Mar 282012

Spring tonics…? It’s so common in the herbal world to come across the term ‘spring tonic’ in reference to what an herb is or does. But for such a common term it is rather uncommonly defined. Ask any herbalist what a spring tonic is and, much like its loosely defined close relatives the alterative and lymphatic, you will get as many different answers as herbalists you ask.

The actual term ‘spring tonic’ most likely originated in Appalachian folk medicine where the qualities of ‘blood’ are assessed and herbal prescriptions made based on those findings. However, tonics have been used the world over in various different cultures in various different settings. While the terminology is surely different, it is well known that both TCM and Ayurveda, two ancient systems of medicine that have survived to this day both have their share of ‘tonic’ herbs. In the modern world of herbalism tonics are often said to restore function and/or balance the functioning of a system. While the general concept of that seems true, I feel it is important to point out where the word tonic comes from and how it has developed into how we use it today. So what is a tonic? In the most basic sense a tonic is simply something that tones. The word itself comes from ‘tonify’ defined by Merriam-Webster as “to give tone to”. Tonics as used by the eclectics were used for tissues that were atonic, or lacking tone. This would be tissues that are leaky, drippy, atrophied, damp, etc. Often I hear various ‘spring tonics’ being offered to just about everyone in a very cavalier way: “take this herb, it’s a spring tonic! It’s good for you”. The upside to this approach is that, in general, most ‘spring tonic’ herbs are very safe and aren’t going to hurt a person. The downside, however is that this approach leaves out the person’s individuality, their body and mind and most importantly it leaves the practitioner with a very limited understanding of a potentially useful category of herbs.

In Chinese medicine Spring is associated with the element of Wood, which has a rising and growing energy. Its flavor is sour and it is associated with the Chinese concept of liver.  In TCM the liver is responsible for the smooth flow of both blood and qi. The liver is most prone to deficiency and stagnation causing symptoms of restlessness, anger, irritability and frustration. Here we can equate this to the more western concept of ‘thick’ blood. Stagnation comes in many forms, some more recognizable and others less so. The most easily recognizable form of physical stagnation manifests itself as constipation while the most obvious mental form manifests itself as stuck depression.


Before globalization and importation existed as it does today (imagine that) seasonal eating was not only a good-for-the-planet-earth-connecting activity but a necessity. In Winter, a time characterized by heaviness, quiet and contemplation, richer meals were used to fortify the body against the invading cold. As Autumn’s last harvest was preserved for the cold months ahead we prepared, both physically and mentally, to fill our bodies with the deeper, heavier nourishing foods that would sustain us for the coming cold. Vegetables were what could be kept in the cellar and greens were scarce if available at all. In a time before electricity our bodies were attuned with the natural cycles of light, often rising with the sun and going to bed with its setting. Due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis Winter is a time of weaker sun and fewer sunlight hours, often leading to less activity and productivity and more time for rest. In contrast to the high energy and productivity of Summer, Winter was a time to give preference to resting and rebuilding. In Winter it was said that blood would often become either deficient, stagnant or both, largely due to the heavier diet, longer hours of sleep and general underactivity. In a class I took recently we talked about how we as a society like to live perpetually bouncing back and forth between Summer and Spring which for me calls into question the use of spring tonics. Perhaps, rather than using spring tonics we should be teaching people to live in the letting go season of Autumn and the recuperation and contemplation season of Winter. Just a thought.

We’ve made it through the harshness of a cold Winter and Spring has arrived. With her arrival she has brought new growth, new ideas and new energy. Just as the sap of trees begins to rise in response to her arrival so too does our ‘blood’ begin to rise. As the ‘blood’ rises, new energy is sent to our muscles and our minds allowing for productivity, creativity and energy. When blood is stagnant or deficient, it can not rise and consequently we remain in winters clutches: stuck, stagnant and fatigued.

But fortunately we have herbs! In a broad sense, any spring pot herb (edible greens) can be spring tonics.  As we talked about already, Spring’s flavor is sour and indeed, many spring greens have varying amounts of flavonoids and/or plant acids which provide a little sour-green bite to them. These can include nettles, dock leaves, speedwell flowers and greens, purple dead nettle, etc. I like to encourage people to make these a regular part of their diet in the spring and early summer. I liken them to an oil change; regular use keeps the car running smooth. However sometimes we need a more hefty tune-up. When ‘toxins’ build up and blood becomes too thick or stagnant we might need to look for more specific remedies. This could manifest as excess uric acid causing symptoms of gout or a bout of constipation from an underfunctioning liver. This is where traditional spring tonics come into play but first let’s define them a little more clearly.

Spring tonics are almost invariably alteratives and lymphatics. Like ‘spring tonics’ alteratives are often a hard to define clearly word. The following is a loosely reworded definition taken from Jim McDonald: alteratives are essentially herbs that increase and support various metabolic systems and/or organs by increasing their ability to eliminate wastes. They often affect some or all of the following organs: liver, spleen, kidneys, lungs, skin and lymph. Without going into too much physiology the job of these organs is to remove waste, foreign material and infection and in some cases to screen for and protect against invading pathogens. Lymphatics are ‘alteratives’ with a specific affinity for the lymph system. So essentially a spring tonic is an alterative herb used at an appropriate time of year to capitalize on spring’s energy of growth and movement and used to help us transition from quiet Winter to energetic Spring. As mentioned above, most herbs categorized as ‘spring tonics’ are safe and widely applicable. That said knowing some of their nuances and organ affinities as well as their energetics can help better match herb to person and provide deeper and more lasting results. Below is a list of some of my favorite ‘spring tonics’. By no means is it meant to be a complete list, rather it is a list of herbs I have used and feel most comfortable with. Enjoy!

Burdock- Energetics: Cooling, sweet, bitter, slightly oily

Burdock is a nourishing, building tonic. Its liver and kidney stimulating action coupled with its diuretic nature make it useful for removing toxic build up such as uric acid, calcium deposits, etc. It is nourishing to ‘blood’ and can improve its quality. Historically used for syphilis, gout and skin eruptions it is still a valuable tried and true alterative. It is still used for gout as well as kidney stones and eczema/psoriasis. It is specifically indicated with accompanying tissue dryness from lack of oil. Its high levels of inulin make it a valuable tonic for improving overall immunity and gut health. Consider using Burdock when clients present with typical burdock conditions (such as gout, eczema, etc.) and accompanying signs of digestive and/or immune weakness. A good tonic for Vata.

Dandelion- Energetics: Root: Cool-cold, bitter, dry. Leaf: Cool, bitter, salty, dry

Root: Dandelion root is a great mildly bitter spring tonic. Like burdock it is useful for ‘toxic’ accumulations, moderately stimulating the kidneys and lymph while cooling a heated, overfunctioning liver. Its bitter nature makes it draining and resolving to dampness. It is one of the first herbs I choose when treating constipation, especially when accompanied by tissue fullness and edema. It is also a good choice in sluggish digestion resulting in symptoms of bloating, gas, etc. Its bitter taste stimulates gastric secretions and can be useful in improving fat absorption. Its better for a ‘hot’ liver (hot liver folks look cold, they are slow—because their hot liver makes mostly building material and little fuel) A good tonic for kapha.

Leaf: Taraxacum leaf is a mineral rich moderate-strong bitter diuretic. It is useful for clearing out metabolic wastes while simultaneously increasing minerals. Unlike conventional diuretics which leach potassium and other minerals from the body, Dandelion replaces lost minerals with its naturally high content of potassium, magnesium and calcium. The salty taste indicates that it is tissue building and resolving to lymph swelling. As part of a formula or on its own, it can be useful for clearing out remnants of recent illness.


Sassafras- Energetics: Root: sweet, spicy, cool/warm, stimulating, dry

Sassafras is a warming, stimulating circulatory tonic. In the past used to treat such sever conditions as syphilis and gonorrhea, it is still useful as an alterative to underfunctioning tissues. Being both warming stimulating and mildly astringent, Sassafras is best suited to tissues that are cold, depressed and lack tone. It is believe to ‘thin the blood’ and is useful for stimulating stagnant, cold and congealed blood. It was employed by natives as a stimulating diaphoretic, another way to remove metabolic wastes and is still used in this way today. Matthew Wood says that, like Elder and Yarrow, it draws blood up from the core to the periphery and is useful for cleaning out arthritic deposits. Conversely, its ‘blood thinning’ properties make it cooling. Best used in early spring to wake up, invigorate, thin and move blood and break up stagnant congealed blood. Look for dark complexion around veins, heavy dragging thick pulses and bruising.

Oregon Grape- Energetics: bitter, cold, stimulating and dry.

Oregon Grape is a great tonic alterative that clears heat and infection. Unlike Dandelion which cools an overactive liver, Oregon grape stimulates an underfunctioning liver. It is best suited to hot, excited tissue states and constitutions with symptoms such as bright red tongues, yellow coating, indigestion with poor protein metabolism and a penchant for ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­‘yinny’ foods like carbs/sugar. Though it is drying, Michael Moore says it is suited to persons with thin, dry tissues. This is because the thin, dry tissues are a result of faulty anabolism and catabolism mechanisms. Essentially the liver and gallbladder are undersecreting and underfunctioning; the liver attempts to build (anabolism) but is unable to maintain it, resulting in breakdown of tissue (catabolism) and consequently ending with thin, dry and atrophic tissues.  Look for symptoms such as lack of appetite, constipation due to lack of secretion, dry scaly and irritated skin and thinness. Good for Pittas.

Cleavers- Energetics: salty, sweet, cool, neutral humidity.

Cleavers is a nourishing and gentle lymphatic alterative. It has an affinity for the muscles, kidneys and lymph and has the ability to move and break up calcifications and fibrous tissues. It is a good remedy for swollen glands, cysts and fibrous breast tissue where there is accompanying mild inflammation and subjective feelings of warmth. It is mildly diuretic and combines well with other herbs for removing urinary and kidney gravel. It is suited to irritated and atrophic tissues and is a great tonic for Vatas.

Calendula- Energetics: Sweet, Bitter, resinous, warm, sl. moistening

Like Cleavers, Calendula has a strong affinity for the lymphatic system as well as for the digestive system. It is a tonic for swollen lymph with signs of hypo-immunity and cold. The corona is resinous astringent and drying, offering a nice combination of antimicrobial and vulnerary effects while the petals are slightly mucilaginous and sweet offering further vulnerary and soothing qualities to affected tissues. Calendula is one of my favorites for people who just can’t seem to shake the winter blues or who are holding onto anger and need something to boost their moods and shake things up. In keeping with its ability to move and transform that which is being held on to, Calendula also has a place in helping the body be rid of old, lingering infections.

Nettle- Energetics: Salty, cool, dry

Nettle is a nourishing, building tonic rich in protein, vitamins and minerals. As opposed to Dandelion, it lacks a bitter taste making it less useful for draining dampness and more nourishing overall. It has an affinity for the adrenals and kidneys and through a mild but noticeable diuretic action increases the elimination of wastes while building and fortifying the body. It is useful for removing hardness, swellings and toxic accumulation, especially when accompanied by atrophied tissue. Tonic use can build up muscles, bones and adrenal function resulting in more and better quality energy—without depending on caffeine. Nettles is one of my favorites because it is usable by most anyone and so nourishing and grounding. If (like me) you find nettles to be too drying (as in you are running to urinate constantly) add a bit of mallow leaves, roots or elm bark.

Birch- Energetics: Warm, aromatic, bitter, dry

Birch is a warming, aromatic tonic for ‘thinning blood’ and increasing vitality in spring. Often, blood stagnation leads to pain in muscles, tendons and joints. Birch’s aromatics help to break up and move the stagnation while its high concentration of methyl salicylates are useful in reducing the pain and inflammation associated with stagnation. It is best for those who are made better with heat. It has an affinity with the musckuloskeletal system and kidneys and has a mild stimulating and diuretic effect. It can be used, like most spring tonics, to remove wastes and build up of ‘toxins’.

Willow- Cool-cold, bitter, dry

Willow is similar in use to birch, but better suited to those made better by cold. Not a traditional spring tonic but I want to compare and contrast with Birch, which is.

Poke- Energetics: Pungent, dry, bitter, burning

The young leaves were often consumed as a spring tonic. Considered to cleanse, rejuvenate and bring vitality they are still eaten to this day. It is recommended that they be boiled and cooked in three separate changes of water, although I find that just cooking them once suits me. As a gentle spring tonic the leaves work well, however, more serious issues such as severe stagnation, resulting in purple/red discolorations, severe lymph stagnation, mastitis, etc. respond better to both berries and root. I find the berries a bit more gentle and as such are my preferred remedy. It is best suited to thick, bulky and larger persons. It is a good remedy for Kapha.

Mar 222012

I just finished reading this magical journey of a book: A Year in the Village of Eternity.

It chronicles the life of the author, Tracey Lawson, during her three years living in this beautiful mountain town in the heart of Italy. In Campodimele, the town of eternity and the place where the author made her three year home, the residents seemingly live naturally long lives with an average age of 95. Scientists, journalists and others have researched this town, trying to pinpoint exactly what it is that contributes to the residents long lifespans. Lawson, after reading about the town and doing her own research decided she too wanted to know. She moved from her home of land and set up life in this little town of only 671 people. During her extended stay she learned much about the people, the culture and lifestyle of Campodimele. Indeed, instead of finding a single reason for the amazing longevity of the Campomelani, she discovered a beautiful, seasonal and natural way of living which all together contributes to the deep and real health of its citizens.

The book is divided into months in which Lawson describes the various seasonal and food related activities that occur during that time. Whether it’s the pig slaughter of January or the harvest of the little sour-sweet amarene cherries of July Lawson describes every facet of seasonal living in Campodimele in earthy, living detail.

Each month also contains recipes. Yes, real tried and true—authentic—Campodimele recipes. Many of them All of them sound delicious. Particularly delicious sounding to me was a recipe in the month of February called Tagne. When I first read about Tagne and then conceived of writing this post I had grand dreams of researching Tagne and getting all the history behind it to share with you lovely readers…well life doesn’t always work out that way. My several hour-long research into Tagne turned up nothing. So all information about this traditional dish is taken directly from Ms. Lawson and the residents she learned from in Campodimele. We just have to trust them.

So what is Tagne? Essentially it is a frittata with the eggs. Frittata without eggs? Yes, in Campodimele in a time of great poverty, eggs were reserved for special occasions and so the Campomelani devised this version of an eggless frittata. In Campodimele, Tagne is a species of Clematis (Clematis vitalba) that is chopped, boiled and mixed with a bit of flour, olive oil and salt. Where I live we don’t have Clematis vitalba nor do we have any Clematis in February (or March!) and so I thought to myself ‘why not Tagne with dock leaves?’ Dock leaves also called Yellowdock (Rumex crispus and obtusifolium) are a delicious, slightly sour green vegetable. Because of their high oxalic acid content I tend to eat them cooked only. So I tried it and voila…crisp but soft in the center, warm and green tasting with just the barest hint of sour from the oxalic acid all beautifully wrapped up in silky olive oil. I made mine with Hemlock needle oil but you can make yours with any conifer oil or even plain old olive oil (but trust me the dock goes really well with the woody flavor of conifers). So without further ado, my recipe for Dock tagne.

Dock Tagne

Five large handfuls of dock leaves

Few splashes of Hemlock or other conifer oil

Pinch of Salt, grind of pepper

3 tsp flour (I used a locally ground ‘half wheat’ but I imagine any would work, even gluten free flours. It’s just there to bind things a little).

Chop and then boil the dock for 5-10 minutes and drain in a colander. Run cold water over them to prevent further cooking and to refresh them, then squeeze out as much water as you can. In a bowl toss the dock with the olive oil, salt, pepper and flour. In a round frying pan on med-low heat form the tagne into a disc and fry gently until crispy on one side, then flip and fry the other. Makes a great first course or paired with a few slices of home cured meat or bacon and a piece of fruit, a lovely simple lunch. Enjoy!

Mar 082012

Today is a deep-gray-wet day. Tomorrow could be a dark-stormy-gray day or a light-misty-gray day or a low-brown-gray day; in Rochester, you never know.

Before moving to Rochester gray days were simple, they were gray. Winters in Rochester are filled with predominantly gray days, for days on end, seemingly unchanging. Or so it would seem, until you’ve been here for a while. But as days of gray continue for weeks on end little patterns begin to make themselves known and you learn that there are not just gray days but many shades of gray days. Some are easier to handle, others are worse and some just plain suck, but regardless all contribute towards the high prevalence of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) that occurs here in Rochester.

SAD or winter blues is a common syndrome experienced by many people, particularly those in countries or areas with less than optimal winter light. It is characterized by feelings of fatigue, low energy, lack of concentration and tendencies to oversleep and over eat. While the medical community is worrying about differentiating between subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder (what they term as mild SAD) and more serious or debilitative SAD, I think it’s safe to say that most everyone has felt, at one time or another, the winter blues. Living in Rochester has given me the opportunity to work with a few cases of SAD including my own feelings of winter blues that I am sometimes prone to. One of the least invasive and successful conventional treatments is light therapy. Light therapy is a great non-pharmaceutical approach that is often met with success. It involves exposure to artificial sunlight, or specific waves of light, that are designed to mimic sunlight exposure. As always, diet can play a crucial role in SAD and feelings of winter blues. Specifically associated are omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. Lack of these two nutrients has been shown to increase symptoms of SAD and depression. Most Americans are particularly low in these nutrients and fail to obtain adequate amounts through their diet. Vitamin D can be manufactured by the body with adequate sun exposure, unfortunately that requires that the sun be shining and that naked skin be exposed to its rays, difficult to do when the sun doesn’t shine very often. Some statistics suggest that in winter, even when the sun is seemingly shining bright, if you live above Atlanta the sun is not able to get high enough for its UV rays to penetrate the atmosphere, thus making it impossible for you to manufacture vitamin D. Omega-3’s provide many building blocks that our body needs to manufacture hormones that can affect our moods and other bodily processes. Adequate omega-3 intake can go a long way in keeping our mood and energy up and our concentration strong during long winter months. While I don’t often recommend supplementation, preferring to obtain nutrients from the diet, this can sometimes be difficult due to lack of availability of these nutrients. For this reason I often recommend people take 5,000IU of vitamin D daily and a good dose of fish oil, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500mg daily.

There are as many herbs for treating symptoms of SAD and feelings of the blues as there are herbalists, not to mention all the combinations one can make. Here are a few of my favorite remedies, with some differentiation between them. These are formulas that I have had personal experience with and seen help both myself and others. Enjoy!

Goldenrod Joy

2 pt. Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)

1 pt. Rose (Rosa sp.)

½ pt. Citrus

Combine herbs, infuse 1-1.5 tsp per cup of water for 15 minutes. Add honey.

This delightful and bitter-sweet combination makes a wonderful tea as a general pick-me up when feeling sad, overwhelmed and emotional. It is best when sweetened with a bit of honey. When feelings of cold and lethargy are present I am fond of very heating and stimulating hemlock needle honey. When my anxiety is getting the best of me I reach for cherry bark, or better yet, cherry flower honey. Just a dab will do.

Mugwort-Basil Mover-Shaker

1 pt. Holy basil (Tulsi sp.)

1/2 pt. Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

¼-1/8 pt. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Combine herbs, steep 1-2 tsp. per cup of hot water for 15-20 minutes. This blend is particularly useful for stagnant, stuck depression. The aromatics of the basil and lavender serve to move about energy and stuck emotion while mugwort helps to ground. If (like me), you find mugwort a bit too drying, add a bit of mallow leaf, root or some elm bark.


Traditional Tea

1 pt. Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

A squirt of St. John’s Wort tincture (Hypericum perforatum)

1-3 tsp. of lemon balm per cup of water, infuse 10-15 minutes. Add a squirt or two of SJW tincture. This is a more classic combination for SAD and it is quite effective. I’m not very fond of SJW as a tea, I’ve read in numerous places that the dried herb doesn’t last long and is not very effective. I’ve made the tea and every time find that it is simply bitter and astringent, lacking the complex flavor of the tincture. Lemon balm, on the other hand, makes a delicious tea. These days, I find myself recommending people combine the tea with the tincture. Lemon balm has a particular affinity for the stomach. When anxiety/depression sets in causing gastric upset, try Lemon Balm with a little St. John’s Wort.

*Note* If you have found SJW tea to be more useful than an astringent-bitter tea, please don’t hesitate to let me know.