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Alteratives and bad blood

by Paul Bergner

Medical Herbalism 01-31-97 8(4):13

The traditional herbal terms alterative and blood purifier are among the most poorly defined in Western herbalism, although often used to describe the properties of some of our most important remedies. The Eclectics described the primary indication for echinacea and a number of other herbs as “bad blood.” Here I will venture my own opinion as to the definition of these terms.

The “blood” of bad blood is not really the blood at all, but the extracellular fluid that bathes the cells. The blood itself only comprises about five percent of the fluids in the body, while the extracellular fluid makes up about twenty percent. The rest of the body’s liquid lies within the cells. The extracellular fluid accumulates the metabolic wastes of all the cells, the waste byproducts of infection and inflammation, and toxic byproducts of poor digestion. When an infection spreads, it does so through this medium. With an overload of toxic substances in the extracellular fluid, any number of diseases can arise. The extracellular fluid then resembles Lake Erie more than it does the pristine lake in your favorite wilderness area. This polluted state of the extracellular fluid is, in my opinion, the best definition of “bad blood.”

The fluid must be purified first by the phagocytosing white blood cells, either those in the tissues or those that migrate to the site of infection or inflammation, with the assistance of antibodies. Whatever is left, including the dead phagocytes, is purified by the lymphatic system, which drains the dead and toxic components through the lymph nodes, where the immune system eliminates them. If the load is too great for the phagocytes and the elements in the lymph nodes to handle, genuine “bad” blood may occur with infection of the blood stream — septicemia — a potentially fatal condition.

Alterative herbs are considered the remedy for “bad blood,” but this therapeutic category contains herbs with a number of different actions. Included in it are herbs which stimulate the normal detoxifying process of the liver or kidney, promote bowel function, improve nutrition and absorption, stimulate the immune system, or improve the flow of lymph. Each of these actions, directly or indirectly, helps to cleanse the extracellular fluid. Herbs that reduce liver stagnancy reduce “pollution” from the digestive tract and the portal venous system, and indirectly improve spleen function — the venous outflow from the spleen must be processed by the liver. Diuretics indirectly promote the flushing of the extracellular fluid, and promote detoxification of the blood through the kidney. Digestive and laxative herbs may improve the health of the bowel, reducing toxic pollution of the extracellular fluid at the source. Immune-stimulant and lymphatic herbs cleanse the extracellular fluid directly.
Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner    11