There are an enormous number of tonics available. Some are sold as general ‘pick-me-ups’, advertised as being suitable for anyone feeling tired or run down. Others are prepared for more specific markets: there are, for example, tonics for the elderly, for children, for athletes, for the sexually unsuccessful and for convalescent patients. In addition, there are tonics which are designed to provide a short-term stimulus.

Traditional tonics contain bitters such as absinthium, andrographis, azadirachta, berberine sulphate, calamus, calumba, centaury, chirata, cinchona, cnicus benedictus, condurango, cusparia, denatonium benzoate, gentian, lupulus menyanthes, nux vomica, quassia, quebracho, serpentary, strychnine and strychnine hydrochloride. These substances, most of which are derived from plants, have two things in common: they give a medicine a bitter, unpleasant taste and many have no great medical worth. Some of them can be dangerous. Strychnine, for example, is commonly used as a poison.

Few of the commercially prepared tonics on sale today contain bitters although Wiggleswortb Adult Nerve Tonic contains nux vomica, a substance which has actions identical to those of strychnine, although in the small quantities present here not dangerous. Many contain iron, vitamins, minerals and foodstuffs. Others include old-established remedies such as garlic and ginseng which have recently come back into favour. Sadly, there is little evidence to suggest that these revived therapies are any safer or more effective than less esoteric remedies.

Tonic foods

It is sometimes difficult to know when a food supplement becomes a medicine. I have chosen to include here supplementary products which are specifically said to improve health, or prevent the development of illness, since these are not usually qualities associated with ordinary foodstuffs. It is, nevertheless, important to remember that since it is perfectly true to say that the human body is composed of what is eaten health must inevitably be related fairly directly to food.

Honey, protein supplements and yeast are among the more obvious medicinal foods.

Honey is basically a mixture of sugars. Its value as a food must be considered on that basis. There is no more reason to consider it a medicinal compound than there is to consider mackerel a medicinal fish. And honey prepared by bees fed on particular flowers has no great advantage over other honeys. To say that it has is like saying that mackerel caught on the shady side of the bay are better than other mackerel.

Many of the firms selling honey are now also selling pollen as a protein-rich food supplement. You should judge its value as a food rather than for any special health-giving properties.

Sanatogen, one of the best-known tonics available, consists of casein, sodium glycerophosphate and glyceryl mono-oleate. Casein, the main ingredient, is prepared from caseinogen, the principal protein found in milk.

There are a number of other products containing proteins which are sold for convalescent patients or for people looking for a tonic. A substance called 1-7-1 Protein Powder is sold as particularly useful for athletes. Opothoid Protein tablets are recommended for use by people needing to relax and looking for a tonic. They are also said to be useful in the treatment of skin troubles, insomnia, arthritis and varicose ulcers. Bemax contains protein, iron and vitamins.

A recent research project carried out in America showed that athletes taking protein extract supplements do no better than athletes not taking protein extract supplements.

Yeast is used in the prevention of vitamin B deficiency. It is therefore an unnecessary supplement if your diet contains enough vitamin B .

Yeast is of doubtful value as a tonic, and large doses may cause diarrhoea. If you really feel that it is what your body needs you can buy YeastTabletsBPC.

Yeast is also an ingredient of Bryst Brewer’s Yeast Tablets, Canta-yeast, Calcium Plus, Ceejesta, EG Vita win Yeast, Ewlab Brewer’s Yeast Tablets, Hi-Lift Energy Tablets, Hi-Lift Honey and Yeast Tablets, Kay bee Brewer’s

Yeast, Mar mite, Phillips Tonic Yeast, Muscleman Protein Plus Tablets, Super Brewer’s Yeast, Vecon, Yeast-Plus, Yeast-Vile and Yestamin.

There are many other food supplements sold to help maintain health. Most of these supplements are no more useful as medicinal products than the supplements given away with the Sunday newspapers. So don’t bother buying tablets or powders containing cider vinegar, kelp, lecithin, malt, molasses, rutin or safflower oil unless you particularly like the taste of them.

Luco^ade can be considered a food supplement since it is a glucose-rich drink which also includes lactic acid and sodium benzoate; it is advertised as an aid to recovery so it should be mentioned. I’ve mentioned it.

Other health foods and special diets

If you suffer from coeliac disease, diabetes or any other disorder which necessitates a special diet, then you should seek advice from your own doctor or a hospital dietician. Some food products are available on prescription.

Patients convalescing and people wishing to put on weight may find concentrated foodstuffs like Bengers, Carnation Build-Up, Complan and Wate-On helpful. Unfortunately, it is not possible to ensure that weight is added to particular parts of the body.

Unusual eating programmes such as Zen macrobiotic diets can be dangerous, and children brought up on a limited variety of foods are at great risk of developing nutritional shortages. Generally speaking, it is more dangerous to follow a fad diet rigidly than it is to eat processed foods and their inevitable additives.


Anaemia is one of the commonest causes of persistent tiredness and a lack of dietary iron is a common cause of anaemia: two facts which provide some excuse for the vast number of tonics on the market which contain iron.

The cheapest way to take iron by mouth as a tablet is to buy Ferrous Sulphate Tablets BP. If the tablets are taken after food the incidence of gastrointestinal side effects is low. Ferrous sulphate is as effective as any of the other preparations available, many of which are considerably more expensive.

A large number of iron preparations include added vitamins and other minerals. Only pregnant women and patients with less common types of anaemia need to combine their iron with other products, so no combined preparations are worth buying. Iron preparations served up as exotic-looking capsules or liquids are not worth buying. Iron available as a liquid stains the teeth.

Taking iron as a dietary supplement, because your normal diet does not include enough iron, is not a sensible thing to do. It is far more sensible to adjust your diet to include enough iron in natural foodstuffs. It isn’t necessary to eat spinach daily to obtain iron: if your diet includes a reasonable mixture of meat and vegetables then you’ll be getting enough iron. Iron tablets, by the way, can be dangerous if taken in excess and should be kept away from children. They can kill.

One of the great dangers associated with the promotion of iron tablets is that patients can easily be tempted to treat themselves for too long. Anyone who feels lethargic, tired, weak, breathless or generally run down for more than a week or two should visit a doctor. The problem may be due to anaemia. But if it is anaemia then it is far better to let your doctor find out why you have become anaemic, to measure the level of the anaemia and to make the necessary adjustments scientifically. He may also be able to advise you on how best to avoid further attacks of the same problem. And if the symptoms are not caused by anaemia, treatment with iron may be completely inappropriate.

Many of the products which contain iron as a major ingredient are sold simply as iron preparations. Some, like Iron Jelloids and Phillips Iron Tonic, have the word ‘iron’ in their name. Other products like Ayr tons IVY Tonic Tablets, Bidor Tablets, Dr Williams Pink Pills, Femico Tonic Tablets and Three Flasks ‘Over Forty’ Tonic Tablets also contain iron.

If you need iron tablets it’s wiser, safer and probably cheaper to obtain them on prescription from your doctor than from the chemist’s shop. If you think iron tablets will solve your problems and you’re determined to treat yourself, then try one or two tablets of Ferrous Sulphate BP daily for a month. If you don’t feel better by then, iron tablets aren’t the answer.


Garlic seems to have been rediscovered. It was widely used for its ill-defined therapeutic properties hundreds if not thousands of years ago, and the building of the Egyptian pyramids is said to have been done by men vitalized by garlic. It has been recommended for the treatment of asthma, arthritis, bronchitis, catarrh, constipation, leprosy, tuberculosis and whooping cough and for the banishing of worms and vampires.

More recently there has been some evidence that garlic can help cut down the amount of fat circulating in the blood and thereby help prevent heart disease.

But it is as a general tonic that garlic is usually promoted today. It is available as Carter’s Garlic Oil Capsules, Garlicels Healing Suppositories, Garlic Pearles, Garlisol, Garlisol Garlic Ointment, Garlisol Odourless Garlic Tablets, Garlodex Garlic Plus Remedy, Golden Health Garlic Oil Capsules, Heath and Heather’s Garlic Capsules, Heath and Heather’s Garlic Tablets, Lustys Garlic Perles, Natrodale Garlic Capsules and Simhealth Garlic Capsules. There are undoubtedly other brands available.


Ginseng has been used for thousands of years as a tonic, restorative and panacea. There are scores of related ginseng plants and these are widely used in contemporary Chinese medicine as stimulants. In America ginseng, which is thought to be used fairly regularly by 5 to 6 million people as a tonic and aphrodisiac, is the most popular herb used without prescription for medicinal purposes. The normally recommended dose is up to 3 gm, although doses as low as 0.5 gm have been found therapeutically effective.

Rather like oenophilists ginseng advocates seem to delight in recommending specific varieties of ginseng. RedKooga Ginseng, for example, is said to be grown for six years on the upper slopes of Korean mountain ranges. According to an article in the Pharmaceutical Journal the best ginseng used to be grown wild in Manchuria. Today, various species of this rather unprepossessing, shade-loving plant, which is related to ivy, are grown in the mountain forests of Eastern Asia, in the Eastern United States, Canada, India, Southern China and India. Normally ginseng is white or yellowish; when treated with hot water or steam it becomes reddish brown. There do not seem to be any pharmacological differences between these varieties.

During recent years a great deal of experimental work has been done on ginseng. It has been found to contain chemicals which can have an effect on the human body’s ability to cope with stress, but the reports which have appeared have been conflicting and not conclusive. Little clinical research has been done and there is certainly no evidence I can find to recommend the use of ginseng. I have seen it said that ginseng has been shown to improve running and swimming abilities. The only research I can trace which suggests this was done with rats.

It is sometimes claimed that ginseng is perfectly safe but this is not strictly true. Ginseng has been shown to have hormonal properties and at least one case of painful, swollen breasts has been reported as being directly due to the use of ginseng. High blood pressure has also been associated with the use of the plant. It would be almost unique if any product existed which has only useful properties and we must assume that ginseng follows the usual pharmacological rules, that is it can be harmful as well as effective.

Ginseng is available in many different forms – it is sold as capsules, extracts, raw roots, teas and even cigarettes and injections. It is frequently mixed with vitamins, minerals, pollen and any other fashionable substances. One company sells it mixed up with 7.99% sea horse, 10.03% tiger genitalis, 9.56% doe genitalis and 12.69% deer’s antler. If you fancy that mixture the product is called Keitafo Ban/on.

Other products available include Eletberon Ginseng, Heathrite Ginseng, Panax Ginseng, Pbrodisine, Power Ginseng Capsules, Red Kooga and Reform Ginseng.

Whatever the value of ginseng may be it can hardly be helped by the claims of manufacturers and retailers which sometimes become farcical. Promoters claim that ginseng is a stimulant, a sedative, and that it improves appetite, boosts working capacity, prevents cancer, helps sportsmen run faster, protects the body against radiation damage, improves sexual performance, treats diabetes, high blood pressure and nervous disorder, and enables bees to produce 39^% more honey. Claims like these only arouse my scepticism.

Ginseng may well have a value as a tonic. I don’t know. Incidentally, I do admit the exceptional honesty of the Panax Ginseng Company, which in at least one advertising leaflet refuses to make any specific claims for the efficiency of ginseng on the grounds that ‘the pharmacological value of ginseng, if any, has not been subject to sufficient research to either substantiate or deny possible values’.

Herbal products

There are so many herbal tonics and general remedies available that a complete list would take up a completely disproportionate amount of space. Many herbal remedies contain a large number of different constituents which makes it difficult to assess the value of the whole product. But whatever their medicinal value many herbal products do have delightful names. There are such compounds as Eldermint Life Drops, Father Pierre’s Monastery Herbs, Glentona Herbal Blood Purifier, Golden Health Blood Purifying Tablets and my favourite, Barker’s Liquid of Life Tablets.

Many herbal remedies are designed to soothe nervousness. Within this category are such products as Becalmn, Golden Health Nerve Tablets, Heath and Heather’s Mixture for Nervous Debility, Heath and Heather’s Nerve Tablets, Heath and Heather’s Tonic and Nerve Restorative, Natex 9 For Nerves, Quiet Life and Sleep Gompleat.

There are some herbal remedies which are designed to solve more particular problems. For example, Athera is said to help women cope with the ‘change of life’.

Among the so-called homoeopathic remedies available as ‘tonics’ there are Elasto Tablets which are said to be good for aching legs and Nervone which is designed to relieve tension.

I have been unable to obtain satisfactory clinical evidence either to condemn them or to recommend them.

Vitamins and minerals

Vitamins are described at greater length on p 180 but they are included here simply because they are important constituents of many so-called tonics.

Many extremely well-known products are based largely on vitamins. Phyllosan, which is said to revitalize, energize and fortify and which has been promoted as particularly suitable for the over-forties, contains vitamins and iron. If you are eating properly you’re wasting money by buying Pbjllosan. Another product, Biovital, is said to be useful for busy housewives and others whose diet may not be properly balanced. That, too, contains vitamins and iron. Minadex is a vitamin and iron mixture advertised for ‘building up children’. The ingredients are said to be the ones that doctors recommend and that is, of course, perfectly true. Whether doctors would recommend that a child who has no appetite, no energy and who gets tired easily should simply be given a vitamin and iron mixture without any investigations being done is another matter.

Pbarwaton Capsules contain no less than twenty-one vitamins and minerals in addition to a special ginseng extract. Stress B Vite Tablets slowly release their vitamins as the body needs them and Gev-e-tabs contain vitamins and minerals designed to ‘help you get as much out of life as you should’. AD 70 contains over 100 ingredients and Celaton CH3 which is a multivitamin preparation to which a number of extra ingredients have been added is recommended as a formula to prevent premature ageing.

Sunerven is recommended by its manufacturers for use in the treatment of nerve weakness, hysteria, brain-fag (honestly!), sleeplessness, nervous dyspepsia, headaches, neuralgia, etc. It contains vitamin B,

Other tonics which contain vitamins are N Tonic, R VT Tonic Elixir and Sure Shield Vitorange Energy Tablets. There are many other products which contain small amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Tonics which stimulate

Alcohol Many people who would not dream of drinking alcohol regularly (and some who even claim to be teetotal) are firm believers in the efficacies of tonic wines. Hairs Wine contains a variety of vitamins and is not less than 24% proof spirit. Sanatogen Tonic Wine, available with or without added iron, contains not less than 26% proof spirit.

If you want to use alcohol as a stimulant and you think you can do so without endangering your health or your purse then do so, but be honest with yourself.

Caffeine Caffeine is a genuine stimulant. It stimulates the central nervous system, the heart and the kidneys. It increases the blood supply to the heart and improves physical and mental powers. Many people have found that it helps give them energy when they’ve felt tired.

Balzac is said to have survived on vast quantities of strong black coffee.

Caffeine is, of course, present in other drinks as well as coffee. It’s in tea, cocoa and cola drinks too. A cup of tea usually contains between 50 and 100 mg of caffeine, a glass of cola contains about 50 mg and a mug of cocoa about 50 mg. A cup of brewed coffee contains between 100 and 150 mg and a cup of instant coffee rather less. This is more the dose needed for an effective stimulant action.

Like all effective drugs caffeine can have side effects. It can cause nausea, headaches and an upset stomach but the problems most commonly noticed are an inability to get to sleep and a need to pass urine more frequently than usual. Both these symptoms are fairly obvious results of the stimulant action of the drug. If drinks containing caffeine keep you awake avoid them for three hours before you go to bed.

It is possible to become dependent on caffeine and not infrequently tea and coffee drinkers notice that without their regular ‘fix’ they suffer withdrawal symptoms. Often they feel depressed, tired and lazy. Headaches may also be a problem. These symptoms will be relieved by a cup of tea, coffee or whatever else. They will disappear after a week of abstinence.

The advertising for Pro-Plus tablets honestly admits that each tablet contains ‘about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of strong black coffee’ but points out that tablets are easier to carry in your pocket. It is quite true that we can’t all emulate Harpo Marx and keep coffee pots in our raincoat pockets! In fact Pro-Plus contain 50 mg of caffeine which is the same as Dexcafex Stimulant Tablets (which also contain dextrose), Extra Energy Tablets and Wiggleswortb RapidEnergy Release Tablets. These products may provide useful short-term stimulation. Other tablets which contain caffeine include Koladex Pick-me-up Tablets and Zantbine Tablets. Many cold cures also contain caffeine as do some painkillers .

Herbal baths

The advertising blurb tells you that if’you’re dead tired and just want to go home and slump into a chair’, then ‘a Radox bath will put new life into you’.

It’s certainly true that if you are feeling tired a hot bath will help ease tensions and revive aching muscles. I don’t see why putting anything into the water should have more than a placebo effect, although I suppose it’s true that if your bath smells pleasant, looks a different colour or is bubbly you may enjoy it more.


There are many reasons for wanting a tonic. Unfortunately, there is no single product which can be recommended as a useful ‘pick-me-up’ for the person feeling weak or under the weather. Most of the products sold commercially rely upon the placebo effect for their worth . If you still have faith in a particular branded tonic, therefore, it is probably worth your while buying it.

Preparations recommended as aphrodisiacs or aids for sportsmen must also be taken with hope. However, there are effective short-term stimulants for use by people wanting a quick ‘lift’ and unable to get hold of a cup of coffee or tea or a glass of cola. Tablets such as Pro-Plus should be effective.

One final word of warning: don’t persist with a tonic if your symptoms persist. There are many reasons for such general problems as tiredness, malaise and loss of appetite. Making the precise diagnosis and ordering theright treatment needs a professional. No tonic should ever be taken regularly.