When learning about herbal support for fevers, there are several unusual terms you will come across as you study. Febrifuge and antipyretic are two technical terms for substances that reduce fever. Sometimes, herbs are listed under one of these two categories, or are attributed these actions without much further guidance. This is usually done in resources that like to list herbs for certain conditions without providing much other info. You know the type: This plant is good for a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i. . . the end. A fever is a fever, right? Wrong!
There is another category of herbal action that I find is much more useful when we are discussing fever. This would be diaphoretics- substances that promotes perspiration. I feel like it gives a better indication of how the herbs interact with the human body than either of the first two. With the first two, it is easy to assume that the fever is being acted upon, and to view the fever as a separate entity, which herbalists know simply isn't the case; the third category indicates that the herb promotes diaphoresis, aka perspiration, aka sweating- which places the action squarely within the realm of individual balance and views the fever as a state of imbalance that the body is experiencing. It should be noted, though, that especially in traditional Chinese herbalism, antipyretics are a separate class of herbs and are indicated when a fever is extremely high and has gone unchecked for quite some time. For our purposes today, we will look strictly at diaphoretics.
First, though, let's look at what a fever is, what causes it, and why it's not necessarily a bad thing.
What You Should Know About Fever
A fever is a higher than normal body temperature. Temperature can vary slightly based on time of day and some other factors, so being a little higher or lower than the "normal" 98.6F usually isn't reason to be concerned. Body temperature is regulated in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus.
Most people are familiar with fevers that are part of the body's response to bacterial or viral infections- raising the temperature helps make the body less hospitable to pathogens and helps with the immune response. But fevers can also occur for other reasons:
- Illegal drugs
- Alcohol withdrawal
- Prescription medications
- Inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus
So, to summarize: if your fever is part of a cold or flu or mild infection it's not necessarily a bad thing. However, fevers that seem unusual for any reason or high fevers (above 103F or 104F for adults- depends on who you ask) definitely need to get checked out by a medical professional if one is available.
Herbal Diaphoretics Explained
A diaphoretic is a substance that promotes perspiration. This is a fairly large category of herbs. Many, but not all, herbs with diaphoretic action belong to the mint family. Peppermint, lemon balm, catnip, basil, and sage are all mint-family diaphoretics. Outside of the mint clan, ginger, chrysanthemum, chamomile, and elderflower provide a few more examples.
There are technically two types of diaphoretics: those that help produce sweat by stimulating circulation, and those that allow sweating to take place by relieving surface tension of the nerves and pores in the skin. Herbalists like to refer to these as "Warming" and "Cooling" diaphoretics, respectively, although the main difference is that the first type tend to cause a more powerful sweat on their own than the second. Both can be paired with a warm bath or layers of blankets to give an added boost to body temp and sweat-assist.
Some herbs will promote an obvious sweat while others work more in the background, but don't expect to gush buckets of sweat.
Examples of warming diaphoretics include angelica, hyssop, sage, thyme, and ginger.
Cooling diaphoretics include peppermint, lemon balm, catnip, elderflower, and chamomile.
There are a few safety precautions with some of the warming diaphoretics. Angelica, although it is a wonderful herb with many uses, should be used with caution for anyone with blood sugar problems, as it has a tendency to raise blood sugar levels in some individuals. In that case, plain ginger tea may be best. Also, sage should be avoided during pregnancy- again, ginger is usually a safe alternative.
Warming Diaphoretic or Cooling Diaphoretic: Which One Should I use?
Herbalists look at what is going on with the individual to decide whether to use a warming or a cooling diaphoretic. Here are some clues to help you better match up the right plant for your situation:
If a person is experiencing
- a mild fever with chills
- a fear of cold
- body aches and pains
- a lack of sweating
- is not thirsty
Someone who is experiencing a
- high fever
- mostly feels hot (but may still have a few mild chills now and then)
- may have a headache
- is very thirsty
If there are children in the house, it can be useful to know that they typically "run hot," so they are more likely to respond well to cooling diaphoretics. Catnip, lemon balm, and peppermint are especially kid friendly because of their more palatable tastes.
A Middle Ground Diaphoretic
There's one more important diaphoretic herb to mention before we wrap up. Yarrow is another very well known diaphoretic herb, but it is is considered neutral by most sources- in other words, it can be applied regardless of whether a warming action or a cooling action might be more beneficial. Yarrow can be used alone, or combined either with angelica 1:1 to create a warming diaphoretic tea, or equal parts elderflower and peppermint to make a cooling diaphoretic tea. A plain yarrow infusion can even be added to bath water or used as a sponge bath - especially handy for small children that may not like the taste of herbal teas.
Hopefully, you will now have a more complete picture of this category of herbs, when they are traditionally considered appropriate, and how to choose between warming and cooling diaphoretics. With herbalism, as with all aspects of self care, remember to exercise moderation and never stop learning!