What are Herbal Energetics?
Many times we hear a word and it evokes a thought or a belief we may have that might not be accurate. This is very often the case when Christians hear the word “energetics” used in herbal medicine. We may correlate this word to mystical pagan beliefs and practices, but such a correlation is not always completely accurate. What has happened in many historical systems of medicine is that the culture using the system has brought in their own religious beliefs and mingled them with their system of medicine. We all do this because healing the physical is integrally linked to the spiritual realm. Although we may not share a common ideology, in order to learn from the vast wisdom of the past, we have to be able to mine the gems of the system and leave behind the rubble.
One thing that can both help and hinder our learning is vocabulary. As I stated before, it is very easy to think we know what a word means or assign meaning to that word based on our beliefs. This very thing has kept me from digging deeper into traditional systems of medicine in the past. But once I discovered the true meaning of the words being used, the systems began to make sense and I could use them as tools without the fear of treading into an undesired spiritual arena.
I would like to explain herbal energetics by first defining some key terms used in Traditional Western Herbalism. The term energetics most easily correlates to the word “properties”, more specifically the properties we experience through our senses. Herbal energetics is recognizing and categorizing diseased or unhealthy tissue states and choosing herbal remedies for the tissue state based on the properties of the herb.
Categories of Tissue States
Throughout the world and across time, there have been many systems of medicine. Each system has developed ways of organizing disfunction in the body and applying remedies. In most traditional systems, there are usually between four and six tissue states. The model that most modern traditional western herbalists use is a six tissue state model that was developed by JM Thurston in the early 1900’s and made popular by Matthew Wood. The six tissue states are based on the combination of the four tissue states used by the Greeks (damp, dry, hot, cold) and two tissue additional states used during the late eighteenth century (tension and relaxation).
I would like to make a clarification here. The tissue states are not necessarily the same as the constitution of the person. A person’s constitution is usually a combination of several tissue states. For instance, someone could be constitutionally cold and dry. Maybe they don’t have adequate peripheral circulation, their hands are dry and cold, they get constipated easily, and they have frequent headaches because they are dehydrated. This same person could experience a problematic tissue state that is damp and hot, such as poison ivy. Even though the person’s normal tissue state is cold and dry, because of the irritation and oozing of the poison ivy rash we are going to use herbs to tighten (dry up) and cool.
There are times when the constitution of the person comes into play in our herbal decision even if the condition is energetically opposite of their constitution. For instance, the person may be cold and dry, but have a damp, irritated (heat) cough. This requires us to take a balanced approach in our choices of remedies making sure we don’t slow (cool) things down or dry things out too much.
How to Put Herbal Energetics into Practice
When I am working with a client or treating my own family, there are many things I am looking at and thinking about. It is hard to put these in a chronological order, because they often are revealed simultaneously. Herbalism often reminds me of putting a puzzle together. You look for position (is it a side piece or middle piece), color (what other colors does it match), and shape (if I have a protruding piece it needs a place to nest) all at the same time allowing your brain to switch back and forth as new information becomes available.
This is what I do when I work with a client. I begin by discovering their constitution. Sometimes this makes a big difference in treatment, other times it does not. Regardless, it is good to have a firm knowledge of who your patient is and what their constitution is like. I also look at the tissue state and assess what is going on with the diseased or unhealthy tissue. Sometimes it is easy to tell and other times it is really a matter of trial and error. If someone is experiencing diarrhea, it is obviously a (damp) relaxed tissue state. Or if they have been burned while cooking, the tissue is hot and requires a cooling remedy. However, the person may have a cough and you are not sure if it is because the tissue is too tense or too cold. In this case, you have to try different remedies (or combinations of remedies) and adjust if the desired result doesn’t occur.
The next thing that I think about is the energetics (properties) of the herbs. The energetics of many herbs can be discovered simply by tasting them. If you are unsure, there are many resources that include energetic information. However, there are many instances where herbalists disagree on the energetics of a plant. After all, the properties are determined by our own sensory perceptions of taste. The taste of the herbs can give us clues as to what actions the plant will have and many times what constituents it has as well. For instance, if tasting a plant leaves a dry, puckering taste in the mouth (like eating an unripe banana), we can ascertain that the plant is astringent (tightening) and contains tannins.
Another thing that I think about in choosing herbs is the organ or system affinity of the herb. While there may be many herbs that are energetically similar, the affinity of one herb may be more appropriately used for the condition over the other. While both hawthorne and peach are very cooling herbs, hawthorn has a strong affinity for the cardiovascular system while peach is better suited to the digestive system. In a pinch you can sometimes substitute energetically similar herbs, but choosing organ/system specific herbs helps to hone in and address the issue more specifically.
Putting it All Together
I realize that I have not even scratched the surface of explaining herbal energetics and its use in Traditional Western Herbalism. But I hope that I have at least conveyed the premise that using an energetic system is simply a way to use our God-given senses to determine which herbs are needed based on the state of the tissue we are treating. It can be very comforting to an herbalist to learn how to judge the properties of the herbs and the states of the tissues and meld these together. It reminds me of when I was a little girl and my mother would cut aloe vera leaves and rub the gel on our sunburnt skin. She didn’t know the constituents of the aloe vera plant or the cellular damage done by the sun. She simply knew that the cool, moist gel would sooth our dry, hot skin. This is the core of herbal energetics.
1. Wood, M. (2004). The practice of traditional western herbalism: Basic doctrine, energetics, and classification. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
2. McDonald, J. (n.d.). Herbcraft – Herbal Properties & Actions… Retrieved November 30, 2016, from http://www.herbcraft.org/properties.html
Herbal Energetics Resources:
Grieves, M. (n.d.). A Modern Herbal. Retrieved November 30, 2016, from http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/mgmh.html
Wood, M. (2008). The earthwise herbal: A complete guide to Old World medicinal plants. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Wood, M. (2008). The earthwise herbal: A complete guide to New World medicinal plants. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.