7 Super Herbal Tonics

From the Cutting Edge

...to Keep Disease at Bay
"What's on the cutting edge of herbal medicine?" Prevention asked one of Europe's leading medicinal herbalists. His surprising answer: "Good old-fashioned tonics-herbal remedies you can take for weeks, months, even years to prevent diseases as varied as colds and cancer."

I run a clinic and research facility in London, where I prescribe disease-preventing tonic herbs for many of my patients. For more than 10 years, I've researched, prescribed, and personally used tonics.

A century ago, taking tonics was as common as popping aspirin is today. Despite its popularity, though, tonic use died out. Why? Because the more cures medical science developed, the more people turned away from using tonic plants to prevent disease. Why bother growing and brewing echinacea to keep the kids sore-throat-free when you could run to the doctor and get an antibiotic? Tonics were abandoned for less time-consuming options.

But tonics are coming back into vogue. You may even be taking one. Ginseng, for example, has been used for thousands of years to improve endurance and enhance performance-and today, an NBA basketball star hawks it on US television. If you're like many people, you may take Ginkgo biloba on a daily basis to sharpen your smarts, boost your memory, and possibly prevent Alzheimer's. And while you're probably not making your own cold-stopping echinacea tonic anymore, chances are you've popped an echinacea tablet once or twice at the first sign of a scratchy throat or sniffle.

Some of these tonics are lifesavers-they may help you stave off or subdue killer diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Others just make life worth living-reducing menopausal symptoms or cutting short a cold that lays you up. What follows is based on scientific research, my own clinical experience, and that of my colleagues-as well as the feedback I get from our patients.

Note: If you have a serious condition, such as heart disease, cancer, or asthma, or if you suffer from allergies, see your doctor before using herbal remedies. Never stop taking your prescribed medication or substitute herbs for prescription meds unless your doctor says it's okay.
Seven Top Tonic Herbs

Though herbalists use dozens of tonic plants to prevent and treat a wide variety of conditions, I've chosen to introduce you to just seven great herbs that target some of the most common health problems. You can find these herbs at local health food stores or through mail-order sources (see "Mail-Order Herbs" below).

The Heart Tonic Hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacanthoides)

What I recommend it for: lowering blood pressure, preventing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), and helping other circulatory problems such as varicose veins

Use hawthorn, and you just may beat the odds against heart disease, our number one killer. In Europe, hawthorn is considered a mainstream medicinal for strengthening the heart and blood vessels. I've used it successfully to lower blood pressure, ease angina, speed recovery from heart attacks or strokes, and prevent subsequent heart attacks and strokes.

What science says: Hawthorn can reduce blood pressure, a known risk factor for heart disease. It contains the antioxidant hyperin, which mops up free radicals, reactive agents that can damage the blood vessels and lead to atherosclerosis.

In addition, hawthorn contains rutin, which reduces plaque formation. As plaque deposits develop, they eventually block blood flow, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Who should consider it-and why: If there's heart disease in your family, you may want to consider taking hawthorn now and using it every day. It may strengthen your cardiac system and make it more disease-resistant. In my experience, people with heart disease are greatly helped by hawthorn as well. I've seen blood pressure go down, angina ease, shortness of breath and ankle swelling improve, and an overall improvement in heart health and blood flow when people use this herb. Of course, always talk to your doctor before taking an herb for a serious condition.

Varicose veins, hemorrhoids, and leg ulcers may also be improved with regular hawthorn use.

How to use it: Tea: Boil 1 tablespoon of dried berries in 1 cup water for 10 minutes. Drink 1 cup a day. Tablets: 300 mg daily. Tincture: 1 tablespoon daily.

The Respiratory Tonic

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

What I recommend it for: fighting bacteria and viruses, and lessening symptoms of asthma and allergies

Whether the problem was asthma, chronic sinus infections, chronic bronchitis, allergies, or a tendency to coughs and colds, licorice was the first choice of the ancient herbalist-and it remains so for many herbalists today.

What science says: Licorice contains a wild cocktail of compounds that make the respiratory tract function better. Among them, glycyrrhetic acid, glycyrrhizic acid, and glycyrrhizin have been proven to reduce inflammation, fight viruses and bacteria, and counteract the symptoms of allergies and asthma, the latter of which can be life threatening. (Deaths caused by asthma have risen 117% in the last 20 years.) Licorice stimulates the part of the immune system responsible for attacking viruses.

Who should consider it-and why: In my experience, licorice can lower the frequency of colds, lessen asthma's severity, and reduce allergic reactions. If you have allergies, I suggest using licorice a month in advance of your personal hay fever season.

I believe that using licorice may even help prevent or lessen the severity of asthma attacks.

Caution: Licorice is not recommended for long-term use, especially for people with high blood pressure, as it has been known to raise blood pressure when used for long periods.

How to use it: Tea: Simmer a heaping tablespoon (about 4 g) of root, sliced or powdered, in boiling water for 10 minutes. Strain and drink hot daily. To save time, make 3 cups at once and reheat later in the microwave. Tincture: 1 tablespoon daily.

The Immune-Boosting Tonic

Maitake (Grifola frondosa)

What I recommend it for: stimulating the immune system to fight bacteria, viruses, and cancer; preventing stress-induced flare-ups of hepatitis and herpes

Maitake is a mushroom-producing fungus found in North America, Europe, and Asia; Japan is the world's leading producer.

The health benefits of maitake were substantiated in cancer research in the early '80s when scientists learned that its ability to inhibit cancer in animals was due to a powerful stimulation of the immune system.

What science says: Research in both animals and humans suggests that maitake stimulates the white blood cells responsible for killing bacteria, viruses, fungi, and cancer cells.

Maitake seems to fortify immune system helpers known as interferon and interleukin, and it contains substances that directly inhibit bacteria and viruses.

In a trial I'm currently supervising, 30 men with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, have been using maitake for eight months. These patients have experienced increases in T-cell counts (an important disease-fighting cell), decreases in viral activity, and a reduction of the symptoms associated with the infection, such as night sweats, weight loss, and diarrhea. Many of the participants have gained weight and returned to work.

Who should consider it-and why: If you suffer from chronic tonsillitis, sinusitis, chronic urinary tract infections, or any recurring bacterial or viral infections, maitake may help keep these infections from recurring.

Anticipate a stressful stretch? Think about taking maitake now. It may prevent problems-such as colds and other illnesses that strike when your defenses are down-if you take it regularly and well in advance of a difficult time. People with viral infections such as hepatitis, herpes, and warts often have a recurrence when they're under stress and their immune function is depressed. I recommend maitake to help people reduce the frequency of their symptoms.

How to use it: As a preventive, I recommend 2 g of maitake per day. I suggest taking 4 to 6 g a day when you're sick.

The Energy Tonic

Oats (Avena sativa)

What I recommend them for: restoring energy, reducing fatigue, improving thinking ability, speeding recovery from chronic illness or surgery, and boosting sex drive

Feeling constantly sapped? Got so much to do that you're frequently feeling the tingle of anxiety? Along with many other herbalists, I believe oats are the stamina tonic of choice.

What science says: Here's a case where science says very little, but centuries of herbal experience speak volumes. How oats work remains a mystery. However, ginseng is a well-known endurance tonic, and its active ingredients are derived from a group of compounds called ginsenosides. Oats contain avenacosides, which are chemically similar enough to ginsenosides to suggest that they may be a fatigue-fighting component.

Indeed, one avenacoside (avenin) has been shown to work as a neuromuscular stimulant, which theoretically could enhance endurance.

Who should consider them-and why: I've found that oats seem to give busy people enough mental and physical energy to get them through their day. Afternoon fatigue tends to lessen, and clarity of thought tends to increase when people eat their oats.

In my opinion, oats are especially helpful for people recovering from surgery, serious disease, or viral infection, or suffering from the fatigue associated with chronic disease. And in a world where patients are sometimes discharged from the hospital before the anesthesia has completely worn off, oats can make an excellent energy-building food for convalescents.

Finally, oats may be an excellent sex tonic, especially for people whose hectic lives leave their libidos limp. Oats give both men and women a boost in sexual desire and satisfaction.

How to use them: Eat 1 cup of dry oats daily, made into 2 cups of oatmeal or even cookies! Or, use oat tincture made from the whole flowering plant (sometimes called "milky oats"). Tincture: 1 teaspoon morning and night.

The Healthy Skin Tonic

Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium)

What I recommend it for: improving skin symptoms and the underlying diseases that cause them

Psoriasis, eczema, and acne: These three chronic skin diseases aren't life threatening, but they can certainly impair the quality of your life. Of course, there are medical treatments for skin problems-steroid creams quell eczema and antibiotics quiet acne-but when the medication stops, the problem often recurs.

Herbalists prefer to address the problem that lies beneath the skin condition rather than the symptom. And that problem is usually more than cosmetic. We believe it's often a sign of weakened immunity. Here's an herb that I believe targets the root of the problem.

What science says: This medicinal root is made active by two alkaloids, berbamine and berberine. Berbamine is an antihistamine with antibacterial action. It may stimulate the immune system and liver function. Berberine has been shown to be anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, anti-ulcer, and effective against dandruff.

Who should consider it-and why: Many chronic skin diseases are auto-immune in origin, meaning that the immune system is attacking the body; often, several different problems can arise at once. When I consult patients with eczema and psoriasis, I often find that they're also troubled by chronic respiratory disorders, digestive disturbances, or joint problems. I believe that in these cases, Oregon grape is an ideal tonic. It can improve the skin problem as well as the associated respiratory, digestive, or joint problems.

Women prone to gallstones often have poor skin. In my experience, Oregon grape can reduce both their tendency to gallstones and its associated skin conditions. It may also improve skin problems associated with weak digestion, difficulty digesting fatty foods, and constipation-as well as the digestive problems themselves.

I've seen chronic skin conditions simply disappear when Oregon grape was used for prolonged periods of time. It may take a year or more for the condition to clear, though improvement may occur after three to six months.

How to use it: Tea: Add 1 tablespoon of dried root to 1 cup boiling water. Boil for 10 minutes, strain, and drink in the morning. To improve the flavor, add a handful of chamomile, which is also excellent for the skin and makes this skin tonic even more potent. Tincture: 1 tablespoon daily.

The Tonic for Women

Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)

What I recommend it for: alleviating premenstrual symptoms, irregular periods, and menopausal symptoms This American native plant was beloved by Native Americans, who used it to treat infertility, irregular menstruation, and menopausal symptoms.

What science says: A double-blind study of 80 patients compared black cohosh to conjugated estrogens (0.625 mg daily) and a placebo (sugar pill) over a 12 week period for their effects on menopausal symptoms. Black cohosh was the superior treatment for easing hot flashes, headache, joint pain, heart palpitations, sleep disturbances, and depression. In another trial, black cohosh beat a placebo for relieving hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Germany's Commission E considers black cohosh effective for treating PMS and painful periods, as well as nervous conditions associated with menopause.

Who should consider it-and why: I recommend this herb for women of all ages: those who have painful periods and those troubled by menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes. Women who suffer terrible emotional ups and downs in connection with menstruation tell me that black cohosh is a lifesaver. I also use it successfully for women who experience PMS-related problems such as depression, nervousness, and irritability.

At menopause, black cohosh can ease many of the symptoms without the side effects some women experience with hormone replacement therapy (HRT). And, unlike HRT, black cohosh is not associated with increased risk of breast or endometrial cancer.

How to use it: Tea: 1 tablespoon of dried root, covered with boiling water. Steep, covered, for about 10 minutes. Capsule: 40 mg a day. Tincture: 1 teaspoon a day.

The Man's Tonic

Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens)

What I recommend it for: preventing changes in the prostate that can lead to impotence and urinary problems

Male "menopause" is subtler, slower, and far less noticeable than its feminine counterpart. As testosterone levels drop, muscle tone lessens and sexual drive wanes. The physical changes associated with reduced hormone levels may include prostate swelling, also known as benign pros-tatic hyperplasia, which results in frequent bathroom visits and difficulty emptying the bladder completely.

Here's the good news: I find that saw palmetto can slow the development of these symptoms.

What science says: The body manufactures testosterone and the enzymes that break it down at the same time. Compounds found in saw palmetto destroy those enzymes. The net result is that the testosterone produced by the body stays in circulation longer.

In clinical trials, saw palmetto improved the symptoms of reduced testosterone levels, such as prostate swelling. Saw palmetto also supports joints and muscles, which may help active men stay active well into their golden years.

Who should consider it-and why: In my experience, when men start using saw palmetto in their 40s, their prostates don't swell and their libidos don't drop. I encourage older men with prostate problems to use the herb to correct existing problems and stave off the possibility of surgery.

How to use it: Works best in tablet or capsule form. I suggest taking six 250 mg tablets of saw palmetto daily. Look for products standardized to contain 85 to 95% fatty acids and sterols.
Mail-Order Herbs

Blessed Herbs: 109 Barre Plains Road
Oakham, MA 01068 / 800-489-4372

Maitake Products, Inc.: 222 Bergen Turnpike
Ridgefield Park, NJ 07660
800-747-7418 / www.maitake.com

PHOTO (COLOR): Hawthorn may lower blood pressure.

PHOTO (COLOR): Licorice may battle viruses and bacteria.

PHOTO (COLOR): Oats may help you fight fatigue.

PHOTO (COLOR): Oregon grape may heal illnesses that affect skin.

PHOTO (COLOR): Black cohosh relieves menopausal symptoms.



By Douglas Schar, DipPhyt, MCPP


is a London-based herbalist specializing in disease-preventing herbal medicines. He has a Diploma in Phytotherapy, which is an herbal medical degree, and is a Member of the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy. He is editor of the British Journal of Phytotherapy, Europe's oldest journal of herbal medicine, and has written several books, including Thirty Plants That Can Save Your Life (Elliott & Clark, 1993).

Dr. Schar has more than a decade's worth of experience prescribing and using tonics, and he's agreed to share those experiences, plus his medical knowledge, with us. For more info on herbs, see Dr. Schar's Web site: www.theherbalists.com.

PHOTO (COLOR): Douglas Schar, DipPhyt, MCPP


I saw a 35 year old doctor whose hectic schedule reduced his resistance to infectious disease. He seemed to catch one viral infection after another from his patients. He started taking maitake, and after a month or so, his resistance seemed to improve. He's been taking it for a year now and has been totally bug-free.


After working with a particularly nasty group of chemicals, a 55 year old chemist developed chronic respiratory complaints. She was plagued by hay fever, allergies, long-lasting colds, and a bout of sinusitis. I prescribed licorice. After three months, she realized she wasn't picking up every cough and cold that floated around the office-and when spring rolled around nine months later, her allergies were a fraction of what they'd been before.


A 27 year old woman consulted me about the chronic eczema she'd had since college. Her hands and arms were so badly affected that it made her self-conscious; it cast a shadow over her job and romantic prospects. She began taking Oregon grape, and in time, her condition improved to the extent that she no longer considers herself an eczema sufferer. But it took time: During the first three months the change was barely noticeable; but nine months later, the eczema was barely noticeable.

Lawyer Tries Black Cohosh

One of my patients, a young workaholic lawyer, began having irregular periods and symptoms of PMS. Her erratic cycle made her anxious, her anxiety began affecting her work, and she felt tired and drained. After a few months of treatment with black cohosh, her cycle regulated, her energy level improved, and she was better able to cope with her workload.

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