superior class

What are Tonic Herbs?

The Chinese herbal pharmacopoeia is divided into three categories, or class'. The first class of herbs are the Superior herbs or Tonic herbs, the second class of herbs is the Regulating class, and the third group or class, are poisonous herbs which also have a purpose, but for more advanced students in the herbal arts.

So..What are tonic herbs? 

Tonic herbs comprise a small, but elite class of the approximately 3000 herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The Class of Tonic herbs, are the Superior group of the three classes, comprising only 50 to 70 herbs.

  • Tonic herbs support long-term strength, adaptability and resilience against the susceptibility to disease.
  • Tonic herbs act to balance the bodily and mental energies. Their actions are non-specific.

The Taoist masters considered the balancing property of the tonic herbs to be superior compared to herbs that have a one directional function such as to depress or stimulate. This is because tonic herbs are bi-directional. Meaning that Tonic herbs harmonize excess and deficiency, for this reason the tonic herbs are classified differently, and thus superior compared to the medicinal single directional herbs.

Tonic herbs could be considered a class of superfoods. Many superfoods, such as chlorella, shilajit, royal jelly, spirulina and bee pollen could too, also be considered tonifying foods.

The Greek root word tonic means; “Pertaining to, maintaining, increasing, or restoring the tone or health of the body or an organ, as a medicine,” and “Invigorating physically, mentally, or morally.” Also, the Greek word tonify means “to bring frequencies and musical tones into harmony.”

These terms were used by Hippocrates (4thcentury B.C.), and appeared in the English dictionary with Paracelsus (1493-1541). 

Three criteria for a Tonic Herb:

1. It must be proven safe for long-term daily consumption, and fortify the whole constitution over time.

2. It must have a broad-spectrum beneficial action on the body. It must contain “dual-directional” energies, helping bring the total organism into balance between the forces of Yin and Yang.

3. It must benefit more than one of the Three Treasures and the five major organ systems.

Examples of Tonic Herbs

Ashwaganda, Rhodiola, Suma, Sasparilla and Gotu Kola are herbs that tonify. 

The blood building herb Dang gui (Lat. Angelica sinensis) almost meets the criteria, and is considered a semi-tonic, just like Ligusticum (Gao ben). Frittillaria is also considered part tonic, part medicinal. 

Tonic herbs are the executive branch of the Chinese health system that no school in the West has yet taught exclusively; TCM curriculum typically includes tonic herbs, but focuses on medical and curative applications of herbs and physical therapies, and not so much on the development of the subtle bodies.

A balanced and healthy diet with properly selected, clean and toxic free Tonic herbs taken daily significantly assists in maintaining hormone balance. This is why Tonic herbs, particularly the Jing herbs, are called “longevity herbs.” Many Jing herbs have “adaptogenic” properties which support our bodily functions and assist in the adaptations to daily stresses. The Tonic herbs are very nourishing for the kidney meridian, which includes the kidneys and adrenals.

Tonifying the kidney we support longevity, beauty, and vital energies of our bodies, our genetics and our fortitude. When we fortify the adrenals, we feel safer, and more grounded. This alone can assist us beginning our journey to balance by consuming Tonic Herbs regularly.