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Using Tonic Herbs for Health and Vitality

Herbs can be powerful allies for our health and wellness. Many of us are familiar with Echinacea and yarrow as antimicrobials, wild cherry bark for a cough, ginger for nausea, and a host of other herbs used in acute situations to restore health. Herbs can be very effective used in this manner, but herbs also shine when used as daily building and strengthening tonics.

What are Tonic Herbs?

In a previous article I discussed nourishing herbal infusions, which are made from nutrient-rich herbs that are safe to consume on a daily basis, as we do food. In this article I delve into tonic herbs – those herbs which can be consumed daily to enhance vitality, longevity, and energy. We may be familiar with the concept of tonics from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), wherein they are used “to supplement deficiencies and enhance energy and well-being” [1].

Using Tonic Herbs for Health

Tonic herbs slowly build and strengthen, restoring our body systems to a balanced state, thus supporting optimum function of our physical bodies as well as enhancing our emotional well-being. They reflect the essence of herbalism, which we emphasize in our online herbalism classes – integrating plants into our diets on a daily basis as supportive, building, strengthening allies used as preventative medicine or to heal chronic disease. Hippocrates hit the nail on the head with his oft-cited declaration, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine by thy food.” In recent years as we have linked the sad state of the Standard American Diet to our health struggles, there has fortunately been an increased emphasis on letting food be our medicine. We can focus on the second half of Hippocrates’ mandate and let medicine be our food by supplementing our diets and nourishing our bodies with tonic herbs.

Is important to note that the definition of tonic is somewhat different in TCM and Western Herbalism. In general, eastern tonics are used in the case of deficiency to build or nourish the body, while western tonics are used to improve organ or system function, often through clearing and cleansing [2]. Western tonics do include nurturing, building tonics such as adaptogens (which increase the body’s ability to resist and adapt to stress, be it physical, mental, or emotional) and trophorestoratives (which build strength and function of organs or body systems); but they also include normalizing tonics (which improve organ or system by stimulating function) and blood tonics (which cleanse and detoxify the blood) [2]. This article focuses on the building tonics which treat deficiency and restore function by restoring strength, generating warmth, providing nutrition, and providing moisture [3].

The Herb Safety Scale

One important criteria for tonics is that they have no negative side effects if used appropriately. In terms of safety, it is helpful to consider where various types of herbs fall on a safety continuum scale of 1 to 5 [4].

Nourishing herbs are on the left side of the scale with a safety rating of 1, as they are very safe and can be consumed daily as often as desired with no side effects.

On the right side of the scale are herbs for extreme acute use (also called heroic herbs by herbalist Christopher Hobbs), which have a safety rating of 5. These are herbs that are “strong and highly irritating, causing dramatic changes to occur” with little difference between a therapeutic dose and a toxic dose [5] and thus strong potential for side effects – these must be used only under direction of an experienced herbalist.

In between these extremes are tonic herbs and “specific” herbs. Tonic herbs are gentle and slow stimulants [4], have a wide therapeutic range, and include two types: nourishing tonics that are very safe to take daily over extended periods of time; and stimulating tonics that are safe to take for days to months without side effects if used correctly.

“Specific” herbs are “moderately active stimulants” [5] with a narrower therapeutic range, best for acute use limited to approximately two weeks.

The Herb Safety Continuum Scale

The Herb Safety Continuum Scale

Class of Herb

Safety Rating

Safety Notes

Period of Usage

Examples

Nourishing Herbs

1

No known side effects

As often as wanted, like food

Nettle, oatstraw, chickweed, red clover, alfalfa

Nourishing Tonics

2

Little to no side effect

Daily use over long periods of time

Reishi, burdock, dandelion, holy basil, astragalus, cinnamon, garlic, schisandra berry, raspberry leaf

Stimulating Tonics

3

Possible side effects with improper use

Days to months

Hawthorn, ginseng, licorice, eleuthero, rhodiola, turmeric, ashwagandha, Gingko, ginger, motherwort

Specific Herbs

4

Acute use only

2 to 3 weeks

Goldenseal, myrrh, juniper, usnea 

Heroic Herbs

5

Extreme acute use only under guidance of experienced herbalist

Very limited doses

Foxglove, poke root, lily of the valley

Using Tonic Herbs for Health and Vitality

So what are some tonic herbs, and how can we use them? Tonic herbs can include adaptogens, trophorestoratives, normalizing amphoterics, and alteratives. Tonics can work on one organ or body system or several simultaneously. While it might seem like a good idea to take enough tonics to cover each body system, this could become overwhelming! Including tonic herbs in cooking and making tonic preparations takes some planning, so keep it simple by incorporating just a few into your daily routine.

Consider your areas of weakness in the body - if you struggle with stress or anxiety, choose an adaptogen or a tonic for the nervous system. If you have digestive difficulties, choose a tonic that supports the liver and digestive system. If you have a history of heart disease, choose a cardiotonic. If you are generally healthy and just want to enhance your health and increase energy and longevity, choose an adaptogen to support multiple body systems, or rotate different tonics every few months. Ideally, consume these in or as food (e.g. throw some astragalus or reishi into a soup recipe) or as herbal infusions and decoctions. If your busy life simply does not allow for this, herbal tinctures are also an option.

Immunomodulators for the Immune System 

A strong immune system will fight off daily assaults to our health, and immunomodulators like astragalus root, reishi mushroom, and licorice root help build immunity. These herbs are rich in polysaccharides and saponins, which stimulate the body’s innate immunity [6]. These herbs are also adaptogens, which increase the body’s ability to resist and cope with physical and emotional stress, adapting to the stressor instead of succumbing to it. Additionally, astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous) is tonic to the adrenal glands, heart, lungs, and liver. Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) is tonic to the liver, is anti-inflammatory, and lowers cholesterol [1], and its nervine action helps relieve anxiety and sleeplessness. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra L.) is tonic to the digestive system and is a powerful antiviral (but should not be taken in high doses or on its own for extended periods as it can raise blood pressure).

turmeric

Turmeric for the Digestive and Musculoskeletal Systems

Efficient digestion and assimilation are paramount for health - a large percentage of the immune system resides in the gut, after all! Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a warming, carminative, and slightly bitter digestive tonic that kindles digestive fire and promotes healthy digestion by stimulating the production and flow of bile and relieving symptoms of indigestion such as cramping, gas, and bloating. It is also liver-protective, helping to prevent liver disease. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory and can help soothe inflammatory bowel diseases. Its anti-inflammatory and analgesic actions are helpful for maintaining healthy joints, tendons, and ligaments, relieving symptoms of arthritis, and keeping tendons and ligaments flexible. Read more about turmeric and get our spin on the age-old Golden Milk recipe here.

Tonic Herbs for Health: Hawthorn

Hawthorn for the Heart

Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) is rich in flavonoids and is a well-known cardiac tonic. Hawthorn extract from the berry, leaf, and/or flower is used as a general cardiac tonic, a cardiac trophorestorative, and for cases of angina, high blood pressure, early stages of congestive heart failure, and atherosclerosis [7]. It is a supportive and anti-inflammatory tonic herb for any type of heart-related condition, including helping to heal the heart following a heart attack. Hawthorn berries, leaves, and flowers are also used as calming nervines and are used to heal, open, and protect the energetic heart. Get a lovely hawthorn tea recipe here.

Oats - Using Tonic Herbs for Health and Vitality

Oats for the Nervous System

Oatstraw (Avena sativa), which makes an ideal nourishing herbal infusion due to its rich nutritive profile, is also a great nerve tonic. The rich vitamin B, calcium, and magnesium content in oatstraw and milky oats help soothe, and strengthen nerves. Oatstraw and milky oats are considered one of the best remedies for “feeding” and restoring the nervous system, particularly in times of stress and in the case of nervous system weakness or exhaustion associated with depression [8] overwork, or emotional trauma [9]. Oats also support cardiovascular health by reducing cholesterol,  improving circulation, and reducing blood pressure by elasticizing veins and arteries. Learn more about the health benefits of oats.

Ashwaghanda tonic herb

Ashwagandha for Reproductive Vitality

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) translates to “that which has the smell of a horse, as it gives the vitality and sexual energy of a horse” [10]. This name alludes to the root's strong odor as well as to its use to restore strength and vitality, and to improve and enhance sexual drive by gradually lowering stress levels that may inhibit the sex drive. Ashwagandha also enhances endocrine function. In addition to its ability to build libido in men and women, ashwagandha has been shown to improve potency in men [11]. Ashwagandha is also an adaptogen and acts as an immunomodulant. Due to its calming nature, it is also used to relieve anxiety and tension.

For more extensive herbal monographs for these plants and more, join us in The Herbarium, which features some of the most beautiful and complete monographs to date, pulling together traditional herbal wisdom, hands-on experience, and modern scientific research to present a multifaceted description of each herb. We also offer a free herbal blog chock full of informative articles and online herbalism courses designed for students who wish to build their foundation of herbalism knowledge.

References

[1] Winston, D. and Maimes, S. (2007). Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief

[2] Tierra, L. (n.d.) Herbal Tonics: East and West.

[3]Holmes, P. (1997). The Energetics of Western Herbs, Vol. I, Third Edition.

[4] Maurer, S. (2013). Sacred Plant Medicine Apprenticeship class handouts. Gaia School of Healing and Earth Education.

[5] Hobbs, C. (n.d.) Herbal Medicine: Specific And Tonic Immune Herbs Exploring A Practical System Of Western Herbalism.

[6] Masé, Guido. (2013). The Wild Medicine Solution.

[7] Murray, Michael T. (1995). The Healing Power of Herbs.

[8] Hoffmann, David. (2003). Medical Herbalism.

[9] Hardin, Kiva Rose. (2010). Wild as the Day is Long: The Restorative Medicine of Avena.

[10] Lad V and Frawley, D. (1986). The Yoga of Herbs.

[11] Tierra, M. (n.d.) The Mighty Ashwagandha, Superior Aphrodisiac and Male Fertility Tonic.

Jane Metzger is the Assistant Director at the Herbal Academy of New England, home of the online Introductory Herbal Course and Intermediate Herbal Course. HANE recently released its affordable membership program, fittingly called The Herbarium, featuring one of the most complete plant monograph databases to date. Learn more about all of HANE offerings at Herbal Academy of New England.


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