Terms of the Trade: Aromatics (Carminatives and other Movers and Shakers)
Aromatics are easy to spot. Their strong signature aromas and tastes are dead giveaways. In fact – technically- aromatic is a taste, not an action. The proper action here should likely be labeled carminative (aromatic digestive herbs, generally). However, this action seems to have gotten pigeon-holed as only those herbs which release gas, and that’s a rather limiting definition of a very important class of herbs. I have thus melded a few different actions into one nontypical (at least in modern Western herbalism) category. This is how I tend to view them and how they make sense to me personally. Clinically, I find if very useful to combine the carminative and other aromatic subcategories into this main heading.
The primary action is that of movement with dispersment of heaviness and a general sense of lightening. Their action is due primarily to the volatile oils which give them their aroma. They shift stagnation of nearly every kind, are generally antimicrobial, assist in digestion, stimulate peristalsis and yes indeedy, they help move gas and relieve gas pains. Along with their talent for moving things along, they’re often effectively anti-spasmodic. All together, this makes these herbs excellent aids for energetic, digestive and all around balance.
It’s worth quoting Cook’s writings on anti-spasmodics to give a better understanding of what aromatics do (though he was referring to all anti-spasmodics, not just aromatics):
“In every such case, the muscular irregularity is dependent upon the fact that the nerves will fail to respond to the vital force with freedom and smoothness; and hence the life power reaches the parts in weakened and interrupted waves. This fact covers all spasmodic affections, whether manifested through voluntary or involuntary muscles.”
This goes back to the bit about movement, since the vital force is meeting some kind of interruption or blockage which causes spasms and often pain. Most issues in the body can be traced back to some kind of blockage, mis-direction or squashing of the vital force (or the anima, as it were). What herbs and herbalists do best is to nourish the vital force and to clear, open and strengthen the channels through which it flows in the body (and the rest of the self). That sounds kind of esoteric, but really it’s just a matter of getting ~stuff~ out of the way so that the body can heal itself.
Some antispasmodics can be used as a suppressive measure, sedating the spasm without addressing the underlying cause. And indeed, Peppermint tea may soothe your belly after over-indulgence in a large dose of your favorite problem food (or fake food, as the case may be), it may even significantly lessen the triggered inflammation and pain. However, it does not, and cannot, eradicate the actual sensitivity. No matter how you apply a band-aid, no matter how natural or pleasant smelling or nice it is, it still becomes a band-aid when the real issue is left unresolved. Every time you eat the food (or get really stressed, or deprive yourself of needed sleep, or whatever else your trigger is), your gut is going to flare up, often accompanied by systemic inflammation that will take you down the long, windy road to more and more immune and digestive problems.
On the other hand, when you do address the underlying cause, these aromatic herbs can be ever so helpful in the form of belly healing teas (I emphasize the tea part here, because while tinctures CAN be effective, they don’t coat and saturate the gut the way tea can). Once you’ve removed the root problem, the body will often heal much faster with the help of these soothing, calming herbs. Many of my formulas for IBS and leaky gut related problems are primarily aromatic herbs with a touch of bitter and sweet, with consideration to the individual and their constitution. These tastes are part of the blessing of understanding herbal actions — they give a spoken and sensory vocabulary for what the herbs are all about, and how they will likely interact with our bodies. So while you could memorize a long list of stomach healing herbs, it’s easier and far more adaptable (read: practical) to train yourself to understand the primary qualities of the plant through it’s taste, feel, scent and the other forms of the sensory, tangible language that the green world speaks to us through. In this way, you know the plant in your body, in your head, in your spirit. This knowledge goes far deeper than anything you might memorize or read from a book, it is waking up the wisdom that already lives in your cells. A remembering, you might say, of the integral, innate bond between human and plant.
It has probably already occurred to you that many of our favorites spices are decidedly aromatic, adding warmth and flavor to the food while assisting our gut in the assimilation of nutrition. It’s hard to imagine fine sausage, homemade gingerbread or a rich sauce without the savory bite and tingle of Oregano, Juniper berries, Chives, Garlic, Ginger or the sweeter evocation of Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Vanilla and Cardamom. This is yet another amazing example of how we have adapted/evolved in order to further our survival, well being and even pleasure through our relationship with the plants. There’s so much medicine to be found in the average kitchen, and our species has traded, bought, stole and even fought wars to possess the luxury of enhanced taste these herbs and spices bring us.
In addition to the digestive actions, aromatic herbs are also some of our best nervines and nerve tonics. Some of this is due to their typically relaxing action, but at least as important is that tendency to strongly move stagnation. Much in the way of anxiety, depression, long-term sadness, chronic feelings of grief and other such states are often due, at least in part, to stagnation (physical, spiritual, emotional, you name it). I have found that they can be especially effective for people usually impervious to relaxants of other kinds, especially Tulsi (Holy Basil) and Lavender. Aromatic, diffusive herbs (Ginger, for example) are also excellent at speeding and enhancing the effect of other nervine herbs (such as Peach or Skullcap).
Being antimicrobial, antispasmodic and moving in nature, many of these herbs have a great affinity for the lungs, as well as for moving stuck liver energy, lessening pain and are useful in the treatment of wounds, among many other uses of this class of remedies.
Be aware though, that much in the way of volatile oils must be excreted through the kidneys. This means that large (very large, usually), constantly consumed amounts of many of these herbs could potentially cause kidney irritation. I do think that it would take an enormous amount of Lavender and Basil to cause any problems, but if you have compromised renal function use your common sense, and get to know the individual herbs you are working with.
Examples of Aromatic Herbs
Lemonscent (Pectis angustafolia)
A special sub-category of this is the bitter aromatics, which can cause a dramatic shift in the body and sometimes dramatically stimulate digestion. They are especially appropriate where there is inflammation and heat in the body, with accompanying dampness in the digestive organs, resulting in chronic bloating, possible loose stools and (you guessed it!) flatulence. Sour stomach or chronic belly fermentation (often seemingly from the inability to digest fat/protein but really having to do with carb metabolism) is another indication as is stress or travel-induced constipation.
If there’s primarily coldness and stagnation without heat, then stick with the warming aromatics for the most part. There are, of course warming aromatic bitters as well, like Aster and Fenugreek, and I think of these in the treatment of digestive weakness after or concurrent with chronic illness or some other overwhelming physical debilitation that has resulted in the inability to assimilate and move food through the body.
Mostly though, just pay attention to the energetics of the individual and condition (which are sometimes different) and then match appropriately with the energetics of the herb. It’s a way listening with your whole body.
Examples of Bitter Aromatics
Sage (not necessarily the well known Garden Sage, but many of the native American aromatic spp are also at least somewhat bitter)
Aster (some Asters are just aromatic, some are bitter aromatics)
Goldenrod (again, some spp. are just aromatic, some are bitter aromatics)