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.