What makes herbs work? A vast array of chemicals that act together in ways that, for the most part, are too complex to understand. Science has however pinned down a few groups of chemicals, some of which have varied actions and other that are a bit more uniform. Here’s a quick rundown:
Tannins are what give strong black tea it’s mouth-puckering quality. They precipitate proteins- that is, they affect the proteins in your mucous membranes so they become stronger and more resistant to damage. Their functions are mainly along these lines- they stop bleeding and secretions, strengthen gastric and oral mucosa, they are anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. Two herbs high in tannins are Geranium maculatum (American cranesbill) and Hamamelis virginia (witch hazel)
Alkaloids have wider ranging actions, from hallucinogens to cholagogues and anti-microbials. Some you may have heard of include Berberine (from Barberry), Morphine (Poppy), Cocaine (Coco leaf) and Mescaline, the stuff the gives Peyote Cactus it’s reputation.
Resins are sticky solids that usually have a localised effect. They stimulate phagocytes in the area they are applied, are antispectic, healing and protective making them great for wounds and ulcers. Calendula officinalis is a great example of this.
Volatile Oils are also present in Calendula and are more commonly known as Essential Oils. They have a vast range of therapeutic benefits but are very potent and need to be used with care.
Mucilage in herbs consists of complex carbohydrates. They only affect what they touch and act as a fibre when taken in large doses. In smaller doses they are used for coating and lubricating the mucous membranes or skin to protect and sooth. Ulmus fulva (Slippery Elm) and Althaea officinalis radix (Marshmallow Root) are two of these herbs.
Flavonoids are mostly water soluble and increase tissue and capillary integrity, are anti inflammatory and stabilize cell membranes. Silybum marianum and Achillea millefolium (Milk thistle and Yarrow, respectively) fall into this group.
Saponins are soapy- they foam when mixed with water and agitated. They potentiate other herbs (increase the actions) but can irritate the GI tract in large doses, so use with care. Glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice) and Dioscorea villosa (Wild Yam) contain saponins.
Anthraquinones are the laxative constituents of herbs, present in commonly used herbs like Senna and Cascara.