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

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

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

Cardiovascular (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

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

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

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)

Aromatic (spicy-cool) cools interior, warms exterior, treats the surface

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

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

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


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 dry….in 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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Written by Christopher Hobbs LAc AHG

Explore Wellness in 2021