Much Renaissance and early modern European medicine drew heavily on ancient beliefs about the causes of disease. The Greek Hippocratic medical tradition (Hippocrates, c. 460 BCE – c. 375 CE) saw health as a balance of bodily substances corresponding to the four elements. This approach meant that most treatments focused on balancing these fluid substances, or humors—blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Descriptions of plant actions often reflected this philosophy. The following list describes important classes of medicinal actions:
Antibacterials treat bacterial infections.
Antidotes provide remedies to poison.
Antifungals treat fungal infections.
Antihelminthics remove worms.
Antipyretics treat fevers.
Antirheumatics provide remedies for rheumatism (aches and pains).
Antispasmodics calm muscle spasms.
Aperients and cathartics accelerate defecation.
Astringents cause shrinkage of tissues.
Cholagogues lead to purging of bile from the gall bladder.
Diaphoretics help balance the humors by inducing sweating.
Diuretics stimulate production of urine.
Emetics induce vomiting.
Emmenagogues supposedly help to relieve blocked menstrual flow.
Expectorants cause over-production of mucus or phlegm.
Nervines have a positive effect on the nervous system.
Resolvents reduce inflammation and swelling.
Tonics tone various muscles: Stomachics tone stomach muscles, Cardiotonics stimulate heart muscles, and Uterotonics induce contractions of uterine muscles.