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 Herbal Medicine: Constitutional Herbalism and The Herbal Energetics of Western Herbs 
What forces, seen and unseen, cause disease and promote health? This is a question that has occupied the thoughts of humans for thousands of years. Although we know many more minute details about the processes that occur during health and disease, we may not be any closer to really understanding the process.

Many herbalists throughout history have said that the state of health we enjoy is related to several important factors:

1. Genetic or natural predisposition, based on the gift of constitution we receive from our ancestors.

2. How adaptable we are in relation to all the many forces we are exposed to over our lifetime.

3. Our living habits in response to our constant discovery and understanding of our personal health requirements.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, five well-defined disease-causing agents (pathogens) are defined, four climate-related factors and the "five emotions," as follows:

The Four Climate-Related Factors

1. hot

2. cold

3. wet

4. dry

[These influences can become disease-promoting when we are influenced by them from external forces, such as exposure to wind and cold, or can result from internal factors, such as lack of metabolic fire.

The Five Emotions

1. anger -- liver

2. fear -- kidneys

3. joy/mania -- heart

4. grief -- lungs

5. pensiveness -- digestion

[An excess or deficiency of any of the five emotions can affect the related organ]

The Climate-related factors are important in determining what herbs and foods to use in restoring balance and counteracting disease in the individual.

For instance, hot conditions should be counteracted with cool or cold herbs, dry conditions with moistening herbs, cold conditions with warming herbs and dampness with drying herbs. Thus, the energetics of the individual, both the constitutional "backdrop" and the ever-changing daily influences and inner flow matches up with the energetics of herbs and foods. This 3-dimensional "fit" is often more dynamic and effective within the healing process.

The State of Vital Energy
Individuals may exhibit 3 main functional states of imbalance of vital energy on a cellular, organ, system or personal level.

1. Deficiency

A lack of nourishment, nutrient assimilation, functional energy or vitality.

2. Stagnancy

There is sufficient energy reserves (vitality) in the individual, but it is temporarily inaccessible--it encounters too much resistance within a system to be effective.

3. Excess

Energy, movement, nutritive force is too great for the specific individual, a system, or bio-energetic channel to function maximally or even normally.

1. Tonics and Stimulants
A Major herb Category

a. Tonics: nourish specific cells, tissues, organs, and the whole individual. Often used for long periods of time. These remedies help focus and call forth the biogenetic potential or vitality of the individual for use such as enabling the immune system, nerve function or hormonal balance and vigor.

Tonics are very gentle and slow stimulants, and they provide nutrients that the body can use, such as vitamins, minerals, and many other constituents like plant pigments, such as anthocyanins or flavonoids. Large quantities can be given without harm of overstressing cells, tissues, organs or body systems.

Most importantly, the therapeutic and toxic doses are very far apart--giving a large margin of safety. For this reason, these herbs are called "superior" herbs in TCM.

The tonics are remedies that are well-tolerated, do not force the body to change and have a slow, nourishing and normalizing effect on body systems, imparting strength and tone. In TEM, these medicines were called "alteratives," "roborants" or even "tonics." The most famous example in this category is ginseng.

The two types of tonics are:

1) stimulating tonics (gently stimulates functional activity, like weight-lifting stresses and builds muscle

2) nourishing tonic.
b. Specifics

Specifics have a specific job to do for a limited time (up to three 10-day cycles is common); they "fine-tune" biochemical processes, move energy or regulate energy in the bioenergetic channels to help remove stagnancy and redistribute energy in excess conditions. These herbs are moderately active stimulants that must be given in lesser amounts and for shorter periods before over-stimulation and unwanted side-effects occur. One to several therapeutic cycles of 10 days on and 2 or 3 days off is usually adequate. The therapeutic and toxic doses are closer together than in the tonics, but there is still a good margin of safety in most cases.

Specifics are remedies that gently move or "adjust" a process in the body, whether it be hormonal, nervous or in immune function--they are catalysts or assisting remedies. These generally work by stimulating a process--one of the best examples here is echinacea, which stimulates immune cell function and thus confers heightened resistance to pathogenic influences (infections). The specific remedies are generally used only as needed, usually for up to 2 or 3 weeks at most. Other common examples of specific herbs are golden seal, osha, or pau d'arco.

c. Heroics (forcing remedies):
they blast through energy blocks and dramatically move or inhibit energy in the bioenergetic channels. For use by practitioners that know their action and dangers for when there are seriously imbalanced energies in the individual, especially when the constitution is generally sound. These are strong and highly irritating, causing dramatic changes to occur. They must be used very carefully, because there is not much difference between a toxic and therapeutic dose.

These herbs are "heroic" remedies that when properly used, are taken for a very short time to overcome refusal of the body and its processes to change (stuckness). Examples are digitalis (foxglove), belladonna (nightshade) and rauvolfia. Many allopathic, synthetic industrial "drugs" fall into this category. Synthetically-derived compounds such as xanax, penicillin, digitoxin are examples of drugs that are very purified, concentrated and penetrating and have the potential for very profound side-effects. In fact, many hours are spent in medical school just learning how to recognize and manage the side-effects of allopathic drugs.

d. Protective and Cleansing
These are herbs that remove wastes and pollutants from tissues and organs, only minimally affecting the actual processes of the body. Examples are ionic substances such as pectin and soluble and insoluble fibers. Perhaps plant pigments, such as "bio-flavonoids" that simply accumulate in the tissues near the skin and can help reduce damage from such agents as ultra-violet light from the sun can be included in this category.

2. Affinity to body tissues, organs, systems
Organ Systems
(CV) includes the heart, veins, arteries and capillaries, bone marrow and blood.

Digestive (DG) includes the liver and gall bladder, stomach, small and large intestine, pancreas

Glandular (GL) includes the ductless glands

Immune (IM) includes effector cells (T-cells, B-cells, etc.), the bone marrow, thymus, spleen, lymph nodes, lymph vessels and mucous membranes--the "secretory immune system"

Integumentary (IN) skin, hair, nails

Microflora (MF) includes microorganisms that flourish inside our large and lower small intestine, skin, oral cavity, and mucous membranes--this may be the largest active "system" in the body

Muscular (MS) includes the muscles, tendons and ligaments

Nervous (NV) includes the brain, spinal cord, nerves, ganglia and synapses

Respiratory (RY) includes the nasal passages, sinuses, bronchi and lungs

Sexual (SX) includes the ovaries, uterus and breasts or testes and prostate

Skeletal (SK) includes the bones and teeth

Urinary (UR) includes the kidneys, ureter, bladder and urethra

3. Taste
"The ethereal spirit receives its nourishment from the air and the body receives its nourishment from the flavors" (Veith).


Acrid (spicy-warm) penetrates, disperses, removes stagnancy CV, UR, RY

a taste that causes a pricking, sharp sensation

Sweet nourishes, harmonizes, tonifies, energy sparing DG, IM, GL, MS, MF

Bitter dries, stimulates assimilation, expands, removes IM, DG, NV, CV

weakness (all in small amounts)

sour cleanses, cools, regulates pH UR, DG, NV

salty moisturizes, strengthens nerves (in moderate CV, UR, IN, amounts) NV

Aromatic (spicy-cool) cools interior, warms exterior, treats the surface DG, NV, RY, UR

The 2 minor flavor qualities:

Astringent draws and removes moisture, cooling DG, UR, MF, IN

Demulcent cool, moist DG, UR, RY,


Tastes: Science and Tradition
TEM TCM Ayurveda 20th Century Science--Examples

Primary Flavors
Bitter Bitter Bitter sesquiterpenes--antiinflamatory
Sweet Sweet Sweet sugars--glucose source, nourishes nervous system, digestion (by saving vital energy spent in creating enzymes to break down and process foods)
Pungent Pungent-warm Pungent resins--irritants, increases blood flow, stimulates nerve endings (counterirritant) affects organs and tissues by reflex action, penetrates, anti-microbial
Aromatic Pungent-cool -- monoterpenoids--warms surface mucous membranes and "treats the surface," draws blood, immune activity and energy up, cooling interior; dispersestoxins, pathogens from exterior levels(skin, mucous membranes)
Salty Salty Salty mineral ions--enhances nerve transmission, regulates water flow in and out of cells, regulates pH
Sour Sour Sour plant acids (i.e. citric, maleic)--cleansing, especially to the liver; chelates toxins ionically

Secondary Flavor Qualities
Astringent Astringent Astringent phenolic compounds (tannins)-- antiviral effect, precipitates proteins, removes water

Demulcent -- -- mucopolysaccharides, gums--inhibits prostaglandin synthesis (antiinflammatory), coats mucous membranes, offering mechanical protection, replaces body's mucous,

may activate surface immune system

Examples of Western Herbs
Bitter Virginia snakeroot, gentian, artichoke leaves, horehound

Sweet Yams, barley, spring dandelion root, Jerusalem artichoke, dates

Pungent Ginger, pine bark or pitch, prickly ash, angelica seed and root

Aromatic Peppermint, spearmint, cilantro, fennel leaves, thyme

Salty Celery, angelica leaves, sea vegetables (bladderwrack), parsley

Sour Lemon, new growth of conifers, dock leaves, sheep sorrel

Astringent Oak (new growth), oak galls, witch hazel, wild geranium root

Demulcent Marshmallow root, common mallow greens, sassafras leaves

The Flavors: an overview

Bitter is a flavor that is not much favored by Americans. Many cultures enjoy it, however, and feel unbalanced if they do not get it every day. Nowhere else is the outcome of our jaded modern taste more evident than in our avoidance of bitter and the lust for sweet and salt.

Energybitter is cooling, stimulating to bile, and other digestive secretions, small amounts are tonic and activating to the yin; large amounts are debilitating and contracting.


Many green wild herbs are bitter (such as Mugwort or horehound), especially after flowering. Many roots are bitter in the late summer and early fall (such as Dandelion). After the first freeze, the sweet principle develops and the bitter is reduced).

IndicationsMany people who need bitter the most, react to it strongly. Bitter in small tonic amounts should be taken 1/2 to 1 hour before meals to strengthen digestion, open and cool the liver, stimulate bile for better fat digestion and improve the nutrition of the body in deficiency diseases (use with sweet).


Most Americans have excessively sweet blood, which encourages heat and various infections. This is due to the large amount of refined sugar and refined fruit juices that are consumed. For optimum health, natural sweets, such as sub-acid whole fruit (apples, pears), well-chewed grains and sprouted beans should be used.EnergySweet may be taken in the form of squash, baked yams, carrots, burdock and other roots and tubers during the winter to nourish and warm the body. Tonic sweet herbs, such as Ginseng (which is also bitter) or Rehmannia, is used to support the nourishment and glands of the body. Tends to be warming.

Humans, and all animals crave sweet foods. Foods that are sweet, but not excessively refined are helpful and economical for the body's generation of energy, warmth, motion, thinking capacity.


Sweet herbs include jujube, dates, raisins, various rice products, such as amasake, sprouted legumes, winter and spring roots, such as Burdock, Dandelion and Chicory, Salsify and Jeruselum Artichokes, which contain fructose.


For degenerative diseases, weakened yin, to support the nutrition of the body. Has a beneficial effect on the hormones, nerves, muscles. Sweet is associated with the digestive organs, the pancreas and the muscles.ACRID (spicy)

Some people are highly attracted to acrid. Think of chile peppers, mustard, horseradish and watercress. Acrid stimulates heat in the interior and removes stagnancy in tissues organs, systems and bio-energetic channels. Tonic to the digestion (in small to moderate amounts), brings blood and nourishment to internal organs. Readjusts the energy of the body (when out of balance, as in colds, flu). Also activates other remedies and helps with absorption. Stimulates metabolism, the "lower" passions and the circulation. Dispels stagnancy, congestion, expands.


Warming, stimulating--taken where there is stagnancy, lack of blood flow to areas of the body, due to coldness or under certain conditions, excess stress stimulating the sympathetic nervous system.


Hot Peppers, Angelica, Aralia, osha, Ginger, Prickly Ash, mustard, Umbelliferae members such as fennel and cardamon, conifers (pitch) and other aromatic or resinous plants.


Colds, Flu, Poor digestion, poor circulation, fear of the cold, deficiency, sluggish organs, etc.SALTY

Most people in modern industrial societies have too much salt in their diet. Besides being poured out of the salt shaker, it is hidden in many processed foods. We need small amounts of natural salt, but excessive amounts can throw the body's electrolyte balance off, adversely affecting the fluid balance of the body, nerve transmission, put an extra strain on the heart, lungs and kidneys and create an environment where the cells of the body cannot function properly.


Can be moisturizing or drying to tissues, depending on the amount. It will strongly affect the moisture balance of the body. It has a specific action on the nervous system and glands, over-stimulating them when taken in large amounts. Tends to be warming, stimulating and promote yang.

ExamplesAll sea vegetable, such as kelp, bladderwrack, wakame, etc. Many desert and seashore green plants. Native Americans burned these to make a salty addition to food. Organic celery and other wild Umbeliferae (such as Angelica spp.) are good sources of naturally balanced salt.

IndicationsDryness in the body, poor or weakened nerve function, deficient yang.


Most people like sour tastes in moderation, especially if combined with sweet. On a hot summer day, there is nothing like a good glass of lemonade, and most people recognize that it is cooling.

EnergySour is deeply cooling, refreshing (in tonic amounts), cleansing, clearing and detoxifying. It combines well with sweet. The liver is the organ associated with sour, being cleansed and nourished by tonic amounts. The electrolyte balance of the body can also be affected (alkaline/acid balance), which must be maintained within a narrow range. If this balance is lost, bacteria and other pathogens can easily overgrow.

In traditional medicine, herbs are often spoken of as having a temperature in a range of hot to cold. Of course this doesn't imply that some herbs are too hot to handle, but rather an herb has an effect when it is used on or in the body of inducing the production of heat and dispelling coldness or vice versa. Throughout the last 2500 years, western herbalists wrote about the temperature characteristics of herbs. For instance, the Rennaissance herbalist Gerard wrote that hawkweeds are "cold and dry," and that dill is "hot in the end of the second degree, and the end of the first degree." These assessments of the temperatures of these herbs were said to come from the great Roman physician, Galen.

In the modern practice of western herbalism, the temperatures are emerging as an important factor in choosing herbal medicines for the individual.

Generally, hot herbs have constituents that make them stimulating to the blood circulation (resin-containing plants such as ginger) or increase metabolic activity (alkaloid-containing plants such as black tea). Cold herbs have antiinflammatory compounds such as sesquiterpenes (feverfew) or alkaloid-containing antibacterial and antiinflammatory herbs (golden seal).

In selecting herbs to formulate for specific individuals, it is important to consider the overall effect of the warming, cooling, or stimulating and sedating properties of the herb blend as a whole.

A few examples of hot and cold herbs:

Hot herbs
black tea
prickly ash

Warm herbs
pine bark
yerba santa
yerba mansa

Cool herbs

Cold herbs
golden seal
Oregon grape rt.
false indigo rt.
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 About The Author
Christopher Hobbs LAc, AHG Christopher Hobbs is a fourth generation herbalist and botanist with over 30 years experience with herbs. Founder of Native Herb Custom Extracts (now Rainbow Light Custom Extracts) and the Institute for Natural Products......more
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