Feb 042008

In the simplest sense, alteratives are those herbs that restore function to the body by way of the metabolism, through increasing both eliminative functions and also through increasing the absorption of nutrients. While they effect the entire metabolism, they can be said to especially effect the kidneys, liver, lungs, skin, bowels and lymphatic system. Alteratives are the well known “blood cleansing” herbs of yesteryear, so often depended upon to restore well being after a long winter of potatoes, salted meat and little fresh green food.

I have heard some people say that we no longer need “blood cleansers” since we have access to fresh food year round and are no longer effected by so many seasonal restrictions. Yet, it seems to me that perhaps the case is that many of us actually need alteratives year round rather than just in the spring due to the incredible lack of nutritious food, fresh air and movement we are exposed to. Some schools of thought also strictly relegate these herbs to very specific symptom pictures, but I tend to see them as the supreme generalists, capable of optimizing the healing process in almost anyone.

Alteratives are best used as a long term approach, as their action tends to be slow, steady and thorough. These plants may be our best class of medicines for chronic disease, especially those due to damage done by long term inflammation caused by food allergies, nutritional deficiencies and environmental toxins.

Nearly any sort of metabolic sluggishness or impairment usually indicates the need for alteratives, but certain symptoms are specific signals for persistent use of these wonderful plants. These symptoms are a part of a pattern that was once called “bad blood” and include chronic infections, swollen glands and generally depressed immune function. “Bad skin” is another indication for alteratives, as is chronic fatigue, any form of cancer and emotional disorders stemming from impaired digestion and metabolism.

You could say that alteratives are a suitable part of treatment for nearly any disorder, and even as maintenance for optimal health. And in fact, many herbalists base the great majority of their formulae on an alterative. Favorites include Stinging Nettle, Dandelion, Red Clover, Elder and Burdock. All of which most of us will recognize as popular herbs to be taken on a daily basis, and considered both nourishing and gentle.

Two cautions should be observed in the use of this class of herbs. One, is that if the life force of the individual is severely compromised, then care must be taken not to overload the system with the sudden circulation of waste products. Even during a long term infection or lymphatic stagnation in a normally healthy person, the use of strong alteratives can lead to a temporary sense of unwellness or systemic “toxicity”. Secondly, alteratives as a whole tend to be drying and for those individuals who are already dry in constitution should be careful to include a moistening herb to the mix, even a pinch of Mallow or Elm to a Nettle infusion can make a big difference. Or the individual should be careful to select one of the less drying herbs like Red Clover or even Burdock.

Expect to use an alterative for a minimum of a month and sometimes many months before seeing significant changes in most cases. This doesn’t mean they’re not working, it’s simply their nature to take a long term approach.

For further understanding, I’m including a small list of other common alteratives. These herbs may also have other primary functions but all serve to restore bodily wholeness through the metabolism in some way.

Oregon Grape Root
Yellow Dock
and many, many more….

Medical Herbalism by David Hoffmann
The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by Matthew Wood
Treatise on Therapeutics by William Cook

  5 Responses to “Terms of the Trade 2: Alterative”

  1. alteratives are very specific for those folks with damp heat as well, in which case their cooling and draining effect is just what the herbalist ordered….of course it is all so individual , isn’t it?

  2. alteratives… I LOVE alteratives.

    I think its more appropriate to think about them as “metabolic tonics” than as “blood cleansers/purifiers”, since their action is main manifested via metabolic function (the whole of it – assimilation and utilization and elimination), and the end result of “purifying blood” comes from this process, rather than a direct action on the blood itself.

    I like to think of all alteratives as working via this process, but each individually having sway over specific portions of it. So, yellow dock and dandelion and nettle and cleavers are all metabolic tonics, but yellow dock and dandelion are more specific to the liver and lower GI, nettle to the adrenals and kidneys, cleavers to the kidneys and lymph… Burdock seems, to me, to have the most equalized action, affecting all the systems without being so focused on a few.

    Of course, there are exceptions all over the place, since the boxes we fit over plants to catagorize them are our constructions, not theirs… for example, red root, poke, echinacea and baptisia are all considered alteratives, but primarily act via the lymph and not so much on metabolism.

    I think, though, that many alteratives exist in the hazy undivided territory between food and medicine. Many metabolic woes, I deem, come from the fact that we don’t consume alterative foods anymore.

  3. Darcey, yeah that tends to be generally true, although there are certainly warming alteratives as well… I do feel like alteratives are appropriate for nearly anyone, so didn’t want to give the impression of pigeonholing it… in my next alterative post, I shall go into that more.

    jim, I agree, but then the word tonic gets so tricky, so I’ve not been using it much lately until I come up with a consistent definition to post and use over and over… I certainly do not think of alteratives in terms of blood cleansing but its a good reference point since it’s been so culturally common, and being from the South I have to give the term a nod LOL

    I did lump lymphatics and more general alteratives together for this post, since it was made for a general audience. You’ll most likely be happy to hear that there’s two more alterative posts coming, one on alterative foods and one on alterative differentials (have you been sneaking looks at my notes jim? it almost seems so from your comment…). I chose to break them up for simplicity’s sake.

    and one of these days I’d like to do a whole post on the connections and overlaps between the lymph and the metabolism….

  4. We talked a little about the term blood purifier at school, and Paul’s theory is that alteratives really work on the Extra cellular fluid, not really the blood,but the waste that cells put out into the extracellular fluid that hasn’t been carried away by lymph in a sluggish system….

    Alterative is such a broad term, as you said, there are a zillion different sub categories among alteratives….i just think of them as altering the way the system functions. Call it elimination, circulation, metabolism or what have you… I guess I’m not a real fan of such general “categories’ in which herbs are classified. I know you’ve already spoken to this in a previous post, but most herbs are so much MORE than their category…


  5. Well yes, if there was actual impurities in the blood, there’d be big trouble LOL, but southern people especially understood a great deal of imbalances to stem from the blood… though the blood was more of a metaphor in some cases. Kind of like the TCM blood or yin or so on…

    Herbs are certainly more than their categories, Violet or Burdock are certainly MORE than alteratives… but they are also just that, alteratives. I think these categories are very useful reference points. And traditional medicine such as TCM and Ayurveda have partially survived so long because they provide a useful reference point that works for their practitioners. All words create categories, and therefor, limitations. But in the same way, the words allow to understand each other more quickly and efficiently. It’s a balancing act of course.

    I do think metabolism is a very specific thing, and that most alteratives are very specific to the metabolism, and that most herbalists would do very well to understand the metabolism much better. And of course metabolism is much more than elimination or circulation…

    Every herb has its own core nature, and way of being in the human body, but the larger patterns are also useful in the right context. I mean, wouldn’t it be difficult to communicate about herbs without any terminology, no “stagnant qi” no “diaphoretic” no “yin deficiency” ?

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