Herbal Chemistry

A herbalist should be fully aware of details about the pharmacology of herbs, a basic understanding of it is more than enough. Herbs are used for healing the human body, they are considered to be holistic agents, and they are used on a physical and biochemistry level. Many pharmacologists try to find out the constituents of herbs, place them according to their chemical groups and have done numerous researches and have found herbs to be very complex in their characteristics. Herbs contain a huge variety of chemicals like water, inorganic salt, sugars, carbohydrates, proteins that are highly complex, and alkaloids.

Plant Acids:

An example of weak organic acids is generally found among plants, lemon is the perfect example of citric acid. Organic acids can be split into those based on a carbon chain, and those, which contain a carbon ring in their configuration, but what both have in common is the -COOH group. Chain acids are also known as aliphatic acids, which can range from formic acid (the simplest one, found in the stings of the nettles) to the more complex chain acids like valeric acid and citric acid. Valeric acid is being used in sedatives in allopathic medicine.

The ring acids are known as the aromatic acids, they form a crucial pharmacological group. The most uncomplicated aromatic acid is benzoic acid, which is found in foods like cranberries, resins, and balsams, like Peru balsams, gum benzoin, and tolu. These acids are used in antiseptic lotions and ointments and they are also used for antipyretic and diuretic actions. One can cure a chronic bronchial problem just by inhaling these acids.


Alcohols are found in a variety of forms in the plant kingdom, they are mostly a component of volatile oils or sterols, for example, geraniol in attar of rose and the menthol in peppermint oil. Waxes too are also a common form of alcohol. Mixtures of alcohols and fatty acids are generally found on leaves and other parts of the plants. Carnauba wax is acquired from the palm Copernicia cerifera.

Volatile Oils:

Volatile oils are a combination of simple molecules like isoprene or isopentane, which can mix in various ways to produce terpenes. It is a basic mix of 5 carbon molecules, sometimes with slight differences here and there. All this combines to make the volatile oils.

Volatile oils are mostly found in aromatic plants, herbs like peppermint and thyme are the perfect example of volatile oils. The combination of the oils and the smell can be in variations, even if they belong to the same types of the plant, basically, it all depends on the concentration of the oils. When these oils are extracted from the plants, the aromatic oils are produced, which are used for many therapeutic treatments, and the major part of the production is used to manufacture perfumes.

There is a wide range of aromatic oils and they each have specific qualities, though most of these oils have some common characteristics, which are worth learning about.

Most aromatic oils are antiseptics; oils like eucalyptus oil, garlic oil, and thyme oil fall under this category. These oils are absorbed with ease inside the body and they are effective for both internally and externally on the whole body system. When they are consumed internally or applied externally they land up finally in the urinary system, lungs, bronchial, sweat glands, saliva, tears or vaginal fluids. They can even occur in breast milk and during pregnancy can go to the placenta inside the fetus. Apart from having antiseptic functions, it can also encourage the creation of white blood cells, therefore increasing the immune system of the body.

Volatile oils have the quality of arousing the tissues they come in touch with, some oils like the mustard oils irritate the skin slightly while oils like menthol and camphor leave a numb feeling. Both these oils help in digestion arousing the lining of the colon which gives reflex reaction thus increasing the gastric juices to flow, which also makes the person feel hungry. People, who suffer from acute pain, can benefit from these oils by calming the peristalsis in the lower part of the intestines.

Volatile oils are also beneficial for the central nervous system. Oils like for example chamomile oil, are known to calm and sedate while peppermint oil helps in stimulation, both these oils have the quality so easing out any tension in the body system thus reducing conditions like depression or tension. When there is an external application of aromatic oils on the body, the aroma is easily transferred through the nose to the brain, triggering an instant reaction.

Herbs, which contain volatile oils, have to be retained by storing them carefully in sealed bottles or containers, as volatile oils can evaporate with ease.


There is a huge variety of carbohydrates in the plant kingdom, they are found in foods like sugar: fructose and glucose, they are also found in starches, which is the storage of the main energy and they can also be in the form of cellulose which is much more complex or elaborate, which helps in supporting the structure of the plants.

Large cellulose known as polysaccharides combines with other chemicals and produce molecules known as pectins, which are generally found in fruits like apples or even in seaweeds like algin, agar or even carragum, which are found in Irish moss. They are very effective and have the power to cure and are used in producing gels, which are further used in medicines and foods.

Gums and mucilage are carbohydrates, which are complex in nature and are retained in soothing and healing herbs like coltsfoot, plantain, and marshmallow. Once applied it relaxes the lining of the gut, arousing a reflex reaction that goes to the spinal nerves to areas like the lungs and the urinary tract. The mucilage not only reduces irritation, it even reduces inflammation of the alimentary canal, it also decreases the sensitivity of the gastric acids, can cure diarrhea and reduce peristalsis, it also cures the respiratory system, lessens coughing and tension, and increases the secretion of watery mucus.

Phenolic Compounds:

Phenol is a bulging block of many components of plants. The compounds of phenol could be simple in structure or could be a composite of a variety of basic molecule. One of the simplest phenolic compounds is salicylic acid, which is generally found in the combination of sugar, it forms glycoside found in willow, cramp bark, meadowsweet, and wintergreen. It functions as an antiseptic, painkiller and has anti-inflammatory functions too. It is utilized in most allopathic medicines like aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid is the main component if this medicine.

Eugenol oil is found in cloves and it functions like a painkiller, even thymol from thyme oil also cures pains, and both oils contain salicylic acid. Bearberry acts like an antiseptic on the urinary system of the body because it contains phenol hydroquinone.


Tannins in herbs have the quality to function as astringents. They act on proteins and other chemicals to protect the layer of the skin and the mucous membrane. It can even bind the tissue of the gut, decrease diarrhea and also stop any internal bleeding. They are also used for an external application like the treatment of burns, healing wounds and reducing inflammation. Tannins can cure eye infections like conjunctivitis or even infection in the mouth, vagina, cervix or rectum.


The evoking smell of hay is due to the coumarin chemicals. The grass is not the only plant, which contains this aromatic component of coumarins; sweet woodruff also contains these chemicals. Coumarins do not have much effect on the human body but one of its components known, as dicoumarol is a strong anti-clotting agent. Coumarins have been used extensively in allopathic medicine. Small doses of warfarin are used as an anti-clotting drug to cure conditions like thrombosis and as a rat poison, large doses are used.


Anthraquinones are found in plants, which are supposed to be effective laxatives and they are also natural dyes. They are generally glycosides and are found in plants like rhubarb, yellow dock, senna, aloe, and buckthorn. Anthraquinones stimulates the colon after eight to twelve hours of ingestion and they also stimulate the peristalsis of the intestine, all this can be achieved if the natural bile is present. If the colon is over stimulated, then colic pain could occur. Anthraquinones are usually combined with carminative herbs to cure this type of condition.

Flavones and Flavonoid Glycosides:

Flavones and flavonoid glycosides are chemical groups commonly found in most plant components. They can actively act as anti-spasmodic, diuretic, circulatory and cardiac stimulants. Some like rutin, hesperidin, and bioflavonoid vitamin P can aid circulatory system and decrease blood pressure too. Buckwheat is a herb, which can be used effectively for such health problems. Bioflavonoids help in absorption of vitamin C. Milk thistle is another herb, which has a strong presence of flavonoid and can cure an ailing liver.


Saponins have drawn the attention of majority pharmaceutical chemists in the world. They are utilized in the synthesis of cortisone, which is an anti-inflammatory drug, and they are also widely used in the synthesis of sex hormones. Saponins are found in herbs, which do not essentially act in a similar way, the body can use them as raw products to build the necessary chemicals. Natural saponins and synthesized drugs are quite similar, like cortisone and diosgenin, which is found in wild yam.

Golden rod, chickweed, figwort and wild yam all contain saponins, which are used to produce anti-inflammatory drugs. Saponins are very good in stimulating the upper digestive tract and herbs like primrose, mullein, violet and daisy are rich in saponins.

Cardiac glycosides:

Cardiac glycosides were discovered in 1785 in foxglove. A lot of investigations has taken place over this chemical component. They have a lot of similarities to saponins and are used in medicine to give support to heart problems.

Cardiac glycosides are made of a mixture of sugar and steroidal aglycone. The center of activity is charted out by the characteristics of aglycone. In the combination, sugar determines the bioavailability of aglycone, which is quite active.

Cardiac glycosides are found in most flowering plants. Lily of the valley, squill, foxglove and Strophanthus family are the best resources of cardiac glycosides. In therapeutic treatment, cardiac glycosides are very effective in increasing the force and power heart beats, and at the same time keeping the level of the oxygen intact for the heart muscles. They can help the heart to function in a steady manner without straining the organ.

Bitter principles:

Bitter principles stand for a group of chemicals that have an extremely bitter taste. They are diverse in structure and the bitterest ones are iridoids, terpenes, and other groups.

Bitter principles are known to be very effective in most therapeutic treatments. Through the taste bud, they arouse the secretion of the digestive juices and also help the liver to be more active, helping in hepatic elimination.

Sedatives like hops and valerian, cough remedies such as white horehound, anti-inflammatory herbs bogbean and devil’s claw, and the vulnerary marigold have all the properties of bitterness.


Alkaloids are the most powerful group of plant constituents that act effectively on the human body and mind. Under the category of alkaloids, you will find hallucinogen mescaline and the very poisonous brucine. These alkaloids can work on the liver, lungs, nerves and the digestive system of the body. You will find alkaloids in most of the herbs. Alkaloids inside the plants do not really have any specific function, apart from storing excessive nitrogen. Alkaloids as a group are very different in their structure and they have separated into 13 groups accordingly. Their structure is dominated by nitrogen and they have a distinguished physiological activity.

To encourage weight loss there is a supplement known as chitosan, which is basically a fat blocker. Chitosan is derived from chitin which is found in exoskeletons of shrimps and crabs, it is quite similar to plant fiber and cannot be digested easily. If chitosan is consumed orally it behaves like a big sponge absorbing the fat of the body up to four to six times than the body usually does while passing the digestive system. It helps flush out all the excessive fat of the body which could have been metabolized and settled inside the body. It is like you can eat as much as you want if you are consuming chitosan.

The disadvantage of chitosan is that it does not cure chronic overeating at all. It should only be consumed for two weeks at a time to just get a weight loss diet started. Chitosan can be very good in absorbing fat, but at the same time it can be quite harmful in the sense that it can rob the body of essential vitamins like E, A, D and K. If chitosan is consumed, diet supplements like vitamins and essential fatty acids should also be included in the diet too. According to studies, chitosan is considered quite safe for any weight loss program. A test was conducted on two mice, one was administered chitosan while the other was not, the mice which had consumed chitosan and other supplement diets had few precancerous lesions than the one who did not have chitosan at all. It can also lower total blood cholesterol level in the body and raise the level of HDL, known as the good cholesterol, which in turn protects the body against any heart disease. Chitosan is a versatile supplement, it is a good antacid and helps prevent tooth decay.

Modern Herbal Medicine ~ ‘Bitter Principles’

In modern herbal medicine, bitter principles occupy a central place in herbal therapeutics beating the acrid constituents. Most people consuming herbal medicines complain about the bitterness of the medicines prescribed. This is the only defining attribute of herbal medicine and the only feature to set it apart from other therapies.

The bitter principles work by stimulating the bitter receptors of the tongue and increasing saliva secretion. Thus, it is always advisable to taste and chew the herbs for making them most effective. The bitter principles also bring about an increase in the secretion of digestive juices, thereby increasing appetite. They protect the tissues found in the digestive tract, boosts up the bile flow and strengthens the pancreas.

Their chemical composition includes a complex pattern of molecular structures. Since they act on the bitter receptors of the mouth, thereby producing the bitter taste in the mouth, their stimulation does not produce any electrical changes on the surface of the cell. Instead, the bitter molecules bring about intracellular biochemical changes by acting on the cell membrane receptors. This facilitates an increase in calcium concentrates within the cell and signals the gustatory nerve.

The bitter substances are mostly of terpenoid structure, especially the sesquiterpene lactones, monoterpene iridoids and the Seco iridoids. Iridoids are responsible for the chief bitter constituents of the plant familyGentianaceae, Cichorium intybus (chicory), dandelion, Valeriana officinalis (valerian), wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa), and quassia bark.

Sesquiterpenes account for the bitter taste of the Artemisia plants, or wormwood genus, Cnicus benedictus (blessed thistle), and ginkgo Biloba (ginkgo). Other components which add to the bitterness are diterpene bitters, found in columbo root (jateorrhiza palmata) or white horehound (Mar.rubium vulgare). Triterpenoids are the cause of bitterness for the Curcubitaceae family of plants, which includes pumpkin, cucumber, colocynth, marrows and the bryonies.

Many alkaloids also contribute to the bitter taste as in the protoberberine isoquinoline alkaloids of goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis), and Berberis, the morphine alkaloids, the quinoline alkaloids of quinine and angostura and the purine alkaloids ( in coffee). In addition to this, many miscellaneous compounds like ketones and amino acids are responsible for the bitterness, as found in hops.

Bitters are indispensable when it comes to counter a heavy meal. Sometimes, chicory and dandelion roots are mixed with coffee beans to produce a bitter drink usually taken after meals. The drink vermouth is a good example of an appetizer which gets its name from bitter herb wormwood. The traditional beer that is brewed with hops can also be used as a digestive remedy due to its bitter principle. Even nowadays, bartenders are faced with the inquiry of a tot of Angostura Bitters (Cusparia angustura) which is commonly used to shoo away a hangover. What’s common to all these practices is the belief that a bitter medicine can balance a heavy or rich meal and can be the basis of excellent tonics. Our grandpas used to believe that medicines that didn’t please our tongue were the best of all. When we go through the records of traditional plant medicine we find a reflection of this notion. All the bitter medicines are cited as ‘genuine stimulants’ and the real panacea for all.

With the passage of time, we have come to discover and understand some more features of the bitter medicines. It is accepted that bitters stimulate only a certain type of taste receptors. Thus, they will have no effect if they are taken in capsules or by intragastric tube. The bitter taste buds are thus the mediators in the way of making the responses happen. This is one of the best examples of a reflex response which takes place when a small stimulus initiates a complex reaction. As soon as the bitter taste bud is stimulated, it releases the gastrointestinal hormone gastrin. If we study the common physiological actions of the gastrin, we find a close similarity with the traditional remedies of the bitters. We can therefore tally the actions of bitters with that of gastrins.

Basically speaking, gastrins are beneficial in numerous ways. Researchers over the years have established that it increases gastric acid and pepsin secretions, hepatic bile surge, hepatic bicarbonate production, intestinal juice production, pancreatic digestive secretions and intrinsic factor secretion. At the same time, gastrins help in enhancing the flow of Brunner’s glands secretions, insulin, glucagon and calcitonin release, helps muscle tone of lower oesophageal sphincter and muscle tone of stomach and small intestine, augments cell division and growth of gastric and duodenal mucosa as well as helps in cell division and growth of the pancreas.

This information will now help us to explain the role of bitters in the herbal medicine. Let us examine them one by one.

Bitters Act as Appetizers

Gastrin is known to be very effective in increasing the appetite. It acts directly on appetite centers in the hypothalamus and indirectly through increased stomach motility. As we have seen earlier, bitters have also been used as key elements in aperitifs or for increasing appetite during convalescence. They can be very useful indeed in treating anyone for whom anorexia is posing an obstacle to recovery. Sometimes, lack of appetite is the body’s own signal to prevent over-stuffing. But this type of anorexia should be distinguished from other harmful types that reduce the strength of an individual. Administering bitters then come in quite handy and especially in the case of anorexia nervosa where bitters are a very helpful tool to counter the problem.

Bitters Increase Secretion of Digestive Juices

Bitters are known to expedite the process of digestion by boosting the stomach and pancreatic enzyme secretions. In those cases where these secretions are irregular or malfunctioning, bitters can help a lot towards speedier digestion by breaking down the food material. Digestive secretions sterilize the food material inside the stomach and break down protein and other large molecules that threaten the body’s immune system.

There is a paradox with food. It is certainly the most important source of nourishment for the body, but it also poses the greatest immunological threat to it. This is reflected in the presence of lymphoid tissues in the digestive tract. The digestive juices denature the antigenic material that prevents the situation from going out of control.

Sometimes, a low rate of secretion arises due to enteric infections, or if any suggestion is found of antigen penetration through the gut wall. This may occur in the case of a food allergy or any autoimmune problem that contains the symptoms of reduced digestive abilities.

Herbal therapeutics point out that a fall in digestive secretion can damage the body to a great extent. It should always be corrected immediately as and when encountered. Besides enteric infections and food allergies, such reduced ability to digest can be understood by the symptoms of a nauseous feeling, or feeling bloated even after taking a little food. Passing small malodorous stools is another sign.

As modern food items contain an increased percentage of adulteration, the risk of depressed digestion has increased greatly, and the only measure is to administer bitter remedies.

Since the bitters increase the destructive components of digestive secretions, their use is generally not advised in cases of hyperacidity or those with peptic ulcerations. But it also raises the secretions of protective fluids, such as bicarbonate from pancreas and liver and from the Brunner’s glands. This is not the case for the acrid constituents. The bitters expedite the whole digestive process. For other reasons, they are not prescribed in hyper-acidic conditions.

Bitters Offer Protection to the Gut Tissues

In cases of heartburn, hiatus hernia or esophageal inflammation, the reflux of corrosive stomach contents into the esophagus is prevented by bitter remedies. This task is achieved by increasing the tone of the gastro-oesophageal sphincter. The bitters also decrease the harmful effects of the digestive juices and dietary toxins by enhancing the already rapid rate of mucosal regeneration in the stomach and duodenum. This acts as a healer in the case of ulceration or an infection. Similar action, if performed on the matrix of the pancreas might as well help in pulling through a pancreatic disease.

Bitters Enhance Bile Flow

Bile juice is secreted by the liver. It is also considered as the excretion of liver. The liver contains the extremely dynamic flow of juices. If pictured, each cell can be seen as being in a stream of a mixed nutrient-rich portal blood from the gut and oxygen-rich arterial blood from the general circulation. These fluids disseminate through the cell and are subjected to heavy dispensation that is a part of the liver function. The metabolic products that are born out of this activity move from the liver cell into the outgoing blood flow. Some of the most important, however, are channeled into a separate exit that drains into the biliary system. The liver thus self-cleanses by its own mechanism.

This is the organ which suffers from all the harmful effects of binge eating, defective digestion or ill health by being overloaded with toxins or the deposition of waste material. The fluids which pass through the liver cells may not be enough to wash out the toxins. This poses a threat to the liver making it prone to liver pathology or more common range of functional disorders. An improved flow of bile juice will definitely not allow such waste material to accumulate. Bitters play this role very effectively. With the consumption of toxic materials increasing, this is certainly one of the advantages.

The bitters have been proven to be effective in curing all allergic, metabolic and immunological conditions where the diagnosis points to the digestion. The liver exerts an influence over the immunological system as well. Even in the case of herbal therapies for migraines, hepatic remedies are suggested, most of which use the bitter.

The use of bitters leads to a greater production of biliary elements and dilutes the bile as well by increasing the bicarbonate content. In the case of gallstone formation or gall-bladder disease, that is formed by the over deposition of bile, bitters are known to work wonders. Along with lemon juice which dilutes the bile as well, bitters are also an effective and accepted treatment of these diseases.

Bitters Improve Pancreatic Functions

Gastrin helps pancreatic secretion and also increases the secretions of insulin and glucagons, the two main hormones the pancreas produces. However, these are conflicting in nature. There is a possibility of a ‘state dependent’ effect. This is a response to gastrin that varies according to the condition of mutual and simultaneous secretion of the two hormones.
Bitters have also been used in controlling late-onset diabetes. Chinese physiology states that bitters can effectively reactive hypoglycemia and produce immediate and excellent results.
Thus, we conclude that bitters neutralize pancreatic hormone secretions by increasing the amount of glucagon when insulin is high and vice versa. They are more likely to raise a hormone level when it is deficient. Bitters control fluctuations in blood sugar levels permanently and temporarily as well.

Bitters Act as Tonics

All the above contributions of bitters make it easy to understand that they can boost your health to a great extent. Their primary role is to stimulate all the above mentioned digestive functions. The digestive processes are the platform where the nourishment requirements of the body are met. This is the place where the body examines the materials it is fed with and most calorific and metabolic processes are regulated. Depending upon the extent to which this platform is in danger under the modern living conditions, it might or might not respond to the bitter remedies.

Bitter remedies were mainly resorted to in old age or in a convalescent state in order to be able to improve the quality of nourishment to the body. However, in the modern age, as illnesses become chronic in nature and more frequent, attacking persons of all ages, it is advisable to resort to bitter remedies. Food has also become less wholesome and more prone to indigestion. Bitter remedies can definitely offset the harmful effects of adulteration to a great extent.