Herby Gardens


What Are Alteratives?

Read time: 5 minutes


Alteratives Explained

[1, 7, 13]

Alterative is an herbal action term used to describe the medicinal effect a plant has on our bodies. Many herbalists refer to them as blood cleansers, though that is an oversimplification. Alteratives work to strengthen and nourish the body systems involved in nutrient absorption and waste removal [1, 7, 13].

Like adaptogens, tonic alteratives work gradually to restore proper body functions [1, 7, 13]. They often have secondary actions like hepatic (supports liver function), lymphagogue (promotes the flow of lymph), diuretic (increases urine production), and cholagogue (stimulates the flow of bile) [1]. Herbalists use alteratives to help with skin issues like acne, eczema, and psoriasis. They can also help with arthritis, auto-immune conditions, and poor immunity [1, 7, 13].

"It's not literally cleaning of the blood. It is altering the body towards health"


[1, 2, 7, 8, 13]

Definition: Alteratives support healthy cellular metabolism and the body’s natural detoxification, elimination, and cleansing processes [1]

Mechanism of action: Multitarget effects on liver, kidney, digestive, and lymphatic systems

Indications for use: Skin conditions, poor immune function, autoimmune disorders, rheumatic conditions

5 Common Alteratives

1. Red Clover

 Trifolium pratense

[2, 5, 6, 13]

  • Energetics: Cooling and balancing
  • Parts Used: Flower Heads
  • Preparations: Infusion, tincture, glycerite

Red clover is considered a sweet tonic, a term adopted from Traditional Chinese Medicine [13]. Sweet tonic herbs contain sugars and starches that help nourish tissues by increasing cellular metabolism [13]. It is part of the pea family (Fabaceae), and like other legumes, red clover is particularly useful in the garden as a nitrogen fixer. It is considered generally safe; however, consult your doctor if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Herbalists use red clover to treat skin conditions, swollen lymph nodes, chronic coughs, menopausal symptoms, and tumors [2, 5, 6].


Make a red clover infusion using 1-2 tsp. dried flower heads and 8 oz. boiling water. Let steep for at least 10 minutes, strain and serve. The infusion may be taken up to 3 times per day.

red clover alteratives
Red Clover ( Trifolium pratense)

2. Nettle

Urtica dioica

[3, 4, 12, 13]

  • Energetics: Cooling, nourishing, drying (diuretic)
  • Parts Used: Young leaves (before flowers appear), roots, seeds
  • Preparations: Food (cooked or steamed leaves – beware of the sting!), infusion, tincture

Nettle is native to the northern hemisphere and is known for the stinging hairs on its leaves and stems. It also goes by stinging nettles and is a member of the Urticaceae family [12]. Nettle has been used for centuries as food and medicine but also as clothing and rope [3, 12]. Nettles are rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals, so unsurprisingly, it is considered one of the most useful plants to many herbalists [13]. We can use nettles to treat skin conditions, vitamin & mineral deficiencies, seasonal allergies, lung issues, prostate issues, insulin resistance, and poor elimination [3, 13].

Make a nettle infusion using 1 tsp. to 1 tbs. dried leaves and 8 oz. boiling water. Let steep for at least 10 minutes, strain and serve. The infusion may be taken up to 3 times per day. A long infusion (steep approx 2 hours) will allow more of the nutrients to be extracted.

Nettle (Urtica dioica)

3. Cleavers

Galium aparine

[2, 5, 11]

  • Energetics: Cooling and drying
  • Parts Used: Aerial parts
  • Preparations: Infusion, juice, tincture, culinary, poultice, compress, and salve

Galium aparine is native to a wide range of areas around the world, including Europe, Asia, and North Africa. It is part of the coffee family (Rubiaceae) and is also called bedstraw, goose grass, or catchweed [2, 5]. The common names come from its ability to stick to fur or clothing [2]. The plant is covered in tiny hooked hairs and has sticky seeds [11]. Herbalists use cleavers to help with skin issues, swollen lymph glands, and promotes urination (diuretic) [2, 5].

Make a cleavers infusion using 1-2 tsp. dried aerial parts and 8 oz. boiling water. Let steep for at least 10 minutes, strain and serve. The infusion may be taken up to 3 times per day.

cleavers alteratives
Cleavers (Galium aparine)

4. Burdock

Arctium lappa, Arctium minus

[3, 9]

  • Energetics: Cooling and balancing
  • Parts Used: Roots, seeds, leaves, stalks
  • Preparations: Decoction, food, tincture

Burdock is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western Folk Medicine for cleansing and skin disorders [9]. It is part of the daisy family (Asteraceae), and its other common name is gobo [3]. The leaves and stems can be cooked and used as food [9]. Burdock’s distinct hairy seed latches onto passersby with its hooked bracts (burs) [3, 9]. An alcohol extraction from the seeds creates a very strong diuretic (increase urination) and diaphoretic (stimulates perspiration) to be used for acute issues [3]. We can use the long taproot for chronic issues and it may be taken regularly for several weeks [3].

Make a burdock decoction by simmering 1 tsp. – 1 tbs. root slices per 8 oz water. Simmer for approximately 20 minutes then remove from heat and steep another 1 – 2 hours. My favorite way to use burdock is by adding fresh root slices to soups and stews. It can be treated just like a carrot.

burdock flower
Burdock (Arctium minus)

5. Chickweed

Stellaria media

[1, 2, 4]

  • Energetics: Cooling and moistening
  • Parts Used: Aerial parts while in flower
  • Preparations: Infusion, vinegar, culinary, poultice, compress, salve, infused oil

Chickweed is native to Europe but it can be found just about everywhere. It is part of the carnation family (Caryophyllaceae), and sometimes called starweed [1]. We’ve used chickweed for centuries as food and medicine because of its high vitamin and mineral content [1, 4]. It is especially helpful for iron deficiencies [1, 4]. Herbalists use chickweed remedies for nutrient deficiencies, swollen lymph glands, heartburn, sore throats, dry coughs, inflamed eyes, chronic skin issues, and acute skin issues [1, 2, 4]. It may not be safe to take during pregnancy and can cause digestive irritation in extremely high doses [2].

Make a chickweed infusion using 1-2 tsp. dried aerial parts and 8 oz. boiling water. Let steep for at least 10 minutes, strain and serve. The infusion may be taken up to 3 times per day.

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Disclaimer: We consider alteratives to be generally safe, although there are circumstances when you should not take a particular herb. I am providing a brief and general overview of common alterative herbs for educational purposes only.

Related Posts


1.  Blankespoor J. The Healing Garden. Mariner Books; 2022.
2.  Chevallier A. Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine. Third. Penguin Random House; 2016.
3.  De La Foret R. Alchemy of Herbs. Hay House Inc.; 2017.
4.  De La Foret R, Han E. Wild Remedies. Hay House Inc.; 2020.
5.  Easley T, Horne S. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory: A Medicicne-Making Guide. North Atlantic Books; 2016.
6.  Gladstar R. Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health. Storey Publishing; 2008.
7.  Herbal Action – Alterative.; 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chJ3Db33qGg
8.  Hoffmann, FNIMH, AHG D. Medical Herbalism – The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. The Healing Arts Press; 2003.
9.  Mountain Rose Herbs. Burdock Root. Mountain Rose Herbs.https://mountainroseherbs.com/burdock-root
10.  Mountain Rose Herbs. Chickweed. Mountain Rose Herbs. https://mountainroseherbs.com/chickweed
11.  Mountain Rose Herbs. Cleavers. Mountain Rose Herbs. https://mountainroseherbs.com/cleavers
12.  Mountain Rose Herbs. Nettle Leaf. Mountain Rose Herbs. https://mountainroseherbs.com/nettle-leaf
13.  Wood M. The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism. North Atlantic Books; 2004.

Hello and welcome! My name is Kate and I am an herbalist and backyard farmer. If you are a beginner herbalist or just looking for information on plants, I write about gardening, natural remedies, and herbalism.




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