Herbal tonics are an easy way to begin using herbs. You can use fresh herbs straight from your garden or of the woods around you or dried. It is an easy way to try something new and see how it affects you. AND, you can drink tea all of your life. Our world is toxic and filled with disease. What can it hurt to safeguard our health and keep our body’s defenses strong?
How does one go about combating disease, increasing immunity and elevating the quality of their own life but by nourishing one’s body tissues and providing energy for all the zillions of metabolic unseen processes that go on at a cellular level? The word (and use) of tonics is powerhouse if understood (and used) properly.
Speaking about the word tonic Jim McDonald says…
“Tonic” “Tonic” is kind of a nightmare of a word in the herb world, because without being explained, it is so ill defined as to negate its usefulness. Indeed, if we consider that astringents are used as “toners” – they restore tone to tissues – we can consider them astringent tonics (and you will see astringents commonly referred to as “tonics” in Physio-Medical and Eclectic herbals). But there are also bitter tonics, alterative tonics, adaptogenic tonics, blood tonics, yin tonics, yang tonics, chi tonics, shen tonics, rasayana tonics, hair tonics… we could go on and on. At its root, we can use a baseline description of a tonic that defines it as a substance that increases and restores the strength/vigor/vital force of a tissue, organ or system. All the different types of tonics just mentioned are merely providing adjectives to the root word “tonic” to specify what’s being tonified (blood tonic), or in what way (astringent tonic). In western herbalism, we also refer to certain plants as trophorestoratives.
“Trophorestorative” isn’t so much an action, but a term that applies to the result obtained upon certain organs/tissues through the use of certain herbs. Trophorestoratives are herbs whose use resulted not only in restored structure (as in astringents) but in restored function as well. Beyond that, a trophorestorative will create lasting improvement in structure in function that persists even if the herb itself is discontinued. Many people would be inclined to use the word “tonic” here, and although perhaps appropriate, there are so many different kinds of tonics (blood tonics, bitter tonics, astringents…) that using the word unmodified often proves to be problematic.
Nettle seed is an incredibly important trophorestorative to the kidneys and adrenals; Goldenseal acts as a trophorestorative to mucous membranes throughout the body, including urinary tissues; Milk Thistle for the liver, Hawthorne for the heart (probably cactus too); perhaps Stone Root for the vasculature.
Herbalist Matthew Wood, in a draft copy of his Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, offers one of the better definitions of the word “tonic”, unique in that it allows for all the different manifestations this vague category may take:
“A tonic is usually an herb or food that acts on the body in a slow, nutritive fashion to build up the substance of the body. In this sense, the term “tonic” might be considered synonymous with ‘trophorestorative’ “.
It can also be defined as a substance which (like an astringent) restrains loss from the body by “toning” tissues. Matt offers the following categories tonics may fall into: Bitter tonics were used to strengthen and nourish the liver and metabolism (alteratives, for the most part), Sweet tonics acted primarily on the immune system and adrenals (adaptogens). Oily tonics supplied fixed oils and essential fatty acids to tissues to ensure hydration, cell permeability and to prevent atrophy. Mineral tonics (do I really need to say?)
provide essential minerals, and sour tonics are rich in bioflavinoids. Protein tonics are rich in protein… not lots of plants here, for the most part, but Nettle is a good example.
If you’d like to read more about this, I would suggest two things…
- Buy Matthew Woods book, Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism I have owned this book for three or so years and refer to it over and again. It is very full and makes you think. It is the book that Jim McDonald is referring to above.
- Subscribe to Plant Healer Magazine
This magazine will contain many of Jim McDonald’s writings on this, among a million other things.
So, with the word “herbal tonic” a little more clear, let’s continue
Herbal Tonics and Adaptogens
This is the class of herbs (adaptogens) that most think of when they think “tonic” The term was originally coined to describe Siberian Ginseng, and other herbs compared to Ginseng. There is much academic debate about what can and should not be called an adaptogen. For my part, if an herb relaxes tension,
increases one’s resilience to the stress they are exposed to, and, if taken over time, helps replenish their vital energy, then the herb is acting as an adaptogen, whether or not we can pinpoint and verify that its actions are manifested via the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis.
Some, but not all, herb tonics use adaptogens. Adaptogens increase resistance and help the body adapt (hence, adaptogen) or accommodate stress and inspire liveliness and bounce where there was tired and lethargy. Tonics tend to generally support a particular tissue system or organ i.e. an herb may be a tonic for the kidneys or heart, but that alone does not qualify it as an adaptogen.
If people didn’t know from experience that tonics had a positive effect on our body systems, why would we still be utilizing them after thousands of years? The research is irrefutable. People that use herbal tonics do so because they characterize in their shape, color, growth habit, and location the very lifeblood about what herbs are best suited for, nourishing the body and mitigating adversity to wellness.
I am a gardener. I have always gardened. Organic gardening has the same principle that “growing” our body does. When you do a search on managing pests organically you will find over and over… “feed the soil” – a healthy plant is the least susceptible to disease and can handle pest attacks with more “snap”. They are more resilient when posed with stress/disease. Our bodies? Same principle. Feed and nourish your body, it will respond to disease with more “snap” and resiliency. Sometimes you won’t even know a “bug” invaded and was fought off by your body, it will do such a good job.
One last thought before we start talking about specific herbs… while there are chemicals and constituents in any and every herb, they are not typically sudden in their results. We live in a society that has accustomed us to putting an immediate end to a symptom. I would say we are “spoiled” that way, but the truth is, it is not a good thing; we are only sweeping the dust under the rug. The dust is still there, under the rug, we just can’t see it. Eventually, enough dust and we have something called a mess. Ignoring symptoms, meaning … “something is interrupting wellness” gives disease an opportunity to get a foot hold far faster and easier.
It is an enigma for some, as they start out using herbs and herbal tonics that in endeavoring to attain the highest level of wellness, they experience nothing one might consider very “tangible”. We are conditioned to managing symptoms. We don’t often think of our health unless we become unhealthy. Again, the subject here is herbal tonics, nourishing for prevention. In this age of “symptom management” it is difficult to get our mind around “no symptoms”.
To give you an example of what I am getting at, we start gaining weight (symptom) so, we start watching what we eat a little closer, we cut back on the sugar or carbs or whatever you feel you have an excess of in your diet that is causing the pounds to multiply. The pounds start going down. Viola! You have managed your symptom! But what if you didn’t want the pounds coming on at ALL?
That, you see, is called prevention. We are simply not familiarized to gauging our progress (or even health maintenance) by our immediate circumstances/situation/condition… we have no symptoms.
- McDonald, Jim HerbCraft
- Wood, Matthew Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism North Atlantic Books