Herbal Alteratives & Depuratives:
Catabolic Detoxifiers and Metabolic Enhancers
by Ed Smith
Alteratives and depuratives, which are known in traditional
folk medicine as blood purifiers, are a very important class of herbs in botanical
medicine. These herbs generally act through the lymphatic, glandular and mucous
membrane systems, and to a lesser degree through the skin. Their primary action
is to favorably alter disordered metabolic and catabolic processes, especially
those associated with the break-down and elimination of metabolic waste. Their
related secondary action is to enhance better overall absorption and assimilation
of nutrients. Collectively these metabolic and catabolic activities serve to
balance and normalize overall physiological chemistry and thereby restore vital
Here I will detail a few of my favorite alterative/depurative herbs, which are Echinacea, Burdock, Wild Indigo, Dandelion and Turmeric, and I will list others for further study.
Alteratives and depuratives are indicated in cases of retrograde metabolism, which are constitutional disorders associated with tardy breakdown and excretion of metabolic waste, deterioration of normally healthy tissues and slow reconstruction of new tissues. These indications are sometimes associated with a condition known as cachexia, which is a constitutional disorder attended with loss of vitality and strength, loss of appetite, weight loss, and general debility, usually during chronic disease. Alteratives and depuratives are also indicated in a similar condition to cachexia known as dyscrasia, which was traditionally described as a depraved state of the humors and a morbid condition, especially one that involves imbalance of component elements. So called “wasting diseases” like AIDS and cancer are examples of cachexia and dyscrasia.
Although Echinacea is stereotyped as an “immune system herb,” it is also an excellent alterative and depurative and is especially indicated in lymphatic and glandular swellings and what traditional folk medicine refers to as “bad blood,” which includes conditions like measles, boils and other skin eruptions, swollen lymph glands, and cold, bluish skin.
Another great herb in this category is Burdock, of which I use a 50/50 combination of the root and the seed. Burdock is an excellent restorative cleanser/ detoxifier for the liver and kidneys and is especially indicated in chronic cutaneous lesions like eczema and psoriasis. Burdock also soothes and cleanses the lymphatic vessels, serous membranes, and mucous membranes and is indicated in inflammation and congestion of bronchial tissue.
Wild Indigo fresh root is another great alterative/depurative, but it must be used with caution and in moderation because of its strong action. Wild Indigo is useful in treating deep-seated, chronic and sub-acute inflammations and infections, and any associated indolent, slow-healing wounds or ulcerations – especially those with fetor and bluish edges, which indicate stagnant blood. Wild Indigo is best taken in smaller doses and along with doses of Echinacea and plenty of water.
One of my all time favorite alterative/depurative herbs is Dandelion, of which I prefer using the whole fresh plant with its root, leaves and flowers. Dandelion is an effective but gentle-acting detoxifier of the liver and kidneys, and thereby is also useful in the treatment of various oily and eruptive conditions of the skin, such as acne and sebaceous cysts. Dandelion is also a mild stimulant of bowel elimination and is especially indicated in treating chronic constipation of the elderly.
Turmeric rhizome, the spice which gives mustard and curry powders their bright yellow color, is also an excellent liver alterative/depurative, which stimulates the production and flow of liver bile. However, Turmeric tends to act more strongly than Dandelion and, therefore, it should be used in somewhat smaller doses. This herb/spice is indicated in congested liver and gallbladder, gallstones, cholesterol problems and chronic constipation. Also, new scientific research is justifying Turmeric’s uses in Traditional Ayurvedic Medicine as an anti-inflammatory and as an adjunct treatment for topical and internal cancers.
Some other alterative/depurative herbs of interest are Chickweed, Cleavers, Gotu Kola, Holy Basil, Prickly Ash, Myrrh, Celery root and seed, Sassafras, Spilanthes, Blue Flag and Yellow Dock.
Remember that a true alterative/depurative herb is one that not only cleanses and detoxifies, but also facilitates proper nutrient assimilation and which has a normalizing action on overall physiology.