The Power of Pungent Herbs

Energetically warming herbs and spices can help us spark a little fire in the body by improving digestion, boosting circulation, moving out congestion, and more. Not only that, they’re readily available in our pantries, lending themselves to some tasty medicine.

When it comes to herbal flavors and actions, many of our most potent and memorable herbs are “pungent.” Think of those foods you use in cooking to add a kick to your dishes – ingredients like garlic, onions, horseradish, ginger, cayenne pepper, black pepper, mustard, and turmeric. These all add a whopping dose of spice and flavor, but they also play an important role in herbal medicine, providing warmth and reviving bodily systems.

Heating Up The Body

Pungent herbs are particularly popular during the colder months because they boost circulation, warm our bones, enhance digestion {of those harder -to- digest starchy storage crops and meats of winter}, stimulate the senses, help move and improve our resistance to infections. They also help to dry dampness.

Many herbs crossover as both pungent and carminative, particularly those of the mint family {such as bee balm, oregano, thyme, and rosemary}, as well as cardamom, clove, and cumin. Carminative herbs serve to aid digestion by improving assimilation, reducing bloating, and decreasing smooth muscle cramping.

In traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, acrid herbs like lobelia and pulsatilla may also be categorized as pungent, but I {like many western herbalists} consider acrid herbs in a group all their own.

Generally, pungent herbs offer warming {even hot}, drying, and moving qualities. Therefore, we use them when the body is cold, damp, and stuck or stagnant. We rely on them heavily in winter when the season itself mimics these conditions. Certain body types or constitutions also lean toward this energetic pattern. In Ayurveda, the “kapha” dosha tends to be more heavyset and sluggish. These people might have a lot of mucus and congestion, often experiencing depression when they’re out of balance. Pungent herbs help light the fire!

Pungent herbs are less appropriate for someone who is already constitutionally hot, fiery, or dry {unless you balance them in a formula with cooling and moistening herbs}. For example, someone with hot flashes, an acute ulcer, or heartburn related to too much stomach acid will often find ginger and cayenne irritating. It’s interesting to note, though, that even though the summer seems like a bad time for spicy food, most of these spicy ingredients actually come from hot climates. In this areas, the pungent herbs help to disperse and move the heat out and induce sweating. Here are some of our best pungent herbs.

garlic botanical art

Garlic {Allium sativum}

Humans have used garlic for medicine for at least the last 4,000 years. Its use spread from Mesopotamia to China, then to Japan, Korea, and Egypt, and later to the western world via the ancient Greeks and Romans. During World War I, German soldiers relied on garlic as a penicillin substitute, as did the Russians during World War II.

Garlic consumed regularly decreases inflammation via a variety of pathways including the COX-2 enzyme, the protein complex Nf-kappa B, cytokines, and LOX. It supports the body’s immune system while also offering its own antimicrobial properties. Used topically and systemically, it targets various infections {even Lyme disease and pneumonia} and respiratory ailments and plays a role in cancer prevention and treatment. It aids detoxification via the liver’s phase II enzymes.

For heart health, it improves circulation, reduces blood sugar, inhibits platelet aggregation {blood stickiness}, modestly decreases bad cholesterol and hypertension, and decreases atherosclerosis.

Garlic also helps feed beneficial gut bacteria while discouraging pathogens. {And it even works to repel biting insects!}

With that said, garlic doesn’t agree with everyone. Some people get digestive upset or topical/mucosal irritation. As a blood thinner, it’s contraindicated for those taking blood-thinning medications and before surgery. And, of course, many people find the odor of garlic on the breath and skin off-putting. {“Odor-free” and aged garlic extracts offer benefits with less stink, but many of garlic’s key constituents, including allicin, are very unstable and difficult to preserve.}

Garlic contains a slew of sulfur-based compounds that offer antimicrobial and circulatory benefits. The best way to use real garlic is to chop or mince it, let it sit for 10 minutes, then enjoy it raw. You can use that to make salad dressing, hummus, etc. {While cooked garlic offers some benefits, it’s particularly inferior to the immune aspects.}

onion plants

Onions {Allium cepa}

These relatives of garlic have many of the same benefits, but they’re generally considered weaker. Nonetheless, onions still offer antimicrobial, hypoglycemic, and cardiotonic benefits. Onions shine in loosening stuck mucus for easier expectoration. Raw or lightly cooked onions work best for this. You can lightly saute onions in oil and turmeric or curry powder, or try making onion-honey syrup. Onions have a reputation for drawing out toxins, though scientific validity of this is hotly contested. Again, onions can cause digestive upset and gas for some people.

horse radish

Horseradish {Armoracia rusticana}

Onions aren’t the only plant that can make you cry. Horseradish root is so good at getting the juices flowing in your body, you’ll tear up just grating it. Eat it and you can expect your nasal passages to clear right out! It’s fantastic, the in-the-moment symptomatic remedy for sinus congestion, and its close relative wasabi {Eutrema japonicum, syn. Wasabia japonica} works similarly.

Horseradish and wasabi belong to the pungent cabbage/mustard plant family. Like garlic and onion, horseradish and wasabi not only move phlegm and stuck mucus but also act as warming, circulation-enhancing blood movers. They’re also digestive stimulants, kicking up digestive juices and fire while also fighting gut pathogens, which is one of the reasons why they’re often served alongside difficult-to-digest meats and potentially pathogenic foods like sushi.

These roots also lose their pungency relatively quickly once processed. Vinegar holds the heat relatively well, but prepared horseradish still mellows out over time – it might taste better in cheese, aioli, or a Bloody Mary, but it doesn’t pack the medicinal punch of the fresh stuff.

ginger essence


Ginger {Zingiber officinale}

This tropical cousin of turmeric and cardamom gives us a unique, pungent flavor. It offers similar benefits as its pungent pals but really shines for digestion and inflammation. Ginger root kicks things up a notch in the gut, improving digestive function {raw ginger even contains natural protein-digesting enzymes}, fighting pathogens, enhancing beneficial bacteria, and quelling nausea. Like turmeric, it has natural COX-2 anti-inflammatory properties and tends to work best for cold, stagnant pain and muscle tension. Studies have found that 250 to 300 mg of encapsulated ginger powder can ease menstrual cramps and migraines on par with medications.

Ginger also thins and moves the blood, breaking down fibrin, a blood protein associated with clotting and varicose veins. Raw ginger root has antiviral properties, and hot ginger tea or a bath helps induce sweating to break a fever. Both these actions make ginger useful at the first sign of a cold or flu. Sipping ginger and honey can help ease coughs and sore throats, too.

Ginger is usually well-tolerated compared to the previous herbs, but some people still find it too spicy. While it may protect against ulcer and aid many digestive issues, once someone has an ulcer, gastritis, or heartburn related to hyperacidity, ginger may be too hot and irritating for the condition. {Note that many people have heartburn from a lack of adequate stomach acid; these people often improve with ginger.}

In pregnancy, food doses of any of the above herbs are usually fine, but therapeutic/high doses are generally contraindicated due to a potential emmenagogue {stimulation of or increase in menstrual flow} effect.

Pungent Recipes

Once you get a handle on these warming recipes, you can start trying your hand at other pungent concoctions.

Thai Curry Fire Cider

This recipe is inspired by noted herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, with a few twists on the classic vinegar-honey infusion of pungent herbs. Enjoy it by the spoonful or shot glass if you feel like you need a pungent boost. It’s a nice tonic for cold and flu season, heart health, and a sluggish digestion. You can also work it into recipes. I grow and freeze my own lemongrass stalks for year-round use; otherwise, try finding it in the produce department of a well-stocked grocery or ethnic foods store. {Recently, a large herb company trademarked the term “fire cider,” effectively staking claim for a recipe previously freely shared among herbalists and coined by Rosemary Gladstar. If you’re not aware of this controversy, visit to learn more.}

1/4 cup chopped onions

1/4 cup chopped ginger

1/8 cup {2 Tbls} minced garlic

1 Tbls grated horseradish

1 Tbls dried turmeric powder

4 fresh lemongrass stalks, chopped {optional}

4 sticks of Ceylon and/ or cassia cinnamon

Chopped red hot pepper, dried cayenne, or crushed red pepper to taste

A few black peppercorns

Raw apple cider vinegar

Raw honey {optional}

Salt {optional}

Combine herbs in a pint jar. {I like to use a food processor or strong blender to chop up the ingredients.} Cover three-quarters of the way with vinegar, then to the top with honey {or use all vinegar}. Cap with a plastic lid {vinegar eats through metal}. Shake regularly and strain after one month, storing in a glass bottle with a plastic lid and placing in a cool, dark, and dry spot. Consider keeping this in the cabinet with your culinary oils and vinegars for easy access.

Fire Cider, Maple, and Mustard Salad Dressing

This salad dressing is delicious over spring greens, while still adding enough warmth to cut the chill of late winter. I use a mix of bitter and tender salad greens, sliced crisp apples, pumpkin seeds/pepitas, and dried cranberries. Other nice ingredients include salmon, bacon, walnuts, pecans, and/or cheddar.

3 parts fire cider

2 parts maple syrup

1 part old-fashioned, whole-grain mustard

1 part olive oil

Whisk together vigorously or blend in a bullet blender until well-combined. Use as desired. It will keep in the fridge for several months.

Ginger-Honey Warming Tea

This is my go-to on a colder day, especially if I’m coming down with a cold or flu. You can mix it up by adding fresh thyme sprigs, cinnamon sticks, and/or star anise. While you can certainly omit or use less honey, it does help buffer the heat of the ginger.

1-inch chunk of ginger, sliced thinly*

1/2 lemon, in wedges

2 Tbls of honey

16 oz hot water

In a well-insulated thermos {the kind that burns your mouth hours later}, combine all the ingredients. Squeeze the lemon wedges into the thermos and then drop them in. {The lemon wedges will get bitter over time; if this bothers you, you can forego dropping them in.} Stir. Let steep for one hour, then sip throughout the day. [If needed, add a few ice cubes to cool it to a drinkable temperature.}

  • If you want this to steep faster or you’re using a non-insulated container, grate the ginger instead, and then strain it out to drink.

Pungent Honey

This recipe works well with garlic, ginger, or onions. Enjoy it by the spoonfuls straight or in hot water for coughs, colds, sore throats, and to warm up on those cold, damp spring days. Let your chopped garlic sit for 10 minutes before continuing with the recipe.

1/2 cup chopped garlic, onion, or ginger

2 cups honey

In a saucepan, throw in the chopped herbs and cover with honey; stir and bring gently to heat. Before it boils, shut off the heat and let the mixture cool. Repeat the process a few more times over the course of one or more days, then strain. {Honey boils at approximately 100 degrees F, so if you can keep the pot at or below this temperature – like on the back of a wood stove or in a yogurt maker – you could just let it sit there uncovered for a few days.}

When the honey is ready, store it in the refrigerator and consume within a few months. {Watery honey is likely to ferment and mold over time at room temperature. But if your finished results is as viscous as regular honey, you may be able to store it at room temperature for one year.}