Glossary of Terms

If you’re new to a holistic lifestyle, you’ll quickly notice that there are a number of new words to learn. From alterative to vulnerary, holistic health has its own vocabulary. Many of the terms are used by conventional medical doctors as well, but they may not be terms you’ve heard before.

In an effort to help you understand all of the articles here at Holistic Health Traditions, we’ve created this glossary of terms for your use. (Thank you to my son, Nick, for the idea!)

open dictionary
photo credit: Alby Headrick


alterative – an herb that alters the body’s condition to one of health and vitality by improving the assimilation of nutrients, elimination of waste, and generally restoring the proper function of organs and tissues (Alteratives are typically used as long term tonics to improve overall health or to target a specific system, such as the urinary system.)

analgesic – pain relieving

anti-oxidant – an herb or compound that protects the body against free radical damage

antispasmodic – prevents or relieves muscular spasms or cramps (can work for both skeletal muscles and smooth muscles, such as the intestines or uterus)

aperient – a gentle digestive stimulant, very mildly laxative

astringent – contracts, firms, and tones body tissues; can reduce excess secretions (such as mucus) and discharge

bitter – an herb that stimulates the normal secretion of digestive juices, which benefits digestion

carminative – aromatic herbs that are often used in herbal combinations to lend a pleasant flavor; also supports digestion, soothes the stomach, and helps expel gas

decoction – an herbal medicine made by boiling herbs in water or other liquids; often used for tough herbs such as roots and barks

demulcent – herbs that contain mucilage and which relax, soothe, and protect tissues

diaphoretic – dilates the capillaries, thus promoting increased perspiration, which helps encourage elimination of toxins through the skin

diuretic – increases urination

emmenagogue – increases menstrual flow

expectorant – assists the respiratory system to remove excess mucus, especially from the lungs

febrifuge – assists the body to reduce fever

fomentation – a compress made using flannel cloths that have been saturated with a hot or cold liquid and then wrung out and placed on the area to be treated; typically, an herbal infusion or decoction is used for the liquid

galactogogue – increases milk production in lactating women

infusion – an herbal medicine made by pouring hot or cold water over herbs and allowing them to steep (otherwise known as tea)

macerate – to soak; in medicine making, it refers to allowing an herb to soak in a liquid solvent in order to draw the medicinal properties out of the plant and into the liquid

mucilage – a gelatinous substance that contains protein and polysaccharides present in some plants; helpful in soothing irritated tissues

nervine – affects the nervous system, may be relaxing or stimulating depending on the herb used

peristalsis – the rhythmic contractions of the esophagus and intestines that keep digested material moving forward; an integral part of proper digestion

poultice – a preparations of herbs and hot water that is spread on a cloth and applied to the skin; must be kept moist and warm

rubefacient – generates a localized increase in blood flow when applied topically; often used to warm the skin and ease the pain and swelling of joints

refrigerant – a cooling agent which lowers body temperature and reliefs thirst

stimulant – warms the body, quickens the circulation, and breaks up congestion

tonic – improves the tone, vigor, and strength of the tissues and organs by improving the assimilation of nutrients during digestion

tincture – a herbal medicine made by macerating an herb in a solvent, usually alcohol, until the medicinal properties have been fully drawn into the solvent

vulnerary – used externally to help the body heal wounds

If you come across an unfamiliar word in any of the articles here that isn’t defined in the glossary, please let me know!