Let me start by exploring the definition of the word tonic. In the field of herbalism, this is a word that has meant many different things to many different people and cultures. In Chinese and Indian medicine systems, the word tonic refers to plants that have overall health giving properties that act globally amongst multiple systems to improve stamina and resiliency. There are heating and stimulating tonics (such as Asian ginseng) and calming and strengthening tonics (such as ashwaghanda). A number of asian tonic herbs are sweet and polysaccharide rich (astragalus, codonopsis, ginseng).
In western herbalism, the word tonic was often used for plants that improved metabolism and efficiency of organ systems. The word tonic was often synonymous with the word alterative- an herb that would “alter” and improve metabolic functions. Dandelion, burdock and chicory are some examples. These specific herbs are bitter and improve digestion, absorption and elimination.
We can also think of a broad category of plants that are nutrient dense and also have a “tonic” effect on the body. These would include seaweeds, nettles, red clover, oatstraw, berries and wild greens such as chickweed, candy flower and dandelion greens.
So for the purposes of this article lets differentiate:
Tonic adaptogenic herbs- These tend to be herbs originating in Asia that have global effects that improve resiliency, stamina and overall health and wellbeing. This is the category of herbs we will be discussing here. They are taken in teas, broths, powders and tinctures.
Alteratives- These tend to be bitter herbs that improve metabolic function and improve the processes of digestion, absorption and elimination of waste material. These tend to be taken in decoctions and tinctures.
Nutrient dense tonics- These are herbs that are dense with vitamins and minerals that tend to be gentle, most like food, are strengthening and nourishing, and often consumed in teas, decoctions and broths.
Tonic Adaptogenic Herbs
Lets return to that term adaptogen. This is a word that was first coined by Soviet scientists in the 1940’s to describe herbs that improved resiliency and ability to adapt to stress. The term adaptogen is reserved for herbs that have non-specific non toxic global effects to build resiliency. At that time, Russian researchers examined a host of plants and fungi for their effects. Generally they looked to the plants that peasants and tribespeople used for their tonic health giving properties. The darker side of this picture is that the Soviets wanted to increase resiliency and stamina in order to force people to work harder and longer. This was the era of Stalin when millions of people were worked to death and starved for horrific reasons.
This idea of continuing to work hard and simply take tonic herbs to offset the stress load is a poor way of looking at adaptogens. Some have called it akin to using a credit card on one’s energy levels- using plants to delay the price of crashing from excessive work and poor sleep. Adaptogenic tonics should be considered differently, as herbs that can restore and nourish us when we have been excessively taxed by stress, trauma and modernity. Instead of using them as energy boosters, we should think of them as herbs that give us an opportunity to strengthen us after being depleted. At the same time, it is key that we also take measures that help reduce our stress load (if possible). There is no replacing good food, rest, quiet, fresh air, water and sunlight.
Not all Adaptogens are the Same
When we look at tonic herbs, the other aspect that is rather maddening for an herbalist is that many adaptogenic tonics are lumped together as one category. One can often find capsules and tinctures with a wide assortment of adaptogens thrown together as if the medicine maker thought “the more the better”. It is key that we differentiate the effects so that we choose the right herbs for our individual being. Here is one of differentiating 12 common tonic herbs:
From most calming to most stimulating
Calming: Ashwaghanda, reishi
Neutral: Astragalus, codonopsis, schisandra, jiaogulan, holy basil
Moderately stimulating: Eleuthero, American ginseng
Very Stimulating: Rhodiola, Asian ginseng
Furthermore, some of these tonics are best extracted in teas and broth, some as tinctures, some in powder form and some as “double” alcohol and water extractions. Its key that we differentiate not only their uses but the best way to prepare them.
12 Tonic Herbs
Below are brief descriptions of the 12 tonic herbs mentioned above. For a deeper description of each plant, just click on the plant name and it will take you to the longer profiles.
Astragalus- This is one of the best herbs to take regularly as an addition to broths and soups. Astragalus is a polysaccharide rich herb that improves digestive function, strengthens bronchial health and has an overall gentle strengthening quality that is useful for almost everyone with minimal chance for contraindications. Chinese herbalists caution about using this herb when there is sickness as it can cause the illness to get “trapped”. Most herbalists here in the West that I know offer it generally even if there is sickness. Best taken in broths and teas.
Codonopsis- “Poor mans Ginseng”, useful for reducing stomach pain and ulcers, lowering blood prerssure, improves digestive metabolism, enhances immune function, anti-tumoral, reduces anxiety and depression. Best added to broths and can be consumed in teas and tinctures.
Ashwaghanda- Strengthens immune system, improves memory, reduces anxiety, lowers cholesterol, anti-inflammatory. strengthens libido. Best taken in powdered form and added to milk at nighttime. Also can be taken in capsule form. Tastes pretty gnarly in tea.
Schizandra- Strengthens energy, powerful anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, improves libido, improves cognitive skills, concentration, endurance, liver protective. Best taken in tinctures, teas, in powdered form and as part of broth.
Eleuthero- Gentle strengthening tonic, improves ability to adapt to stress, improves energy, concentration, enhances immune function, libido, anti-tumoral, hypotensive, reduces nervous fatigue. Best taken in tincture or tea form.
Ginseng- Warming, strengthening tonic herb long prized for ability to improve libido, stamina, attention, cognition and energy levels. Can be too warming and stimulating for many people. Can be taken in tea, tincture or broth.
American Ginseng- Similarly American Ginseng is useful for boosting energy levels, stamina, concentration and is mildly stimulating though not as heating and stimulating as Asian Ginseg- which makes it suitable for a variety array of people. This herb is best taken in broths, teas and less so in tinctures.
Jiao Gu Lan- One of the least known herbs and one that absolutely should be on everybody’s list as a go to tonic herb. Jiao Gu Lan has long been used by peasants in China and is known as a gentle herb that tastes like green tea and improves mood, stamina, memory, concentration and is generally relaxant, improves immune system function and libido. Jiao Gu Lan contains similar ginsenoside alkaloids as ginseng. Jiaogulan is best taken in tea form.
Tulsi/Holy Basil. This is perhaps India’s most famous ayurvedic herb as it is generally suitable for most people. With its gentle stimulating and mood lifting properties, it is also wonderfully restorative, calmative and is a gentle expectorant and circulatory stimulant. This is generally taken best as a tea or as part of a tea formula.
Reishi- This mushroom is prized throughout the world for its ability to strengthen the immune system, calm heart palpitations, lower blood pressure and inflammation, strengthen hepatic function as well as improve mood, cognition and memory. Reishi is best taken in capsules and powders of the fruiting body, in double extractions and added to broths and teas.
Rhodiola- Incredibly drying, stimulating, neutral temperature. This is a succulent that was prized by Scandinavians for thousands pof years. It has quite an uplifting, focusing, concentrating and energizing quality. Good for those who are depressed, stagnant, bloated, heavy, edematous. Not good for those who are dry, agitated, with itchy skin, slight, thin.
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