3 Approaches to Working With Age-Defying Tonic Herbs
Shi Yao Lian, Practitioner Buddha’s Alchemy
Tonification is a popular topic in herbalism, but the definition and uses of tonic herbs varies from tradition to tradition. Let’s take a look at how tonifying herbs are used across 3 different herbal healing systems: TCM, Ayurveda, and Western.
Tonic herbs in TCM are a broad category of herbs that are used to treat states of Deficiency of the Four Treasures: Qi, Blood, Yin and Yang. The meaning of tonification is to make strong, and according to the Ancient Chinese classification, these tonifying herbs are “superior” food-like herbs that have multiple applications, restore and maintain homeostasis, and correct deep seated root Deficiencies.
Tonifying herbs are generally safe and can be used longer term, but due to their common cloying and heavy properties, they are often best combined with Qi regulating and Blood regulating herbs. In China, tonics are often cooked into food such as soups, stews and congees, and taken on a regular basis, sometimes according to season.
Qi tonics improve the energy producing function of the organs, leading to increased overall functioning, vitality and stamina of all bodily systems. The Spleen and Lungs, which are primary organs of Qi production, especially benefit. From a Western point of view, Deficient Qi often produces symptoms similar to hypo function of the thyroid and pancreas, so we can surmise that these organs are affected by some Qi tonics.
Blood tonics help build and nourish Blood by providing the essential nutrients and catalysts necessary for the production of blood cells. According to TCM, they are particularly active on the Liver, as it has a primary role in Blood production and storage.
Yang tonics directly increase the body’s metabolism and along with Qi tonics, contribute to the stimulation of what is known as Tejas and Agni is Ayurveda. They increase activity in the sympathetic nervous system and boost biochemical energy production that produces effects like those of adrenal medulla hormones.
Yin tonics restore and sustain the vital nourishing substances in the body associated with Fluids, Blood, flesh, bone, organs, etc….. Yin tonics support the structural matrix of the body and bring lubricating and generally cooling support. Yin tonics stimulate and nourish the parasympathetic nervous system and produce effects like those of adrenal cortex hormones. They would be considered somewhat sattvic according to Ayurveda, as their tendency is to promote calmness, stability, and soothe Shen.
A well-known tonic herb formula in TCM is called “The Formula for the Ten Significant Herb Great Tonic”. It belongs to the class of Fu Zheng tonics used to strengthen the entire body and is commonly employed to boost the immune system. It is formulas such as this that utilize herbs working synergistically to tonify all Four Treasures.
It is best to avoid extreme ends of the spectrum to maintain homeostasis – that is, neither too Cold, Damp, Hot or Dry, neither too stimulating nor too sedating, etc.
Tonification in Ayurveda (Rasayana)
Within the structure of Ayurvedic medicine is a section (1 of 8) called the Rasayana Tantra. This tantra refers to medicines/herbs and practices that rejuvenate, restore or regenerate specific organs or the entire body, and are often thought to prolong life. Many of the herbs in the Rasayana Tantra are considered anti-aging medicines. Rasayanas are used to restore, balance and maintain prana (like Qi, prana is life energy responsible for the nourishment, movement and circulation of all vital force and substances), tejas (the essence/energy of light and heat necessary for maintenance of all bodily functions) and ojas (the biological essence related to strength, vitality and immunity). These comprise the three subtle essences of the body, and adequate supply and balance ensures better health and longer life.
There are rasayanas used specifically for promoting longevity that are taken on a long term basis (usually for life), and there are herbs which are used situationally for certain imbalances and conditions. In Ancient India, a group of extraordinary longevity promoting herbs was primarily used by Rishis and Sages, and was commonly referred to as Soma, which translates as divine lunar cycle plants. Knowledge of the Soma plants has largely been lost today.
In modern rasayana formulas there are often large numbers of herbs, some of which are tonic herbs and some of which promote metabolism and distribution of the formula. The combination of herbs in a formula results in one that balances the three doshas while treating specific maladies. In this way, rasayana formulas are similar to TCM tonic formulas. Medicinal carriers are equally important, and substances like honey, ghee, rock candy/sugar and boiled milk are used for their various properties, depending on the effect desired, method of purifying required, etc….
Some modern day rasayana herbs include guggul, gotu kola, ashwagandha, shatavari, guduchi, bala, licorice, aloe vera, gokshura, the 3 myrobalan fruits, bacopa, and punarnava.
Tonification in Western herbalism
The concept of tonification in Western herbalism is not as specifically defined as the Eastern traditions, and does not necessarily translate into a strengthening of overall vitality, resistance, and energy production, nor is it necessarily related to longevity of the organism or regeneration of the organs.
“Tonic” in Western herbalism describes a particular herb’s strength and affinity for treating a specific Western based system pathology, such as a digestive tonic, a heart tonic, or a urinary tonic. Really, with this broad definition and utilization of the term, all herbs could be labeled as a tonic of some sort, depending on the perspective and use of the herb. Also, the herb’s “tonic” label does not always imply its actions, as in the case of popular Western “blood tonics” which do not directly nourish or build blood without the addition of a warm blood building medium like molasses.
Adaptogens are the Western herb category most closely resembling the functions and properties of TCM tonics and Ayurvedic rasayanas. Adaptogens provide protection to the body from biological, physical, environmental and chemical stressors. They have a normalizing effect – one of restoring and maintaining homeostasis.
An adaptogen must meet 3 criteria:
- It is non-toxic and free of side effects.
- Its effect on the body is non-specific in that it generally increases physiological resistance to the above-mentioned stressors in a variety of circumstances.
- It has a “normalizing” effect, or one that induces homeostasis no matter the type of imbalance (hypo or hyper, Deficiency or Excess, etc…).
Adaptogens certainly seem to have a combination of qualities similar to the categories discussed in the Eastern traditions. They resemble Soma in their ability to generally prolong health and longevity, and are usually used over prolonged periods of time. Each adaptogen sometimes falls within multiple categories of TCM tonics, and can have a mixture of qualities related to tonifying Qi, Blood, Yin and Yang, again pointing to their non-specific, generally regenerating effects.
I find the most specific and helpful way of classifying tonic herbs is to look at them through the TCM lens. This doesn’t mean that we can only use Chinese herbs in this way. In fact, tonic herbs from all over the world can be described based on their characteristics that indicate whether they are Qi, Blood, Yin, or Yang tonics. Here are some examples in each category:
Astragalus Root – Huang qi – Astragalus propinquus
Energies and Tastes: sweet, warm
Channels/Organs Affected: Spleen, Lung
Properties and Actions: adaptogen, Qi tonic, Blood tonic, immunomodulator (tonifies Wei Qi), raises the Yang, stabilizes the Exterior (regulates skin pores and prevents entrance of Wind-Cold-Damp and pathogens), diuretic, antibacterial, lowers BP, vulnerary, increases Pitta, increases Kapha, regulates Vata.
- Deficiency of Wei Qi – frequent colds, flu, coughs, SOB, spontaneous sweating
- Spleen Qi Deficiency – poor appetite, weak digestion, diarrhea, prolapse, fatigue and debility, edema, chronic Dampness
- Blood Deficiency – anemia, leukopenia, bleeding, especially uterine and post-partum
- Nephritis, proteinuria
- chemotherapy and radiation adjunctive therapy – protects Qi
- wounds, abscesses
- chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia
- prevention of viral infections
Contraindications: Excess Heat, Yin Deficient Heat, toxic sores, Qi Stagnation with pain
Ginseng Root – Ren shen – Panax ginseng
Energies and Tastes: sweet, warm, bitter
Channels/Organs Affected: Spleen, Lung, Heart
Properties and Actions: Qi tonic (most powerful), adaptogen, Yin tonic, Yang tonic, calms the Shen, strengthens the Heart, hemostatic, demulcent/generates Fluids, sialagogue, stops thirst, increases Kapha, increases Pitta, increases or regulates Vata
- Deficiency of all 4 Treasures
- fatigue, low energy, exhaustion, depression
- memory loss, cognitive decline
- Yang Deficiency – coldness, weak pulse, impotence
- Qi Deficiency – fatigue, weak digestion, prolapse, SOB, wheezing, asthma, profuse sweating, chronic diarrhea, allergies
- Blood Deficiency – blood loss, anemia, shock
- Yin/Fluid Deficiency – cancer, chemotherapy/radiation support, shock
- Food Stagnation
- Phlegm (with Deficiency)
- immune system support
- prolonging last days of life
- longevity tonic
- insomnia/dream disturbed sleep (with Deficiency)
- cardiac weakness
- enhances athletic performance endurance
- decreased libido
Contraindications: Excess Heat, Fire, Yin Deficient Heat, fever, Excess conditions with pathogens, hypertension with Liver Yang rising, concomitant with anticoagulants, tricyclic antidepressants, cardiac glycosides, MAO inhibitors, flying squirrel feces, veratrum, Chinese honey locust fruit
Caution: long-term use in the non-elderly
Overdose: increased BP, insomnia, rash, chest tightness, restlessness, vertigo, spasms, headache, palpitations, bleeding
Dang Gui Root – Angelica sinensis
Energies and Tastes: sweet, warm, acrid/pungent, bitter
Channels/Organs Affected: Spleen, Liver, Heart
Properties and Actions: Blood tonic (a primary one in TCM), invigorates/harmonizes Blood, nourishes Essence, emmenagogue, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, demulcent, laxative, antibacterial, sedative, lowers cholesterol, increases Pitta, decreases or regulates Vata
- Blood Deficiency – anemia, amenorrhea, pale complexion, blurred vision, dysmenorrhea, constipation, infertility, tinnitus, hair loss, palpitations
- Blood Stagnation – abdominal pain, menstrual disorders, angina, Cold (due to Stagnation), fibroids and fibrosis, other masses due to Blood Stagnation, Bi syndrome/arthritis, sores/abscesses, bleeding due to Stagnation, pain
Contraindications: heavy menstrual bleeding, diarrhea, abdominal fullness, concurrent with anticoagulants
White Peony Root – Bai shao – Paeonia lactiflora
Energies and Tastes: cool, sour, bitter
Channels/Organs Affected: Spleen, Liver
Properties and Actions: Blood tonic, moves Blood, antispasmodic, analgesic, sedative, calms liver Wind and Liver Yang rising, nourishes Yin, anti-inflammatory, anti-convulsive, anti-febrifuge, assists the flow of Qi, regulates Vata, increases Kapha, decreases Pitta
- Blood Deficiency – tinnitus, menstrual difficulties, spams, irritability, abdominal/flank pain, Liver Attacking Spleen, vertigo
- Hypertension/headache with Liver Yang rising
- Yin Deficiency – sweating, Exterior Wind-Cold, hot flashes, menopause
- cognitive decline
- spasmodic coughs
Contraindications: pregnancy, hyper estrogen conditions, low testosterone in pre-menopausal women, diarrhea with Yang Deficiency, concurrent with frutillaria, false black hellebore, cuscuta, rhubarb,
Ashwagandha Root – Withania somnifera, Convolvulus spp. (Nepal)
Energies and Tastes: warm, astringent, bitter, sweet
Tissues/Channels/Organs Affected: Kidney, Heart, Lung, Liver (TCM); muscle, fat, bone, marrow, nerve, reproductive organs (Ayurveda)
Properties and Actions: Yang tonic, rasayana, rejuvenative, nervine, aphrodisiac, astringent, sedative – calms Shen, calms Liver, adaptogen, augments Essence, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, transform Phlegm, stops coughing, immunomodulator, anti-tumor, regulates and calms Vata, may increase Pitta and ama
Indications: (commonly referred to as Indian Ginseng)
- decreased immunity
- anxiety, nervousness
- impotence, sexual debility, infertility
- poor memory, cognitive decline
- muscle weakness, paralysis, MS
- fatigue, lethargy, exhaustion, debility, CFS, fibromyalgia, adrenal fatigue/insufficiency
- wasting diseases, emaciation (especially in children)
- support in chemotherapy and radiation
- rheumatism, joint pain
- chronic inflammation of respiratory tract, cough and phlegm, asthma, bronchitis
- NIDDM (hypoglycemic)
- skin disorders – psoriasis (leaves are used for wounds, tumors, boils and rashes)
- chronic heart disorders
- stomach ulcers and GI tract inflammation
- cold kidneys
Contraindications: lymphatic congestion, Damp Stagnation, acute colds/flu, increased ama/toxicity, concurrently with barbituates, caution in pregnancy
Dosage: 1-10g/day for acute problems, 1-2g/day for long-term rejuvenation and chronic conditions
Shilajit – Ashpaltum punjabianum, mineral pitch, mumio
Energies and Tastes: warm, bitter, salty, acrid, astringent (TCM); warm, bitter, pungent (Ayurveda)
Channels/Organs Affected: Kidney, Heart, Liver, Lung
Properties and Actions: rasayana, Yang tonic, adaptogen, anti-inflammatory, antirheumatic, antibacterial, anti-ulcer, anti-aging, aphrodisiac, lymphagogue, alterative, Yin tonic, Blood tonic, Qi tonic, calms and tonifies Shen and calms Liver Wind, anti-anxiety, clears toxic Heat, tonifies Essence, decreases Pitta, regulates Vata, decreases ama
- fatigue, debility, aging
- cognitive decline
- wasting diseases
- decreased immunity
- infections and inflammations of various types
- liver diseases – cirrhosis, heat
- skin diseases – acne, boils
- GI ulceration, dyspepsia
- urinary tract conditions, blockages, kidney stones, renal failure
- chronic heart conditions, high cholesterol
- impotence, infertility, low libido, spermatorrhea, premature ejaculation
- nervous disorders, depression, anxiety
- broken bones and fractures
- arthritis/Bi syndrome
- athletic performance enhancement
Contraindications: Properly processed pure shilajit is a true adaptogen – caution with adulteration of product and improper processing. Caution with hypoglycemia
Dosage: 1-2g BID
Devil’s Club (root bark, inner stem bark, leaf, berry) – Oplopanax horridus
Energies and Tastes: cool, acrid, bitter
Channels/Organs Affected: Spleen, Large Intestine, Stomach, Lung (TCM); musculoskeletal, immune system, GI system, endocrine system (Western)
Properties and Actions: Yin tonic, adaptogen, dispels Wind-Damp, expels Wind-Heat, anti-arthritic/rheumatic, antimicrobial, hypoglycemic, analgesic, emetic, purgative, expectorant, hemostatic
Indications: (a Pacific Northwest Ginseng relative – a primary medicine for local First Nations)
- arthritis, rheumatism
- dry mucous membranes and skin
- adrenal fatigue, CFS, fibromyalgia
- eye conditions – cataracts
- skin conditions – cuts, boils, sores
- GI ulcerations
- acute infections – bacterial, viral, fungal
- menstrual difficulties
- Indigenous uses include rheumatism/arthritis, blood purification, diabetes, fertility, fevers, heart disease, pneumonia, sores, GI inflammation, indigestion, broken bones, cancer, venereal disease, edema, hemorrhaging, lice, dandruff, emetic, toothaches, TB, skin disease, general tonic, and a multitude of spiritual and shamanic uses
Dosage: standard decoction; 10-40 gtts TID tincture
American Ginseng Root – xi yang shen – Panax quinquefolium
Energies and Tastes: neutral to cool, sweet, bitter
Channels/Organs Affected: Kidney, Lung, Heart
Properties and Actions: Yin tonic, Qi tonic, adaptogen, Blood tonic, clears Deficiency Heat and Lung Fire, demulcent, immune stimulant, hypoglycemia
- Deficient Lung Qi/Yin, wheezing, hemoptysis, laryngitis, TB, bronchitis
- chronic fatigue, adrenal fatigue, general weakness
- Deficient Yin with Heat
- blood in stool with Heat
- dry mucous membranes, thirst
- low libido
- cognitive decline
- constipation and atonic bowels
- low immunity
- high cholesterol
Contraindications: Cold-Damp (TCM) and Fire due to Stagnation; caution with pregnancy and concurrent antidepressants or anticoagulants
Combining Qi and Blood tonics, and Yin and Yang tonics, is common practice in TCM. Several important principles regarding their use should be kept in mind with any type of herbal tonic formulation.
Qi and Blood tonics are frequently combined to enhance the desired effect of the formula, and to prevent untoward side effects such as Stagnation. This is especially applicable to formulas that build or tonify Blood, as boosting Qi will not only help to build Blood, but also move it. They are in some respects co-dependent, since Qi is the commander of Blood, and Blood is the mother of Qi. Strong and properly flowing Qi must be present to provide adequate energy and assist metabolism in the production of Blood, as well as store, distribute and move it throughout the body.
The Spleen is the root of Blood and Qi in the body. Without adequate Spleen Qi (specifically Grain Qi), Blood cannot be sufficiently produced, or adequately held within the vasculature. The Grain Qi is sent to the Lungs, where it is mixed with Air Qi, which circulates to the Heart where it is transformed into Blood.
The Liver stores Blood and regulates its distribution by the Heart. It keeps Qi and Blood flowing freely. Since Qi drives Blood, if Liver Qi stagnates, so may Blood.
The Kidneys provide Essence and hence Source Qi for the entire body, and so also play an important role in Blood production.
Qi is a vital ingredient in the formation, transportation, and function of Blood.
Blood is the mother of Qi, which means that without sufficient Blood, the organs and their processes involved in forming and circulating Qi will be compromised. Qi and Blood are mutually dependent, and to support and sustain one means both must be attended to.
Yin and Yang can be viewed from the TCM, Taoist and Buddhist perspectives as the two ends of a continuum. Symbolically they represent the component parts of a whole. Each may seem dichotomous in nature, but in fact they are actually symbiotic, one contained within the other. This is why an extreme of one may cause a manifestation of the other, and why each attracts the other.
Combining Yin and Yang tonics with the above context in mind makes sense, since tonifying one in isolation may lead to an imbalance of either or both. The functional natures of Yin and Yang support one another. Yin provides substance and substrate for Yang’s metabolic processes, and Yang assists the body to absorb Yin’s energy. In many cases, Yin, Qi and Blood tonification form a large part of restoring Yang.
It is best to avoid extreme ends of the spectrum to maintain homeostasis – that is, neither too Cold, Damp, Hot or Dry, neither too stimulating nor too sedating, etc. These principles are usually well represented in most TCM formulas. Proper formulating increases the chances of successful remediation of health conditions by maximizing the effects of the herbs and their physiological responses, and by mediating any potential untoward effects caused by polarized or unbalanced states.
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