The smell of melting snow in the Midwest does not mean spring is here, but it does mean that spring is near. And that is enough to awaken ones attention to a fresh energy in the air. With winter being a time of self-reflection, our energy turns inward. When the weather warms, the magic of spring motivates us. We feel the need to move our bodies, and move stagnant energy that has built up around us from winter. We feel the need to clear and cleanse our physical, emotional or spiritual space, and integrate some of the inner work we have done throughout the winter.
To set the stage, we clean our house and cleanse our bodies. The concept of cleansing has become such a mantra for spring. And it is important. But tonifying is another concept that is just as important. Oftentimes the tonic is left out in the reach for the seemingly more rewarding process of cleansing. Winter can be long. A lot of stagnant energy builds up, and a good cleanse can move a lot of energy through the body. It is important to realize though that a tonic builds a strong foundation, rebalancing energy in the body, thus making for a much easier cleansing process. It gives the body a means to support the cleansing work, and come out stronger in the end, instead of depleted.
What Are Herbal Tonics?
An herbal tonic is something that we use for a period of time that helps our body remember an activity, one that supports organ-system function and maintains internal balance. Tonics call on the body’s innate ability to right itself by inspiring it to work when under-functioning. There are tonics for many body functions. We have liver, kidney, immune and lymphatic tonics. These are all very important for achieving optimal health—for in true Western Herbalism, balance is the key to health and prevention. This takes time, and tonics work over time. An herbalist looks at which organ systems are imbalanced, takes into account how long that imbalance has been in cycle, and recommends the most appropriate plant or combination of plants to re-instill equilibrium. A client can expect to follow a tonic protocol, with some variation depending on how quickly the body responds, for 2-6 months, and sometimes a bit longer. (Note: In the event that disease has already taken root and become a part of the organic nature of the individual, tonics are less effective, and a different approach is necessary. Nonetheless, many tonics do have great effects on disease.)
Adaptogens and Nervines
Two equally important classes of tonics are nervine tonics, and adaptogens. A nervine tonic is a plant that normalizes nervous-system function. The effects felt by this class of plant range from calming, like St. John’s Wort, oats or skullcap, to slightly sedative, like blue vervain, to strongly sedative, like the poppies or kava. Often the strength of the sedative herbs is relative to how much you take and how sensitive you are. And I have seen some very small people need large amounts of plant to get the desired effect, while larger individuals take smaller amounts. It can go either way on size.
While nervines support nervous-system function, adaptogens normalize adrenal function. A specific adaptogen would be recommended based on which part of the adrenal glands are affected, and whether they’re over- or under-functioning. Adaptogens are stimulating, and give a bit of energy. But unlike outright stimulants, they do it without taxing our adrenal glands. Adaptogens are tonics to the adrenals. And that is why they normalize function.
While adaptogens specifically tonify the adrenal glands, they have a profound effect on the nervous system. I see adrenal function as being the foundation of the nervous system. When we begin to change how stress affects us, and then how we feel relative to that stress, we change how our physical body reacts to stress. For example, if you know that when you are stressed your digestive function becomes impaired, working to improve your digestion is not enough. We have to work from the foundation up—and that foundation is how we stress, and how that stress pulses through our body and mind to create greater imbalances.
The Plants: Schisandra chinensis and Verbena hastata
Schisandra chinensis and Verbena hastate are two quintessential plants in the tonics category. Each address issues body-wide while normalizing nervous system and adrenal function. They are both plants that are currently underutilized but are gradually making their way back into use. Each is quite powerful in what it delivers, and each plant brings its own unique energy to an individual.
Schisandra is known as the Five Flavored Fruit in Chinese medicine. It is an adaptogen, acting as a mild stimulant while also strengthening adrenal function, thus helping our bodies better adapt to stress. It is much less pushy and not near as hot as the grossly overused but very popular adaptogen ginseng. The parts of the plant used are the berries and seeds.
Schisandra tonifies more than the adrenals. It has been found to normalize immune and nervous-system function and stimulate metabolism. It also strengthens and increases kidney and lung function. I have found it to be an excellent choice for those who suffer from respiratory infections where lung function is greatly decreased, and for athletes.
And there is more. Studies in China show that Schisandra protects the liver from toxins, and has the capacity to reverse liver damage, just like milk thistle. Japanese studies have found that the effects of Schisandra on Hepitis C are promising.
Verbena, commonly known as vervain or blue vervain, is a modest and underused plant. Yet it was once indicated for around 30 different ailments. Its main action is cooling and calming the nervous system, while normalizing nervous-system function. It is specifically indicated for PMS and menopause with anxiety, as a bitter to improve digestive function, an anti-inflammatory to aid headaches, and externally for bruising.
People prone to nervous disorders, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia respond well to vervain. For these folks, I have often used blue vervain alone. People with severe sensitivity, and issues of the nervous system suffer from adrenal and nervous system exhaustion. These systems are over-functioning. When I see blue vervain work, I see it cool and calm the energy of the nervous system and adrenals, and re-circulate some of that energy to other places in the body that are deficient, like the digestive tract.
I remember one client with fibromyalgia and her immediate reaction to vervain; she had never thought of plant medicine as useful for her illness, but she was desperate. She sat down, and I told her a little about this plant that I thought would resonate well with her. She took blue vervain, just 5 drops 3-5 times a day. For her, a very small dose went a long way. I only saw her again for refills, but there was always something different about her. She was stronger and had more energy. She said when she first began taking blue vervain she felt it made her tired. But as the plant balanced how she used her energy, she had more of it and felt energized. She was also willing to address the issue of stress, and what happened in her life to get to this point in her illness spiritually, emotionally and physically. This is key for a healing process. The energy of plants supports the body in this work.
These two plants embody the meaning of herbal tonic; they also teach us something about our emotional body and how the effects of our life take a toll on the physical. How we stress and how we deal with our emotions can change for better or worse how our bodies function. A cleanse can set the stage for change quickly. It clears our energy and our physical body to allow for a new pattern to take root. But cleansing alone is not enough. Tonics prepare us for a cleanse by strengthening. And tonics are what set the new pattern in motion. Perhaps tonics are not as glamorous as cleansing, but the work we do with them is solid, and makes for a more holistic and centered life.