Herbal Energetics: Hot, Cold, Dry and Damp Herbs
How energetic descriptions of herbs correspond to the elements:
Fire= Hot &Dry Water= Cold & Damp Air= Hot & Damp Earth= Cold & Dry
Application to herbalism:
These energetic systems can be applied in a description of an herb’s energetic effect or of a bodily state. Thus, an overall bodily state (a “cold” condition), a specific state of an organ (liver “heat”), or an herbs effects (a “drying” herb) can be described through this system.
The traditional herbalist treats through the law of contraries:
a cold condition is treated with a hot herb, a hot condition is treated with a cold herb, a dry condition with damp herbs, and a damp condition with dry herbs
Herbs also have affinities for certain organs and organ systems so a cooling liver herb is given for a hot liver condition (ex. Inflammation in the liver). As you’ll see an herb can have more than one energetic effect (ex. Ginger is both heating & drying), and a disease state can be characterized by more than one quality (a cold virus tends to produce both cold & damp conditions in the body).
How do we discover the energetic qualities of herbs?
By tasting the herbs ourselves, intuition or through study of books of herbal knowledge! Paying special attention to the taste, sensation on tongue, fragrance and how it feels in the body.
Taste & impressions:
Hot herbs: tend to be pungent, spicy and aromatic; and may produce sensations of heat & stimulation
spicy: cayenne, turmeric, ginger, horseradish, garlic, onion, mustard,
aromatic: basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, angelica, myrrh
bitters & aromatic oils: wormwood, black walnut, pine, cedar, juniper
other: calendula, nettles, prickly ash, elderflower
Cold herbs: tend to be sour, may be bitter, and produce sensations of cold and relaxation
Rosacea family: rosehips, rose petals, peach, bitter almond, hawthorn berry, wild cherry
Sedative: lemon balm, elderberry, hibiscus, passionflower, rhubarb, yellow dock
Bitter mints: skullcap, motherwort
Dry herbs: tend to be significantly bitter, and produce an astringing sensation on the tongue
Astringent (for damp-relaxation): raspberry/blackberry leaf, geranium, witch hazel, white oak, black walnut, sage, horse chestnut
Blood purifying & laxative herbs (for damp-stagnation): Burdock root, dandelion root, goldenseal, alfalfa, barberry, Oregon grape, cascara sagrada, senna
Damp herbs: tend to be sweet, salty, oily, produce a moistening sensation and may have a mucilaginous quality (slimy)
Mucilage: comfrey, marshmallow, psyllium, plantain, slippery elm
Oily: flaxseed oil, evening primrose oil, borage, sesame seed oil, hemp seed
Sweet: American ginseng, milky oat seed, red clover, licorice, astragalus
Others: Mullein, cleavers, true solomon’s seal (polygonatum), pleurisy root
Recognition Of Energetic Patterns of Illness
The hot pathological pattern: excitation, overstimulation, inflammation
It is characterized by qualities that we associate with the inflammatory process, i.e. tissues that are red, swollen, tender, sensitive and warm to the touch.
It represents a condition of the tissue or organ where there is an excess of function, an overstimulation, or an acceleration of function.
Pain is often an indicator of this tissue “heat”. When we look at the tongue we may see redness, an elongation and a “flame-like” appearance.
The pulse gives signs of excitation in that it is rapid and felt superficially.
Some common symptoms are nervous excitement, fever, restlessness, sharp pains, heightened allergic response, elevated blood pressure and increased sensitivity to stimuli.
Use cold herbs for hot pattern
For this hot state the traditional herbalist treats by the law of contraries, so an herb with a cooling effect is given. Cooling herbs tend to be sedative in nature, an example being the nervines of the mint family which ease nervous excitability. The strongest of the cooling herbs are so sedating that they can cause unconsciousness (i.e. opium). In modern terms, we also often think of cooling herbs as “anti-inflammatory”, but this distinction may not be particularly useful as just about every herb has been called anti-inflammatory by some source. Many of the herbs high in antioxidants are in the cooling category, which makes sense because oxidation is a kind of burning reaction in the body.
COOL Iced Tea
Hibiscus, Rose hips, Lemon Peel, Peppermint.
Qualities of this Cool Iced tea:
Hibiscus: sour taste, cooling
specific for urinary/reproductive system and inflammation of internal organs.
High in Vitamin C, so immune supportive.
Rose hips: sour, sweet and astringent taste with overall cooling & drying effect.
Specific for inflammation (heat) in respiratory tract, sore throat and mucus congestion
Specific for heat in gut: diarrhea and inflammatory bowel
Lemon Peel: sour, astringent taste with cooling & drying effect
Specific for fevers, irritated sore throat, and summer heat
Specific for heat in the stomach (heartburn), and phlegm (damp-stagnation) in upper respiratory system
Peppermint: cool, dry, aromatic taste
Peppermint is a classic example of a cooling herb, as is made obvious by the sensation on the tongue after ingestion.
It is specific to the digestive system, helping to alleviate gas, stomach pain, and indigestion through its relaxing effect on irritated bowels
It is also a classic remedy for fevers characterized by chills, and interestingly is cooling in its first effects and warming in its secondary effects.
Overall energetics: helpful for fevers, mucous congestion, inflammation in the gut, immune support and as a delicious summer iced tea to keep you cool.
Directions: Steep equal parts of each herb in boiling water for 10-15 minutes, add ice and honey to taste.
The cold pathological pattern corresponds to the tissue state called depression, which is a term that allows us an intuitive understanding.
The cold condition is marked by tissues that are pale, dark, flaccid, lack sensation and are cool to the touch. This signifies diminished blood flow to the tissue/organ and decreased metabolic activity.
This state is characterized by an overall depressed function, decreased sensation and a deficiency of stimulation.
The pulse is slow and deep and the tongue shows us signs of blood stagnation or limited flow: it is dark red, blue, purple or may have pallor.
There is often coldness in the extremities, dark blue complexion around veins, feelings of deep internal cold, and poor circulation.
An exemplary case of a cold condition is anemia, which shows itself in pallor of the mucosal surfaces. Chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes are also often associated with the cold tissue state.
Use hot herbs for cold pattern
Using the law of contraries, an herb that is stimulating and hot is indicated for the cold state. In this class of herbs are the circulatory stimulants, the warming diaphoretics, many of the bitters (especially the aromatics), and any herb which stimulates an organ function or sparks the inner heat of the body (i.e. metabolism). Many of the spices we use for cooking are intuitively grasped as being heating in nature, and rightfully so. The hot class of herbs is thought of as crucial in the treatment of disease, as the vital force of the body is seen as heating in nature. In disease, it is more often the case that there is a lack of heat or vitality rather than an excess of it. Interestingly, chronic low grade inflammation is thought to be more of a cool condition, whereas acute inflammation is a hot condition.
This makes sense from our understanding of the inflammatory process as a healing response to drive off toxins/pathogens and stimulate regeneration. Chronic conditions can be thought of as marked by a deficiency in an adequate healing response, so the disease persists; unable to be driven off by the weakened efforts of the “vital force” (or all those organismal factors which maintain homeostasis). By this understanding, substances which are used in a suppressive fashion, meaning in too high of a dose or too potent of an effect, depress the natural functions of the body and lead to chronic disease. It is all too obvious that a good number of pharmaceutical strength medications have an overall depressive effect on physiology, especially when used for long periods of time (ex. Antiobiotics).
Energetic qualities of this hot tincture
Ginger: spicy, pungent, sweet taste with overall warming & stimulating properties
Specific for constitutional coldness, increasing circulation, muscle cramps & systemic chronic inflammation.
Stimulates digestion, immune system, sweating out colds/flus & a classic for nausea or stomach upset
Cinnamon: spicy, sweet, pungent taste with overall warming, stimulating and drying qualities
Specific for circulatory stimulation, tiredness with feelings of cold, and low immunity
Specific for infections with congestion & chills, and poor digestion, and heavy menses bleeding
Overall Energetics: stimulates heat in a cold weakened body, increases circulation, stimulates sluggish digestion and burns out cold infections
Directions: mix equal parts of dried ginger and dried cinnamon pieces into a mason jar to fill about halfway, then add vodka or brandy. Pour enough alcohol to cover the dried mixture by 1 inch. Let sit in dark place for 2-4 weeks, shaking it up every few days. Strain out the cinnamon & ginger pieces when tincturing is finished, and add honey, or some other flavored syrup to taste. Pour into tincture dropper bottles and use 30-60 drops as needed, advisable to mix into hot water as this tincture is very hot and spicy.
The damp pattern: can actually be divided into two kinds of tissue “dampness”, one being a kind of tissue relaxation and the other a stagnation of fluid.
Damp-relaxation is characterized by tissues which are moist, saggy, lack tone and have lost their elasticity.
The tissues are open, meaning there is active discharge of fluids.
The pulse has a relaxed nonresistant quality to it and the tongue is clear of coating and wet.
This condition is exemplified by an upper respiratory infection where there is copious discharge of thin fluids or in cases of diarrhea, a kind of “relaxation” of the bowels.
It is also shown by copious saliva, sweating, or increased urination.
Here we can use drying herbs, especially those in the class of astringents which tighten tissues to prevent excess fluid discharges. Herbs with tannins help tone these damp tissues, being especially useful in the gastrointestinal tract and for mucosal tissues. It is key to take care in the excess use of these types of herbs as they can lead to withering and wasting of tissues.
Damp-stagnation, on the other hand, is characterized by a lack of fluid discharge that leads to tissues which are swollen, edematous, flabby and weakened.
The tongue is full, lacks tone and is covered by a thick coat, while the pulse lacks sharpness.
Here, if there is discharge it is thick and yellow-greenish.
This condition is associated with an accumulation of toxins from inadequate excretion or eliminative functions.
The treatment of the damp-stagnation pattern is through bitter alteratives or blood purifying herbs that are drying in nature. This is from their ability to increase digestive tract secretions and stimulate elimination (i.e. laxatives and cathartics), which allow for clearing of stagnant fluid and detoxification of tissues.
DRY Hot Tea
Blackberry Leaf, Raspberry Leaf, Green Tea (Jasmine Peony), Red Rose Petals
Energetic qualities of this dry tea
Blackberry Leaf: sour, sweet, astringent with overall drying effect
Specific for loose stools, diarrhea and tonifies the gastrointestinal tract
Raspberry Leaf: cooling, drying, aromatic
Specific for digestion, diarrhea, tonifying the uterus and heavy menses
Green Tea: astringent, stimulating
High in tannins which make it very drying/astringent. Specific for stimulating GI system, nervous and cardiovascular system. High in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory in its effects
Jasmine is also very drying and astringent
Red Rose Petals: sour, cooling, astringent
See rose hips above, rose waters are used for hot arthritic conditions and inflammatory autoimmune conditions.
Drying to conditions characterized by damp-relaxation (diarrhea, heavy menses) and slightly cooling for inflammatory conditions.
The dry pattern is associated with the tissue state of atrophy.
In the dry condition tissues lack moisture, wither, harden and are sclerotic.
The tongue is dry and may be cracked, thin, withered or even red from heat caused by lack of fluid.
This pattern of heat from lack of fluid is known as “false heat” in Chinese medicine, and is associated with a hot presentation (rapid pulse, skin flushing, etc.).
However, the dry tissue state without false heat usually has a weak, slightly tense and uneven pulse.
Overall, the dry/atrophic constitution is characterized by nervous exhaustion, a thin malnourished frame and skin rough from dryness.
For the dry pattern herbs that are damp, moistening and nutritive are indicated. The class of herbs particularly useful are mucilage’s and tonifying herbs that nourish the atrophied state. The mucilage’s work by coating mucosa which allows moisture to be retained thereby soothing the dry tissue state.
Licorice: cooling, damp, sweet
Specific for moistening lungs and stomach ulcers, supporting kidney stress hormone function, and commonly used as a synergist herb in Chinese medicine formulas
Marshmallow: cool, mucilaginous, salty & sweet
Specific as a systemic anti-inflammatory, for hot & dry conditions, stimulating the kidneys, irritated mucosa, cough and supporting digestive health
Comfrey Root: astringent, cold, damp, mucilage
Specific for stimulating growth in tissues, skin repair, detoxification, and discharges from intestines
Specific for bone repair, healing from injuries, and nervous system issues such as epilepsy and insomnia
Energetic qualities of this decocted syrup
Overall this syrup helps bring moisture into the lungs to help with dry cough, cools the body in hot conditions (anti-inflammatory) and helps recovery from conditions of degradation.
REFERENCES AND FUTURE STUDY:
Matthew Wood. 2008. The Earthwise Herbal, Volume 1: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books
Matthew Wood. 2013. The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification
2019 by Dr. Bogdan Makartchuk, Plant Energetics Workshop Handout