Tonic Herbs and Antioxidants

Learn which herbs are worth adding to your daily routine.

| December/January 2002

  • Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is well-known among herbalists as a liver tonic.
    Photo by Christopher Hobbs
  • Mullein (Verbascum spp.) has been used for centuries to heal a variety of ailments.
    Photo by Christopher Hobbs

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?


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.

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