There are herbs known as alteratives which make a gradual, affirmative and healthful shift in our bodies. The list of alteratives goes on and on and the actual description, an herb which alters the body to promote good health, can have a broad interpretation. Some herbs defined as alteratives are very strong, such as goldenseal, echinacea and ginseng, and there is much information available about these particular herbs. The gentler "apple a day..." herbs are taken over a longer period of time to achieve good health with gradual effects. Combining alteratives with a healthy diet and eliminating bad habits is very helpful.

Most alteratives have blood purifying qualities which help the function of the organs, such as the liver, kidneys, spleen and bowels, in maintaining good health. This is mostly done by accelerating the restoration of tissues so that they can better carry out their roles. Alterative herbs are often a cholagogue, meaning that they promote the flow of bile, thus aiding in digestion and constipation. Many of these herbs are considered nutritives in that they are nutritionally beneficial, providing vitamins to the system. Another common quality is that they provide help for external skin conditions. Many alteratives have an antispasmodic effect that is calming to muscular spasms and cramps.

Oregon grape root is considered a perfect alterative with its splendid blood purifying qualities. Oregon grape root has many beneficial uses as an antiseptic, cholagogue, laxative and tonic. It has been used traditionally for skin diseases such as psoriasis, eczema, herpes and acne. Oregon grape root stimulates the liver, gall bladder and thyroid gland and helps with gastritis.

The alkaloids in Oregon grape root are berberine, berbamine, hydrastine and oxycanthine. Oregon grape root is similar to barberry and goldenseal (other alteratives) in that it contains berberine and berbamine. Berberine is a cholagogue, antibacterial, and kills amoeba and protozoa. It also prevents and relieves diarrhea. There is also anticonvulsant and uterine stimulating properties in berberine and it may be used as a sedative for hypotension. Berbamine is also antibacterial and helpful with strep and staph. In China, berbamine has been used for laukopaenia due to radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Red clover is considered a nutritive and an antispasmodic. Red clover helps the nerves, lungs, liver, lymph and skin. As with most alteratives it is also a good blood purifier and is often combined with other blood purifiers such as yellow dock, dandelion root and sassafras. Red clover is an expectorant and, thus, is very good for the lungs and bronchial maladies. The tea is soothing to the nerves and stomach. Gargling with red clover tea is helpful for throat swellings and infections. Red clover is commonly used internally for rheumatism and externally in salves for skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. Externally, red clover has been used as a poultice for skin growths.

Yellow dock is a nutritive and has a wonderful tonic quality in that it rejuvenates the entire system. Yellow dock is high in iron, which is helpful for anemia, and it nourishes the spleen. It is also an antibacterial blood purifier. Yellow dock is beneficial to the liver and gall bladder in that it is a cholagogue. The tea has been used for blood and lymph problems. Externally, yellow dock is commonly used in salves for itchy skin and swollen glands.

Alfalfa was discovered by the Arabs who called it the "king of all foods" because of its abundance of nutrients. Alfalfa contains healthy amounts of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin K and vitamin P. It has similar properties to red clover in that it is a good blood purifier and it is sometimes substituted for red clover. Alfalfa improves appetite and aids in digestion by helping with the assimilation of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. The tea helps relieve urinary and bowel problems and water retention. It is also helpful for peptic ulcers and favorable for the kidneys. Alfalfa is an antipyretic meaning it cools the body, helping to reduce fevers.

Chickweed has been used externally for eczema, psoriasis, boils and healing wounds. Many of the internal uses help the blood, liver, lungs, kidneys and bladder. Chickweed is a nutritive and is often used as a food. It was formerly used as a source of vitamin C because of its ascorbic acid content. Other nutrients are B vitamins, calcium, iron, sodium, zinc and molybdenum. Chickweed is also an antipyretic, helpful with fever and inflammation. Internally and as a homeopathic, it is used for rheumatism. Other benefits of chickweed include its uses for hay fever, allergies, asthma, bronchitis and as a lymphatic cleanser. The tea is beneficial for building the blood.

Dandelion root has a higher vitamin A content than carrots. It is a good blood purifier and aids in low blood sugar levels. The high mineral content in dandelion is helpful for anemia and can be used as a tonic. It is very good for the liver, kidney, pancreas and spleen as it is a cholagogue. Dandelion is also a diuretic, which aids in removing excess water, and can also help eliminate poisons from the body. A decoction of the root is helpful with gall stones. Because of its healthy effects on the liver, dandelion root is commonly used for jaundice, hepatitis and most other liver related ailments. Dandelion is also helpful with rheumatism, gout and stiff joints. Psoriasis is another complaint assisted by dandelion. As a food you can roast the root for a coffee substitute and use the leaves in salads.

Licorice root is fifty times sweeter than sugar. The main active constituents in licorice are glycyrrhizin and glycyrrhizic acid which are commonly used for asthma and bronchial problems. They are also known to be anti-inflammatory, antitussive or cough surpressant, antispasmodic and antiallergic. Glycyrrhizin and glycyrrhizic acid also have a similar activity to estrogen. Licorice helps the adrenal cortex to produce cortisone aldosterone. In China, licorice has been used to improve liver function and diseases such as hepatitis and jaundice. Licorice soothes the mucous membranes throughout the alimentary canal and helps with abdominal distention, nausea and vomiting. Carbenoxoline, a derivative of glycyrrhizin, has been used extensively for stomach and intestinal ulcers. Licorice helps prevent the breakdown of teeth and bones due to the glycyrrhizin constraining bacterial growth and the formation of plaque. Avoid large amounts of licorice root if you have high blood pressure or hyperadrenal disfunction. Try smaller quantities combined with other herbs for these conditions. Use no more than three grams of licorice root for everyday use or thirty grams a week for shorter periods of time.

Raspberry leaves are a common uterine relaxant and are used to help with childbirth. They relieve cramps, pains and morning sickness. The nice thing about raspberry leaf tea is how pleasant it is to drink and it is recommended to drink it freely during pregnancy. Even if you are not pregnant, raspberry leaf is an astringent tonic to the mucous membranes. Raspberry leaves soothe the urinary tract, including the kidneys, and relieve urinary irritation. They are also helpful for diarrhea due to their astringent quality. Adding cream to the tea is good for nausea and vomiting. Other alterative herbs include: barberry, bayberry, black cohosh, blessed thistle, burdock root, cleavers, echinacea, elder, eyebright, goldenseal, gotu kola, kelp, marshmallow, nettles, plantain, sarsaparilla, St. John’s wort, uva ursi and more. It is easy to see the similarities with these herbs and how each one has its own speciality. Throughout history herbs have been a common part of life and it has been only in this century that we have lost our contact with picking a plant out of the ground and eating it. Herbs were used more frequently in the past and the alterative effects were realized daily.

Today we are used to immediate reactions and effects from pharmaceuticals and some high potency standardized herbs for a "quick fix." We can maintain our bodies before we become ill by including simple healthful elements to our day such as having dandelion or chickweed tea in the morning instead of coffee (or for some, at least replacing the second cup of coffee). Have some licorice root tincture in the afternoon instead of a candy bar. Put some dandelion leaves in your salad. Take a walk after dinner instead of going right to the television and then relax with some raspberry tea or yellow dock tea. By introducing alterative herbs into your daily routine you can bring about a gradual shift in your health and “... keep the doctor away.”


  • Lust, J. The Herb Book, Bantam Books, 1974.
  • Santillo, H. Natural Healing With Herbs. Hohm Press, 1990.
  • Schauinberg, P. Guide To Medicinal Plants. Keats Publishing, 1990
  • Wren, R.C. Potter’s New Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations. C.W. Daniel Company, 1988.

From Summer 1995 Herbal Insights.