by Jan Sheehan
Tonic herbs revitalize the system by bringing natural balance
You're healthy. You're plagued by no chronic diseases, and you hardly ever succumb to nasty colds or the flu. What's more, you're amazingly adept at giving stress the slip and have more get-up-and-go than a marathon runner. So why turn to herbal therapies when you're feeling fine? Even if you're at the top of your game physically and mentally, a number of valuable plants can help keep you that way. Known as tonic herbs, these natural substances promote peak health by balancing and revitalizing the system.
Valued for thousands of years by Chinese herbalists for their strengthening and invigorating properties, tonics rejuvenate by normalizing body functions. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the body's systems must be balanced and flowing freely in order to be healthy. In other words, a balanced system is a healthy system. Tonic herbs promote equilibrium, which translates to optimum wellness.
Many years of traditional use, as well as affirmation by a growing body of scientific research, have brought tonics to the herbal forefront in Western cultures, as well. "Tonic herbs are a fail-safe approach to restoring balance and promoting overall health of the body," notes Daniel Mowrey, Ph.D., author of Herbal Tonic Therapies (Keats). "Since nobody manages to go through life in a perfect state of balance, everyone can benefit from the use of the right choice of herbal tonic," he adds.
Tonics revitalize by helping the body do what it should be doing. "They are sometimes known as adaptogens," says herbalist Mindy Green, director of education for the Herb Research Foundation. "Although some tonics work on just one organ, they generally strengthen or normalize a variety of systems without disrupting the body." Because they keep things on an even keel, tonics help the body adapt to stress, a major contributor to ill health. Some herbal tonics are also esteemed for their ability to help the healing system resist the effects of toxins and aging.
As a rule, tonic herbs are somewhat milder and more delicate in action than nontonic herbs. User-friendly substances with few side effects, they're generally consumable in small amounts on a daily or weekly basis without tolerance problems. Many herbs have tonic properties, but here are three prized for promoting optimum health.
This information isn't meant to replace the advice of a health care practitioner. Always seek qualified medical care for serious health problems.
Just Your Cup of Tea
Perhaps no herb is more revitalizing to the body and soul than green tea (Camellia sinensis). Prepared from the steamed and dried leaves of a white-flowered evergreen bush native to Asia, this soothing beverage has been valued as a restorative balm and health aid for centuries. Because it's the least processed of all teas, green tea contains more of the stuff that's good for us, including higher concentrations of fluoride (opinions differ regarding the health benefits of fluoride) and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a flavonoid that prevents cell damage by zapping destructive free radicals. "That translates to a whole host of physical benefits," says Green.
Indeed, scientific data indicate that green tea helps prevent the development of certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, some infectious ailments and dental cavities. With regard to heart disease, one study of Japanese men found that consumption of green tea balanced cholesterol levels by decreasing LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, and increasing HDL, or "good" cholesterol (British Medical Journal, 1995, vol. 310). Numerous epidemiological and animal studies have demonstrated that green tea protects against lung, liver, stomach, pancreas, colon and breast cancers (Toxicological Sciences, 1999, vol. 52).
Moreover, research supports the fact that extracts of green tea have strong antibacterial effects, inhibiting Escherichia coli, Streptococcus salivarius and Streptococcus mutans, thus helping to prevent mouth cancers, gingivitis and dental cavities. Studies conducted at Columbia University also show that green tea extract protects the skin by inhibiting DNA damage from sun exposure (Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 1999, vol. 113).
"Green tea is one of the best herbal tonics around," marvels Ray Sahelian, M.D., a physician specializing in nutritional and herbal therapies and director of The Longevity Center in Marina del Rey, Calif. "It contains great antioxidants that slow down the aging process." In fact, an evaluation of 3,300 elderly Japanese practitioners of chanoyu (a traditional tea ceremony) suggests that prolonged intake of green tea contributed to their longevity by providing protection against fatal diseases (Tohoku Journal of Experimental Medicine, 1992, vol. 166). While green tea has some caffeine, it contains 60 percent less than coffee.
A-OK Olive Leaf Extract
Olive trees have been cultivated for their heart-healthy fruits since ancient times, but an extract produced from the olive leaf (Olea europea) also has substantial wellness value. "The olive tree offers numerous benefits, not just for its olives, but also for its leaves," writes medical researcher and journalist Morton Walker, author of Olive Leaf Extract (Kensington). "As a daily supplement to the diet, olive leaf extract can help achieve and maintain the highest levels of good health."
Olive leaves contain many active constituents, including flavonoids and an iridoid compound known as oleuropein. Pharmacological studies indicate that oleuropein reduces levels of LDL cholesterol, which can lead to hardening of the arteries (Journal of Biological Biochemistry, 1996, vol. 271). Oleuropein also has produced hypoglycemic effects in animal studies, thereby balancing blood sugar levels (Planta Medica, 1992, vol. 58). Research further suggests it has antibacterial and antiviral benefits (Biotechnical Applied Biochemistry, 1991, vol. 13).
Recommended for general well-being, olive leaf extract is available in capsule form. Dried olive leaves can also be prepared as a tea. Toxicity of the plant is not well known, but side effects appear to be low. The Complete German Commission E Monographs (American Botanical Council) lists no known risks.
Licorice Root: How Sweet It Is
Derived from the root of a shrubby perennial plant native to Europe and Asia, therapeutic use of licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra L.) dates back 3,000 years to the Roman Empire and figures prominently in Chinese herbal medicine as a "drug of first class" — an agent that exerts goodly influence on the body and acts to lengthen life.
As with many tonics, licorice root boosts overall health. It's also used to treat female disorders, peptic ulcers, stress, colds and bacterial infections. "Licorice root has powerful tonic benefits and at the same time has a wide range of healing effects," writes Ron Teeguarden in Radiant Health: The Ancient Wisdom of the Chinese Tonic Herbs (Warner).
The plant's root contains a variety of chemical agents, including glycoside glycyrrhizin. The amount of glycyrrhizin varies from 7 percent to 10 percent, depending on growing conditions. Because this ingredient can cause high blood pressure and loss of potassium, licorice root is also available deglycyrrhizinated. Known as DGL, this form has had virtually all of its glycyrrhizin removed. "DGL licorice root is not a problem at all," says Green. "It's a good, nondisruptive herb."
Although DGL licorice root doesn't actually work as a tonic, research shows it to be effective in protecting against ulcer formation by building up the protective substances that line the digestive tract.
Additionally, licorice root appears to promote normal heart rhythm (China Journal of Chinese Materia Medica, 1991, vol. 16) and enhance hormonal balance in women (Endocrinology Japonica, 1988, vol. 35). Plus, it's often used for detoxifying the liver.
Besides its curative powers, licorice root has another advantage. "It has a sweet, pleasing taste, so small amounts can be added to almost any herbal brew to boost flavor and health benefits," says Sahelian. Though a safe herb in moderate doses, people with high blood pressure or heart disease should opt for the DGL form.
While herbal therapies can help you find and maintain natural balance, sensible habits such as eating a balanced diet, getting plenty of rest and exercising regularly are also important. Combine healthy living with a tonic regimen, and your vitality could really soar. "Using a variety of tonic herbs is one of the easiest things you can do to boost general well-being," says Sahelian. "Just as exercise tones the muscles, tonics tone the inner body." And a toned body inside and out translates to optimum health.
Illustrations by: Melissa Sweet