Tonics 101: Increasing Vitality, Energy and Spirit

    In herbal medicine, the term “tonic” is often used—mistakenly—to mean an infusion, tea or tincture, or even more simply, an herbal remedy of any kind.  In truth, a tonic herbal formula is one that is used to promote, restore or maintain an overall feeling of energy and vitality within the body. These formulas have been used for hundreds of years in many traditions of herbal medicine and healing, including traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic and European traditions.

    Tonics are so named because they are intended to tonify, tone or enhance wellness, either for the entire body, or particular parts or systems within the body. This is usually done by supporting and strengthening organs and systems that help to balance and regulate the body.

    Let me explain how that works…

    American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)  

    The healthy human body exists in a state of homeostasis, a dynamic balance between the functions of the various organs and tissues. At rest, the body performs at one level, digesting food, taking in oxygen, delivering these vital elements to every cell throughout the body, and collecting the wastes produced by those cells throughout the body for elimination through the lungs, bladder, bowel and skin. If anything changes in that environment—from a change in temperature to a perceived or imperceptible threat (like the arrival of a new virus)—then the body will react to the change and find a new state of homeostasis or balance. This may include:

    • Increased immune activity
    • Changes in heart rate or respiration
    • Temporary changes in blood circulation patterns and rates, and in types of brain activity

    Why Tonics?

    Tonic herbal formulas are very different in philosophy from the treatments used in conventional Western medicine. Conventional medicine generally treats symptoms, pushing the body in one desired direction or another. A stuffy nose requires a decongestant. Joint pain requires NSAIDs. High blood pressure may require vasodilators and/or diuretics.

    In conventional medicine, dosages are typically calibrated for the desired effect. For example, too little blood pressure medicine will not effectively solve the problem, while too much can cause blood pressure to drop to unsafe levels. As a result, overdose is a very real and present danger with these conventional medicines.

    In contrast, tonic herbal formulas are used to strengthen and enhance the ability of specific organs or systems to respond to changing conditions, helping the body to better regulate itself under a variety of challenges rather than treating superficial symptoms.

    As a result, the same tonic formula may be used for symptoms that may manifest themselves in opposite directions. For example, the same tonic formula for blood pressure may be used whether blood pressure is trending upward, downward or is just plain erratic. In addition, because the formula merely strengthens or enhances the body's ability to regulate its own blood pressure, the dose does not need to be tailored to the specific level of symptoms, and the attendant risk of mistake (underdose or overdose) is greatly reduced.

    Tonic formulas are a topic that is one of the most important, and perhaps one of the most misunderstood, areas of herbal medicine. However, the benefits are clear, and offer significant advantages over the symptomatic approaches of conventional Western medicine.

    In a future post, we'll take a look at adaptogens, a class of tonic herbs that address the immune system specifically.

    Matt Warnock is president of RidgeCrest Herbals, Inc., Salt Lake City, UT


    Posted on WholeFoods Magazine Online, October 24, 2013