Terms Used in Traditional Herbal Medicine

The terms used in herbalism and holistic healing arts might seem obsure to someone not familiar with them. For reference we’ve assembled a list of terms used in traditional Western herbal medicine to describe chemical properties and medicinal uses of herbs:

  • alkaloid – a nitrogenous, basic, and often medicinal, plant compound
  • allergen – a compound that produces an allergic reaction
  • alterative – a compound that alters body metabolism
  • analeptic – a restorative
  • analgesic – an agent that relieves pain
  • anodyne – an agent that relieves pain through reducing nerve excitability
  • anthelmintic – a preparation to rid the body of worms
  • anthraquinones – a ketonic tricyclic anthracenes with laxative action
  • anti- – prefix for terms designating amelioration, relief, or removal
  • antiacid – an agent to relieve excess stomach, blood or bowel acidity
  • antiasthmatic – an agent to dilate bronchioles or break up mucus
  • antibiotic – an agent to inhibit growth of, or destroy, bacteria
  • anticarcinogen – an agent to counteract cancer
  • anticatarrhal – an agent to counteract mucus formation
  • antidepressant – an agent that counteracts mental depression
  • anti-diarrheal – an agent to relieve diarrhea
  • antiemetic – an agent that relieves stomach sickness and vomiting
  • antihyperlipidemic – an agent to reduce arterial plaques
  • antilithic – an agent to removes stones; lithotryptic
  • antipsychotic – see tranquilizer
  • antipyretic – an agent to reduce fever; febrifuge
  • antisecretory – an agent that dries the body tissues
  • antiseptic – an agent for skin application to destroy bacteria
  • antispasmodic – an agent to lessen muscle spasms; spasmolytic
  • aperient – a gentle laxative
  • aphrodisiac – an agent to awaken sexual desires
  • astringent – an agent that coagulates protein
  • balsams – resinous mixtures containing cinnamates and benzoates
  • beta-carbolines – tricyclic MAO inhibitors, hallucinogens
  • bradycardia – a slowed heartbeat
  • C-5, C-10 – used to denote number of carbon atoms
  • carcinogen – a substance that predisposes cancer development
  • carminative – a substance to relieve the body of excess gas
  • catalyst – a preparation that makes other remedies more effective
  • cathartic – see purgative
  • cholagogue – an agent to promote flow of bile into small intestine
  • CNS – abbreviation for central nervous system
  • depressant, CNS – a compound that reduces mental function
  • coumarins – bicyclic, aromatic molecules that antagonize vitamin K
  • CV – abbreviation for cardiovascular
  • decoction – a boiled extract, used for the preparation of roots
  • decongestant – an agent to relieve nasal congestion
  • demulcent – a compound that protects abraded tissues
  • dextrins – partial hydrolysis products of starch
  • diaphoretic – a compound that increases perspiration; sudorific
  • diuretic – an agent promoting urination
  • dyspepsia – an impairment in digestion
  • emetic – an agent to induce vomiting
  • emollient – an agent that smooths and protects the skin
  • emmenagogue – a preparation that hastens the onset of menses
  • euphoriant – an agent to stimulate mental or physical pleasure
  • expectorant – preparations used to break up phlegm in lungs
  • fatty acids – hydrolysis products of fats
  • febrifuge – see antipyretic
  • flavonoids – a class of tricyclic molecules
  • galactogogue – an agent to increase the flow of milk
  • GI – abbreviation for gastro-intestinal
  • glyco- – a prefix indicating the attatchment of a sugar to a molecule
  • glycosides – sugar esters
  • gums – water swellable carbohydrate derivatives
  • HCN – hydrogen cyanide, a respiratory poison
  • hemolytic – a compound capable of dissolving red blood corpuscles
  • hemorragic – a compound that leads to internal bleeding
  • hemostatic – a compound that retards bleeding; styptic
  • hepatic – an agent used in maintenance of liver function
  • hypotensive – an agent to reduce blood pressure
  • infusion – a water extract; a tea
  • laxative – an aid to solid waste elimination
  • lithotriptic – see antilithic
  • MAO – monoamine oxidase, a major brain detoxification enzyme
  • miotic – a compound that dilates the pupils
  • moxybustion – the smoke used in acupuncture
  • mucilage – tacky, water-insoluble sugar derivatives
  • mydriatic – an agent used to dilate the pupils
  • MW – abbreviation for molecular weight
  • nervine – an agent that relieves nervousness; mild tranquilizer
  • oleoresins – natural mixtures of resins and volatile oils
  • oxytocic – an agent to promote uterine contractions during childbirth
  • parasiticide – an external or internal agent to destroy parasites
  • parasympathomimetic – an agent that excites the parasympathetic nervous system, such as tobacco
  • pectins – partially methoxylated uronic acid sugars
  • pedicullicide – an agent to control lice
  • PMS – premenstrual syndrome
  • purgative – a strong laxative and emetic agent
  • refrigerant – an agent to cool the body down
  • resins – water-insoluble mixtures of resins, their acids, and alcohols
  • rubefacient – an agent that brings a blush to the cheeks and increases skin circulation
  • saponins – glycosides with a soaplike water suspension
  • sedative – mild depressant; somnorific
  • sialogogue – an agent that promotes the flow of saliva
  • spasmolytic – see antispasmodic
  • sp – abbreviation for species (singular)
  • spp – abbreviation for species (plural)
  • sterols – molecules related to cholesterol and some hormones
  • stimulant – an agent to increase body metabolism
  • stimulant, CNS – a compound that excites mental function
  • stomachic – a preparation for the benefit of the stomach; also a tonic
  • sudorific – see diaphoretic
  • tachycardia – a raised heart beat rate
  • tannins – bitter principles of plants containing plant polyphenols
  • terpenes – hydrocarbon volatile oils, often with a strong smell
  • tonic – an agent that restores normal tone to the body
  • tranquilizer – an agent that reduces phychotic behavior
  • vermifuge – see anthelmintic
  • vulnerary – an agent to increase the healing of wounds
  • waxes – esters of fatty acids with high molecular weight alcohols
  • xanthines – CNS stimulants with a purine type structure such as caffeine
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