Tonics and Adaptogens
Tonics and adaptogens are a unique type of medicine. They produce what herbalists call a “nonspecific” response, meaning that depending on the organ or system that's being treated, the herb might improve your physical endurance, reproductive and sexual functioning, or resistance to disease.
Tonic herbs are defined as those that address the health of an entire bodily system and alleviate weakness.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), tonics are known as superior medicines — the best of the best — and are typically used to strengthen and fortify a system that needs “toning” or “tonifying” (it's failing or just not performing optimally).
There are herbs that have general tonic abilities, meaning they're used to increase your overall energy, or chi. Other TCM tonics address specific systems and functions, and some have more than one kind of tonic activity:
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) is an immune tonic.
Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) is a kidney and adrenal tonic.
Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is an immune and chi tonic.
Goji-berry (Lycium barbarum, L. chinense) is an immune tonic and blood tonic.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) is a heart tonic.
Ayurvedic medicine recognizes a class of herbs known as rasayanas, or rejuvenating medicines, that are similar to tonics in that they support the overall functioning of the major systems of the body. The rasayanas include:
Amla (Emblica officinalis, Phyllanthus emblica)
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)
Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum, O. sanctum)
Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
Western herbalism recognizes a group of herbs that work as nervines, or nerve tonics, helping to restore balance to the nervous system and emotions and treat problems in the digestive and cardiovascular systems that are caused by anxiety and stress. Nervines include:
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna, C. oxyacantha)
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)
Saint John's wort (Hypericum perforatum)
An adaptogen is something that protects an organism from the ill effects of stress, which can be caused by both physical and psychological agents. In herbal medicine, an adaptogenic herb is one that helps the body deal with stresses — trauma, injury, emotional upset, physical exertion, and so on — without getting sick.
The Stress Response
Stress is defined as the disruption of the body's innate balance, or homeostasis, through external agents, and the body's response to it.
In most cases, the stress response is a good thing: It helped our ancestors outrun predators, fight for mates, and survive those cold nights in the cave. But sometimes, stress can be bad. Chronic stress has been linked to a host of diseases and conditions, including premenstrual syndrome (PMS), obesity, insomnia, diarrhea and constipation, anxiety and depression, and suppressed immunity — which can lead to everything from the common cold to cancer.
The Advantage of Adaptogens
Like tonics, adaptogenic plants offer what scientists call “nonspecific” resistance to stress and fatigue, eliminating or reducing the variations in homeostasis that stress produces. They take things a step further, however, by exerting a normalizing effect on an organ or system.
The term adaptogen was coined in Western medicine in the twentieth century, but in the ancient schools of TCM and Ayurveda, the concept has been around for centuries. TCM has chi tonics and Ayurvedic medicine has rasayanas, which have similar properties. Many tonics and rasayanas are also considered adaptogens.
Adaptogens help the body adapt by either increasing or decreasing a particular physiological function. Thus, if something — your adrenal response, for example — needs to be turned on, an adaptogen can do it.
And if that system needs to be turned down, an adaptogen can do that, too.
Here are some of the best — the best-known and best-researched — herbal adaptogens:
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)
Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum, O. sanctum)