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The Best Tonic Herbs

Tonic herbs are a great way to begin with herbal remedies, to try something new and see what it does for you. And they can be taken throughout life. We live in such as toxic and disease-filled world that it cannot hurt to strengthen our "shields."

By nourishing your tissues and energy the tonics help combat disease, increase immunity and enhance the quality of your life. Thus one definition of a tonic – the criterion used in most ethnic healing systems – is a herb that, with long term use is "building" in some way.

Don’t confuse the tonics with the adaptogens. Some, but not all, tonics are adaptogens. Adaptogens increase resistance and adaptation to all stresses and build stamina and vitality. Tonics may generally support a specific organ or system – i.e., a herb may be a tonic for the heart or lungs, but that doesn’t make it an adaptogen.

David Hoffmann, in The Elements of Herbalism, writes of tonics: "Western medicine has neglected such ideas as having no basis in fact. This is not so; rather it was a reflection of research procedures that could not recognize such complex and multifactorial processes."

In addition, the tonic concept doesn’t fit into the orthodox scientific model of useful substances. According to this model a substance must have very narrow and targeted mechanisms of action – a tonic’s lack of specificity bespeaks the lack of an underlying mechanism. And that could mean, as Dr. Andrew Weil wryly points out in Spontaneous Healing, "the substance could be – perish the thought! – merely a placebo."

Herbalists know from experience that the tonic herbs are not merely placebo’s. They value the tonics because they represent the very essence of what herbs are about, first and foremost: prevention.

Their focus is primarily on keeping you well – although many have secondary uses as remedies for already sick people.

But a word of warning. If you venture into herbal remedies by using the tonic herbs, you have to be prepared not to experience a necessarily dramatic result.

One of the ironies of striving for better than average health and wellness is the "no-result" result. We are simply not accustomed to measuring our success by what doesn’t happen. A shift in thinking is in order here: No news is good news.

Choosing The Best Tonic Herbs

Robyn Landis, in Herbal Defence Against Illness and Ageing, presents two practical strategies for choosing your tonics:

"Just as some herbs have affinity for particular organs, systems, or body processes, and are best utilized for healing in those areas, many tonic herbs "specialize" in balancing a specific system or systems.

Because everyone has a limit for daily herb consumption in terms of time, convenience, tolerance, and money, it’s not necessary to try to take four or five herbal tonics all the time and work on all body systems and processes at once. It wouldn’t hurt you, but it’s simply not practical. One or two at a time is sufficient.

One way to choose your tonics is to think in terms of individual areas of weakness. If you have a family history of heart disease and did not adopt heart-healthy habits until recently, hawthorn berry might be a good tonic for you.

If you tend to have respiratory infections and are a former smoker, a lung-affinity tonic such as thyme would be good. If a constant string of varying infections is your complaint, tonics that specifically increase cell-mediated immunity should be included.

If you can’t think of a specific area that would help you counter individual disease tendencies, another way to approach tonic use is by rotation. Use one or two for a couple of months, then switch to another one or two, so that every year you are nourishing and balancing two to four major systems."

Listed below are some tonics for specific areas or issues. When selecting a herb for its tonic effects try to take into account the broader picture of your personal needs and the individual herb’s range of actions.

Circulatory system: Cayenne, hawthorn berries, garlic, ginger, ginkgo, ginseng, motherwort, turmeric

Respiratory system: Angelica, aniseed, cayenne, coltsfoot, comfrey, garlic, hyssop, liquorice, thyme, yarrow

Digestive system: Angelica, aniseed, chamomile, clove, comfrey, dandelion, garlic, ginger, mugwort, rue, turmeric

Urinary system: Buchu, parsley, yarrow

Reproductive system: Black cohosh

Muscles and skeleton: Alfalfa, angelica, black cohosh, comfrey, nettles

Nervous system: Black cohosh, lemon balm, motherwort, mugwort

Skin: Calendula, comfrey, echinacea, dandelion, garlic, gotu kola (a.k.a. pennywort), nettles, turmeric

Immune system: Echinacea, garlic, ginger, ginseng, liquorice, 

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