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�.
Goldfrank L, et al. The pernicious panacea: herbal medicine. Hosp Phys1982;18:64�.
Kowalchik C, Hylton WH, eds. Rodale抯 Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs.Rodale Press, 1987.
Spraycar M, ed. Stedman抯 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�.

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