A recent conversation with some friends in natural animal care led to a deeper discussion of the idea of tonic herbs, and to questions and thoughts on just what makes an herb tonic, and what that means in practical use. The discussion was about pet care, but it’s a relevant one to all herbalism, and especially in the context of Western herbalism, where it can seem this distinction is not as well understood as in Eastern systems.
My observation in that discussion was that there seems to be a perception that if an herb affects an organ, it is a tonic for that organ. This conflation is sometimes actively promoted, and sometimes just not clearly enough explained, but either way, it leads to confusion. Reading websites and educational materials put out by herbalists and herbal product companies often doesn’t help, and leaves the non-herbalist confused about what to use for a short-term condition, a long-term illness, or as a proactive support when there is no illness; not to mention being confused about why there would even be a difference in those three situations.
In Eastern systems, such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, this distinction is very well understood. There are probably many cultural reasons, as well as differences in the herbs available in each region served by these healing systems, but in Western herbalism, we do have herbs that act in distinct ways along these same divisions, and we are certainly part of a system sophisticated enough to deal with this difference intelligently!
So, what is the difference between a tonic and a specific, speaking philosophically?
In TCM, the view is that specific herbs are ones with narrow uses, carrying one direction of action, on just one or a couple of organs or organ systems. Tonic herbs are broad, non-specific, and multi-directional, and affect many organs, systems, and functions. This seems like a useful definition, and one we can apply to plants on our side of the globe.
In modern Western conventional medicine, drugs are favoured which act as specifics, in predictable, traceable ways, the same way every time, and on just one facet of the body. Drugs which are too broad in effect to tie to a specific set of symptoms or a particular illness usually don’t make it past the research stage, since they will be too difficult to prescribe within the governing paradigm. This is the attitude pervading herbalism in our culture, as well, bringing with it pharmacy’s emphasis on “active constituents” and the isolation of simple chemical molecules. There are many reasons for this, ranging from simple philosophical inertia to more nefarious motives such as greed and paternalism.
As Andrew Weil pointed out in a documentary I watched some time back, a TCM practitioner would consider these types of drugs and herbs the least useful in his toolkit, and think us foolish to build our medical system around them, while discarding more versatile plants as too unpredictable.
We may be grappling with this upside-down mindset in our current culture of healing, but it is not the basis for Western herbal medicine, and it doesn’t have to be the reference point for what we do as healers today.
Talking this over here, we believe that the problem is the propagation of this approach in how herbalism is taught, especially by the bigger naturopathic schools, who are increasingly tied to the pharmaceutical supplement companies. Any system will become self-replicating and self-reinforcing as its power grows, but that snowballing effect may not have even a kernel of truth at its core. Mass-market herbalism is headed in a certain philosophical direction, but that doesn’t mean we started with that mindset, or that we must be slaves to it now.
In our Paracelsian system, for example, the Hermetic connection between the planetary energies and our organs and their actions can be seen as one type of broad, holistic view connecting many small pieces of information into wholes which show the full complexity of living beings.
We can use this system to understand herbs in both broad and narrow ways, and value those which have complex action because we understand that they support larger and more comprehensive healing goals than a single organ or metabolic action. This is because, if we step back and away from being mired in tiny molecules and separate functions, and look at the archetypal energies behind seemingly disconnected things, we see a larger connection between them, governing them as one, at the level of cause, which is also the level of the tonic.
This is not to say that specific, directed and pointed herbal action is never useful- it is called for in many healing situations. But recovering from those situations, or even better, avoiding them entirely, is the realm of tonic herbalism, brought to us by these “unpredictable” plants which are actually quite intelligent and useful, once we get to know them.
In the next installment, we will discuss more about the differences in action between tonics and specifics, what kinds of cases each one is best used for, and how to understand some individual herbs from this perspective, supported by the knowledge from our Paracelsian heritage of healing.