Too many herbs to choose from? Making a remedy and you have the urge to throw in six, eight, or maybe twelve different herbs? Perhaps everything but the kitchen sink? We herbalists have so many herbs available to us that sometimes it is difficult to know where to start when creating a medicine for yourself, a family member, or a client or patient. But if you're already familiar with a handful of herbs and their actions (how they work in the body, such as being astringent, sedative, or emollient), it's easy to apply a simple springboard formula to help you determine which herbs should be used and which should be left out for any given condition. Using my four-tier formula can help organize your thoughts and determine which herbs really will be the most beneficial for any given situation. (My new book, An Herbalist's Guide to Formulary, further details each of these tiers.)
Tier 1: Tonic
Tier 2: Specific
Tier 3: Corollary
Tier 4: Vehicle
All of these are fairly straightforward, with the exception of the Tier 3 Corollary. It's the one many of my students at The Bellebuono School of Herbal Medicine ask about most, so let's explore it here and how understanding its use can help you craft an effective herbal remedy.
The Supportive Role
Sometimes called adjunct, adjuvant, or supportive, the corollary herbs are those that would win the Best Supporting Actress Award at the herbal banquet. They are a versatile and creative bunch, filling in when the work hasn't been covered by the Tier 1 Tonic or the Tier 2 Specific herbs. Corollary herbs can accomplish several things, and it is up to the herbalist to decide which is the most important given the client's symptoms. Generally, I use the corollary herbs in one of three primary ways: to address additional symptoms, to warm the person from the inside out (with warming digestive and cardiovascular herbs and spices), or to nourish the nervous system.
- Symptoms. First, corollary herbs can address symptoms that accompany an illness and that aren't necessarily being addressed by the Tier 2 Specific. For instance, a woman suffering painful menses (dysmenorrhea ) may also be experiencing fatigue. The Tier 1 Tonic may be raspberry or oatstraw, and the Tier 2 Specific may be vitex or perhaps wild yam, two perfectly good choices for someone with dysmenorrhea, but none of these herbs will necessarily address fatigue. In this case, reach for a Tier 3 Corollary such as ginger, peppermint, eleuthero, or wild sarsaparilla.
Similarly, say you're working with a person who has a chest cold and cough. Perhaps the Tier 2 Specific in your formula is hyssop, a wonderful expectorant and aromatic herb for respiratory congestion. But this person also has a sore throat from coughing so much, so the Tier 3 herb may be mallow or licorice. Or he or she has watery eyes and a runny nose, so the Tier 3 may be elder flower or the astringent herb sage. Using a corollary herb like this helps round out the formula, making sure you're addressing the important symptoms experienced by the person and doing it in an organized way that not only puts the herbs to their best use but also helps you keep the remedy tidy and minimal.
- Bitter or Warming. Alternatively, the corollary herb may not directly address a symptom but it will be a bitter to support digestive health, or a warming herb to enliven the circulation. Sometimes a person needs the warming fire of cinnamon, ginger, mint, or yarrow to support other processes in the body so that the Tier 2 herbs can work most effectively. Warming herbs such as mustard, cayenne, ginger, clove, and cinnamon are especially helpful in cold or stagnant conditions, and they can be useful when one experiences mental fog, fatigue, blockage, slow movement, or confusion. Bitters such as rue, gentian, yarrow, and motherwort make a wonderful Tier 3 because they naturally stimulate active digestion, supporting a process central to daily function that indirectly supports muscle movement, clarity of thought, deep respiration, and healthy endocrine function.
It can be helpful to keep in mind that not all of these herbs need to be in the same remedy for it to be considered "a formula." For instance, your Tier 1 Tonic herb may be stinging nettle, a lovely green-tasting herb that makes a delicious tea. But you wouldn't necessarily want to include all the other herbs in the same tea. In this case, you could drink the tea as the tonic and include, say, ginger, cinnamon, and vitex as a tincture that would be taken separately but as part of the greater whole of the regimen. In this way, all four tiers of the formula are present.
- Nervous System Support. Another way to gainfully employ the Supporting Actress is to bring in an additional nervous system herb. Generally, Tier 1 is the place in the formula to include a tonic—an herb that is nutritious, often mineral-rich, safe, versatile, abundant in the ecosystem, and overall a "food" to an organ or body system. Many Tier 1 tonics are also nervous system support herbs, but not always. It can be helpful in a remedy to add an extra herb that supports the nervous system itself: turmeric, well-known as an anti-inflammatory, is being shown in recent university studies to be a possible preventive for damaging neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Diseases. Including it as a Tier 3 Corollary herb for someone experiencing memory loss or simple mental fatigue can be wise. In another example, you're supporting a woman with anxiety by giving her a formula with lemon balm as the Tier 2 Specific. She also reports not being able to sleep at night due to stress, so a commonsense Tier 3 Corollary herb might be ashwagandha.
In these ways, the Tier 3 Corollary herb is a useful support herb in any formula you make. Let your creativity flourish when crafting your herbal remedies using the 4-Tier formula as a constructive base. And gain confidence in using herbs in the formula with these guidelines for the Tier 3 corollary herb, allowing it serve the functions most needed by your client or patient.