How Do Herbs Work and Heal?

The Healing Power of Herbs - Part Four

How do herbs work to heal our bodies? When looking to herbs, we wish them to bring us good health:

“Health is wholeness and balance, an inner resilience that allows you to meet the demands of living without being overwhelmed.”— Andrew Weil, MD

The human body is always trying to maintain this resilient balance, an equilibrium of chemical processes at the cellular and organic level, to remain in an optimum state of health and well-being. If some nutrient is missing or lacking either in amount or potency to keep that balance, then the system is distressed and the suffering is transferred to the whole organism, i.e., the whole body suffers. This, for example, is what happens when you are deficient in a certain nutrient, or malnourished in some way.

If you listen to your body, you will know when something is not right, though defining what that is may be more difficult. Other causes of distress are disease, stress, aging, accidents, etc. I am not suggesting you self-diagnose, as that can be dangerous, and is best left to the professionals.

Multiple documented studies show that herbs help the human body regain this equilibrium by providing support to the immune and other systems. The phytochemicals present in herbs have been found to affect human cells by performing certain specific activities which create a reaction in the body. For example, some herbs are adaptogenic, i.e., they are tonics, strengthening and invigorating the system. One adaptive phytochemical is syringin and it is found in the highest concentration in the following herbs: in the pericarp of the Lemon, Citrus limon; in Siberian Ginseng Eleutherococcus senticosus; and in Common Plantain Plantago major. (1)

There may be hundreds of different activities present in one herb. Phytochemists and herbalists rely on knowing which phytochemical is present in highest concentration to determine which activity will be predominant in that certain herb. The plant’s chemicals work, or perform this activity, by altering our cellular composition and helping us regain our healthy balance. If the phytochemical has toxic properties and is found in high concentration in an herb, then that herb is toxic to us as well.

Plants are not discriminatory; as mentioned above, they can help or they can hurt. It is left to us to choose our herbs carefully so that we gain the most benefit from our plant friends. The herbs suggested in my articles have been carefully chosen because, traditionally and chemically, they have been proven safe to use by many reliable sources, two of which are the Commission E Monographs (2) and extensive research in the Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases by Dr. Duke. (3)

10 herbs to grow in a medicinal garden

  • Aloe, Aloe vera (not cold-hardy but can be grown indoors)
  • Brahmi, Bacopa monnieri (not cold-hardy but can be grown indoors; also this is not the ornamental called “Bacopa,“ Sutera cordata)
  • Catnip, Nepeta cataria
  • Echinacea, Echinacea angustifolia
  • Evening Primrose, Oenothera biennis (biennial)
  • Garden Sage, Salvia officinalis
  • Greek Oregano, Origanum vulgare hirtum
  • Lemon Balm, Melissa officinalis
  • Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis
  • Thyme, Thymus vulgaris

From answering the question how do herbs work and heal, we'll move on to using herbs safely. In my next related article series, we will have a closer look at this list of common medicinal herbs and how to use them to make simple herbal remedies.

by Raymonde Savoie Johnson
Pl. Sc. Tech., Herbal Consultant

References(1) Dr. Duke’s phytochemical database online:

(2) The Complete German Commission E Monographs—Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines, produced by the American Botanical Council. Thieme Medical Publishers, 1998.

(3) Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases by Dr. Duke:

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