Feeling lethargic lately? Tired when you get up and exhausted by the time you get home at night? Or are you just plain low on energy? People used to call this spring fever, and there was a simple cure for it: a spring tonic. In Europe, at one time it was the custom for every member of the family to take a spring “cure” for a couple of weeks each year. In fact, herbs have been used for spring cleansing for centuries by people all over the world.
Today we call this detoxification. Modern investigation of some of the traditional spring tonics reveals valid reasons for their effectiveness. But why would a healthy person need detoxification? By the end of winter, the body’s natural mechanisms for self-cleansing have simply become sluggish. We tend to accumulate more of the wastes of normal metabolism over the winter period. Less outdoor exercise and work in buildings with stale air means less oxygen for our tissues. This leads to the build-up of carbon dioxide and other waste metabolites such as uric acid.
We’re also forced to rely on imported fruits and vegetables that have been picked long before ripening and stored for considerable periods during transit.
Traditional spring tonics were not just bowel cleansers. (In fact, herbal laxatives such as senna pods and cascara can be irritating for the intestinal tract and eventually they become habit-forming like any other laxative.) Real cleansing must encompass all systems of the body: the liver and kidneys, the skin and lymphatic system, and the cells in deep tissues, not just the bowels. Even the respiratory tract needs attention because it often endures long-term congestion as a result of modern pollution. Chronic mucus or catarrh is an indicator that stale air or poor diet has predisposed this system to the vulnerability of infection.
If you know even a little about herbal medicine you are probably aware that there are many “depurative” and “alterative” plants with cleansing properties. The question is where to start. For example, if you began with burdock (Arctium lappa) you could easily make things worse by pulling toxins out of the tissues and dumping them in the bloodstream. That’s why it is better to begin with cleansing remedies that support and restore the organs of elimination so that wastes can be transported right out of the body.
Now let’s look at some of the famous spring cleansing remedies that have been used in the past and discover why they are still effective. It is no accident that the herbs traditionally used for spring tonics are either roots or plants that begin vigorous growth with all their constituents intact very early in the season.
One of the first plants to appear in spring is the dandelion. This is really a remarkable cure because it has the ability to extract toxins – even heavy metals – from the tissues and is at the same time an ideal remedy for restoration and support of the liver itself. That’s why skin problems (a sure indicator of toxicity) always respond favorably to dandelion root. Dandelion root is even used to treat jaundice and hepatitis as well as gall bladder problems.
How does it work? The liver restoration process is accomplished by stimulating production of bile which then flushes through the liver cells triggering natural decongestion and self-restoration.
Modern studies indicate that dandelion root has an effect on the body’s ability to eliminate cancer cells. Some investigations show possible anti-tumour and immunostimulant activity as well as antioxidant and hepatoprotective actions. But one of the most interesting studies shows that part of dandelion’s spring tonic effect is due to the fact that it “stimulates respiratory function at the cellular level.” What an elegant way to increase energy!
As soon as the ground thaws, before the flowers appear, you can dig the roots from any unused land that has not been sprayed. Or you can gather them in autumn after the flowers and leaves have died down. Dandelion root is also commonly available in dried form in health food stores.
A gentle cleansing can be accomplished by simmering a decoction of 2-8 grams of the root (dried or fresh) per cup of boiling water for 10 minutes. A cup of this can be taken three times a day. Alternatively, eat the fresh root in salads. A piece 2-3 inches long is sufficient. I have never seen anyone who was allergic to dandelion, although that is always a possibility with any of the herbs mentioned here. But if you are diabetic, you should carefully monitor your blood sugar levels while taking it since it lowers blood sugar. And you shouldn’t use any of the bitter remedies if you have gastritis. A spring “cure” would be continued for two or three weeks.
The leaves of dandelion are also used in salads as a spring cure, and they act as a drainer for the kidneys and urinary tract. They contain most of the nutrients of the root but also potassium (more than any other plant), chlorophyll, and the powerful energy of the plant’s first growth. You can eat them as soon as they appear and continue until the flowers come out. The leaves are also available in supermarkets and taste delicious along with other salad vegetables. Remember, however, that the French name for this plant is “Pis-en-lit” (piss in the bed) and the diuretic effect of the leaves is equivalent to that of thiazide diuretics, except that dandelion leaves have the advantage of adding potassium to the body rather than depleting it. So if you are taking diuretics, you will want to monitor the effect of this activity very carefully.
Chicory root (Cichorium intybus) is another gentle cleanser that adds minerals and vitamins to the system. It contains calcium, magnesium, and vitamins B and C. The root should be simmered for five minutes and then steeped for a further 15 minutes. Fifteen to 30 grams per litre of water are used and you can drink one cup before meals (and if you are constipated, two cups in the morning). Chicory is an important liver and spleen decongestant, and a gentle laxative. A two-week course of treatment should be sufficient. Belgian endive is a modern descendant of wild chicory with the same (but weaker) medicinal properties, and it can be used in salads with olives.
White horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is a stimulant for the liver, a tonic depurative, as well as an important cleanser for the lungs. It has been used to treat tuberculosis and typhoid. The tea is made in the same way as for nettles, and three cups a day can be taken during the period of a two-week cleanse. Although it is sometimes thought of as a cardio-tonic, excessive use of this herb is best avoided if you have a heart problem.
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is one of the earliest plants to resume growth each spring. At one time the young leaves were chopped fine and added to salads as a revitalizing spring remedy. But they are more often used as a herbal tea which provides gentle cleansing for the skin and the liver. Nettles not only extract toxins from the body but at the same time provide remineralization and vitamins: iron, silica, calcium, and vitamin A are abundant. There is also a kidney drainage function to this plant which removes uric acid and is used for nephritis.
You can make the tea by pouring boiling water over a few fresh leafy stalks (using gloves to handle them) or the dried leaves. Use one teaspoon per cup of boiling water. Nettles can be steeped overnight to make a stronger infusion and three cups can be drunk each day for two weeks.
Another important French spring tonic was couch grass (Triticum repens). A tea made from couch grass roots is not unpleasant to taste. It was used for centuries in French hospitals as the classic drink given to patients. And it is still recognized as an effective kidney and liver drainer. A good handful of the chopped fresh or dried roots should be simmered in half a litre of water for 20 minutes and allowed to steep for another 10.
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) improves digestion and assimilation and is a disinfectant for the entire respiratory tract. It also works as a lymphatic cleanser. The fresh root is often available in supermarkets. When cutting or grating it, do not allow the fumes to come near your eyes because they can damage them. A small slice (1/8-inch) of the root can be chewed with a piece of bread or in a sandwich or even grated into carrot juice, twice a day.
Editor’s note: For some great horseradish recipes, see Carol Little’s “Humble Horseradish” feature here: https://vitalitymagazine.com/article/horseradish/
Freshly expressed raw organic carrot juice was a favourite spring cleanser for the famous Swiss naturopath Dr. Alfred Vogel. It is regarded as an ideal food for the liver itself and it stimulates the liver’s cleansing function. Dr. Jean Valnet, the renowned French army surgeon/herbalist, author of Phytothérapie and the founder of modern French phytotherapy, points out that this dynamic healing root even stimulates our natural immunity. One of the reasons for its effectiveness as a spring tonic is the fact that it increases the number of red blood corpuscles and hemoglobin in the blood, in this way improving oxygen transport to the cells. French research has shown that it also renews and revitalizes interstitial fluids, so this is deep tissue restoration at its best.
At the same time, the influence extends to the intestines where fresh carrot juice is a regulator of intestinal activity, slowing it down in diarrhea and increasing activity in constipation. Even the lungs are affected by its healing power with noticeable improvement in pulmonary infections including tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis and asthma.
Valnet recommends the freshly extracted juice of 50 to 500 grams of carrots a day, preferably on an empty stomach. It can be combined with other vegetable juices including beets. This is really quite a delicious way to treat spring fever and you can take advantage of the many fresh juice bars around the city when you need a quick spring tonic.
To learn more about herbal medicine, or to see a list of herbalists in Ontario, visit the website of the Ontario Herbalists Association: https://ontarioherbalists.ca/.
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