Mother Earth Living

Tonic Herbs and Antioxidants

Learn which herbs are worth adding to your daily routine.
By Logan Chamberlain, Ph.D.
December/January 2002
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Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is well-known among herbalists as a liver tonic.
Photo by Christopher Hobbs
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It’s generally accepted that most peoples’ diets don’t supply all of the nutrients necessary for optimum health. (How many of us really eat five servings of vegetables and seven servings of grains every single day?) If you take vitamins to supplement your imperfect diet, it’s probably not because you’re afraid of getting scurvy or rickets. It’s because you want to sustain a high level of health and well-being. I feel that taking certain herbs routinely is just as important as taking vitamins A, B, and C.

The herbs that I incorporate into my daily routine, every day of the year, are from the classes of tonic herbs and antioxidants. These can be beneficial to anybody regardless of age or condition; you can take them forever with no bad side effects. I think of them as a nutritional insurance policy.

Tonic herbs

Tonic is synonymous with such words as restorative, invigorant, stimulant, booster, and refresher. The best known tonic herb in the Western world is probably ginseng. It’s also been one of the most controversial, because it has a long history of use, but no one has been able to prove precisely what it does. That’s because its action is nonspecific. It doesn’t cure any particular disease in any measurable way. But it does enhance energy and general health, improve concentration and sensory discrimination, and subtly regulate a range of body functions—metabolism, blood pressure, oxygen uptake, and more. It sounds miraculous, doesn’t it?

And there are other herbs that have the same benefits—Siberian ginseng (eleuthero), mushrooms such as maitake and reishi, and gotu kola, to name a few. You might see these also referred to as adaptogens, which means that they build resistance to physical stress by strengthening the immune, nervous, and/or glandular systems. Sure, you can be a healthy, vigorous individual without taking them, but why not optimize your odds?

Antioxidants

It’s natural for our bodies to age. Normal metabolism causes the creation of free radicals, which in turn cause general aging, cell degeneration, and disease. At the same time, it’s natural for our bodies to produce antioxidants that neutralize these free radicals—if we give our bodies the right nutrients to work with. And that’s the catch. Antioxidants are present in fresh fruits and vegetables and in other whole foods, but the average American diet doesn’t offer enough of them. So supplementation is important.

Vitamins C and E have strong antioxidant properties, as does the mineral selenium—but certain herbs are even better. Green tea, grapeseed extract, and rosemary are all extraordinarily effective antioxidants and provide great insurance against many of the degenerative conditions that we all want to postpone or avoid.

Other preventives

There are other herbs that have good general preventive effects that don’t fit neatly into either of the categories above. Some can be classified as tonics or adaptogens and some have antioxidant properties, but they also have some specific effects on certain body systems, either as preventives or curatives. These include the herbs that I take every day—ginkgo for brain function, bilberry for eyesight, milk thistle for the liver, and garlic for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, to name a few. I’ve listed others at the right. (“Herbs for General Wellness”)

Note: The information presented here is not intended to replace that of a health-care professional. If any condition persists or worsens, seek the advice of your medical provider.

Excerpted with permission from What the labels won’t tell you (Interweave, 1998). Logan Chamberlain, Ph.D. is the president of Herb Companion Press.

Capsules

Self-heal

Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) has many common names, most attesting to its reputed curative powers. Hook-heal and sicklewort come from someone’s fanciful notion that the flower in profile resembles one of these tools. Others noted the flower’s resemblance to a mouth and throat.

The origin of the generic name, Prunella, is in dispute. It might refer to the purple flowers, but herbalists cling to the theory that it is a variant of Brunella (in German, die Bräune—“the browns”), a kind of bad sore throat that sixteenth-century German soldiers contracted while “lying in camp.” Gerard (1633) described the symptoms as including a “ruggedness, blackness, and dryness of the tongue, with a kind of swelling in the same,” along with a “continual ague and frenzy.” Today, the camp doctor would likely prescribe an antibiotic.

The tannins in self-heal that might have relieved a sore throat might also have been effective in healing wounds and sores. Gerard ranked self-heal and bugleweed (Ajuga spp.) as the two best wound herbs; both contain tannins. Taken internally, self-heal was also thought to alleviate eye inflammations and eyestrain. The American pharmacist and herbalist Ben Charles Harris recommended a decoction of self-heal to soothe the digestive tract during or following an attack of diarrhea.

Self-heal has also been traditionally used for headaches. Gerard noted, “Bruised with oil of roses and vinegar, and laid to the forepart of the head, [it] swageth and help the pain and aching thereof.” Today, the herb is known to open up peripheral circulation by expanding blood vessels and thus is used occasionally by European herbalists in treatments for mild headache. However, other peripheral vasodilators such as yarrow, hawthorn, linden, and ephedra have largely replaced self-heal.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, self-heal has been referred to as a cooling herb, useful against fevers and liver and kidney disorders and as a tonic.

Self-heal is all but unknown in modern Western medicine, perhaps because more effective remedies abound. Scientists, however, are studying possible antibiotic properties as well as the herb’s ability to lower blood pressure. They have discovered that it contains the antitumor and diuretic compound ursolic acid.

Other research has focused on self-heal’s antioxidant activity. Antioxidants have a role in slowing aging and preventing cancer, and natural antioxidants are found in many plants. A French study showed self-heal to have one of the strongest antioxidant potentials among the more than fifty mints studied.

Mullein

The leaves and flowers of mullein (Verbascum spp.) contain mucilage, which is soothing to irritated membranes, and saponins, which make coughs more productive. Tests have also shown strong anti-inflammatory activity. Leaf or flower teas have been widely used to treat chest colds, bronchitis, and asthma. English farmers had their cattle drink it to prevent respiratory problems, hence the name bullock’s lungwort. Gerard reports that a decoction of the roots in red wine was good for bloody diarrhea (“bloudy flix”), and the Iroquois used a decoction of the roots and leaves to treat the same affliction. The Creek Indians drank a decoction of the roots for coughs. Native Americans of various tribes smoked the roots or the dried leaves to treat asthma. The Potawatomi also inhaled the smoke for catarrh, and the Hopi smoked the herb to dispel “fits” and witchcraft. Whether European settlers in America learned to use mullein from the Native Americans or vice versa is open to debate; many of the medicinal uses of mullein are similar and widely known in both the Old and New World.

Topical applications have been equally numerous and varied. The Cherokee rubbed mullein leaves in their armpits to treat “prickly rash.” Poultices of the leaves have been used to treat bruises, tumors, and rheumatic pains; treacle spread on a leaf was said to cure hemorrhoids. An ointment made by boiling the leaves in lard or oil is still used to treat skin irritations and itching hemorrhoids. An old-time hemorrhoid treatment called for exposing one’s nether parts twice daily to the smoke of burning frankincense and myrrh and then covering the area with a mullein leaf until the next treatment. The flower oil (made by steeping the flowers in olive oil kept warm in the sun, near a fire, or in fresh dung) has been used for treating earaches and, again, hemorrhoids.


Reprinted from The Herb Companion, Vol. 6, #1 and Vol. 6, #6. 


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