Spring is a seasonal turning point. People begin to un-layer and thaw, and plants, made stronger in winter hibernation, stretch to freshly re-grow foliage that is unscathed by time. Spring is also an excellent season to begin setting healing goals. In this article I’ll discuss the aspect of time and tonics in healing, and suggest Spring plant tonics to augment your health conscious plan, or, if your new to all of this, for the beginning of your year to heal.
It would be nice if we could set our healing goals and meet our quotas just as we do deadlines for work. We could plan how long it would take to put our diseases in remission, and predict everything that would cause a flair up. But healing, illness and disease move in a way that we can’t wrap our brains around. We find our bodies and our lives stuck in a time warp as we attempt to mitigate our internal short comings.
And so begins our time to heal. A time that is replete with many firsts. The first time you override a negative thought with a positive one, that first sip of tonic tea or drop of tincture, or that first meal cooked with whole food ingredients all begin a steady and slow process to improving health. In the beginning it may feel like filling a 10 gallon bucket one single tiny drop at a time. Eventually, though, one realizes that the days pass more easily, with health and energy improving.
If you can imagine this as a possibility, then you can envision a world that fosters new healthy patterns. Patterns that are realized and supported internally using plants that are tonics.
What is an Herbal Tonic?
Herbal tonics are a class of plant medicines that nourish, tone and retrain the body. Their effects can be felt immediately, depending on dosage, plant and person, but the best results are seen when ingested over a long period of time. They work slowly to inspire deep and long standing changes internally.
Tonics can be taken as teas, tinctures, or eaten as food. And dosages can vary. I prefer, especially if using tonics for non-disease deficiency, to use small doses. For example, I may recommend 5 drops of blue vervain, a nervine tonic, 3-4 times daily to a client. When they first begin, there may be little effect felt. After a week, however, their muscles might feel less tense and their mood more flexible. With each passing day, more improvements will be seen. That is the work of the tonic. They slowly and surely retrain internal patterns which eventually become more consciously noted by our mind and body.
How do plants do this? They coax organ systems and tissue to remember balance and function by either stimulating or relaxing, and through one or more of the following qualities: moistening to soften, drying to harden, heating to disperse energy and/or cooling to restrain it.
There are tonics for all the organ systems and body functions. When an herbalist works with a client, we may assess what people need on an individual basis. But sometimes, especially when seasons change, there is a general need to improve overall function.
For example, winters rich warm foods, illness and cold, make the tonics of spring a necessary step to maintaining wellness. Spring goals are to tonify the liver, immune and lymphatic system, as well as organs of elimination (colon, kidney, skin, respiratory tract). It is these systems that detoxify and clean the blood and lymph, and strengthening them, resetting the immune system and supporting the liver can have enormous bearing on our health. We reduce, over time, our reaction to seasonal allergies, improve and keep digestion strong, and prepare the body for the heat of summer.
My Favorite Tonic Tea
A spring tonic tea should reflect the goals stated above. The taste should be slightly salty, and bitter. It should stimulate function but be balanced in regard to cold and heat. Spring provides many plants to choose from, but my favorite formula this year is nettle leaf, dandelion root and burdock root. It is a combination of plants that is highly nutritious, and are collectively tonic to these major systems: liver, lymphatic, pancreas, colon, circulatory, urinary and digestive tract.
Note on contraindications: dandelion root is contraindicated for those on lithium.
Stinging Nettle leaf (Urtica dioica): Taste: salty; Energetics: anti-inflammatory, circulatory stimulant, diuretic, urinary tonic, nutritional, antihistamine
Urtica dioica, or stinging nettle, is native to a host of countries and continents, from Europe, to Asia, South Africa to Australia and North America. It’s name is derived from the Latin urere, ‘to burn’. And yes, that is because of the burn received by the stinging hairs. Dioica translates as ‘two houses’ because plants of the same stand are found to have either male or female flowers.
The common name nettle is from the Anglo-Saxon word nodel, or ‘needle’. When touched, the hollow hairs release histamine into the skin, giving rise to a fierce red inflamed patch. But the remedy to this is close by. The yellow dock leaves are astringent and anti-inflammatory. And the two often grow close to each other. There is an old poem I learned which refers to this. It can also be found in Greives herbal. ‘Nettle in, dock out. Dock rub nettle out.’
Interestingly, nettle leaf tea dried and drunk is anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory, indicated for burning on urination and allergies affecting the respiratory tract. It is a powerful circulatory stimulant, and potassium sparing diuretic.
Nettle leaf as a tea is highly nutritious. It has measurable amounts of magnesium, calcium, boron, vitamin C, iron, and caratenoids. When the fresh young green leaves of spring are cooked (always cook them) and eaten, they also yield a fair amount of protein. The balance of C and iron makes for easy assimilation, and good support for anemia. Nettle leaf is, for this reason, considered a blood builder. It is excellent for malabsorption syndrome as well.
Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale): Taste of root: bitter, sweet, salty; Energetics: cooling liver and digestive tonic and stimulant, diuretic, anti-inflammatory, nutritive, hypotensive
Taraxacum officinale was a medicine of Ancient Greece. According to Maude Grieve, Taraxacum comes from the Greek taraxos meaning ‘disorder’ or ‘I have excited’, andakos, meaning ‘remedy’ or ‘pain’- ‘disorder remedy’ or ‘I have excited pain’.
The common name dandelion is inspired by the shape of the leaves. They are thought to reflect a lions tooth and jaw. The Latin translation dens leonis being ‘lions tooth’.
Dandelion root is one of the most popular herbal therapies. It is an excellent cooling bitter that stimulates a heated and stagnant stomach to produce hydrochloric acid, thereby assisting the beginning digestive process. The roots also inspire the liver to release bile, improving metabolism of fats and proteins. And as with burdock root, dandelion root is high in fructoligosacharides, or FOS, which is food for good bacteria in the gut.
Dandelion root normalizes pancreatic and small intestine secretions improving digestion of sugars and assimilation of nutrients. This makes it an effective treatment for those with hypoglycemia.
This root also regulates the function of the colon. The inulin being food for good bacteria (prebiotic), and the tea or tincture taken acts as an excellent non-addictive laxative. It is specific for those with oily skin.
Dandelion root is not just about nutrient breakdown and absorption, though. It has been proven effective for PMS, as it is slightly diuretic-though the leaves are more so-and has the ability to assist the livers breakdown and elimination of excess hormones, thereby assisting catabolic functions of the liver as well.
Burdock root (Arctium lappa): Taste: sweet, bitter, pungent, warm, oily; Energetics: cools liver while warms internal function overall, anti-inflammatory, lymphatic tonic
Burdock roots name embodies its nature as a medicine. It’s Latin name, Arctium, translates from Greek to mean ‘bear’, while lappa means ‘to seize’. And if you’ve ever used the medicine, you know it is excellent support when waking up the body from a winter of hibernation, and that the plants seeds truly do seize one when passing.
Burdock root warms and stimulates lymphatic/immune function. It is a traditional tonic remedy in Asia for those recovering from acute illness, or from a long and sickly winter. For this effect, it can be added to soups and stews. I also like to throw it into stir fries and bake it with other root veggies or meat. As a food, burdock is also high in fructoligosacharides, or FOS, which is a potent prebiotic that feeds healthy bowel flora.
One of my favorite uses for burdock root is to prevent the proliferation of rogue cells. In other words, burdock root inspires the body to inactivate and dispose of mutagenic cells, known as cancer-causing agents.
Burdock root also relieves hard swellings in lymphatic ducts, thereby increasing the body’s ability to clean the blood and keep lymph properly circulating. This has positive effects on the health of the skin where it is specifically indicated for chronic skin disorders that are dry, irritated and inflamed. I have found it useful for those with eczema, acne, and psoriasis. It combines well with dandelion root or yellow dock root and sarsaparilla for this.
To make a tea with these plants and get the most from them nutritionally, follow these directions.
1. Add ¼ cup of dried dandelion root and ¼ cup of dried burdock root to 2 quarts of water.
2. Bring them to a boil then turn off the fire.
3. Add ½ cup of dried nettle leaf.
4. Let it sit overnight.
5. In the morning, strain and store in a mason jar. This tea will keep in the fridge well covered for
about 5-6 days.
Recommended dose: Drink 1-2 cups daily for 1-2 months.
Note: drinking this tea before bed may cause one to wake up at night to urinate.
Give Yourself a Year
This year, to improve the health of my spine, I vowed to do 5 minutes of yoga a day. The reason being I couldn’t get myself to commit to a longer routine. In my mind, however, I knew that 5 minutes was doable. At first, my few poses took about 3 minutes. Months later, my routine clocks in closer to 15 minutes a day, but I still call it my 5 min. of yoga. Why? Because even though my body has shown me it is capable of more, my mind still does not believe it. Five minutes has become my mental trick so that I stay committed.
Healing is a bit of the same. Yes, I’m asking people to liberate themselves from the expectation that we can control healings time, and align with the idea of taking a year to heal. But the fact remains, this is still a mind game. We don’t just take a year to heal, we take a lifetime. It does, however, take a year of 4 complete seasonal changes to begin to attune our body to more natural and healthy patterns. It takes a year to turn back the time of dysfunction, of eating whole foods with the seasons, of infusing our mind, soul and spirit with good thoughts and feelings, and a year of cycling through tonics.
This article begins a series of 4 to come. Each will appear at the start of the new season. They will reflect plants and foods of Summer, Fall and Winter that support health and vitality. Warm wishes this Spring!