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Warm up to energetic properties of herbs

Bryce Edmonds

April 24, 2008

5 Min Read
Warm up to energetic properties of herbs

You eat a whopping dose of cayenne pepper—or put it in your socks during winter—and you notice something: sweat, warmth, heat. Fairly obvious, yes? But stopping to consider the larger implications of this event chain can lift your herbal knowledge, and your customers', to a more sophisticated level. There's a reason that hibiscus tea tastes so good during the summer months, for instance. Hibiscus has cooling properties and is known as a refrigerant.

Practitioners of Eastern medical traditions, traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurvedic medicine have long used their knowledge of heating and cooling properties of herbs in prescribing remedies. But giving attention to these energetics is a more recent trend in Western herbalism, says Brigitte Mars, a Boulder, Colo.-based herbalist. "We intuitively know" about heating and cooling, she says, but being able to converse about the yin, or downward-moving, properties of herbs is something else.

Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council, says many of the differences in the understanding of herbs' heating and cooling properties are a result of focus: Eastern traditions tend to be more inner-focused, while Western herbalism tends to look outward. "Generally speaking, the focus on energetics tends to be more prominent in Oriental medicine. And yet there are traditional systems of Western medicine where the ideas of damp and dry, hot and cold are still found," he says. "Traditions that deal with plants from the point of view of their energy, that contain a certain vitality, that transcends the reductionism of modern science."

"The Chinese recognize herbs by their actions on the body and their warming or cooling energies," writes Michael Tierra, L.Ac., O.M.D., founder of the American Herbalists Guild, author of Planetary Herbology (Lotus Press, 1987) and primary formulator for Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Planetary Formulas. He notes that goldenseal, dandelion and comfrey are all cooling herbs, while capsicum and ginger are stimulating or warming herbs. If one does not understand the properties of an herb, "severe repercussions could potentially occur," Tierra writes. "For example, if cooling tonics were given to people already deficient or cold in nature, it might further imbalance them, causing more coldness and deficiency. Likewise, if warming tonics were used in large amounts, they could exhaust the energy of one already in a relatively imbalanced or deficient condition."

Using the language of TCM, Mars says the action of hot and cold is movement. "Yin [cold] herbs have a more downward-moving action," she says, "while yang comes on slower and you feel the effects longer as a warming, upward action." There can also be combinations of actions. While marshmallow root may be a yin, cooling herb, dong quai is also a yin herb—which means it should be cooling—but actually has some warming properties, according to Tierra. Similarly, Mars says, American ginseng has cooling properties, but Asian ginseng is actually more warming. Therefore, "People might want to use Asian ginseng in the winter and American in the summer," she says.

"These are fairly complex issues," Blumenthal says. "They don't fall into simplicity."

As an example, both Blumenthal and Mars note that many spicy herbs and foods grow in warmer climates, and dishes in those areas are often spicy as well. This would seem counterintuitive to the notion of taking warming herbs in winter and cooling herbs in summer. But, notes Mars, yin and yang are always moving. "You might use warm foods for their initial warming tendencies, but then you sweat, which lets go of trapped heat in the body." What might be most important, she says, is the ability of a person to understand his or her constitution when choosing herbs. Another factor to consider is "what's going on for that person in that moment," she says.

And, while the heating and cooling properties of herbs can indeed be a complex can of worms, the benefits will mean happier, repeat customers. "This takes herbalism to another level of refinement," Mars says.

For more information on heating and cooling, visit Michael Tierra's Web site at

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 5/p.34

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