Definitions of Herbal
and Medical Terminology

Many words are used to describe herbs and their actions on the body. The following is a guide to understanding these terms.  They are arranged in alphabetical order.

  • Adaptogen: invigorates or strengthens the system.
  • Alerative:  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:  reduces or relieves pain.
  • Anodyne:  a pain relieving agent, less potent than an anesthetic or narcotic.
  • Antifungal:  clears and counters fungal infections.
  • Antihelmintic, anthelmintic:  expels or destroys intestinal worms.
  • Antihydrotic:  reduces or suppresses perspiration.
  • Anti-inflammatory:  reduces swelling
  • Antimicrobial:  destroys or inhibits growth of microorganisms.
  • Antioxidant:  inhibits binding of oxygen.
  • Antipyretic:  reduces or prevents fever.
  • Antiseptic:  cleans, counters germs and other microorganisms.
  • Antispasmodic:  relieves spasms or cramps.
  • Aperient:  a mild and gentle acting laxative.
  • Aperitif:  stimulates the appetite.
  • Aphrodisiac:  increases sexual desire or potency.
  • Aromatic:  a strong, volatile, fragrant aroma; often with stimulant properties.
  • Astringent:  contracts or shrinks tissues used to decrease secretions or control bleeding.
  • Basalmic:  heals or soothes.
  • Bitter tonic:  an acrid, astringent, or disagreeable taste that stimulates flow of saliva and gastric juice.
  • Calmative:  mild sedative or hypnotic properties
  • Carminative:  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.
  • Cholegogue:  stimulates secretion and release of bile.
  • Choleretic:  stimulates secretion and release of bile.
  • Concentration:  the amount of material in a solution in relationship to the amount of solvent; expressed as the ratio.
  • Counterirritant:  causes a distracting irritation intended to relieve another irritation.
  • Decoction:  extract of an herb made by boiling or simmering in water; stronger than a tea or infusion.
  • Demulcent:  an oily or mucilaginous substance that soothes irritated tissue, especially mucous membranes.
  • Deobstruent:  clears obstruction from ducts of the body.
  • Diaphoretic:  taken internally to promote sweating.
  • Diuretic:  promotes urine production and flow.
  • Drachm:  a rough measurement, basically it is what fits in the palm of your hand.
  • Emetic:  induces vomiting.
  • Emmenogogue:  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.
  • Exfoliant:  removes dead skin on the surface of skin.
  • Expectorant:  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:  reduces fever.
  • Flatulence:  gas in the stomach or intestines.
  • Fluid extract:  a liquid extract of raw plant material
  • Fomentation:  application of a warm and moist cloth, soaked in an infusion or decoction, as treatment.
  • Galactogogue:  increases secretion of milk.
  • 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:  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:  increases secretion of milk.
  • Laxative:  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:  calms nervousness, tension, or excitement.
  • Oleoresin:  homogenous mixture of resin(s) and volatile oil(s).
  • Pectoral:  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.
  • Regenerative:  restores or revives tissue growth
  • 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:  applied to the skin, causes 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:  reduces nervous tension; usually stronger than a calmative.
  • Sialogogue:  stimulates secretion of saliva.
  • Soporific:  induces sleep.
  • Stimulant:  excites or quickens a process or activity of the body.
  • Stomachic:  gives strength and tone to the stomach or stimulates the appetite by promoting digestive secretions.
  • Styptic:  stops external bleeding (usually an astringent).
  • Sudorific:  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; 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.
  • Tonic:  invigorates or strengthens the system; tonics often act as stimulants or aleratives.
  • Tisane:  an herbal infusion drunk as a beverage or for its mildly medicinal effect.
  • Vermifuge:  expels or destroys intestinal worms
  • Vesicant:  causes blisters or sores
  • Volatile oil:  odorous plant oil that evaporates readily; also called essential oil.
  • Vulnerary:  the treatment or healing of wounds.