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Be Your Own Herbal Expert: Part 3

By Susun S. Weed

Editor’s note: You can read Part Four of this series only in the June NFO eUpdate newsletter archives. Not a subscriber yet? Join now for monthly updates and subscriber-only content.

Herbal medicine is the medicine of the people. It is simple, safe, effective and free. Our ancestors knew how to use an enormous variety of plants for health and well-being. Our neighbors around the world continue to use local plants for healing and health maintenance -- and you can, too.

A quick look back
In your first session, you learned how to "listen" to the messages of plant's tastes. And you discovered that using plants in water bases (as teas, infusions, vinegars, and soups) and as simples allows you to experiment with and explore herbal medicine safely.

In session two, you learned about herbs for teas and how to preserve and use their volatile oils. You leaned about vitamin- and mineral-rich herbal infusions and how to use them to promote health and longevity. And you continued to think about using herbs simply.

In this lesson you will explore the differences between nourishing, toning, stimulating or sedating and potentially poisonous plants. You will learn how to prepare and use them for greatest effect and most safety.

All herbs are not equal
All herbs are not equal: some contain poisons, some don't; some of the poisons are not so bad, some can kill you. I divide herbs into four categories for ease in remembering how (and how much) to use. Some herbs nourish us, some tone, some bring us up or ease us down and some are frighteningly strong.

Nourishing herbs
Nourishing herbs are the safest of all herbs. They contain few or no alkaloids, glycosides, resins or essential oils (poisons). Nourishing herbs are eaten as foods, cooked into soups, dried and infused or occasionally made into vinegars. They provide high-level nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, trace minerals, proteins, phytoestrogens and phytosterols, starches, simple and complex sugars, bioflavonoids, carotenes and essential fatty acids (EFAs).

Nourishing herbs in water bases (infusions, soups, vinegars) may generally be taken in any quantity for any period of time. Side effects, even from excessive use, are quite rare. Nourishing herbs are rarely used as tinctures (in alcohol), but when they are, their effects may be quite different.

It is generally considered safe to use nourishing herbs in water bases with prescription drugs. They may also be taken even if you are using toning, stimulating or sedating or potentially poisonous herbs.

Some examples of nourishing herbs include:

burdock roots
chickweed herb; tincture dissolves cysts
comfrey leaf
elder blossoms and berries
fenugreek seeds
mallow leaves and roots
nettle leaves and seeds
plantain leaves and seeds
red clover blossoms
rose hips
slippery elm bark
violet leaves and blossoms

Toning herbs
Toning herbs are generally considered safe when used in moderation. They may contain alkaloids or glycosides or essential oils but rarely in quantities sufficient to harm us.

Toning herbs act slowly in the body and have a cumulative rather than an immediate effect. They are most beneficial when used for extended periods of time. Toning herbs may be used regularly (but usually not daily) for decades, if desired.

Toning herbs are prepared in water and alcohol bases: tinctures and wines as well as infusions, vinegars and soups.

The more bitter the tonic tastes, the less you need to take of it. The more bland the tonic tastes, the more you can use of it.

Side effects from overuse and misuse of tonics is uncommon but quite possible. The dividing line between what is toning and what is stimulating differs from person to person. Ginseng is toning to my sweetheart but stimulating to me. Even herbal authorities disagree on which herbs are toning and which are stimulating.

Take care to counter any tendency to overuse toning herbs or you may experience unwanted side effects.

It is generally considered safe to use toning herbs in water bases if you are taking prescription drugs. You may also use toning herbs while using nourishing, stimulating or sedating and even potentially poisonous herbs. Toning herbs in alcohol bases are considered safe to use with nourishing herbs but may produce unexpected results if combined with drugs or strong herbs.

Some examples of toning herbs include:

burdock seeds, especially in an oil base
mug/cronewort herb, especially in vinegar
dandelion leaf, root and flowers
echinacea root
ginseng root
hawthorn berries, leaves and flowers
horsetail herb
lady’s mantle
motherwort leaves and flowers
sarsaparilla root
yellow dock leaves, roots and seeds

Stimulating and sedating herbs
Stimulating or sedating herbs frequently contain essential oils, alkaloids, glycosides or resins. Because these substances cause strong physical reactions, stimulating/sedating herbs are known from their rapid and pronounced effects, some of which may be unwanted.

Stimulating or sedating herbs are most often prepared as tinctures (and wines), vinegars, teas and infusions. Many stimulating or sedating herbs are used as seasonings in cooking, as well. Despite my cookbook's injunction to use only a little, I long ago learned that more aromatic herbs in my soups gave a "livelier" result.

Because long-term use of stimulating or sedating herbs can lead to dependency, their dose and duration of use must be carefully watched. A moderate to large dose taken infrequently will produce better results than a small dose taken over a longer period.

Side effects from the use of stimulating or sedating herbs in water bases are not common but possible. Side effects from use in alcohol bases are frequent. Whenever stimulating or sedating herbs are used regularly, health is compromised.

It is not safe to take prescription drugs with stimulating or sedating herbs, but they may be taken even if you are using nourishing and/or toning herbs.

Some examples of stimulating/sedating herbs include:

leaves of aromatic mints such as catnip, lemon balm, lavender, sage, skullcap
cinnamon bark
coffee beans
ginger root
kava kava root
licorice root
passion flower
tobacco leaves
uva ursi leaves
valerian root
willow bark and leaves

Poisonous herbs
Potentially poisonous herbs always contain alkaloids, glycosides, resins or essential oils. And they contain large quantities of those poisons or very potent forms.

Potentially poisonous plants can cause death directly, through the actions of their poisons on their targets (such as cardiac glycosides which stop the heart) or indirectly, by causing the liver and/or the kidneys to fail (as they attempt to cope with and clear the poison from the system).

Potentially poisonous herbs are usually extracted into alcohol (tinctures) and used in minute doses (1-3 drops). For safety’s sake, use potentially poisonous herbs as infrequently as possible and for the shortest possible time.

Powdering and encapsulating increases the risk of side effects from any herb, but when we take stimulating or sedating and potentially poisonous herbs in capsules, the side effects can be deadly.

Homeopathic pharmacy uses many potentially poisonous plants but in such dilute doses that death is impossible. However, side effects can occur even with homeopathically tiny doses.

Potentially poisonous herbs activate intense effort on the part of the body and spirit and may cause nausea, visual disturbances, digestive woes and allergic reactions even when used correctly.

Always be extremely cautious when using potentially poisonous herbs. Consult with at least three other knowledgeable herbalists who have used the plant in question before proceeding.

In general it is not considered safe to take potentially poisonous herbs while taking prescription drugs, other potentially poisonous herbs or stimulating or sedating herbs. It is generally safe to use potentially poisonous herbs while using nourishing and toning herbs.

Some examples of potentially poisonous herbs:

castor beans
cotton root
poke root
rue leaves and flowers
tansy leaves and flowers

Experiment 1
Spend some time alone quietly breathing. Tune into your body part by part (toes, feet, calves, knees, thighs and so on). Use colors to draw yourself. Don't worry about making art.

For the next month, include some nourishing herb in your diet. Example: on Monday, include seaweed as a vegetable for dinner; on Tuesday, drink a quart of nettle infusion; on Wednesday, make a soup with burdock and other roots; on Thursday, drink a quart of red clover infusion; on Friday, make garlic bread with at least one clove of freshly chopped garlic per slice; on Saturday, drink a quart of oatstraw infusion; on Sunday, drink a quart of comfrey/mint infusion. And so on.

One month later, sit alone and breathe quietly. Tune into your body part by part. Use colors to draw yourself. Has anything changed? You can continue this experiment for as long as you like.

Experiment 2
Repeat Experiment 1, but instead, use any one tonic (preferably one that lives where you do) at least four times a week for one month. Again, note any changes in how you feel, how much energy and stamina you have, how much curiosity and delight you experience in life. You can continue this experiment for as long as you like.

Experiment 3
What stimulants and sedatives do you use regularly? What happens if you give up one or more of them for a week? For a month? Try (on different days) at least one herbal stimulant and one herbal sedative, and keep notes of your reactions.

Experiment 4
Choose one potentially poisonous plant that grows near you and cultivate a relationship with it. Read about it. Talk about it with others who have a relationship with it. Keep a special book for writing about your poisonous ally.

Further study

• Name five more nourishing herbs. Specify part used, preparation and dosage.
• Name five more toning herbs. Specify part used, preparation and dosage.
• Name five more stimulating or sedating herbs. Specify part used, preparation and dosage.
• Name five more potentially poisonous herbs. Specify part used, preparation and dosage. In what case and how would you use each?
• What is the difference between a tonic and a stimulant?

Advanced work

• Give the botanical name (genus and species) for each plant listed.
• List five nourishing herbs commonly sold in tincture form and describe what they are used for in that form.
• Learn more about homeopathy.

You can read Part Four of this series in the June issue of the NFO eUpdate newsletter. Not a subscriber yet? Join now for monthly updates and subscriber-only content.

Move on to Part Five.

© Susun S. Weed; for permission to reprint this article, .

Susun Weed has been living the simple life for more than 30 years as an herbalist, goat keeper, author, homesteader and feminist. See Susun's complete Wise Women Herbal Series books. Visit and


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