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The Ayurvedic concept of tonic herbs is different than that of most

American and European herbal treatments. In western herbalism, the
term tonic, which implies an agent that nurtures and strengthens the
body, is usually given to cold bitter herbs like gentian or golden seal.
These are thought to increase vitality by stimulating digestion. By
increasing nutrition the herbs are thought to strengthen the body and its
organs, while at the same time giving proper tone to muscles and tissues.
This herbal action is said to increase the elimination of toxins, waste-
products, and to purify the blood. Tonic herbs are thus prescribed for
any convalescent or run-down patient.
In Ayurveda, the use of bitter herbs as tonics is not always appropriate
or helpful. Bitter taste, as indicated in our chapter on herbal energetics,
is the coldest, most drying, most depletive and reductive of tastes. It is
not tonic in the sense of being nutritivepromoting tissue growth or
building up the body Its effects are of a catabolic or reducing nature,
detoxifying, promoting the depletion or elimination of tissue, while
depressing or sedating most of the organic functions of the body.
Its proper use is more in reducing toxins and excesses, not in building-up
deficiencies. Bitter herbs are part of a purification, sedation, heat-
dispelling or reducing therapy, which usage they also share in Chinese
Ayurveda believes that bitter herbs stimulate digestion, but only in small
amounts, and mainly for patients suffering from heat, fever or high Pitta
conditions. They are not often prescribed for the chronically weak or
emaciated. Higher dosages are thought to depress digestion, weaken
assimilation and derange peristalsis.
Bitter herbs, by their nature as air and ether, dry up the tissues and vital
fluids and may cause rigidity of the muscles or even muscle spasms.
Rather than promote proper tone of muscles, organs and tissues, under
many conditions bitter herbs will reduce it.
While most western herbalism prescribes these herbs for convalescence
and debility, Ayurveda often regards them as unhelpful in such
conditions. Many cases of weakness and convalescence are Vata in
nature, conditions of chill, fluid deficiency and the wasting away of
bodily tissues. They
require a warming, moistening and nutritive therapy. Bitter herbs are
also Vata, airy in nature, and so provide nothing to rebuild the body or
increase vital fluids. It is mainly in conditions of lingering fever,
remittent or intermittent, or in the debility following a fever or high Pitta
state that they can be strengthening.
Perhaps earlier western herbalists used bitter herbs as tonics for
convalescence in patients of Pitta constitution who suffered from febrile
diseases, or had an overdose of toxins from heavy meat-eating, drinking
of alcohol and so on. Modern vegetarians, particularly those of Vata
constitution, would be weakened by over-use of bitter herbs as tonics.
Tonic herbs in Ayurveda are generally sweet, nutritive substances that
build tissue, strengthen vitality, increase vital fluids, improve sexual
energy and aid longevity. They are considered in a separate section on
tonic herbs. Bitter herbs can deplete vitality, depress sexual energy and
promote the aging-process. We refer to them in this book as bitter tonics
mainly for the sake of convenience, as they are known by this term. We
also call them antipyretics or herbs which dispel heat, fire and fever.
One could say, with some justification, that these bitter tonics are tonics
for Pitta, as they are the strongest herbs to reduce and regulate its
function. But their action should not be confused with tonics that are
nutritive and rejuvenative.
Bitter tonics are, nonetheless, very important herbal medicines.
Ayurveda and western herbalism agree that these are the strongest herbs
to bring down fevers, to cleanse the body and to kill toxins. They reduce
fever, Pitta, toxins and
fat from the body. They are the strongest herbs for clearing heat.
When the fever is due to an external pathogen and is mainly a surface
condition, like the fever due to colds or flus, it should be treated with a
diaphoretic therapy by inducing sweating to open the pores, restore
circulation and dispel the chill causing it. However, when the fever is
high, in the blood or the interior of the body, heating the liver, when
there is much thirst, sweating, inflammation or infection, usually a Pitta
condition, then these bitter tonics are more appropriate.
Bitter tonics do not merely suppress the fever. They destroy the infection
which causes it, catabolizing the pathogen. They attack and destroy the
Ama, the toxins which have entered into the tissues and caused the
fever. They are thus indicated in any fever due to Ama (which, as in
arthritis, may be owing to aggravation of Vata or Kapha). By their light
nature they destroy Ama, which is heavy.
In reducing heat, acidity and toxicity they cool and detoxify the blood;
they also possess an alterative or blood-purifying action. One could say
that they are like alteratives, but are a degree stronger in action.
They regulate liver function, and control and reduce the production of
bile and acid in the body. As such, they are indicated in most liver
diseases like hepatitis and jaundice, particularly in the initial and acute
They reduce fat and regulate sugar metabolism. In this way they also
regulate spleen functioning and may be helpful in
such conditions as diabetes. As the strongest herbs to dispel fat and
reduce weight, they have a strong anti-Kapha action.
This, along with their blood-purifying action, gives them anti-tumor
properties. They may help reduce both benign and malignant tumors, as
in cancer. As they catalyze the catabolic processes of the body they
scrape away heavy accretions and remove congestion in the body.
While being the strongest herbs to decrease Pitta, and while having a
strong reducing action on Kapha as well, they are also the strongest
herbs to aggravate Vata. If we use them in Vata-caused indigestion
(nervous indigestion, which may be thought to be hypoglycemia) they
may only induce further nervous derangements and more
Their strong destructive powers may give them antibacterial, antiviral,
anmelmintic and antiparasitical properties. Care should be taken to use
them only to the point when these pathogens are destroyed; beyond that
their destructive powers will weaken the bodys own tissues.
Typical bitter tonic and antipyretic herbs include aloe vera, American
Colombo, barberry, calumba, chaparral, gentian, golden seal, gold
thread, Peruvian bark, white poplar, and, special to India, chirata, kutki
and neem.