, or coconut. Carrier oils are used to dilute concentrated essential oils so they can be “carried” safely into the skin for therapeutic benefits.
Cordial stimulating beverages shared between friends and loved ones to invoke a sense of well-being. They are meant to warm, stimulate, and aid digestion.
Cream: a semisolid emulsion of oil (often herb-infused) and water (often an infusion or decoction).
Decoction: An extract, often referred to as a tea, made by simmering dense plant material (primarily the bark, rhizomes, roots, and seeds) in water. Natural dyes are often made this way also.
Electuary: powdered herbs combined with enough honey to create a spreadable paste.
Elixir: a clear, sweet liquid containing at least one active ingredient, used for medicinal purposes; contains honey or simple syrup and may contain alcohol (brandy or vodka).
Essential Oils: Highly concentrated aromatic volatile oils extracted via steam distillation from the leaves, flowers, bark, and other parts of plants that contain high amounts of the essential oils. Therapeutic use generally includes dilution of the highly concentrated oil in a carrier oil.
Eyebaths/eyewash: using gentle herbs as a dilute, cool infusion to bath the tissue surrounding the eye to reduce itchiness, redness, or infection. Care must be taken to ensure that no plant material remains in the eyewash.
Fluid extract: A concentrated liquid herbal preparation containing equal parts herb or crude drug with a hydro-ethanolic solvent made so that each 1 mL of liquid contains 1 g of the herb or crude drug that is used.
Gargle: swishing a disinfectant or anti-inflammatory liquid herbal preparation as a herbal mouthwash.
Gel: a semi-solid colloidal dispersion of a solid substance with a liquid or gas, such as a jelly.
Glycerite: a liquid preparation of a herb or medicinal substance dissolved in or mixed with vegetable glycerin.
Herbal Compress: soaking a clean soft cloth in a strained, strong herbal infusion or decoction, used warm or cold, held in place onto the affected area to alleviate pain or reduce inflammation.
Infused Oils: A process of extraction in which the volatile oils and other fat-soluble compounds of a plant are obtained by soaking the plant material in a carrier oil for two to four weeks or via gentle heating. The oil is then strained off and used alone or in making therapeutic skin salves, ointments, lotions and creams.
Infusion: An extract, often referred to as a tea but more accurately a tisane, made by pouring boiling water over fresh or dried plant material (usually flowers, fruit, or leaves), which is allowed to steep for 10-20 minutes before drinking. Cold infusions are prepared when the goal is to extract polysaccharides, mucilage, and nutrients often reduced or damaged by hot water. Infusions are an easy and affordable way to administer herbs. They may be used therapeutically or as a beverage tea, depending on the herb(s) and amounts used.
Liniment: A plant extract prepared in a base of alcohol, witch hazel, or vinegar to be applied topically to sore muscles, sprains, bruises, boils, burns, or sunburns to soothe pain and reduce inflammation.
Lotion: a liquid preparation containing water and/or alcohol that is used to emulsify or suspend insoluble plant material, to be used topically for skin conditions that are itchy, inflamed, infected, or painful.
Oxymel: a remedy form ancient Greece and Persia that combines a herb infused vinegar with honey; oxy means acid and mel means honey.
Percolation: A process to extract the soluble constituents of a plant with the assistance of gravity. The material is moistened and evenly packed into a tall, slightly conical vessel; the liquid (menstruum) is then poured onto the material and allowed to steep for a certain length of time. A small opening is then made in the bottom, which allows the extract to slowly flow out of the vessel. The remaining plant material (the marc) may be discarded. Many tinctures and liquid extracts are prepared this way.
Plaster: a medicated or protective dressing that consists of spreading powdered, slightly moistened herbs onto a cloth and covered with plastic to protect clothing and trap body heat.
Poultice: A therapeutic topical application of a soft, moist mass of plant material (bruised fresh herbs), usually wrapped in a fine woven cloth and applied to the affected area.
Salve: a semi-solid medicinal ointment prepared by combining an herb infused oil with beeswax.
Suppository: a solid, conical-shaped medicinal substance designed to melt at body temperature within the rectum or vagina to deliver localized herbal treatment.
Syrup: an herbal preparation that combines an infusion or decoction with an equal amount of simple syrup (concentrated sugar solution) or honey.
Tincture: An extract of a plant made by soaking (macerating) herbs in a solution of alcohol or of a specific ratio of alcohol to water. Tinctures macerate for two to six weeks in a dark place after which the liquid extract is strained from the plant material and used therapeutically.
Tisane: Originally from the Greek ptisanē, to crush, tisanes are infusions of fresh or dried herbs used as a medicinal beverage. (top)
Herbal Actions and Properties
abortifacient – induces abortion, miscarriage, or premature removal of a fetus
adaptogen – works through the endocrine system to modulate the physical, mental, and emotional effects of stress and increase resistance to physiological imbalances and disease by strengthening the immune system
adjuvant – aids the action of a medicinal agent
alterative – strengthens and nourishes the body, often through the removal of metabolic wastes
amphoteric – normalizes function of an organ or body system
analeptic – restorative or stimulating effect on central nervous system
analgesic – relieves pain
anaphrodisiac – reduces capacity for sexual arousal
anesthetic – induces loss of sensation or consciousness due to the depression of nerve function
antianemic – prevents or helps with anemia
antibacterial – destroys or stops the growth of bacteria
antibilious – eases stomach stress
anticatarrh – reduces inflamed mucous membranes of head and throat
antidepressant – acts to prevent, cure, or alleviate mental depression
antidiabetic – prevents or relieves diabetes
antidiarrhetic –prevents or treats diarrhea
antiemetic – stops vomiting
antifungal – destroys or inhibits the growth of fungus
antihemorrhagic – controls hemorrhaging or bleeding
anti-infectious – counteracts infection
anti-inflammatory – controls inflammation, a reaction to injury or infection
antimalarial – prevents or relieves malaria
antimicrobial – destroys microbes
antioxidant – prevents or inhibits oxidation
antipruritic – prevents or relieves itching
antipyretic – reduces fever (febrifuge)
antirheumatic – eases pain of rheumatism, inflammation of joints and muscles
antiseptic – produces asepsis, removes pus, blood, etc.
antispasmodic – calms nervous and muscular spasms or convulsions
antitussive – controls or prevents cough
antiviral – opposes the action of a virus
anxiolytic – reduces anxiety
aperient – relieves constipation; mild laxative
aperitive – stimulates the appetite for food
aphrodisiac – increases the capacity for sexual arousal
aromatic – a herb containing volatile oils, fragrant odor and slightly stimulating properties
asepsis – sterile; free of germs, infection, and any form of life
astringent – constricts and binds by coagulation of proteins
aquaretic – increases blood flow to the kidneys without increasing sodium and chloride resorption, thereby retaining electrolytes while increasing urine output; increases intravascular fluid volume which increases vascular resistance and blood pressure
bitter – stimulates appetite or digestive function
bronchial –relaxes spasms or constriction of the bronchi or upper part of the lungs, thereby improving respiration
carcinostatic –halts or inhibits the development or continued growth of cancer, carcinomas, or malignant tumors
cardiotonic – increases strength and tone (normal tension or response to stimuli) of the heart
carminative -- causes the release of stomach or intestinal gas
catarrhal – pertains to the inflammation of mucous membranes of the head and throat
cathartic – produces bowel movements
caustic – contains acidic compounds that have an escharotic or corrosive action that is capable of burning or eating away living tissues
cholagogue – increases flow of bile from gallbladder
cicatrizant – aids formation of scar tissue and wound healing
counterirritant – produces an inflammatory response for affecting an adjacent area
demulcent – soothes and protects inflamed and irritated mucous membranes both topically and internally
deobstruent – removes obstructions to clear or open natural ducts of the fluids and secretions of the body
dermatitis – inflammation of the skin evidenced my itchiness, redness, and various lesions
detergent – cleanses wounds and sores of infected or damaged tissue
diaphoretic – increases perspiration (synonym: sudorific)
digestive – promotes or aids the digestion process
disinfectant – destroys pathogenic microbes, germs, and noxious properties of fermentation
diuretic – increases urine flow
ecbolic – tends to increase contractions of uterus, facilitating childbirth
emetic – produces vomiting and evacuation of stomach contents
emmenagogue – regulates and induces normal menstruation
emollient – softens and soothes the skin
errhine –stimulates sneezing, increasing flow of mucus in nasal passages
escharotic – a caustic substance that destroys tissue and causes sloughing
estrogenic – causes the production of estrogen
euphoriant – produces a sense of bodily comfort; temporary effect and often addictive
expectorant – facilitates removal of mucus and other materials
febrifuge – reduces or relieves fever
galactagogue – promotes the flow of milk
hemagogue – promotes the flow of blood
hemostatic – controls or stops the flow of blood
hepatic – having to do with the liver
herpetic – treats skin eruptions relating to the herpes virus
hypertensive – raises blood pressure
hypnotic – strong-acting nervous system relaxant (nervines) that supports healthy sleep
hypoglycemant – lowers blood sugar
hypotensive – lowers blood pressure
lactifuge – reduces the flow of milk
laxative – loosens bowel contents
lithotriptic – a substance that causes kidney or bladder stones to dissolve
masticatory – increases flow of saliva upon chewing
mucilaginous – polysaccharide-rich compounds that coat and soothe inflamed mucous membranes
narcotic – induces drowsiness, sleep, or stupor, and lessons pain
nephritic – has a beneficial influence on the kidneys
nervine – a nerve tonic
nootropic – enhances memory, improves cognitive function and mood, reduces oxidative and eschemic damage to the brain
nutritive – a herb containing nutrients required to nourish and build the body
orexigenic – stimulates or increases the appetite
parturfaciant – induces contractions of labor at childbirth
purgative – causes the evacuation of intestinal contents; laxative
refrigerant – relieves thirst with its cooling properties
relaxant – tends to relax and relieve tension, especially muscular tension
renal –strengthens, cleanses or treats imbalance or disease states affecting the kidneys
resorbent – aids reabsorption of blood from bruises
rubefacient – reddens skin, dilates the blood vessels, and increases blood supply locally
sedative – exerts a soothing, tranquilizing effect on the body
sialagogue – increases the production and flow of saliva
soporific -- induces sleep
stimulant – increases body or organ function temporarily
stomachic – aids the stomach and digestive action
sudorific – increase perspiration
tonic – stimulates energy and increases strength and tone
trophorestorative – nourishes and restores balance to the body. Trophorestorative herbs typically have a strong affinity for an organ or organ system and correct deficiency and weakness not only through temporary stimulation but by deeply nourishing that organ or organ system.
vermifuge – expels worms from the intestines
vulnerary – aids in healing wounds (top)