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
and many, many more….
Medical Herbalism by David Hoffmann
The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by Matthew Wood
Treatise on Therapeutics by William Cook