Many people take daily vitamin supplements to maintain superior health. But what about herbs? Not many people—especially in Western countries—take a daily herbal cocktail with their orange juice. But in Eastern countries such as China and India, swallowing a daily dose of herbs is the norm. They?re called tonic herbs and, as with many things Eastern, the West is slowly catching on to this healthful practice.
When it comes to herbs, most Westerners are familiar with the medicinal varieties, such as echinacea or St. John?s wort, which are used to treat a specific ailment for a set amount of time. Tonic herbs have a more long-lasting purpose. These gentle botanicals serve to protect and balance the body and are often taken over long periods of time.
?A tonic herb works to restore or maintain health within the whole body or individual organ systems,? says Larry Altshuler, M.D., founder and director of the Balanced Healing Medical Center in Oklahoma City. ?They make the body healthier. Rather than having an action on the body or organ, they protect them.?
About 200 tonic herbs exist, each with unique properties. There are herbs to strengthen the liver, overcome adrenal exhaustion, build tissue, strengthen the blood—the list goes on. Tonic blends usually are taken for a period of weeks or months, and the composition often changes with the seasons. They usually are taken in tinctures or capsules.
When people talk about herbs, the term tonic often is used interchangeably with adaptagen. But subtle differences exist, according to herb experts. ?Adaptagens tend to work on adrenal glands and therefore the endocrine and nervous systems,? says Debra Brammer, N.D., chairwoman of the department of botanical medicine at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Ariz. ?Tonic herbs can work on organ systems [and not] have any effect on the adrenal glands and endocrine function at all.?
Altshuler often prescribes tonic herbs to his patients to protect them from diseases associated with seasonal change. ?If people know they tend to get run down and have more stress during the winter season, they can take [tonic herbs] at the beginning of the season for protection,? he says.
In addition to protecting the body from stress—emotional, physical or mental—tonic herbs can also help the body recover from it. Brammer prescribes tonic herbs to clients whose lifestyles have been compromised or to those who are experiencing acute periods of stress. For the latter, Brammer suggests adaptagenic herbs. ?They work not just by mediating the effects of stress, but also by restoring form and function to the adrenal glands,? she says.
Tonic herbs are so mild that even pregnant and lactating women can take them, Brammer says. ?Raspberry leaf is a tonic that is used a lot during pregnancy.? Brammer recommends, however, that pregnant women consult a midwife or qualified practitioner before taking herbs.
Tonic herbs are becoming increasingly popular with athletes. ?Athletes like to have their energy systems balanced and replenished,? Altshuler says. ?I will prescribe something before an event or for long-term use during training.?
Although many people associate tonic herbs with Chinese herbalism, they come from all over the globe. ?They?re ethnic herbs; they come from many different cultures,? such as Tibet, China, Russia—even the United States, Brammer says. ?Devil?s club is a great adaptagen, and it grows in the Pacific Northwest. And milky goatweed, an incredible tonic, grows all over the world.?
Unlike many herbs, most tonic herbs are gentle enough for even the novice to try without consulting a practitioner. ?Tonic herbs are very safe for anyone to work with. You don?t have to see a practitioner unless you?ve had major health problems,? says Brammer.
James Pearl, a licensed acupuncturist who practices at Olive Leaf Wholeness Center in New York City, says people should never take just one tonic herb. ?You should take a blend of at least 10 herbs at one time, and you need to change them as your condition changes.? Roy Upton, an herbalist for Scotts Valley, Calif.-based Planetary Formulas agrees. ?The single herb thing is a relatively recent Western paradigm of the magic bullet mentality,? he says.
So how can retailers get consumers excited about tonic herbs? Start by teaching customers about the quality blends that are available.
Planetary Formulas makes a variety of tonic and adaptegen blends. Its Reishi Mushroom Supreme is one of Upton?s favorites. ?The reishi mushroom is among the most highly regarded botanicals in Chinese medicine,? he says. ?It was originally used by Taoist monks to promote longevity and a peaceful state of mind.? Reishi Supreme is supported by other tonic herbs, including astragalus and schisandra. Among the company?s more distinctive formulations is Cordyceps Power. Cordyceps is a fungus that originally grew on the backs of caterpillars, but now is cultivated, Upton says. One of Planetary Formulas? popular blends is Schisandra Adrenal Complex, which many people use to enhance athletic performance and recovery time.
Clea Richardson, formulator for Mt. Shasta Botanicals in Weed, Calif., incorporates four herbal healing traditions—Western, Chinese, Ayurvedic and rain forest—into her tonic formulas. ?People ask me if the herbs work against each other, but they don?t; they work synergistically,? says Richardson.
Her current best seller is the Change of Life Tonic for menopause, a blend that includes vitex, black cohosh, dong quai, red raspberry, maca, suma and ashwagandha. ?I?ve used it with women who want to come off hormones,? she says. ?I get reports every day that it?s wonderful.?
Another manufacturer finding success with its tonic herbs is OHCO of Evergreen, Colo. For many years Donn Hayes, an acupuncturist, prepared herbal blends for his clients. Apparently the blends were helpful because customers started asking him for regular supplies. So Hayes and his wife, Hannah, decided to bring their Cold Snap blend to the market. ?It must be a timely blend for the planet,? Hannah Hayes says. ?Usually Chinese blends are customized, but [Cold Snap] seems to work for everyone.? Cold Snap, an eclectic blend of 20 botanicals, works to keep the body strong in order to fight off whatever comes its way, she says.
Gentle, safe and effective, tonic herbs are finding their way onto more retailers? shelves. ?The tonics were the most important category of herbal products in Chinese herbal medicine. They were classified as superior herbs,? Upton says. ?They were used to prevent disease, promote longevity, while the inferior herbs were used to treat disease. Prevention was the highest ideal of Chinese medicine.?
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 3/p. 104, 106