Herbal Energetics + The Six Tissue States
Just like people, plants have constitutions; these are their tendencies, personalities, and certain affinities. This concept is present in many traditions, and is foundational to how medicine is put into practice. The Greeks and Romans developed the concept of humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, blood) and temperaments (phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, melancholic), Ayurvedic medicine is based on the doshas (vata, pitta, kapha), Traditional Chinese Medicine has it’s many constitutions, the resurgence of Celtic Herbal Medicine relies on a model of five elements (earth, air, fire, water, ether), we have categories of body types (endomorph, mesomorph, ectomorph)… there are countless theoretical systems for how to better understand patterns in the human body.
All of this is enough to make your head spin. How do you know which system to rely on? Which one works best? How do I know which herbs do what? Yes, there is a lot of memorization in getting to know herbs for their actions and affinities, but there is a framework for understanding Traditional Western Herbalism and how to put it into practice. Something that really helped things to “click” for me was learning about energetics and tissue states. It unlocked a whole new way of seeing herbs, people, and dis-ease. There are three things I ask myself when trying to figure out which herb/s to apply to a certain situation:
What is this person’s innate constitution? (Are they typically dry, damp, hot, cold, etc.)
What are the energetics of their problem? (Do they have excess heat as in night sweats, or a cold, sluggish digestion?)
What herbs can I use to help bring this person back into balance based on their energetics?
a brief intro about herbal energetics…
How do we determine the energetics of an herb? A lot of getting to know herbs has to do with their taste and how they feel in your mouth. Do they dry your mouth out? That’s indicative of tannins which are astringent. Does it feel warm or spicy? These are generally drying and can help to move stagnation. Does it feel slimy as you chew it? These are demulcent herbs (also often cooling), useful for hot and/or dry tissue states. Bitter and sour tasting herbs are also cooling. An acrid taste is indicative of alkaloids. Chew on a peach leaf. Notice the almond-like flavor? That’s cyanidins which downregulate the nervous system, thus they are cooling to hot tissue states. In fact, cyanide poisoning was detected by the scent of bitter almonds coming from the victim (but a peach leaf won’t poison you). Using our sensory input to inform us about herbal actions and constituents this way is called organoleptics. Understanding the energetics of herbs this way can help when deciding which herb best suits the person and the tissue state of their dis-ease.
on to the tissues…
To oversimplify it, think of it as a system of opposites to which you are seeking to balance. Matthew Wood and jim mcdonald largely deserve the credit for reviving this system in our current Western traditions and making these concepts widely accessible for practice. To further break it down, think of each pair of opposites as belonging to three major functions of the body, and on a spectrum- Metabolism, Moisture, and Tone. Each of these spectrums intersect in the middle, forming a six-armed star, and the goal is to bring the person back into balance, ideally landing in the middle to achieve homeostasis.
Heat/Cold or Excitation/Depression
We aren’t always talking about temperature here, but sometimes- as in when there is obvious infection and there is heat, redness and swelling. More often, we are referring to hot and cold as over active or under active in the context of how the tissue/organ system metabolizes energy. Heat/cold is also referred to in the herbal world as excitation/depression. Is the tissue/organ system working overtime or struggling to keep up?
If we are thinking of heat/excitation as hyperfunction, then a hot tissue state can look like histamine reactions, anxiety, being overly sensitive to light/sound, autoimmunities, as well as obvious inflammation or infection. Depending on the situation, these situations call for cooling bitters (skullcap, chamomile), sour (peach leaf, hawthorn berry), or demulcent herbs (marshmallow, violet, chickweed), which are all generally cooling. Adaptogens and immunomodulators could fit the bill here too (ashwagandha, reishi, licorice).
When cold/depression is present the tissues are in hypofunction. A cold tissue state can present as a sluggish digestion (lack of digestive fire), cold extremities (depressed function of circulation), hypotension, brain fog, or dull, achy joints that feel better with heat. In these situations, we want to try to stimulate the tissue/organ system back into healthy function. Bitters show up here again because they generally increase function (especially digestive), but we might look for a warming bitter like angelica or goldenrod. Warming/spicy herbs like ginger or cayenne, or warming aromatics (most are warming) like rosemary or pine would all be contenders for working with cold/depression depending on the situation.
Damp/Dry or Stagnation/Atrophy
For damp/stagnation, think of a bog. Another word used for damp/stagnation is torpor, a term used by the Eclectic physicians. The body’s means of eliminating fluids is backed up somewhere, and things are moving very slowly or not at all. Conversely, a tissue state of dry/atrophy can either be a lack of water or oil in the tissues, and there are herbs for each of these deficiencies. Prolonged dryness for either of these reasons eventually leads to atrophy in the tissues.
A damp/stagnant tissue state can look like edema (tissues are spongy and full of water), or hard swollen lymph nodes. Dampness can also result from a relaxed tissue state where the tissues are lacking in enough tone to hold in their moisture. Depending on the situation, you’ll want to reach for alterative/blood cleansing herbs (echinacea, yellow dock, red clover, nettle, dandelion), lymphatic herbs (cleavers, calendula), astringents (yarrow, goldenrod, raspberry leaf), and I also see elderflower indicated here, based on Matthew Wood’s observation that it helps to open the channels of elimination.
When the tissues are dry/ in atrophy, they are lacking the waters and/or oils needed to function. They are hard, brittle, weak, or withered. Think of an old dried out leather belt. It’s cracked and has lost its pliability. Mucosa could be dried out, resulting in things like constipation or emphysema. It could also present as the stiffness in arthritis, the withering of bone density in osteoporosis, or brittle hair/nails. Depending on how the tissue state presents, this calls for herbs that contain mucilage (marshmallow, comfrey), oily herbs (burdock, sage, flax, borage), tonics (dandelion, nettle, ginseng). The idea is to bring nutrition back into the tissues to restore function and balance.
Tension/Relaxation or Constriction/Atony
Tension is also called wind or constriction. The natural flow of energy in the body is blocked, which can stem from physical or psychological tension/constriction resulting in rigidity or spasm. A lack of necessary tone is when the tissues are relaxed or atonic. Think of a guitar string. It needs just the right amount of tension to make the right tone. Too much and it can snap at the slightest touch. Too little and it sags and makes no tone at all.
A tense tissue state can look like muscle spasm, an asthma attack, a panic attack, hiccups, shivering, tremors, alternating chills/fever, or alternating between constipation/diarrhea. An easier way to understand why “wind” is related to this tissue state is to look at how the wind can suddenly change directions without warning, causing sudden movement. It was common for the old physicians to use elemental words like this to explain things they observed in the body. To break the state of tension, herbs with an acrid taste or sensation are often used (lobelia, kava, black cohosh, pulsatilla, boneset, blue vervain). The acrid taste of these herbs hits the back of your throat in an almost nauseating way and are usually used in smaller doses.
A relaxed tissue state can often occur with dampness due to the fact that the tissue is so relaxed that it cannot hold its fluids or perform its structural function. You can imagine a faucet stuck on or a balloon that was over inflated then deflated. A relaxed tissue state can look like organ prolapse, hypermobility, loss of fluids by excessive sweating, diarrhea, excessive urination, or bleeding. Astringent herbs are the star in this category because they contain tannins which tighten and tone tissue and have a secondary effect of drying out dampness. Some astringent herbs are yarrow, rose, oak bark/leaf, raspberry leaf, agrimony, lady’s mantle, goldenrod, wild geranium, black walnut, and witch hazel.
Please note that these are not hard and fast rules. Resist the urge pigeonhole things into just one category or another, or to one extreme or the other. These systems are designed to help us see overarching characteristics and recognize patterns of behavior in people, plants, and dis-ease which are all very complex organisms. You will encounter many exceptions to rules and overlapping energetics and coexisting tissue states. Choosing the right herbs for each nuanced situation also requires getting to know the plants and what their affinities are. At the very least, I hope this gets you started thinking like an herbalist!
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Study Guide to the Six Tissue States, Matthew Wood (class handout)
Understanding Tissue States, Kiva Rose
Humoral Temperaments…adapted (or perhaps corrupted) for mongrel herbalists, jim mcdonald (handout)
The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, Matthew Wood (affiliate link)*
The Modern Herbal Dispensatory, Thomas Easley/Steven Horne (affiliate link)*
Celtic Herbal Medicine, Keith Robertson/Danny O’Rawe
*Whenever possible, I like to buy books from bookshop.org, and I’ve compiled a list of books I frequently use as references. They raise money for local bookstores, and purchasing through this link also gives me a small commission. View the rest of my book list here.