There are hundreds of tonic herbs.  We’re going to talk about five.

Pick Your Tonic!

I try not to be partisan when it comes to natural medicine.  Sure, I like natural medicine.  Natural medicine is what I do.  But that doesn’t mean I walk around proclaiming that all herbs are “good” and all drugs are “bad.”

Having said that, there’re some things that herbs can do, that mainstream medicine simply cannot.

Mainstream medicine focuses on disease.  It works to prevent, diagnose, treat and even cure disease.  But it does very little to enhance wellbeing in people who do not have a disease.  This is due largely to the mainstream treatment model, but also to the fact that mainstream medicine simply doesn’t have the tools.

Those tools are tonics. 

A tonic is any substance that enhances vigor and general wellbeing.  And natural medicine has them by the handful.  There are digestive tonics, and sleep tonics, mood tonics, and energy tonics.  (Probably everyone can benefit from taking a good tonic of some sort).

In this article, I’m going to talk about five of my favorite all-purpose vitality tonic herbs or substances.  Another time, I’ll talk about 5 favorite formulas.

In no particular order:

Low energy but can’t sit still?   Hyperactive mind in a tired body?  Can’t concentrate?  Or do you simply need an all body-mind-mood tune-up?  Schisandra Berry!

schizandra berries

Schisandra berries were traditionally used by Buddhist monks to help them sit through their long meditations and remain still, calm, and alert – fully “in the moment.”

In China, Schisandra is called Wu Wei Zi, or “5-flavored fruit,” which tells us a lot.  In Chinese medicine, the five flavors (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, savory) each correspond with one of the body’s five organ systems.  So, an herb that balances all five flavors will also balance the body and mind.

Modern science bears this out.  Schisandra is a useful liver tonic, supporting both the organ’s ability to withstand toxins, as well as its ability to filter toxins from the blood.  It’s a useful adrenal tonic, supporting both the glands themselves, as well as their ability to maintain energy throughout the day.  It’s useful for inflammation, both by reducing the inflammation itself (slightly), and mopping up some of the oxidative damage caused by inflammation.  It’s a brain tonic.  It increases brain dopamine, the neurotransmitter most directly involved in concentration, and feeling “in the moment.”  It calms without sedating.

All of which goes a long way towards explaining how this energizing herb can help meditators (and children!) sit still.

Get Winded Running Marathons (Or Climbing the Stairs)?  Need afternoon naps (but would prefer not to)?  Cordyceps Mushroom! 

cordyceps culture

 Cordyceps is one of the most treasured and revered tonics in Tibetan medicine.  It’s a mushroom so rare in the wild, you can easily pay $5,000 a kilo for the stuff.  Luckily, in the last few decades people have figured out how to cultivate cordyceps on sawdust and soybeans.  The cultivated stuff still isn’t cheap, but it’s affordable[1].

Like most medicinal mushrooms, Cordyceps improves immune and liver function.  But what makes Cordyceps special is its effects on the lungs, where it increases the rate and efficiency of gas exchange (uptake of oxygen, release of CO2).  This is wonderful for anyone with any kind of pulmonary insufficiency, of course.  But even if your lungs are just fine, Cordyceps can build more stamina (even a feeling of ease) into all that running, climbing, swimming, and cycling.  It can even make it easier to stay awake.

So cordyceps isn’t just a tonic (yes, you can take tonic doses daily), and cordyceps can be used acutely, in higher doses.  Next time, an hour or so before you get on that bike or on that basketball court, take a reasonably hefty dose of Cordyceps[2].  You won’t feel that !ZING! you get from coffee.  You may not even feel different at all… until you realize you’re past the point you’d normally be winded… and you’re still doing fine.

Cordyceps works equally well for staying awake.  Whether you’re a college student pulling an all-nighter, or a middle-aged person trying to make it to midnight, take that same hefty dose an hour before you want to start feeling it.  Where it really shines as a tonic is for older folks who normally need an afternoon nap.  A moderate dose taken twice daily obviates that need – or at least makes it less urgent.

Stress taking it out of you?  Fine on Monday, but exhausted by Friday?  Burning the candle at both ends?  Adrenal fatigue taking its toll?  Does it take you longer than it should to recover (from illness, exercise, or fatigue)?  Try Ginseng(s)!

Rhodiola plant
Rhodiola Rosea used to be called “Arctic Ginseng.”

Until about a decade ago, we had herbs called “Siberian Ginseng,” “Arctic Ginseng,” “Indian Ginseng,” etc.  Then it became illegal to call anything “ginseng” that wasn’t actually ginseng.  So, we renamed the above three Eleuthero Root, Rhodiola, and Ashwagandha, respectively.

In my mind, they’re all still “ginsengs.”

What these herbs have in common (along with the true ginsengs) is they modulate hyperreactivity along the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis.  Okay, what does that mean?  Basically, the HPA axis is a “thermostat” in the body that regulates, not temperature, but adrenal hormones.  When we’re relaxed, rested, and well-fed, the HPA “thermostat” sets our adrenal glands to low.  When we’re under stress, the HPA cranks the adrenal glands up to “high.”

Sometimes, however, the thermostat gets out of whack and overresponds.  For example, you encounter minor stress that’s no big deal, but the adrenals respond as if you’re being chased by a tiger.  Not only does that leave us more stressed (tense, high blood pressure, etc.), but over time, it can deplete the adrenals.  So, take ginseng before stress (which is another way of saying “take ginseng always”), and stress impacts you less.  We see the results in vitality, sleep, blood pressure, blood sugar, and immunity.

Or to put it another way, these herbs don’t make you stronger or smarter.  But they do keep stress from making you weaker and dumber.

But which ginseng?

  • American Ginseng (Panax quinqefolius) is a close cousin of Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng). While it’s often said that Asian ginseng is “stronger,” that’s an oversimplification.  Asian ginseng is more stimulating, more of a kick in the pants. American ginseng is more on the calming end of the spectrum.  Interestingly, Asia imports a lot of American ginseng…
  • Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng) is them most stimulating and fiery of the ginsengs. A kick in the pants for those of us who are cold and pale, badly depleted, with poor circulation.
  • Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is the most relaxing of the ginsengs. If your default response to stress is to get nervous and agitated, and start losing sleep, you’re an Ashwagandha person.
  • Eleuthero Root is the most balanced of the ginsengs. Optimizes performance in people who are already performing well.  The athlete’s ginseng.
  • Rhodiola rosea shines in what I’ll call “white collar stress.”  Doctors and lawyers and grad students.  Some impressive studies with Rhodiola involve doctors on night call, med students during a final exam period, and test subjects proofreading on and off for 24 hours without sleep.  In allcases, people taking the Rhodiola maintained their brain power – working faster, better mood, making fewer mistakes – much better than those taking a placebo.

Are you feeling achy and creaky and dry and (for lack of a better term) elderlyDeer Antler Velvet!

red deer
image of red deer with velvet antler in Scotland courtesy of Mehmet Akatay via Wikipedia.

Deer, elk, and moose grow a new set of antlers every year.  Before these antlers fully harden, they exist in a state called “velvet antler,” covered in velvety tissue (sort of like peach fuzz) full of glycosaminoglycans, growth factors, and other tonic, nourishing substances.

Unlike many other tonics, antler velvet does not directly address the effects of stress or adrenal exhaustion.  Instead antler velvet rejuvenates weak or desiccated connective tissue, including skin, hair, nails, sinews, and joints.  It is also a decent energy tonic, and a useful sexual tonic, especially for men.  (Please note the word “tonic” in this context: antler velvet is taken for weeks, not all at once like an “herbal Viagra™.”)

I like to recommend antler velvet as a tonic mostly for a body feeling sore, or “beaten up.”  Athletes in contact sports.  Old folks with arthritic joints.

Today, velvet antler is used as a tonic throughout the world, but we trace its origins to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which describes it as a yang (warming and activating) tonic.  In Ten Lectures on the Use of Medicinals from the Personal Experience of Jiao Shu-De, the author says:

[antler velvet] supplements kidney yang, strengthens sinew and bone, boosts sinew and marrow, and nourishes the blood.  It is used for patterns of vacuity detriment, such as kidney deficiency and cold limbs, soreness of the limbs, dizzy head and blurred vision, seminal emission, and impotence.

Most of the world’s antler velvet comes from New Zealand, where it should be humanely harvested (and of course the antlers grow back).  Make sure you’re getting true velvet antler, instead of older, dry antler.

Want to live forever?  Reishi Mushroom!

reishi mushroom on a live tree
image of wild reishi mushroom courtesy Sakimomura via Flickr and the Creative Commons license.

Okay, yes, this is tongue-in-cheek.  But one of the names for Reishi in Chinese medicine is “immortality plant” (along with other names “divine fungus” and “marvelous fungus.”)  So, let’s just say the ancient herbalists held it in very high regard.

The modern research on Reishi is also astounding, and it is diverse.  Heart health benefits (cholesterol, hypertension).  Liver health.  Lung health.  Mood.  Immune health.

To be honest, there’s no one thing, no one person, I think of where Reishi is the thing I reach for.  Because there’s no one thing Reishi does, that some other herb couldn’t do better.  But when you can’t decide – when you just want a little bit of insurance to cover just about everything – perhaps that’s where we ought to look for a little Reishi.

[1] Some will argue that the cultivated stuff is just a pale shadow of the wild.  I couldn’t speak to that.  I’ve never used wild Cordyceps.  But however the two compare, the cultivated stuff seems to work just fine for me.

[2] I’ve used Paul Stamets’ Host Defense brand for 19 years, since long before it was called “Host Defense.”  It’s the best brand I’ve used, and the one I’m best able to talk about dosing.  For me, a hefty dose is in the range of 60-90 drops of the liquid, or 4-5 of the capsules.


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