Herbal Constituents

In the previous post I explained what herbal actions are. This one will focus on the constituents.

To put it simply, herbal constituents are identified chemical compounds unique to each herb which produce the herb’s effects. It is modern science’s way of isolating and validating a herb’s actions.

For example, the Salicylates from Willow bark (Salix alba spp.) were studied for their analgesic (pain relieving), anti-inflammatory, and antipyretic (temperature-lowering) effects and therefore have been isolated and synthetically turned into painkillers (Asprin). They are believed to protect the plant against insect damage and disease. [1]

Another example is how many cardiotonic drugs like Acetyldigoxin, Digitalin and Digitoxin are derived from constituents from the Foxglove species of plants (Digitalis spp.). The key constituents are the cardiac glycosides digoxin and digitoxin which have been shown to increase the force and excitability of the heart. Therefore useful for treating acute and chronic heart failure, as well as special arrhythmias (cardiac arrhythmia).

However, often these constituents do not work isolated by themselves. They work synergistically with each other.

This is where the modern science paradigm (reductionist) may be lacking from traditional medicine’s holistic paradigm (systems theory).

In the same example above, Willow bark has the following constituents and actions:

  • Constituents: salicin, salicin esters, resin, flavonoids, polyphenols, phenolic glucosides, condensed tannins and oligomeric procyanidins (Bone & Mills, 2013; Holmes, 2006)
  • Actions: Anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antirheumatic, antipyretic (Bone & Mills, 2013)
  • Effective qualities: astringent, somewhat bitter, cool, dry; calming, astringing, stabilizing (Holmes, 2006)
  • Functions & indications:
    • Pain relief from acute or chronic musculoskeletal pain (Bone & Mills, 2013)
    • Clears damp-heat and reduces inflammation; relieves pain – joint inflammation, rheumatic pain (Holmes, 2006)

The synthetic form of Willow bark which we all know as Aspirin is just one chemical – acetylsalicylic acid, a derivative of salicylic acid [1]. Although it produces many of the same effects such as pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory and antipyretic effects, it does not mimic the holistic effect of the entire herb that you get from a herbal extract of Willow bark such as its energetics of clearing damp-heat or being astringent.

There are also side effects from Aspirin such as damage to the connective tissue or surface lining of our gastrointestinal tracts, bleeding, etc. [2] This is not seen in herbal preparations of the whole herb.

There are many more herbal constituents, here are some of the common ones [3]:

Often, the predominant constituent in the plant is the one producing its effects on us. This might be the Mucilage in Marshmallow producing the soothing demulcent effect or the Caffeine (alkaloid) in Coffee producing its stimulant effects.


  1. List of Salicylates – Drugs.com
  2. Aspirin Side Effects: Common, Severe, Long Term – Drugs.com
  3. Plant Constituents and Actions in a Herbal Materia Medica – MedicineHow

Additional Resources

  1. Lisa Ganora, Herbal Constituents
  2. Dr. Andrew Pengelly, The Constituents of Medicinal Plants
  3. Dr. Kerry Bone, The Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy

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