Slippery, Slimy & Gloopy - why we love moistening herbs!
Moistening herbs soothe! Demulcent, mucilaginous – both lovely words that describe soothing, moistening herbs. They don’t just soothe though – they reduce inflammation, they calm nerves and stress, and they’re super nutritious too. Human or horse, moistening herbs are a real gift from nature, just when we need them the most. 😉
You may have heard of herbal ‘energetics’ – this is where certain herbs correspond to certain universal forces such as the Four Elements. Originating in Ancient Greece, the Four Elements is a concept that describes air, water, earth and fire as the basis of everything – including health. Aristotle then reasoned that herbs could be classified by four qualities: hot, cold, damp, and dry. These four qualities were further classified by four degrees, indicating the intensity of action, the first degree being mild, and the fourth degree being the strongest.
But it wasn’t just the Greeks - herbs have been classified by their visible actions in traditional medicine systems around the world, with frameworks developed to define and understand the energetics of both the organism (human, horse, dog etc) and plants, and the relationship between the two – these frameworks continue to this day. And one of these structures? Herbs that moisten, aka demulcent or mucilaginous herbs.
Understanding herbal energetics is like learning a whole new language, but once you’re there you can create specific formulations to individualise a herbal recommendation.
When it comes to observing moisture in an organism, it’s thought of on a spectrum ranging from dry to damp. Equally, plants are classified on a spectrum from drying to moistening (most herbs having either drying or neutral actions on the body), and this is what a herbalist needs to know to address the organism’s needs, especially important for where you want to use herbs that may be drying, but don’t want to cause an imbalance if the organism already has more of a ‘dry’ constitution.
Here’s how moisture is viewed in the body and plants by different traditional medicine systems.
The Four Qualities in Traditional Western Herbalism
So, we have the four qualities: hot, cold, damp, and dry, which are further classified by degree, indicating the intensity of action. Note – some herbs can exhibit multiple qualities, i.e. Blue Violet (Viola sororia) is considered both cold and damp in the first degree (mild), whereas Madonna Lily (Lilium candidum) is considered hot and damp in the first degree (mild).
And so to the distinguishing feature of moistening herbs - their mucilaginous texture, which you’ll see me referring to often on our website. And what’s wonderful about a mucilaginous texture? It’s slippery, it’s slimy, and it soothes! If there’s irritated or inflamed tissues, we need gloopy mucilage 😉
As herbalist Matthew Wood outlines, damp in the first degree refers to the ability of a substance to “move through internal passages”. Damp in the second degree implies that “a substance moistens and lubricates upon contact”. Damp in the third degree is associated with “a reduction in hardness”. Finally, damp in the fourth degree is “considered nourishing”.
Regarding constitutions, the tissue state of dryness, sometimes called atrophy, is balanced by using herbs with damp qualities. Atrophy refers to an imbalance between solid components in the body (minerals) and fluid components (water and fat), in which mineral content is too high and fluid content is insufficient.
Many of us know atrophy well - it presents as stiff and brittle tissues, and is associated with conditions such as aging, i.e. dry, wrinkled skin, arthritis, osteoporosis, a dry and cracked tongue, and a thin, weak pulse.
Moistening herbs also tend to have a sweet taste, which is associated with nourishment and cell growth, and is generally anti-inflammatory in nature. Demulcents are also viewed as nervines in imbalances such as dehydration and dryness, because demulcents nourish the mucous membranes and connective tissue, helping to ease the friction caused by dryness, which irritates physiological function.
Nourished tissues are able to hold more water and oil, which are necessary for the movement of nutrients and hormone functions; dryness and malnutrition impact the nerves, which is why a common symptom of atrophy is nervous exhaustion.
In Chinese medicine, everything in life (including plants and people) can be categorised along a continuum of yin and yang. Yin and yang are the energies of ‘life force’, aka qi; one’s health is defined as balance between yin and yang, and illness is the result of an excess or insufficiency of either yin or yang.
Some yin qualities include subtle, watery, heavy, cold, contracting and hidden, while some yang qualities include active, expanding, hot, dry, light and exterior. So, in Chinese medicine, yin is associated with moisture, and dryness is considered a yin deficiency. Some examples of moistening herbs used in Chinese medicine include Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and Dong quai (Angelica sinensis).
In Ayurveda, there are three different ‘energy’ constitutions, referred to as doshas - namely vata, pitta, and kapha. Each dosha has attributes found in differing quantities in everything in nature. Vata attributes include dry, cold, light, mobile, subtle, rough, changeable and clear; pitta attributes include hot, light, fluid, subtle, sharp, malodorous, soft and clear; kapha attributes are cold, wet, heavy, slow, dense, static, smooth and cloudy. Pitta and kapha are the doshas associated with moisture, whereas vata is associated with a lack of moisture.
Moistening/demulcent herbs are considered vata ‘balancing’. Examples of demulcents used in Ayurveda include Flax seed (Linum usitatissimum), Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Chickweed (Stellaria media), and Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis).
Classifying moistening herbs
Herbs are classified as moistening when they display the ability to increase the moisture content of tissues, meaning they bring lubrication and softness to dry, hardened, or brittle tissues.
There are two categories of moistening herbs: demulcent and emollient. The herbal action demulcent refers to herbs that are soothing, cooling, moistening and lubricating to mucous membranes. The herbal action emollient is very similar to demulcent, although typically used to indicate an external action, through topical application, as opposed to an internal one.
How do they work?
Demulcent herbs are rich in complex polysaccharide molecules (a carbohydrate, i.e. starch, cellulose or glycogen, whose molecules consist of a number of sugar molecules bonded together) which together create mucilage, causing them to become slimy and gummy when in contact with water.
It’s thought that mucilaginous herbs promote systemic moistening of the tissues - mucilage has clear and direct actions on the intestinal lining, oesophageal wall, nasal passages, and when used topically on the skin, it soothes and reduces irritation upon contact.
Herbs that are rich in fixed oils are also moistening - these includes most seeds and nuts, and our friend in the equine world, linseed, being particularly useful as the seeds are rich in mucilage as well as oils.
Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)
One of our favourites, Marshmallow is energetically cooling and moistening, with both the leaves and roots used in herbalism. The root has the highest mucilage content – up to around 35% containing polysaccharides – and is most commonly used to ease inflammation in the digestive system. The leaf is slightly less mucilaginous, around 27%, and better indicated in inflammatory conditions of the urinary system and lungs – it’s especially indicated for dry coughs.
Marshmallow has a sweet taste so is also considered a nutritive and rejuvenative tonic, as well as a harmonising herb in diuretic formulations due to its moistening properties helping to balance formulas that are naturally drying, so helping to avoid exacerbating constitutional dryness.
Plantain (Plantago spp., including P. major, P. lanceolata)
What’s not to love about plantain – in our horse world it’s everywhere, and in old folk lore it was thought to grow ‘wherever it was needed’. So everywhere, basically, which makes it a really convenient – and sustainable – herb to use 😉
Both greater plantain (Plantago major) and its close relative, ribwort plantain (P. lanceolata) are used in herbalism, with the leaves high in mucilage and energetically moistening and cooling, making them a soothing demulcent for dry mucosa. Plantain is helpful in easing inflammatory conditions, and is indicated internally for ulcers and IBS, as well as it having good antitussive (cough) properties.
Plantain is well regarded for its emollient and vulnerary actions, along with its antimicrobial and astringent properties, making it a popular herb for topical application. Been bitten or stung? Mash up a plantain leaf or two and apply. It’s also useful as a poultice to draw out splinters. It can be applied topically as a wash or poultice for haemorrhoids and skin ulcerations.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Itchy? Bring out the super-nutritious chickweed! Jammed full of nutrients, this tiny yet potent plant has cooling and balancing energetics, not only cooling heat and inflammation and providing moisture for dry conditions, but it also regulates water levels in the body and helps to clear excess dampness.
It also has high saponin content - saponins are soap-like constituents that can help break down unwanted materials like cysts, excess fats, and cholesterol – so it has the ability to break down fat while also increasing nutrient absorption. If you eat chickweed an hour before eating, it’s even considered a mild appetite suppressant and weight loss support.
However, chickweed is probably best known as an emollient, topically soothing when applied to dry, irritated, and itchy skin; it also makes a useful cooling eye wash. Chickweed is a wild edible readily available to forage and add to salads, and a great addition to homemade juices and smoothies.
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
Mullein is a respiratory powerhouse. Known for its affinity for the lungs and often used for chronic lung issues, energetically mullein is considered moistening and cooling, reducing inflammation while stimulating fluid production, thus it’s a wonderful expectorant for loosening mucus.
It’s specifically indicated for dry coughs which are indicative of thick or hardened mucus, which mullein’s demulcent properties break down, loosening it up and making it easier to expel.
Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Liquorice root is considered one of the most important traditional Chinese herbs, and also hugely popular in Western herbalism. The sweet-flavoured root has moistening actions and strong anti-inflammatory properties, and is well known to support gastrointestinal, urinary and oesophageal inflammation, being a major feature in cough and throat syrups.
Liquorice also has a renowned affinity with the adrenal glands, helping to calm adrenal stress. It’s thought that its anti-inflammatory actions may be due to the way its triterpenes (chemical immunomodulator compounds, amongst others) are metabolised in the body to molecules similar to that of hormones produced by the adrenal cortex.
A quick Safety note: While liquorice is considered a safe herb, liquorice should not be taken on an ongoing, long-term basis. In human health it shouldn’t be used in cases of high blood pressure or cardiac imbalances; it may cause retention of water and sodium, and excretion of potassium, which can lead to oedema, increased blood pressure, and heart palpitations. Use in pregnancy should only be under the guidance of a qualified practitioner.
Liquorice root features in our GutCARE, OptimaCARE (Stage 1) and BioAdvancedCARE Lyme Programme (Stage 1), our respiratory SpringPollen and BreathePlus blends, and our CalmTonic and CushTonic blends where it supports the adrenal response.
Milky Oats (Avena sativa)
The unripe seeds of Avena sativa, referred to as ‘milky oats’, are the part of the plant used for its moistening properties. The seed is ready to be harvested when it releases a white, milky sap upon being squeezed. Energetically, milky oats are moistening, nourishing, and neutral, and considered a wonderful nervine tonic for physical and mental exhaustion.
Super-nutritious, oats are high in carotene, vitamins B, C, D, E, K, and minerals including calcium, magnesium, chromium, and silica. The fresh, milky oat is particularly beneficial as a nervine tonic because it contains alkaloids that promote relaxation. They can be found in many nervine blends, and are considered nourishing to the whole nervous system.
Rolled oats also have demulcent, soothing properties. When mixed with water, oatmeal creates a mucilaginous slime that can be useful for inflamed skin conditions such as rashes due to poison ivy, contact dermatitis, and eczema. Try an oat bath to help soothe itchy, hot conditions, by adding 150g oats into a stocking or thin sock (so as to not make a huge mess in your bath!); tie it off then place it in your bath water, wringing it several times. Not got a bath? Simply fill a container with warm water and dab the oat-filled sock on irritated areas.