What is an Alterative Herb & Why You Should Use Them (Plus a Recipe for Balancing Nutrition Tea)
Herbs have specific “actions” on our bodies, and when you get to know what these are, it becomes easier to decide which herbs to use and for what reason. One of the actions herbs can have is to be “alterative.”
Awhile back I wrote about adaptogenic herbs (and how to make brain candy), what they are, and why they are so very valuable. Well, I would say alterative herbs are as necessary for our health and balance as adaptogens in many cases.
If you remember, an adaptogen is an herb that helps the body adapt to stressors. An alterative is an herb that helps different systems in the body “alter” and provide balance and health. This is a simplistic definition, so let’s explore what an alterative is and how to use them a little further.
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What is an Alterative Herb and How to Use Them
Often known as “blood purifiers” or “detoxifiers,” alteratives don’t really act directly on the blood to purify or detoxify it. Instead, an alterative works on the body system or the organ in question, and this in turn helps the body become more balanced, the blood freer of toxins, and the body organs simply work better by improving metabolic actions.
There are a variety of different definitions of what the herbal action “alterative” means from well-known herbalists. Let’s take a look at some of these, and find some commonalities:
Rosemary Gladstar, my first herbal teacher from the Science & Art of Herbology, has been teaching others about using herbs for health for over 40 years. She’s a star in the herbal world and the author of my favorite book to recommend for folks new to learning about herbs: Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide.
Here is what she has to say about alteratives:
“Commonly referred to as Blood Purifiers.” These are agents that gradually and favorably alter the condition of the blood. They aid the body in assimilating nutrients and eliminating metabolic waste products: Neutralizes acidic conditions in the body: Aids in protein assimilation. Generally extremely high in minerals and some vitamins.”
David Hoffman, author of The Herbal Handbook: A User’s Guide to Medical Herbalism and The Complete Herb Sourcebook states:
“Alteratives are herbs that will gradually restore the proper function of the body and increase health and vitality. They were at one time known as ‘blood cleansers.’ …Their mode of action on the body is not understood, but their value in holistic health care cannot be doubted. In broad terms they act to alter the body’s processes of metabolism so that tissues can best deal with the range of functions from nutrition to elimination.”
All of the following quotes are from an email written by Jim McDonald, a Michigan herbalist, about alteratives. He hosts the website, www.herbcraft.org, and is well-known in the herbal world. According to him, these famous herbalists state:
Michael Moore, an herbalist with a charming personality and the author of some of my favorite foraging books (such as Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West and many others) says:
A term applied in naturopathic, Eclectic, and Thomsonian medicine to those plants or procedures that stimulate changes of a defensive or healing nature in metabolism or tissue function when there is chronic or acute diseases. The whole concept of alteratives is based on the premise that in a normally healthy person, disease symptoms are the external signs of activated internal defenses and, as such, should be stimulated and not suppressed…”
Michael Tierra, author of The Way of Herbs, states:
“These are agents that gradually and favorably alter the condition of the body. They are used for treating toxicity of the blood, infections, arthritis, & skin eruptions. Alteratives also help the body to assimilate nutrients and eliminate waste products of metabolism. The choice of alterative depends on matching the accompanying properties of the herb with the specific nature of the condition being treated.”
John William Fyfe, M.D.:
“Alteratives produce gradually such a change in the functions of organs as to permit a healthy action to take the place of disease.”
Jim McDonald (in the same email as the quotes above) states:
“I would describe alteratives as herbs that ‘feed and nourish the body to promote ~systemic harmony~ . What this means is that they get the individual organs and systems of the body working in tune with each other, which in turn improves the functioning of the whole. … Each individual alterative also has special affinities. If we learn about these herbs, we can discover what these are and use these specific indications to create blends to address individual circumstances. For example, nettles & oats nourish the adrenals, and can help to focus on that area if it is a significant factor in the imbalance…. Being a little more specific, though, I generally identify alteratives as herbs that strengthen health by nourishing the body and promoting both assimilation and detoxification by imrpoving metabolism. They can be, then, described as ‘metabolic tonics’.”
Essentially, alteratives somehow help our body systems work together for a healthier metabolism and will strengthen systems and organs. By acting on our bodies in this way, alteratives help us utilize the nutrients in our foods and help our organs remove the wastes that are byproducts of these natural processes.
“THIS is why using alteratives on a regular basis is better than ‘detoxing’ every few months.” (McDonald)
The bottom line on alteratives is that they should be made a regular part of our daily habits. Of course, we can choose alteratives that will specifically address a certain organ or system, but regular use will help keep us balanced.
A Short List of Common Alterative Herbs
There are many, many herbs that will have an alterative action on the body, so I’m going to keep this list to the main ones most of us are familiar with. If you know of one that should be added, please let me know in the comments section!
I’m including the herb as well as the part of the body the actions of the herb primarily act upon:
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense): General skin problems, including eczema
Calendula (Calendula officinalis): Overall nutritive and body support
Burdock (Arctium lappa): Skin issues, including eczema & psoriasis; kidney function
Cleavers (Galium aparine): Useful as a lymphatic tonic
Nettles (Urtica dioica): Useful as a liver tonic and supports the entire body. (Find out how to make and use Nettle Powder here.)
Mullein (Verbascum sp.): One of my favorite herbs, and is useful for the respiratory system
Buchu (Agathosma betulina): Helpful for the urinary system.
Dandelion (Taraxacum oficinale): Another wonderful liver tonic herb.
Using Alterative Herbs
Since alteratives are primarily balancing herbs and high in nutritional value, they are generally safe to use regularly with a few exceptions. I always say: Do your research and be sure to find at least three reputable sources that back each other up, because there is a lot of “hooey” out there these days.
Most alteratives can be used in tea blends or tinctured in blends or singles. In fact, I love to add nettle leaves to my tea blends, just because they are such a nutritious and liver supporting herb. I also love to use many of these in my cooking, like my Nettle Powder.
Recipe for a Healthy & Nutritious Alterative Tea Blend for Balance:
2 parts Dandelion leaves
3 parts Nettle leaves
1 part Red Clover
2 parts Marshmallow leaves & flowers
2 parts Ginger Root (dried chips)
NOTE: If you’d like more flavor, you could substitute a part or two of peppermint or lemon balm with one of the parts of nettle.
Just blend all the parts together, and enjoy your tea!
You can learn how to make the perfect tea infusion in this article. You might also enjoy this recipe for Liver Tonic Tea, as well.
If you’d like to learn how to formulate your own tea blends, you’ll enjoy this article or this eBook, How to Create Your Own Herbal Teas for Pleasure & Health (recipes included).
Buying your herbs: The links above are to Amazon for your convenience, but I also love to buy my herbs from Starwest Botanicals.
Final Thoughts on Alterative Herbs…and the Balancing Tea Recipe
One thing is quite clear: Alterative herbs have a wide range of uses, and there are a LOT of them. Remember that herbs have more than one single action most of the time. Therefore an herb can be an alterative while also being a diuretic, for example.
This category of herbs is highly valued for general health and metabolism. Who wouldn’t want to add a few of these herbs to their daily diet, especially through a delicious tea?
You may also enjoy my series on How to Start Using Herbs:
And that’s all for alteratives for now. I hope you’ll consider adding them to your daily diet!
**If you’d love to learn about herbs from an incredible online herbal school (besides Rosemary’s above) is the Herbal Academy of New England. They have classes for all levels and interests.
Hugs, Health, and Self-Reliance,
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Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor. Any and all statements I make in print or word are for informational purposes only and not meant to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease. Please be sure to seed advice from your medical professional before using herbs or essential oils. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.
https://www.henriettes-herb.com/archives/best/2003/alteratives.html (Jim McDonald email)
Gladstar, Rosemary. The Science & Art of Herbalism course materials
Hoffman, David. The Herbal Handbook: A User’s Guide to Medical Herbalism