(Health Secrets Newsletter) There are herbs that greatly benefit metabolism. These herbs are not stimulants or in any way what we would commonly think of for a low metabolism. They are herbs that help the body calm and regulate the metabolism over time. There is a framework for determining which of these herbs to use for which person. We call this humoral medicine. In this article, we will discuss herbs to help manage any metabolism, and herbs that specifically help counter imbalances in each individual’s metabolism.
One rather simple and very old and widespread concept of healing altered metabolism is still valuable. This is the notion of humors, a method of comparing the vital intelligent life state of the body (which we could also call the metabolic state) to simple, well known terms such as hot/cold, wet/dry, overactive/underactive, excessive/deficient, hypertonus/hypotonus.
To make this discussion useful to all, we will lay out a foundation of understanding for these terms as they relate to each individual.
Hot and Cold are the easiest to see because they come right out of the individual’s personality and get in your face. Primarily, we are interested in whether the gut is hot or cold, but the whole person will have certain characteristics. It is important to know that life is hot so even cold people will have some hot characteristics in them. In fact, the primary difference that I notice in my practice about hot and cold people is expression. Hot people are in your face (which can be positive or negative) and very forthright and outspoken. They have a lot of expressive energy. Cold people have far less expressive energy and tend to be reticent (not shy, that is something else) and reserved. They often sort of disappear in the background and may stay out of the way.
Various symptoms of a cold or hot gut may present. Heat is often associated with toxicity. To the extent that this is true, the hot person may present with a yellow coating on the tongue. The cold person may also be toxic, however, they are simply responding to it differently. Cold people often have a cold-looking tongue. It may have a white or no coating, but it is a thin coating or the tongue may simply look cold, blue and deficient. Only experience looking at tongues can really show you a comparison that you will understand.
The cold person will have a core cold. This is NOT cold hands and feet, which may simply be circulation or liver blood levels. Rather, this person is cold right to the core. Their food tends to not digest well and they tend to be malnourished. Heat is the greatest predictor of obesity in our society for a lot of modern reasons. Obese people are generally hot and their obesity is part of the heated response they have to life. Cold people usually are thin and have trouble gaining weight. Cold people often have low blood pressure and a weak pulse. Cold is associated with deficient (though they are not the same thing) and heat is associated with excess. Excess and deficient are discussed later in the article.
Herbs that warm the person are of two types: first, warming carminatives and second warming adaptogens. Warming carminatives are ginger, cinnamon, fennel, black pepper, cardamom, anise, galangal, turmeric. Warming adaptogens are astragalus, panax ginseng (especially Korean red ginseng), codonopsis, eleuthero. Citrus fruit is also warming almost instantly. Garlic, onions and horseradish are all also very warming and do not neatly fit in the other categories.
Herbs that cool the person are also two types: first, bitter herbs with a deep cooling action and then mild refrigerant herbs. Literally any bitter herb is somewhat cooling, though some have warming characteristics in them also and may be better suited for someone who is less hot, versus more hot. Strong cooling herbs include: Oregon grape root, dandelion root, burdock root, barberry root, yarrow flowers, wormwood, artichoke leaf, gentian. Refrigerant herbs include cucumbers, plantain leaf, mustard greens, lettuce, kale, parsley, chrysanthemum, artichoke flowers (the part we eat).
Of course, herbs are not categories, but are individuals with personality and variety in their characters. As such, each of the above will have both moderating (opposite humoral) actions as well as a variety of individual actions within them. Even so, one who knows his or her humor can begin to use a couple of the herbs that push him/her in the right direction and will gradually, usually over a period of months, regain something of his or her center and balance.
Wet and Dry are easiest to see at the skin. This should not be confused with edema being wet and flaking skin being dry. Actually, those two conditions are more related to heat than to moisture. Wet skin has plenty of moisture under it, while dry skin actually looks like aged, wrinkly skin which does not have sufficient moisture below it. The obese person with a loose, watery gut when you push on it is suffering from moisture. They are prone to low grade infections everywhere (and infection is generally seen as a function of moisture), but especially in the gut. The tongue of a person who is pathologically moist will tend to look fat and full of water.
The pathologically dry person will have a withered tongue that is often cracked. They will have obvious skin signs as stated. That person will probably have other dry symptoms. In today’s world, dry is one of the least likely to be seen conditions simply because grains and sugars both create pathological levels of moisture and everyone is eating grains and sugars. One place that dryness shows up is in illness when the person has a fever and it will not break into sweat.
Herbs that help moisturize the body are all sweet herbs and all mucilaginous herbs. So chamomile and fennel are moisturizing because of the sweet and marshmallow and licorice are moisturizing because of the mucilage.
Herbs that dry are diuretic herbs and herbs that are simply very dry. Diuretic herbs are parsley, plantain leaf, yarrow flowers, juniper berries, uva ursi leaves. Drying herbs by nature are nettle, raspberry leaf, mullein leaf and plantain. Note that plantain leaf is in both categories. This plantain is Plantago species, not the plantain banana species! The most drying formula I know of is plantain leaf, nettle leaf and raspberry leaf. This makes a decent tasting tea and really cleans up moisture and moist toxicity in the body.
Overactive and Underactive are easy to spot as they will show up in the personality. They will be very active or inactive people. Overactive is not the same as hot, but many humoral medicine systems include overactive as part of hot. They are similar, but not exactly the same. An overactive person will tend to burn themselves out from activity, moving too much, working, talking, looking, eating too much and the heat is generated as a byproduct. They are simply active, not in your face about it as hot people are. Active people are easily spotted and if you can shop for produce (and tell the difference between a crisp carrot and a wilted one) you can probably tell the difference between a person who is too active versus a person who is not active enough.
People who are not active enough have thyroid problems as part of their humor. My experience has been that thyroid problems are very rarely primary. In this case, however, healing and activating the thyroid is a very valid approach. Because of this, we think of kelp and other seaweeds and various herbs that do this. We also use herbs that increase vital activity. This can be from vital stimulants, metabolic stimulants (like kelp) and CNS (central nervous system) stimulants, and cardiac stimulants (like green tea, green coffee, yohimbe, cayenne pepper, cactus grandiflorus, etc). We only want to use natural, whole foods (no black tea or roasted coffee or isolated caffeine or sugar) for our medicines and we want to use strong stimulants like coffee and green tea with moderation and wisdom so that they do not overstimulate or create addiction.
Herbs that increase vital activity are divided into 3 categories: those that increase pulse in some way, those that are direct vital stimulants (increase cellular activity) and those that are direct CNS stimulants or cardiac stimulants.
The first category includes any warming herb (fennel, astragalus, garlic) and also cayenne and black cohosh. The second category includes all vital stimulants like cayenne, comfrey, plantain, parsley, wheatgrass, barley grass, peppermint, ginger, prickly ash bark raspberry leaves and nettle.
The third category includes all caffeine containing herbs and also cayenne and cactus grandiflorus. Of course, each of these categories has many, many herbs in it, not just the ones I have ,mentioned. We also have herbs that calm the person who is hyperactive. These are usually nervine herbs and relaxant herbs. A meager list of these herbs includes: lobelia, ginger (yes it is in both categories), catnip, California poppy, Jamaican Dogwood, passionflower, black cohosh, blue cohosh, skullcap, wood betony, chamomile flowers, lemon balm.
Excess and Deficient is a general, overarching category. While hot and hyperactive are generally associated with Yang and excess, they are not the same thing. Excess and deficient form a category to themselves. This category is a screening observation that I do upon first working with someone. If they are deficient, my approach is different than if they are excess because the deficient need to be nourished, especially during humoral healing, which tends to take away all the excess stimulating and burdensome foods from one’s diet.
The excess person may need some alteration also, but generally only a stricter program and herbs that detox and remove excess. The deficient person is the exception today and that person needs some support during the healing process.
Herbs and dietary considerations for the deficient person who becomes too thin too fast and who is weak looking and appears to not have enough storage in him or her will need to include things that build. On this list are potassium broth, maca root, Brazil nuts, wheatgrass, barley grass, oats and oat straw, chamomile flowers, eleuthero, schisandra, saw palmetto berries, chlorella, currants, goose berries, grass roots (fresh), beef or wild animal bone stock, slippery elm, prickly ash, comfrey leaf, nettle leaf, collard greens, seaweeds (except kelp). This person should avoid lots of lettuce-based salads and non-tropical fruits (except berries noted and dried grapes and dates).
For the person who is excess, the approach is simpler. This person needs detoxifying herbs that lend themselves to removal of excess. This includes citrus fruit, especially grapefruit, apples, plums, apricots, peaches, lettuce, kale, chard, cilantro, parsley, all bitter, cooling herbs. Excess people are prone to excess moisture also and usually benefit from drying herbs mentioned above. This person should have bland meals that are very simple. They should avoid stimulation since for the person who is pathologically excess, stimulation of any kind leads to accumulation of excess energy, heat, moisture, toxicity, yang and yin energy, fat and size. Exercise should be of lower stimulation like biking and swimming. Meditation is good to help them feel that things are right just like they are without any more accumulation.
Hypertonus and Hypotonus are opposite ends of a tension spectrum. Think of the person who is rigid and tight, but who also is excitable upon touching and resistant to release, massage and stretching. This person is hypertonus as a matter of humor. The person who is hypotonus has joints that move too easily, they are surprisingly flexible, often (maybe usually) somewhat overweight, soft to the touch and lack durability. The musculoskeletal system is what we have been discussing to measure tone, but it is the least important matter to consider. The real issue is how are the vital organs? Do they have tone? Do they lack tone or are they too tight? Take the liver as an example. If the liver lacks tone, it is not detoxifying or functioning as it should. If it has too much tone, it is not releasing bile and will not open up for adequate blood to circulate through it. Both are problems. What we do about tone is relax or tonify, depending upon need.
The old notion of a tonic is actually usually abused and may not have been clear at its inception. Tone is a matter of humoral state. The use of the word tonic for other purposes, such as something that makes you better when you take it is an abuse of the word and not very helpful when it comes to real needs for healing. There are herbs that tend to improve health, but any herb or food that is just cavalierly used will prove to be a detriment to some and in some situations. When we think of a tonic, for our purposes it will be an herb that increases tone. A relaxing herb will reduce tone and relax the tissue.
Tonic herbs, by this definition, are schisandra, bayberry, cherry bark, turmeric, yellow dock, cascara sagrada, raspberry leaves, mullein leaf, dandelion leaf, plantain leaf, black walnut leaves or hulls. Relaxant herbs would include barberry, chamomile, wild yam, cramp bark, lemon balm, lemon grass, all mints, wormwood, yarrow flowers.
Interestingly, all herbs that have tonic properties have some relaxant properties and the reverse is also true. However, the dominant effect appears to be as it is listed above.
The application of these herbs and their actions in my practice is all about correcting the imbalance in the individual. The response is often slow for real change but immediately they feel somewhat better. It changes slightly how I use herbs in healing and cleansing. I want to get an idea of where exactly the person sits on the scale of each dichotomy. I want to make the correction fit the needs. I will ignore completely very subtle imbalances and will focus on the major imbalances for each person. I will put together herbs and formulas specifically to bring the person back into balance while I simultaneously encourage them to change their overall habits to a healthier state.
Humoral healing is a time tested method to determine your metabolism and find practical responses to each of the various imbalances you might have. By determining if an individual tends toward hot or cold, wet or dry, hyper or hypo activity, what kind of tone they have and whether they have excess or deficient tendencies, we can make intelligent decisions on how to get the most from the herbs and supplements we use for healing. In our fifth and final article in this series, we will talk about cleansing and healing as they relate to metabolism and how to keep metabolism healthy for life by cleansing and healing the right systems in the right way for you!