“Herb Terms” You May Not Understand
Understanding how herbs work means understanding the wide range of actions they can have in the body, and learning some specific terminology can be helpful to define a plant’s physiological and pharmacological effects as well as its key medicinal uses. It is important to keep in mind that a single herb can have numerous actions, and often, herbs’ actions may overlap or synchronize to work together in a way that will benefit the body on multiple levels. This article will explore some helpful herb terms, clarify their meaning, and give key herbal examples and indications for ease of learning and prescribing purposes.
What is an Adaptogen?
“Adaptogen” is a relatively modern word, coined in the 1940s to describe herbs’ unique qualities when herb-related research began in athletes in the USSR. Derived from the Latin word adaptare meaning “to adjust,” this refers to the ability of these plants to raise the resistance of the body to the effects of stress so that the body is better able to adapt. Adaptogens provide a normalizing effect that can sometimes lead to contradictory actions depending on the body’s needs.
When the body is unable to cope with external pressures, this can lead to internal repercussions, and thus the manifestation of illness due to stress can develop into many different forms. Recent research suggests that the stress-protective effect of adaptogens does not result from an inhibition of the stress response but instead from the adaptation of the body to their benign stress-mimicking effects. For example, adaptogenic herbs appear to raise levels of stress-protective molecules including HSP70, nitric oxide, stress activated protein kinase (p-JNK), nitric oxide, and forkhead box O (FoxO) proteins.1
At the core of their action, adaptogens appear to increase the threshold of resistance to damage from stress through supporting and restoring activity of the adrenal cortex. Especially when used over time, adaptogens help conserve the body’s adaptation energy and are capable of restoring normal function to the HPA axis and the sympatho-adrenal system (SAS). Therefore, they are excellent aids for supporting attention and endurance during fatigue, as well as reducing and/or preventing stress-induced disorders of the neuroendocrine and immune systems.2
Key Uses of Adaptogenic Herbs:
- Fatigue and depleted energy
- Impaired attention and mental performance
- Recovery after exhaustive physical loading
- Sleep disturbances
- Decreased resistance to infections.
Herbal Examples of Adaptogens:
What is a Nervine?
Nervines have a long traditional use in herbal medicine as plants that have some sort of beneficial effect upon the nervous system. Many nervines are considered to be complementary for use alongside adaptogens to enhance their effects, and some adaptogens are also used as nervines due to multiple overlapping benefits, such as Ashwagandha, Rhodiola and Schisandra. Nervines are commonly used to restore emotional balance and nourish the nerves and nervous system, and they are often differentiated into nervine tonics, nervine relaxants, and nervine stimulants.
Nervine Tonics are used to strengthen or “feed” the nervous system when coping with excessive or prolonged periods of tension, stress, and anxiety. In some cases, nervine tonics will help restore central and peripheral tissues directly and/or modulate the action of various neurotransmitters (e.g. GABA, serotonin) through pharmacological mechanisms. They are overall calming herbs without being overtly sedating. Some herbal examples of nervine tonics include:
- Bacopa (Bacopa monniera)
- Saffron (Crocus sativum)
- Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)
- John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)
- Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)
Nervine Relaxants often have directly relaxing effects upon the nervous system, acting as concomitant antispasmodics, analgesics, and hypotensives. They are invaluable for addressing acute stress and anxiety, and in high doses many will act as sedatives and help promote a more restful sleep. Some herbal examples of nervine relaxants include:
- Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
- Kava Kava (Piper methysticum)
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
- Cramp bark (Viburnum opulus)
Key Uses of Nervine Relaxants:
- Anxiety, depression, and irritability
- Insomnia and restlessness
- Neuralgia and neuromuscular tension
- Cardiovascular or gastrointestinal tract symptoms worsened by stress
Nervine Stimulants will cause direct stimulation of the nervous system, often due to their caffeine content. They are easily the most popular herbs on the planet for improving energy, focus, and concentration; however, in most cases it would be far more appropriate to stimulate the body’s innate vitality with the help of adaptogens or nervine tonics. Problems with commonly used stimulants are that they are often overused, they have a number of side effects, and they can themselves be involved in causing complaints such as anxiety and tension. Some herbal examples of nervine stimulants include:
- Green/Black Tea (Camellia sinensis)
- Coffee (Coffea arabica)
Note: Nervine stimulants should not be confused with cerebral stimulants, which can improve blood flow to the brain and therefore aid in cognitive processes such as memory and concentration.
What is a Tonic?
The term “tonic” has a long history in herbal medicine for which many herbs have been attributed to and also many different definitions exist. Tonics are commonly misunderstood and confused with adaptogens, which as discussed help to conserve adaptation energy, while the role of a tonic is to increase or release adaptation energy. Tonics and adaptogens are similar in that both may be taken safely for a long duration and can lead to overall enhanced feelings of well-being; however, their physiological effects are considered to be more broadly acting than adaptogens.
Though tonics work in a variety of ways, they are often specific to an organ system or area of the body such as the immune, circulatory, respiratory, digestive, urinary, reproductive, musculoskeletal, and nervous systems, strengthening and enlivening and/or building and maintaining its physiological health and functioning. Tonics are not used specifically to treat or even necessarily prevent disease but are used to fortify the body, enhance adaptability, and generate more radiant health.
Key Uses of Tonic Herbs:
- Enhance health and longevity
Herbal Examples of Tonics:
What is a Stimulant?
Much like tonics, the term “stimulant” is broad and can refer to an herb’s effect either when applied topically or taken internally. In herbal medicine stimulants are often used to describe an action that quickens or enlivens the physiological activity of the body in some way. Often times this may be due to an increase in circulation and/or vasodilation towards a specific area of the body (e.g., Ginkgo enhancing oxygen uptake in the brain) or due to the effects of a specific phytochemical upon an organ system (e.g., caffeine within the central nervous system).3 Stimulant activities that can occur within the body include:
- Nervine stimulants: Coffee, Green/Black Tea (Cameliia sinensis)
- Cerebral stimulants: Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
- Circulatory stimulants: Ginger (Zingiber officinalis), Cayenne pepper (Capsicum spp.)
Key Uses of Stimulants:
- Poor circulation
- Poor concentration and brain fog
What is a Nootropic?
The word nootropic (pronounced “no-uh-TROH-pic”) is derived from the Greek words noos (mind) and tropos (bend or turn), together meaning, “acting on the mind.” A nootropic is any substance that enhances brain cognition, and though it is not specific to herbs, many plants have been shown to demonstrate nootropic effects. The initial definition of a nootropic herb is based on early research that included criteria such as enhancement of memory and learning, improved cognition under stress, and neuroprotective effects.4 Nootropics specifically benefit brain health and can ultimately result in improved and sustained mental performance. They also tend to overlap with some adaptogens by bolstering the body against the negative effects of stress.
Key Uses of Nootropics:
- Support working memory, storage, recall, learning, and knowledge retention
- Enhance attention, focus, and concentration
- Slow or prevent the onset of age- or Alzheimer’s-related cognitive decline
- Reduce oxidative or ischemic damage to the brain
- Improve mental and emotional wellbeing
Herbal Examples of Nootropics:
- Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
- Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)
- Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
- Panossian, A., Seo, E. J., & Efferth, T. (2018). Novel molecular mechanisms for the adaptogenic effects of herbal extracts on isolated brain cells using systems biology. Phytomedicine, 50, 257-284.
- Panossian, A. G., et al. (2021). Evolution of the adaptogenic concept from traditional use to medical systems: Pharmacology of stress- and aging-related diseases. Medicinal research reviews, 41(1), 630–703.
- Xu, L., Hu, Z., Shen, J., & McQuillan, P. M. (2015). Effects of Ginkgo biloba extract on cerebral oxygen and glucose metabolism in elderly patients with pre-existing cerebral ischemia. Complementary therapies in medicine, 23(2), 220-225.
- Giurgea, C., & Salama, M. (1977). Nootropic drugs. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology, 1(3-4), 235-247.