Wild Medicine Solution: Tonics


hawthornTHE MODERN WORLD has its faults, certainly, but it has provided us with some amazing tools and technologies. This is evident in the dramatic cures for infection and acute trauma achieved by medical science. The drugs and procedures used to combat these age-old scourges, which in the past decimated huge numbers of us, are remarkably, almost miraculously, effective.

At the same time, however, we are struggling with new sources of morbidity and mortality. No longer is infection the leading cause of disease and death. Now we have chronic inflammation, hypersensitivity, cancer and heart disease staring us down in our later years. Tonic plants, with their complex combinations of saponins, polysaccharides and polyphenols, offer a potential solution through their ability to modulate immune function and genetic expression.

Tonics come to us unadulterated from the ecosystem. At very deep levels, they seem to be a necessary part of our xenobiome, the comprehensive chemical environment mostly made of plants, in which the liver evolved. Their use impacts conditions of weakness, deficient energy and immunity, and dementia, as well as cancer, inflammatory heart disease, allergies, and asthma. But they are much milder than pharmaceutical drugs.

If we are to influence the new diseases of the modern world, we will need to approach them with a slightly different mindset; these diseases don’t respond well to the strong, direct treatments used for acute conditions.

In the face of altered diets, increased stress, novel chemicals and a much faster pace of life (as well as a longer life span), we would be foolish to think that a single drug targeting a single receptor site might be able to reverse the years of cultural and ecological effects on an individual human being. Tonics are complex medicines well suited to interacting with our complex physiologies.

It’s impossible to overwhelm a chanting crowd by screaming your message by yourself, but get some friends to whisper an interesting thought to their neighbors and the idea might become viral, spreading from person to person, until the chant changes. Medicine is beginning to realize this. Physicians are trying “polypills” for cardiovascular disease in the hopes that intervention at multiple levels might be more effective.

Yet, nature has been handing us much more complex and multilayered polypills all along: herbal tonics. Their effectiveness against the modern, chronic diseases is beyond dispute, especially when treatment is started early on. In fact, it is very possible some diseases exist, or are more widespread than they should be, because of an absence of these vital plants.

Hawthorn’s tonic activity is all about the heart. It opens circulation, reliably decreasing blood pressure, but it opens the heart in other ways, too. When used over time even posture changes, shoulders roll back, the forehead lifts, and one can almost see a radiance emanating from the solar plexus. Sure, this “energetic” effect is difficult to objectively capture or assess. But you might be surprised how connected our emotional hearts are to the physical muscle in our chests. Our autonomic nervous systems and our hearts are really part of the same organ system. So many times I’ve seen people, myself included, respond to hawthorn not only with a lower blood pressure and steadier heartbeat but also with a softer, more tolerant, emotional connection to the world.

Hawthorn’s cardiovascular benefits are not limited to controlling blood pressure. In fact, the berry, in extract form, strengthens the contractions of an aging and failing heart. It reduces symptoms of chest pain, shortness of breath, and fatigue that come from a weak cardiovascular system or from poor circulation — in people of all ages. And it does so extremely safely, because, as with most tonics, it’s basically just food. And while exotic fruits such as goji and acai are all the rage these days, I usually recommend you save your money and focus on hawthorn and blueberries instead: they are as rich in flavonoids and as effective as any expensive tonic from far-flung corners of the globe.

The best way to prepare the berries as an ongoing heart tonic is to cook them into a thick, rich, unsweetened jam. I like to use fresh berries, but if you have none you can rehydrate dry ones by soaking them in barely enough water to cover them and leaving them overnight.

Take the berries and cook them in a steel pot over low heat, stirring and mashing them in the process (a fork works fine for this). After an hour or so you will have a rich, reddish orange mass interspersed with the hard seeds. At this point pass the pulp through a vegetable mill — the old kind with the hand-crank handle that goes around in circles. This separates the seeds, which can be discarded.

If you’re familiar with canning, you can reheat the hawthorn pulp and preserve it that way. Alternatively you can simply fill eight-ounce jars about three-quarters of the way and simply freeze your jam. Take about two tablespoons of this medicinal treat daily as is — spread on toast, mixed in oatmeal, or however suits your fancy. A most delectable way to take your medicine!

Safe, foodlike, highly effective when used habitually, and often quite tasty, these red fruits embody all the best qualities of a tonic. Though their effects are most pronounced on the heart, pharmacological research shows that they can substantially affect inflammatory balance and epigenetics as well, which may be part of why they are so helpful to the cardiovascular system.

It continues to puzzle me why their use is not more widespread in the modern health care system. Perhaps it has become hard for us to trust that medicine might be found, already perfectly complete, hanging off a scraggly, thorny tree on the edge of a weedy farm field. Are we really trying to say that there can be no good remedy without human tinkering? Or have we become afraid of that which is unhybridized and uncontrolled?

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Guido Masé
Guido Masé is a clinical herbalist, herbal educator, and garden steward. The cofounder and codirector of the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism, he is a professional member of the American Herbalists Guild, the American Botanical Council, and United Plant Savers. He lives in South Burlington, Vermont.


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