Tonic and elixir bars offer healthy herb and flower remedies, and even elixirs made with silver and gold. Can they really improve your health?
On a recent sunny afternoon, a woman with a chest cold sidled up to the counter of the Tonic Bar at Erewhon Natural Foods in Los Angeles. “I have a hacking cough that won’t go away,” she declared, “and I feel achy all over. What do you have for me?”
Karly Farovich, a holistic herbalist on staff there, gently questioned her. “Is your cough wet or dry? Are your aches dull or sharp?” After pondering her answers, Farovich, a young woman with a soothing demeanor and warm brown eyes, took several ingredients from the shelves crowded with mysterious plant extracts like quinton and rhodiola. Her shell bracelets rattled as she blended a $10 “immunity shot” — a concentrated mix of colloidal silver, kyolic garlic extract and oil of oregano, ingredients believed to boost the immune system. The customer gulped down the spicy potion and departed with a smile.
On most days, the tiny Tonic Bar buzzes with the din of well-toned, health conscious Angelenos eager to sample the establishment’s trademark well-being elixirs. Many swing by every week, clamoring for a healthy herb boost. Among the options are a $13 “kefir margarita,” which promotes digestive-system health with a mix of yogurt, coconut cream, spun water and sea salt, and the $10 “reishi cappuccino,” a hot drink that blends cocoa powder with reishi, a rare Chinese mushroom thought to stimulate spiritual expansion and ensure longevity.
“Seventy-five percent of our customers are regulars,” says Farovich. Both tonic bars and traditional teahouses have blossomed in recent years. Predicated on peddling the healing virtues of ancient herbs and today’s mineral extracts, they have morphed into social hubs — especially in big cities like L.A.
But do they really work?
There are, of course, skeptics who regard modern elixirs as quackery.
The industry churns out everything from “immortality teas” to “monatomic gold” and “krypton water” — alchemical and herbal tonics purported to possess amazing healing and rejuvenating qualities. Dr. Michael Borookhim, an internist in Beverly Hills, says he has yet to see any solid scientific evidence supporting the benefits of Chinese herbs, colloidal-silver supplements and other popular remedies.
The Food and Drug Administration agrees with him. “Alternative elixirs or herbal remedies might make you feel good,” Borookhim says, “but whether they’re going to really improve your long-term health or longevity has yet to be proven.
That said, if people use certain alternative remedies periodically, I don’t think they will suffer much detriment — although maybe their pocketbook will.”
The fascination with elixirs is nothing new. Americans were obsessed with tonics at the turn of the 19th century and well into the early 20th century. Back then, molasses and opium were the base for popular pick-me-ups like Godfrey’s Cordial, advertised as a remedy for colicky babies.
In fact, the original formula for Coca-Cola — the mother of all popular tonics — included pure coca-leaf extract. Other best-selling tonics featured sulfur, tar water and turpentine. No holistic or health professional would recommend those ingredients today, so bear in mind that every age has its own elixir and that popularity has to do mostly with marketing hype and cultural tradition — not with scientifically proven benefits.
Eternal life in a bottle
Many ancient Chinese emperors were hell-bent on tracking down the elusive Elixir of Life, the fabled potion that would grant immortality. Ming Emperor Jiajing died trying — downing mercury cocktails he hoped would make him live forever.
Yet far away from the imperial palaces, in the remote southern province of Guizhou, ordinary people were drinking ordinary teas and living way past their 100th birthday. Those teas were made with Gynostemma entaphyllum, or jiaogulan, China’s so-called “immortality herb,” which remained virtually unknown outside China until it was discovered by Japanese scientists in the 1970s.
Now sold across the world and the basis for Spring Dragon Tea, it’s one of the most popular blends at Ron Teeguarden’s Dragon Herbs, a Chinese-tonic company in L.A.
“The thing about Gynostemma pentaphyllum is that it’s adaptogenic,” says Angel Moreno, an employee of Ron Teeguarden’s Dragon Herbs. “That means it figures out what the body needs and then shapes itself into that form.” Dubbed “the Southern Ginseng,” the herb, often added to tea, is touted as a cure-all, with potent anti-inflammatory, anti-aging and restorative effects. If you’re lucky, it might even make you a better lover.
For those who don’t drink tea, there are other purported paths to a longer life, some of them paved with gold … literally. The last decade has seen an explosion in the number of companies selling silver, gold and copper colloids as dietary supplements, often in liquid form. The FDA banned those companies from making any claims as to the healing power of their heavy-metal products, although both silver and gold have long been recognized as having certain brain-boosting (gold) and antibacterial (silver) properties since the dawn of civilization.
Regardless of your personal opinion, beware when shopping for metallic elixirs. Steer clear of products with gold chloride, which is a neurotoxin, or ionic silver, often labeled as colloidal silver.
Frank Key, a former NASA scientist who founded Purest Colloids — a mineral-supplement company selling tonics containing nano-particles of gold, silver, copper and other metals — warns of quick-buck charlatans pushing colloidal silver online. “Be sure to educate yourself,” advises Key. “It may take hours, even weeks of reading before you’ve learned the basics.”
Perhaps you’re more flower child than metal head, so you’re looking for a gentler, softer kind of tonic. Bach Flower Remedies may be more your style. The elixirs work on a subtle, emotional level, harnessing the “vibrational qualities” of different plants and flowers within various tinctures, and are normally taken as drops diluted in brandy or apple cider vinegar as prescribed by a naturopath or practitioner.
Nonbelievers point out that clinical trials have shown flower remedies to have no greater effect than a placebo. But that doesn’t account for the many thousands of people who swear by them.
“Anyone can benefit,” says Alexis Smart, a flower remedies practitioner based in L.A., who has prepared floral elixirs for singer Robert Plant and actor/ filmmaker Crispin Glover, to name a couple well-known believers. “There are certain personality types that are, by their nature, less observant, so they may not notice the difference. But you don’t have to be open to flower remedies to feel the effects.”
Despite the diluted concentrations, Smart has seen instantaneous results when clients take the right blend. White chestnut, good for calming obsessive thoughts and mental chatter, has very quick, powerful results, she says. “People will stop talking and forget what they were worried about in the first place,” she says. “That’s a good place to be, don’t you think?”
An elixir may enhance your mood and raise your spirits, but none can do the job as nicely as when you share it in the company of friends. In Los Angeles, with its fusion of Asian and Western cultures and its famous thirst for lifting the psyche and improving health, it’s natural that this pursuit involves fun and socializing.
Looking for an elixir bar in Los Angeles?
Lotus on the Nile Wellness Center
4307 S. Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles
The Tea Garden & Herbal Emporium
5057 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles
Ron Teeguarden’s Dragon Herbs
315 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica
(310) 917-2288 , Ext. 101
460 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles
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