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

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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!