History of Tonic Medicine
Since the beginning of time, men and women have combed field and forest for medicines that increase vitality and prevent disease. Through trial and error, herbal remedies were identified that supported the body’s innate healing mechanisms. Over thousands of years, these remedies became more sophisticated. All ancient texts that describe drugs as being vitality stimulants, anti?infectives, anti?toxins, aphrodisiacs, and wound healing agents are recognizing drugs that have the ability to raise vitality and promote health. Indeed, traditional medical systems are filled with tonic and herbal remedies reported to increase vitality. Moreover, botanical drugs thus described are likely subjects for the discovery of vitality stimulating medicines. Current scientific research suggests that remedies from traditional pharmacies often have the described effect. For example, Glycyrrhiza glabra, long used to reduce inflammation, has been shown to have an anti?inflammatory effect. Gingko biloba, said to improve memory, has been shown to improve signs and symptoms of senility and Alzheimer’s disease. Echinacea angustifolia, traditionally used to fight infections, has been shown to have an immune system stimulatory effect. The fact that cultures around the world use members of the daisy family (Compositae) to fight infection strongly suggests that traditional medical wisdom recognizes its ability to fight infection. In fact, daisy family members like Echinacea angustifolia, Achillea millefolium, Taraxacum officinale, and Eupatorium perfolatum do have an anti?infection activity. A review of ancient and traditional medical remedies that have the ability to increase vitality reveals certain general themes; tonic medicine was used to ward off disease and infection, counteract environmental stress, remedy poisoning, and support the effects of ageing. Ancient people knew that when vitality sagged, the individual was vulnerable to disease. Remedies were collected and used to stabilize a child failing to thrive (Crispus chondrus in the European tradition), to bolster a woman having had a difficult and complicated childbirth (Panax ginseng in the Chinese tradition), and to boost the energy of the elderly (Withania somnifera in the Aurvedic tradition). Botanical drugs were also used to bolster the body when epidemics threatened communities. Strong vitality was an insurance policy against catching contagious disease. Indeed, many types of liquor still popular today date from the period of the Black Plague in Europe. Angelica (Angelica archangelica), reportedly given to humanity by the angels, was brewed into various liquors at monasteries around Europe to prevent the spread of the plague. Gin (Juniperus communis) was a tonic remedy carried to the Colonies by British colonials to prevent tropical infections like malaria. Ancient people were aware that environmental stressors could leave people vulnerable to disease. Remedies were selected to raise vitality when the individual’s health would otherwise be compromised by extremes. They knew that long exposure to the cold, high altitudes, and excessively hot temperatures had a debilitating effect. They used garlic (Allium sativum) to reduce the effects of altitude sickness, watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) to reduce body temperature when heat drove it to dangerous levels, and lemon (Citrus limon) to combat the hardships of those on sea going vessels. Ancient people also feared loss of vitality through poisons. In fact, the destruction of health through poisons is nothing new. Today people are concerned with low level poisoning delivered through food (preservatives, additives), air (fossil fuel pollution, insecticides, etc.), and water (fluoride, heavy metals). In ancient times, leaders feared poisoning from political opponents. Mithridates Treacle was a potion specifically brewed from a collection of drugs to protect political leaders from poisoning. In Gerard’s Herbal, a well?respected English text, Gerard recommends Lemon (Citrus limon) to protect stepchildren from slow poisoning by stepmothers. Botanical drugs were also used to diminish the effect of poisonous bites (scorpions, snakes, and spiders), poisonous water, and even poisonous air. Traditional medical systems were also cognizant that stress, age, and disease caused a reduction in libido and fertility. Old medical texts are filled with references to drugs that stimulate vitality to the point the consumer’s libido is increased. For example the Chinese speak of Epimedium grandiflorum, the Indians of Withania somnifera, the Arabians of Foeniculum foenum?graecum, the North American Indians of Serrenoa repens, and the South Americans of Turnera aphrodisiaca. A brief review of ancient and old world traditional medical systems confirms that herbal medicine centred on the concept of vitality. Indeed, herbal medicines passed down from old European traditions are derived from ancient Indian, Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Jewish texts.
There are two traditions of medicine in India. The first is Rig?Veda, compiled between the years 4,500 BC and 1,600 BC, and the second is Ayurveda, compiled between 2,500 BC and 600 BC. Two physicians are credited for putting Indian medicine in writing. Charaka, the first physician, left a list of 50 plant groups, each group containing 10 plants, that he thought was sufficient for the average doctor to practice medicine. Sushrata, the second physician, felt the minimum number to effectively practice medicine was 760 drugs, which he arranged into 37 sub?groups. (1) Tonic medicines are used singly or in combinations that are often complex formulae prepared in complex manners. Ayurvedic medicine has four basic components: personal hygiene (daily routines including bathing, exercising, meals, and sleep), rejuvenation (the use of drugs to increase immunity, resistance, improve mental function, and increase vitality), virility enhancement (the use of aphrodisiacs), and the practice of yoga. (6) Drugs used to rejuvenate or enhance virility are Agada (antidotes to poison), Rasayana (medicines which promote health and longevity), and Vajiaruna (aphrodisiacs). (7) Disease prevention is a central focus in Ayurvedic medicine. Prominent Ayurvedic drugs used to prevent disease include Allium sativum, Asparagus racemosus, Balsomodendron mukul, Bassia latifolia, Batatas paniculatus, Berberis asiatica, Cinnamomum camphor, Curcuma longa, Cyperus rotundus, Embelia ribes, Ferula asafoetida, Hydrocotyle asiatica, Lepidum sativum, Mucuna pruriens, Nigella sativa, Ocimum sanctum, Piper longum, Piper nigrum, Rhus succedanea, Sacharum officinarum, Sesamum indicum, Sida cordifolia, Tamarindus indica, Terminalia chebula, Tinospora cordifolia, Tribulis terrestris, Trichosanthus dioica,Trigonella sativa, Wedelia calendulacea, Withania somnifera, and Zingiber officinale. (8)
Dating to 3,100 BC, the Egyptian dynasties were sophisticated enough to build pyramids that still stand today. Not surprisingly, they were also learned in the subjects of agriculture, medicine, and pharmacy. Records suggest herbal medicines were a part of their wellness regimes. The Ebers papyrus, written around 1500 BC, contains medical information, plants, and prescriptions. Vitality medicines found listed in this document include Ficus carica, Ricinus communis, Commiphora molmol, Artemisia vulgaris, Aloe socotrina, Gentiana lutea, Cuminum cyminum, Mentha piperita, Foeniculum vulgare, Crocus sativus, Junperus communis, Vitis vinifera, Allium sativum, and Phoenix dactylifera. (2)
An ancient library discovered at Ashurbanipal contained clay tablets with information on the medicinal plants used by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The tablets are dated to 650 BC and contain a very similar list of plants as those used by the Egyptians. The Assyrian and Babylonian doctors may have learned from the Egyptians and kept the knowledge going as the Egyptian Empire was disappearing. (4)
The first evidence of a Chinese medical system appears during the Shang Empire that ruled between the 18th and 11th century BC. Artefacts and the written records of the Chou Dynasty (1050 BC? 256 BC) have been used to piece together a notion of medical practices of this earliest period. (9) However, the first major medical work still in existence today is the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic (Huang Di Nei Jing). Compiled between 200 and 100 BC, the book represents the philosophical and practical basis of what is known as Traditional Chinese Medicine. A second significant work is the Divine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica (Shen Nong Ben Coa Jing) produced during the later Han dynasty (25?220 AD.) This book gives attention to specific drugs, many used for tonic purposes that remain the mainstay of Chinese medicine. (3, 10) Indeed from the earliest times, Chinese medicine used drugs to improve health and prevent departure into disease. Their traditional medical system is so sophisticated that tonics are broken down into subgroups that tonify specific aspects of the body – the Yin, the Yang, the Chi, the blood, etc. For example, drugs that tonify the Chi include Astragalus membranaceus, Codonopsis pilosula, Glycyrrhiza uralensis, Pseudostellaria heterophylla and Ziziphus jujube. (11) Drugs that tonify the bloodinclude Lycium chinense, Mori alba, Polygonum multiflorum and Rhemannia glutinosa. (12) that tonify the Yin include Glehnia littoralis and Momordica grosvenori (14) and those that tonify ang include Juglans regia, Alpinia oxyphylla and Cibotium barometz (13).