Herbal Astringents Around the World: How They Work and How to Use Them
Astringents are recognized as having similar actions in TCM, Ayurveda, Western herbalism, Unani, and TTM (Traditional Tibetan Medicine/Sowa Rigpa). Generally speaking, they are known to constrict tissues, tone laxity, and restrain loss. This results in shrinking, drying, eliminating and binding (makes more cohesive) types of action on the tissues and organs involved. Astringents prevent leakage of needed fluids and in the case of TCM, restrain/prevent loss of Essence, Qi, and vital energy. They also promote secretion of unwanted or excess fluids.
Because astringents constrict and tighten tissues, restoring tone and correcting laxity, they effectively prevent excess fluid leakage. In TCM, astringents are said to “stabilize and bind” Essence and Yin, meaning prevention of leaking fluids and collapse of Qi, Yin and Yang. The astringent action is also anti-inflammatory through its toning/constricting action (constricts tissues and releases excess fluid, prevents mucus production and excretion, reduces swelling and associated hyper circulatory response). In addition, some TCM herbs that stabilize and bind also supplement.
The main active chemical constituents that give the mentioned properties to astringents are tannins and gallic acids.
- regulates smooth muscle
- dries up blood and stops bleeding (hemostatic)
- heals wounds
- binds loose bowel treating diarrhea, dysentery, etc.…
- checks incontinence or leaking urine
- reduces excessive sweating
- improves gut absorption
- grounds and collects the mind and Shen
- reduces fatigue
- tannins and proteins combine to form a protective layer from toxins
- increases bile secretion
The following can be unwanted effects of too much astringency:
- constipation and gas, spasms and griping
- heart symptoms like cardiac spasm
- thirst and dryness
- difficulty with speech
- choking sensation
- drying of nutritional substances and liquids in the body
- constriction of the channels
- blood coagulation and clotting
- depletion of sperm
- neurological, emotional and neuromuscular disorders such as stroke, palsy, insomnia, fear, anxiety and depression
A.Terminalia chebula – Chebulic Myrobalan
Ayurveda: Haritaki, Hezi, Abhayaa, , Kaayasthaa, Shreyasi, Bhaavaprakaasha, Jivanti, Puutanaa, Vijayaa, Rohini, Chetaki, Amrita; TTM: Arura; Unani: Harad, Halelaa, Siyaah, Halelaa Zard, Halelaa Kaabuli; Siddha: Kadukkai
Haritaki is a fruit traditionally used in TCM, TTM, Unani, Ayurveda, and now more commonly in Western herbalism. The ripe fruit is most commonly found in the Triphala formula (or 3 fruits formula), which is a gentle bowel regulator, tonic and detoxifier, capable of balancing the 3 doshas/nyepa and appropriate for use as a general tonic in many conditions. However, the unripe fruit is used for treating diarrhea and dysentery in TCM. Cooking or sun drying the fruit also reduces its laxative effect according to Ayurveda. In TTM and Ayurveda, Arura has 5 of the 6 fundamental tastes (all except salty) and is the universal remedy due to its ability to control/balance Vata/Loong (the mother of all doshas and imbalances), and hence balance all doshas/nyepa. There are seven varieties mentioned in Ayurvedic texts and a few in Unani (hence the many names which are all synonyms). In TCM, the unripe fruit is neutral, bitter and sour.
Haritaki contains anthraquinones (which have laxative effects) and tannins (which have astringent effects). The astringent effects are increased by using the ripe fruit as in TCM, or by using ice-cold water as a delivery vehicle as in Ayurveda. Also, dried fruit decocted has a highly astringent effect.
In TCM, the unripe fruit affects the Lungs, Large Intestine and Stomach. Its astringent nature can be used to bind loose stools and stop diarrhea by toning and regulating smooth muscle of the bowel and decreasing production of excess mucus and fluids. It is especially suited for chronic diarrhea, and blood in the stool. Because it has a neutral energetic, it can be used in formulas to treat heat or cold, depending on the herbs it is combined with.
Some of the many traditional and modern indications for Haritaki across the traditions include:
- urinary disorders
- uterine and vaginal disorders
- general tonic
- blood purifier
- poor eyesight and conjunctivitis
- diarrhea and dysentery (especially chronic)
- blood in the stool
- bowel cleansing
- vomiting, stomachic
- cough, asthma
- throat conditions
- low immunity
- bleeding gums and gingivitis
- cuts, wounds, and burns
B. Myristica fragrans (seed) – Nutmeg
TCM: rou dou kou; Ayurveda: Jaatiphala, Jaatikosha, Maalatiphala; Unani: Jauzbuwaa; Siddha: Masikkai
Nutmeg is used medicinally in TCM, Ayurveda, TTM and Unani. It is warming and pungent in taste (considered hot in Ayurveda and TTM). It affects the Spleen, Stomach and Large Intestine in TCM, and the plasma, muscle, marrow, reproductive and nerve tissue dhatus in Ayurveda. It reduces or balances Vata/Loong and Kapha/Beken, and increases Pitta/Tripa. Nutmeg is astringent, carminative (promotes agni/medrod), sedating, and calms the Shen. In Ayurveda, it is also considered a circulatory stimulant (hypotensive), aphrodisiac, and vermifugal. In Ayurveda and TTM, it is used as an analgesic due to its circulatory effects. It warms the Middle burner and moves Qi in TCM. Caution must be taken to avoid depleting/draining the Qi.
In TCM in the treatment of diarrhea, Nutmeg is especially suitable for Cold and Deficient Spleen and Kidneys. In Ayurveda, it is known to increase and improve absorption in the colon, reduce Vata, and stop diarrhea, especially mixed in buttermilk, or in formulas such as Jaatiphala Churna. It is also combined with herbs such as Ashwagandha boiled in milk to calm Vata and act as an antidote to insomnia. Medicinal oil is prepared for pruritus and eruptions, and preparations made with ghee are used for wound cleansing. It can also be formulated with classical Western nervines such as California Poppy to make an effective sleep aid. In TTM, Nutmeg seed is an important herb for Loong disorders. When used for insomnia and sleep, nutmeg seed should be ground fresh, and taken approximately four hours prior to bedtime. Chinese formulas for diarrhea include Si Shen Wan (to warm the Kidneys and Spleen) and Zhen Ren Yang Zang Tang (to warm and tonify the Spleen and Stomach.
Indications for nutmeg seed across the traditions include:
- poor digestion
- poor appetite
- cough, cold, bronchitis
- abdominal cramps
- premature ejaculation and spermatorrhea
- muscle spasms
A. Myrica cerifera (root/bark/leaf/berry) – Morella cerifera, Bayberry, Wax Myrtle, Candleberry
Bayberry is sour, acrid, astringent and warm in TCM, and pungent, astringent and heating in Ayurveda. In TCM it affects the Spleen, Lungs, Liver and Large Intestine. The plasma, blood, marrow, and nerve dhatus are affected in Ayurveda. Its properties are diaphoretic, astringent, expectorant, stimulant, emetic, antispasmodic, antimicrobial and alterative. Bayberry warms the Interior, dispels Wind-Cold, and moves Blood. It reduces Kapha and Vata and increases Pitta. Bayberry powerfully calms mucus and cold, and promotes the healing of mucus membranes. It aids Qi and Blood circulation, and reduces secretions. It is said to clear the mind and senses in Ayurveda and has a sattvic quality. Bayberry binds the Intestines, warms the Spleen, transforms Phlegm, restrains Lung Qi (from loss), stabilizes the Kidneys and restrains Essence (from loss).
Indications for Bayberry include:
- colds, flu, fever
- laryngitis, sore throat and bronchitis
- sinus congestion
- menorrhagia, amenorrhea
- diarrhea, ulcerative colitis
- bleeding gums
- poor circulation
- uterine hemorrhage
- uterine prolapse
- non-healing wounds
B. Schisandra sinensis (berry/fruit) – Schisandra fructus
TCM: Wu Wei Zi
Schisandra berry is used in TCM, is warm and moist, and like Haritaki, has a balanced energy due to the presence of all five TCM flavors, the most predominant being sour. It affects the Lungs, Heart and Kidneys, and is applied commonly to patterns such as Lung Qi Deficiency with cough and wheezing, Kidney Yin Deficiency, Kidney Yang Deficiency and Disturbed Shen.
Schisandra nourishes Yin and Blood. It restrains Essence, Qi, and energy. Its stabilizing and binding actions prevent excessive loss of fluids and thus Qi, while promoting appropriate secretions. Through reinforcement of Qi, Lung Qi Deficiency patterns can be corrected. Qi, Yin, and Essence restraint is also greatly beneficial to the Kidneys for conditions such as spontaneous sweats, leukorrhea, spermatorrhea, polyuria and insomnia. Schisandra is beneficial in Spleen Qi Deficiency where there is “daybreak” (morning) diarrhea, and in Blood and Yin Deficiencies of the Heart with insomnia, memory loss, neurasthenia and Shen disturbance. It balances the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Indications for Schisandra include:
- exhaustion and fatigue
- upper respiratory inflammations and infections
- palpitations and cardiac irregularities
- spontaneous sweating due to Yin or Yang Deficiency
- urinary incontinence and frequent urination
- adrenal fatigue
- memory loss
A. Erechtites hieraciifolia – Chamerion angustifolia, Epilobium angustifolium, Fireweed, American Burnweed, Pilewort
Fireweed of the Chamerion angustifolium species is native to my region of Canada and grows along the Pacific Northwest coast of Vancouver Island, often flourishing in areas that have previously been clear-cut. It is an herb that I have wild crafted for use in alcohol extracts and salves. Fireweed is astringent, cool, bitter and drying, but interestingly also has emollient properties. In TCM, E. hieraciifolia affects the Large Intestines and Lungs. It is considered astringent, anti-inflammatory, alterative, tonic, anti-viral, antispasmodic, stabilizes and binds, cathartic, clears Wind-Heat, anti-fungal, and hemostatic. According to Ayurveda and TTM energetics, it would potentially aggravate Vata/Loong, and balance Kapha/Beken and Pitta/Tripa.
Fireweed is sometimes an overlooked or less known herb, but has great potential for treating inflammations, fungal infections and disturbed micro biomes. It tonifies the small and large intestines encouraging beneficial gut flora. This unique combination of properties makes it a promising herb for treating Candida overgrowth, which may co-exist with other bowel dysfunction.
Due to its anti-inflammatory nature, fireweed is also effective at relieving migraine headaches and reducing pain.
I have used fireweed tincture to reduce fungal rashes and have incorporated it into wound healing salves. Other indications for the use of fireweed include:
- dysentery and diarrhea
- ulcerative colitis
- bowel and uterine hemorrhages
- boils and abscesses
- prostatitis, BPH
- staphylococcus pseudomonas
B. Punica granatum (fruit rind, root bark, fruit) – Pomegranate
TCM: Shi Lui Pi; Ayurveda: Daadima, Daadimba, Raktapuspha, Dantabijaa, Raktakusumaa; Unani: Anaar Shireen, Rummaan Huluvv, Anaar tursh, Rummaan Haamiz, Anaar maikhosh, Rummaan Muzz; Siddha: Mathulai
Pomegranate fruit rind, root bark and fruit are astringent, bitter (fruit rind and root bark), sweet and sour (fruit) with a warming or cooling quality (depending on source). It is used in TCM, TTM, Ayurveda and Unani medicine. In Ayurveda and TTM there are different varieties – sweet and sour. In Ayurveda the sweet variety is tridoshic (balancing), while the sour variety has potential to aggravate Pitta. The plant part is often mixed with honey, milk or ghee and in over the counter preparations like Daadimaashtaka Churna and Daadimaadi Ghrita. In TCM, Pomegranate affects the Large Intestines, Stomach and Kidneys. In Ayurveda the plasma, blood, muscle, marrow and nerve dhatus are affected. It is considered an astringent tonic, alterative, hemostatic, anthelminthic, refrigerant, stomachic, antimicrobial (bacteria, fungi, viruses), and it stabilizes and binds.
Traditional and modern indications for Pomegranate include:
- diarrhea and dysentery, with blood
- sore throat
- prolapsed rectum or vagina
- uterine bleeding
- premature ejaculation
- high cholesterol
- indigestion and anorexia
- nausea and vomiting
- jaundice, hepatitis
A. Quercus alba (bark/gall) – Oak, White Oak, Manjakani, English Oak
Oak is astringent, cooling to neutral, drying and bitter. In TCM it affects the Large Intestines and Lungs. It reduces Pitta and Kapha, and potentially aggravates Vata. Its properties are astringent, hemostatic, tonic, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and it stabilizes and binds. Oak Gall is high in tannic acid and is the most astringent substance known.
Indications for Oak (internal and external uses) include:
- diarrhea and dysentery
- ulcerative colitis
- anal fistula
- hemorrhoids (with or without bleeding)
- varicose veins
- passive hemorrhage
- uterine prolapse
- sore throat
- cardiac insufficiency
- weeping skin and lesions, bedsores, frostbite, dermatitis, burns, ringworm
- pharyngitis, tonsillitis
- prolapse of anus, vagina or uterus
B. Geranium maculatum (root) – Cranesbill, Wild Geranium
Cranesbill is cooling to neutral, drying and bitter. According to TCM energetics, it affects the Stomach, Large Intestine, Liver and Heart. It is considered astringent, tonic, styptic and hemostatic, and it stabilizes and binds.
Cranesbill effectively treats extreme and chronic loose stools and diarrhea. It is also indicated for gastritis, ulcers, ulcerative colitis and bloody diarrhea. Its astringent effect on bleeding is mild, so insidious leakage is most effectively treated with Cranesbill.
Other indications for use of Cranesbill include:
- bleeding wounds, bruises
- mouth sores, bleeding gums
- herpes sores
Interestingly, in TTM, Cranesbill root is considered sweet and “biting-hot”, but is oily and cool in power. It is used for fevers, eye disorders such as cataracts, intestinal worms, pneumonia, and swelling of the limbs, and other Tripa and Beken related disorders.
A. Saraca indica (bark/flower) – Ashoka, Saraca asoca
Ayurveda: Ashoka, Asoka, Ashok, Sita Ashok, Hempushpa, Taamrapallava, Pindapushpa, Gandhapushpa; Siddha: Asoku
Ashoka comes from the Ashoka tree in India and Southeast Asia. The tree is actually a legume, and considered the sacred tree under which Buddha Shakyamuni was born. It is considered a virtual panacea for women’s menstrual and gynecological issues. The name Ashoka translates as “no grief” or “no sorrow”. Ashoka bark is astringent, bitter, light, rough, cool and dry. The bark is most commonly used as medicine in Ayurveda, although some healers use the aerial parts as well. The flowers are made into chutney in India.
In TCM, Ashoka affects the Liver and Kidneys. It is a reproductive tonic affecting the reproductive dhatus in Ayurveda, reducing Pitta and Kapha, and increasing Vata. The properties of Ashoka are astringent, uterotonic, anti-estrogenic, alterative, anti-cancer, antimicrobial, diuretic, analgesic, oxytocic, cardiac tonic, vulnerary, reproductive tonic, hemostatic, memory tonic, stabilizes and binds, and nervine.
Traditional and modern indications for the use of Ashoka include:
- menorrhagia or metrorrhagia caused by hormone imbalance
- fibroids and cysts, endometriosis
- bleeding hemorrhoids
- bleeding ulcers
- hemorrhagic dysentery
- painful menses
- tumors and swellings
- topically for bites, stings and ulcerations
- uterine prolapse
- arrhythmias and cardiac conditions
- painful urination
- diabetes (dried flowers)
- neuralgia, sciatica
Ashoka has an ovarian stimulating effect and estrogen-like activity and can promote healing of the endometrium. A decoction is made with milk in Ayurveda, and sometimes given to women for 3 days every 3 months to prevent gynecological problems. Traditional Ayurvedic formulas include Ashokaarishta, a liquid fermented herbal product, and Ashoka Ghrita.
B. Potentilla spp. (root) – Cinquefoil, Tormentilla, Five Leaf Grass, Silverweed
Potentilla is neutral to cool, astringent, sweet, sour and bitter. It stabilizes and binds and stops bleeding. Potentilla and its isolated constituents are said to be anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, gastroprotective, anti-ulcer, anti-diarrheal, hemostatic, antioxidant, cytotoxic, anti-mutagenic, and hypoglycemic.
Potentilla erectus rhizomes are used in Western herbalism to reduce diarrhea and reduce bleeding both internally and topically. P. anserine (aerial parts) and P. Canadensis (roots) have also been used in the West. Wei ling cai is the aerial parts of P. chinensis commonly used in TCM, and affects the Liver and Large Intestine.
Applications of Potentilla spp. Include:
- diarrhea, with or without bleeding
- ulcerative colitis
- bleeding hemorrhoids
- prolapsed anus and bleeding from anus
- prolapsed uterus
- emesis with blood
- ulcers, sores, abscesses
- loose teeth and gum disease
- varicose veins
A. Rosa spp. (hips/fruit/flower) – Rose
TCM: Jing Ying Zi (hips); Ayurveda: Gulab, Shatapatri
Rose hips are neutral to cool, drying, astringent, and sour in TCM, and bitter, astringent, pungent, and sweet in Ayurveda. In TCM, they affect the Kidneys, Bladder and Large Intestine. In Ayurveda, rose petals and hips are used, and they are considered balancing to the 3 doshas, but are especially effective at reducing Pitta. They affect the plasma, marrow, blood, nerve and reproductive dhatus.
Properties of Rosa spp. flowers are anti-bacterial, antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, antidiuretic, anti-viral, aphrodisiac, antispasmodic, blood tonic, carminative, expectorant, kidney tonic, and sedative.
Properties of Rosa spp. hips/fruit are stomachic, antidiarrheal, cholesterol lowering, antidiuretic, stabilizing and binding, astringent, blood tonic, diuretic (in Ayurveda), laxative, nutritive, carminative.
Traditional and modern indications for Rose include:
- kidney and bladder infections
- dysmenorrhea, amenorrhea, menorrhagia
- gout and rheumatism
- anxiety, depression
- various inflammations
In Ayurveda, Rose is also commonly added to formulations for treating skin problems (for its anti-Pitta properties), and for beautifying skin. In Western cosmetics, it is frequently employed as an anti-aging and nourishing component of the same. In Middle Eastern traditions and in India, Rose carries a spiritual connotation as a symbol of deep love, and is especially referenced in the Sufi and Bahai teachings. Its scent can be carried around the neck of the wearer to help induce deep states of meditation and devotion.
Examples of TCM patterns where Rose can be employed include: Spleen Qi Deficiency, Heart Qi Deficiency, Blood Deficiency, Kidney Yin and Yang Deficiencies, and Essence Deficiency. A well-known TCM formula that includes Rose and treats spermatorrhea is Jin Suo Gu Jing Wan.
B. Nelumbo nucifera (seed and stamen) – Lotus, Water-Lily
TCM: Lian Zi (seed), Lian Zu (stamen); Ayurveda: Padma, Kamala, Pushkara, Nalina, Arvind, Mahotpala, Raajeeva, Nymphaea spp. – Kumud, Utpala; Unani: Nilofar; Siddha: Ambel
Lotus is neutral to cool, astringent, and sweet. The seeds in TCM affect the Heart, Spleen and Kidneys, and the stamen affects the Heart, Kidneys and Liver. In Ayurveda, Lotus affects the plasma, blood, marrow, nerve and reproductive dhatus. It reduces Pitta and Vata, but can increase Kapha in excess.
The properties of Lotus are astringent, nutritive tonic, rejuvenative, aphrodisiac, hemostatic, sedative, calms the Shen, nervine, stabilizes and binds, and anti-inflammatory (especially the stamen).
Traditional and modern indications for Lotus seed include:
- nocturnal emission and premature ejaculation
- diarrhea (with or without blood), dysentery
- hemorrhoids, prolapse of rectum
- poor concentration
- cardiac insufficiency, palpitations
- nutritive tonic (especially for Spleen Qi Deficiency), rejuvenation
- adhesion of fractured bones
- virility tonic
- nausea, dyspepsia
Traditional and modern indications for Lotus stamen include:
- nocturnal emission
In Ayurveda, Lotus root is also used and is considered more astringent and hemostatic than the seed, making it very suitable for conditions such as diarrhea and hemorrhoids. Lotus is included with Rose in the TCM formula Jin Suo Gu Jing Wan for treating spermatorrhea. 3 varieties of different species of Lotus are used in Indian medicine, and their therapeutic value is similar – white (Pundarika), red (Kokanad), and blue (Indivara).
For centuries, Lotus, along with Rose, has been referenced in spiritual literature. Perhaps the most well-known reference is that of Buddha Shakyamuni. One day Buddha was giving a talk to a large group of bikkhus and bikkhunis (disciples). Without saying a word, he held up a white lotus for all to see. Looking out to the crowd, he could see the perplexed and amazed faces. Suddenly, one of his foremost disciples, Mahakassapa, smiled, and the light in his eyes conveyed to Buddha that he understood and saw this most profound teaching of wisdom and Truth. Mahakassapa saw the essence of Being, non-conceptualized by Buddha’s silence, in the beauty, singleness and simplicity of the Lotus flower. In Buddhism, it is said that enlightenment arises from suffering, much like the beautiful Lotus flower blooms out of the mud. The purity of our essential nature is unaffected by the poisons of attachment, aversion, and ignorance, and becomes visible and known when worldly conditioning is overcome.
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