Herbal astringents: Staunching the flow
Sometimes we need to let things flow and sometimes when the body oozes too much fluid, we need to staunch the flow to preserve the integrity and tone of the tissues that are being leeched of hydration and nourishment. The herbal astringents work admirably to maintain the containment of vital fluids within the body. In early herbalism, before the advent of first aid chemical medicines, astringents were considered heal-all remedies. Such herbs were the only means to stop an acute loss of vital fluids and to promote healing in injuries. Their use is still very much worth consideration to counter bleeding, stop sweating, quell coughs and stop diarrhoea.
When our body is watery and congested with phlegm or snot, we need astringents to dry up runny noses or watery eyes and pull congestion from the lungs, throat and sinuses. Astringency breaks through sticky phlegm and snot so the body can expel it naturally. The coolness of astringency balances the heat of too much heavy density in our body or when the temperature rises from fever. Astringency also helps our body to absorb all the good nutrients and memory of the foods we eat, so the body’s tissues can utilise them for proper function.
The mouth-puckering herbs
If we take a bite out of any unripe fruit, a persimmon for example, we quickly recognise what astringency feels like. If we take a sip of black tea, especially one that has been steeping for too long and leave it in our mouth for a while, we will feel our mouth dry out and leave a puckering sensation. The mucosal lining contracts with a mild analgesic feeling inside of our mouth. This tightening of the mouth tissue is the astringent action of a plant that is rich in tannins. The tannins denature the salivary proteins, causing a rough "sandpapery" sensation in the mouth. Astringent taste cleanses the mouth, but can cause difficulty swallowing. Leafy greens, green bananas and cranberries are astringent. Astringent plant actives make an apple crunchy and lentils and peeled potatoes stick to each other. Astringent taste is often accompanied by bitter taste and mistaken as such or overlooked. Salt and foods high in potassium and magnesium are considered astringent but are not, because mineral rich foods tend to create a rough mouth feel.
The plant world offers us the bulk of natural astringents that work by drawing out water from the target tissue or membrane and reducing fluid emission.
Astringent herbs contain constituents that have a binding action on mucous membranes, skin and other exposed tissues. The word "astringent" derives from Latin astringere, meaning, "to bind fast".
Astringents herbs dry, draw or shrink body tissue that helps to create a protective barrier, reducing irritation and inflammation on the surface of tissues through a sort of numbing action. Internally, astringent herbs help to tone mucus membranes and dry up conditions of excess, diminishing discharges of mucus, urine, sweat or blood.
Astringents herbs can be employed for rapid wound healing and various digestive tract disorders. Aloe vera, yarrow, nettle and meadowsweet are good examples of astringent herbs with drying properties that are most helpful to seal off a leaky gut. They can also be used to treat persistent diarrhoea and inflammation of the intestines. In case of a bleeding wound, astringents can constrict blood vessels to help staunch it. In this case, we call the action styptic or haemostatic. Due to the astringent and mildly analgesic actions, astringents work really well to soothe sunburn or other mild burns. The specific effect depends on the particular herb used, how the herb is administered and how strong its astringent effect is.
Mostly all astringent herbs coagulate albumin or blood proteins, tone muscles; contract veins and gland ducts, slow down peristalsis or contractions in organs, and reduce excess salivation. Stronger astringent herbs stop diarrhoea and haemorrhaging. The herbs with this latter effect are called styptics. They also treat prolapse of the uterine and rectum. Milder astringent herbs reduce excessive perspiration and tighten enlarged pores by toning and contracting the skin and glands. Astringents can be used to supplement various clearing or detoxifying therapies. They are particularly good for treating ulcerations of the skin or mucous membranes. A good example is myrrh used in tincture form as a gargle for sore throat, treating spongy gums.
Astringent herbal tea that is rich in tannins can relieve acute diarrhoea. A combination of meadowsweet and lady’s mantle and raspberry leaf in equal parts works very well and can be safely used for children in acute cases. Also use astringent juices like cranberry or pomegranate juice that can be very helpful.
What are tannins?
Tannins are a subcategory of phenolic compounds. The constituents that are responsible for astringent actions are tannin, tannic acid and gallic acid that normally work by contracting or tightening tissues. Tannins create a barrier against infection, which is of great help for wounds and burns by tightening the upper layer of the skin, making it difficult for germs to enter the body via the skin.
The term “tannin” comes from the traditional usage of astringent plants for tanning leather. Animal skins were often preserved with oak bark, walnut shells and other specific tree barks. Tannins have the effect of precipitating protein molecules (how animal skin is turned into leather). Nowadays, leather is mostly tanned with mineral salts and other inorganic substances.
Why plants have tannins
Astringency is perhaps the most common therapeutic property in Nature. Plants high in tannins (often found in the bark, roots and also leaves) protect themselves internally from different kinds of funguses as well as protection from mould; they are helpful for the plant to prevent water, bacteria or other pests to enter. Externally they serve as protection from loss of fluid from the plant itself.
Astringency tastes unpleasant to many mammals (including humans), which tend to avoid eating astringent fruit; conversely, birds do not taste astringency and readily eat these fruit. It is thought that fruit astringency gives a selective advantage to some plant varieties because birds are better than mammals at long-distance seed dispersal, often flying a great distance before passing the seeds in their droppings.
Astringents are notably used to:
Astringents on the skin
Externally applied astringents cause mild coagulation of skin proteins to dry, harden and protect the skin. Accordingly astringents help heal stretch marks and other scars. Herbs with astringent properties are typically found in products for treating skin irritations, such as acne, skin allergies, insect bites and fungal infections such as athlete's foot. Herbal astringents work well for those who are prone to oily skin; acne sufferers are often advised to use astringents if they have oily skin. Astringents temporarily draw water out of tissues, shrink pores and tighten skin. In beauty products astringents are often used after cleansing and before applying a moisturiser.
Common non-herbal cosmetic products labelled as astringent are often confused with toners and usually marketed as treatments for acne-prone or oily skin and can even make oily skin irritated or cause it to produce more oil to compensate for the drying effect. Such products are meant to remove excess oil and usually contain alcohol, citric acid, salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide to accomplish this. The problem is that these ingredients are harsh on the skin and can cause irritation, inflammation, dryness and redness, especially on sensitive skin.
Natural herbal astringent ingredients are a safer, less harsh way to manage oily skin and much gentler on the skin and can remove excess oil without disturbing hydration levels. Many mildly astringent herbs have qualities that can safely be used by most skin types and will help balance oily skin without the over-drying effects.
Gentle yet effective astringent herbs
Widely known for its medicinal and cosmetic uses, the extract from the leaves, bark, and twigs of witch hazel have been used as an astringent to treat irritated skin and inflamed tissues for hundreds of years. Witch hazel has hamamelitannin, tannin and gallic acid, all of which produce its astringent and styptic actions. It is such a valuable astringent herb that it has been successfully used to stop miscarriages. Among its many uses, it is also known to reduce internal secretions, improve circulation, treat varicosity, diarrhoea and mucous colitis and has been used as a first aid remedy. However, when used inappropriately or in excess, it can cause liver damage and stomach irritation.
Raspberry leaf is a valuable skincare ingredient due to its remarkable astringent effect. It contains tannins that help constrict the skin pores and reduce inflammation, making it useful for the treatment of various skin conditions, such as psoriasis, acne and eczema. The herb is invaluable to staunch excessive menstruation and regulate the flow. It can be used to gently treat diarrhoea.
Traditionally, calendula is used internally and externally as medicine to treat burns, bruises and wounds due to its anti-inflammatory properties. In skin care, calendula is a safe, mild astringent and an emollient, helping to soften and soothe irritated skin. Calendula is the first port of call for injuries to cleanse, stop bleeding and stop infection entering the wound.
Elderflowers and berries
Elder, Sambucus nigra is a powerful immune-boosting tool during cold and flu season. The flowers are used in traditional medicine as a diuretic, laxative and diaphoretic, which means it causes sweating to cool and encourage the release of toxins. In skincare elderflowers possess antioxidant and astringent qualities and are also high in vital nutrients like vitamins, bioflavonoids and essential fatty acids. The berries tone and build resilience of all the respiratory and internal mucosa and boost immunity.
The Euphrasia plant has long been used to treat eye conditions like conjunctivitis, swollen eyelids and sties. Its anti-inflammatory properties also make it helpful as a treatment for sinusitis, colds, allergies and respiratory health. Eyebright also helps de-puff and reduce redness around the eyes and acts as an astringent and antioxidant on the skin.
Green tea has many benefits topically for the skin with copious antioxidants to help repair damage from free radicals that lead to signs of premature aging. It is also excellent for treating acne because it helps reduce inflammation, kill bacteria and slow sebum production and its astringent action minimises pores and balances the skin’s p. H.
Cranesbill (Geranium masculatum, dissectum and mole) has tannic and gallic acids, which give astringent and tonic effects. It has many medicinal uses, which include treating boils, wounds, sores and diarrhoea and balancing over-active sebaceous glands.
Nettles were used to treat everything from colds to dysentery, heavy periods, to headaches and digestive issues. It blocks histamine to reduce allergies, lowers blood pressure and more. For skin, it acts as an astringent to tighten and tone and as an anti-inflammatory to reduce redness and irritation.
Rose has been used internally and externally for many ailments. In skin care, rose is effective at hydrating, soothing and repairing and is especially good for mature skin. Astringent properties make it an excellent toner and pore purifier.
Myrrh is a classic example of an effective astringent herb that contracts and cleans to seal off and protect the delicate mucous membranes of the body namely the mouth, throat and genitals. It is powerfully anti-microbial.
The astringent herbs
Blackberry root and leaf
Green and black tea
Witch hazel leaf and bark
White willow bark
Astringent essential oils
In aromatherapy, there are some remarkable astringent essential oils that can be used to tone and tighten and protect the body tissues. We can massage them into the skin, bathe in them and diffuse them to inhale them into our systems or wear them as perfumes to achieve their subtle energetic work. Astringent essential oils are particularly good for those who suffer from acne, oily skin, and poor lymphatic drainage in the face where fluid can collect near the eyes and jawline giving the face a puffy appearance.
Some astringent essential oil standouts
Cypress oil is used to treat respiratory ailments especially coughs and congestion and to heal wounds as well as varicose veins and haemorrhoids. Cypress is also anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic (reduces muscle spasms). As an astringent and anti-bacterial for the skin, the oil is commonly used to treat acne.
Tea Tree Oil and Lemon Tea tree
Tea Tree oil is a strong anti-bacterial agent and used in skincare products, oral hygiene and hair. It is effective as a treatment for acne via anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory actions and is a potent astringent to reduce pores and manage oily skin.
Many citrus oils are used in skin care for their astringent and toning effects. Oils like lemon, lime, sweet orange and neroli are excellent ingredients to purify the skin, balance pH and reduce pore size. Often found in acne-fighting treatments, citrus oils help cleanse pores of impurities and seal them off to prevent new infections from growing. Plus, they help reduce inflammation that comes along with certain types of acne. Vitamin C in citrus also supports collagen production to counteract signs of aging.
The spiritual lessons of astringency
Emotionally, astringent herbs help us to cool off, retreat, recollect scattered thoughts and retain strength. Astringency causes constriction in bodily tissues that creates a barrier to halt all outgoing energy. Indeed, astringent plants bring us the wisdom of containment. Contraction is as important as expansion for balance within the organism. Sometimes we let too much go, we are always giving out and don’t leave enough for our own well being. Perhaps we become too loose with boundaries, discharging too much chatter, information, opinions and emotional stuff that ought to be internalised to properly assimilate and reintegrate back to heal the whole self. Where we have become too flaccid and lax, we need restraint and containment to flourish.
Like everything, there is an opposite state, whereby we can have too much of any helpful herb that no longer serves us well or does not suit our particular constitution. Long-term internal use or too much astringency in the diet can be detrimental to the health for some people with gut issues, as there may be an eventual inhibition of proper food absorption across the gut wall. In some cases, astringents can be contraindicated for treating excessive discharges. For example, diarrhoea from toxins or poisoning should not be suppressed, but promoted as part of the cleansing process. Sweating from excessive fever should not be suppressed with strong astringents because sweating is the body’s way of cooling, heat clearing herbs should be directly used. Some milder astringents such as eyebright, yarrow, raspberry leaves, nettles and rosehips are widely used because of their mildness and broad regulating action. Internal uses of astringents are not suitable for conditions of excessive dryness or severe nerve disorders. Astringents should be combined with other herbs such as demulcents like liquorice or marshmallow to protect vital fluids.
People with serious liver disease should avoid astringents. Even though the liver tends not to absorb tannins, even small amounts of tannic acid for an impaired liver can cause side effects, like abdominal pains, constipation, diarrhoea, thirst, polyuria or liver, heart or kidney failure. Accordingly, herbalists tend to avoid an excessive use of herbs that are high in tannins, preferring deeper therapeutic strategies. Astringents are often used secondarily to treat acute symptoms, while other therapies are used primarily to treat the cause.
Astringent Products from Tinderbox:
Wee tea, Tummy Settle
Calendula and Myrrh Tincture
Rosehip and Elderflower Elixir,
Juniper Body Rub,
Orange Flower Spritzing Toner
A Woman’s Tea, A Mans’ Tea