It seems like everyone is talking about (and taking) adaptogens. Perhaps you have heard of Rhodiola? Or Eleuthero? American Ginseng, Panax Ginseng, Oplopanax and Eleuthero are well-known adaptogens from the Araliaceae family and have been used for a long time. Holy Basil or Tulsi is another popular and very tasty adaptogen that I see all over the place. » Read the rest of this entry «
Who doesn’t love nervines? You know, that relaxing category of herbs, so effective at soothing the mind, emotions and body. Some herbs like lavender and chamomile invoke tranquility through their pleasing scents and flavor. Others like valerian, blue vervain or wood betony may not taste as good, but work well on releasing headaches or pent-up tension in the musculo-skeletal arena; or they may do the trick on liberating worrying thoughts and emotions from those worn to a frazzle, like skullcap, ashwaganda or holy basil.
As much as I love them, nervines are not the end-all-be-all for perfect health, but they can be a good place to start when you don’t know what else to do, or are too stressed to focus on figuring out what you need to do, but you know you have to do SOMEthing. Yes, that is where they come in for me more often than not (hello, chamomile!).
Botanicals are multi-dimensional; a nervine can be a digestive tonic, circulatory tonic, glactagouge, cardio tonic and more. Some are warming, cooling, drying, moistening, sweet, bitter, acrid – basically there’s one out there for everyone’s constitution and needs.
Here are a few quick notes about some of these wonderful nervines. As you can see, they all share the common thread of restoring proper tone (functional, healthy resting baseline) to a body system. Many times, the restoration needed leans in the direction of relaxing a tense state, but sometimes flaccid, lax, boggy or atonic tissue state needs some sort of increase of tone. See the sources below for more detailed information.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) – Soothing diffusive, relaxing, stimulating nervine. Used with nervous irritation, atonic conditions, mental confusion. Use when both relaxing and stimulating effects are needed. Direct action on the smooth muscles, wonderfully anti-spasmodic.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) – Stimulating and relaxing. Anxiety, restlessness, fear, hysteria. Bisobolol and chamaezulene are volatile oils that are spasmolytic to smooth muscles and nervous tissue. The bitterness is tonifying and stimulating. Nervous irritability and persistent low grade anxiety.
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) – Anti—spasmodic, stimulating and cleansing in the nervous system. Aids relaxation, alertness, clarity from volatile oils. Convulsive disorders, as it regulates, balances, normalizes brain activity.
Melissa (Melissa officinalis) – Tonic and restorative for nervous function. A nerve remedy with a carminitive element. Depression, lethargy, insomnia, agitation, anxiety, headaches, hysteria, ADHD, nervous stomach. Inhalation of volatile oil very effective, sedative properties marked and rapid. Tincture more of a tonic and stimulating (with some bitters and resins). Paracelsus: “the elixir of life”. Culpepper: “…causeth the mind and the heart to become merry…and driveth away all troublesome cares and thoughts out of the mind arising from melancholy”.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) – Tonic nervine. Both sedative volatile oils and stimulating bitters, thus balancing. Depression, insomnia, hysteria. Mental exhaustion, hallucinations or delusions. The oil steadies the emotions, balances introverted and extroverted.
Milky Oats (Avena sativa) – Food for the nerves! Promotes myelin sheath integrity and growth. Wonderful for restoring the nerves. Amphoteric to the nervous system, as it is a stimulant (strengthening) and sedative. Nutritious. Epilepsy, nervous depression. Use to calm the mind without drowsiness.
Hops (Humulus lupus) – Hypnotic, permitting a deep sense of relaxation and tranquility, trophorestoritive to cerebrospinal fluid. Nervous digestive upsets, very bitter, strong anti-spasmodic effect on smooth muscle, presumably by mediating the nervous supply to the gut.
Scullcap – (Scutellaria laterifolia) – Calming and relaxing to the nervous system. Excellent nerve tonic where there is chronic anxiety. Nervous weakness, agitation, insomnia, nightmares, restless sleep, over-excitability, twitching.
California Poppy (Eschscholzia California) – Milder and non-addictive. Anxiety, nervous tension, insomnia, hyperactivity, fear, all sorts of pain. Well suited for children.
Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) – Energizing effect on the brain. Overcoming stress, fatigue and mental confusion. Mineral rich. Enhances cognitive abilities and increases memory. Calming and adaptogenic, cleanses the blood, promotes healthy connective tissue repair – good for excess scar tissue.
St. Johns Wort (Hypericum perforatum) – Depression, raises the spirit and lifts the mood. Amphoteric, tonic to the brain. reportedly as effective as SSRI’s.
Blue Vervain (Verbena officinalis) – Nervine and stomachic, as it is bitter and stimulates appetite, production of digestive enzymes, HCL and more. Blends well in formulas for women’s health. Epilepsy and convulsions. Very balancing.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) – Increases cerebral circulation, anti-oxidant rich. Affinity to blood vessels. Normalizes acetylcholine receptors in the hippocampus – the area most affected by Alzheimer’s.
Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis) – Gentle, stimulating tonic for the brain. Hysteria, persistent unwanted thoughts, nervous debility, anxiety, chronic headaches, lack of energy, poor memory, dizziness, disordered thoughts. Bitter digestive tonic, adjusts the autonomic regulation of the digestive system. Anxiety with digestive upsets.
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) – Brain and adrenal tonic. Increases tolerance to emotional, chemical, and other stressors. Anti-depressant effect, libido lifter for exhausted states.
Hoffmann, David. The New Holistic Herbal.
Herbal Therapeutics: Specific Indications
Wood, Matthew. Earth-Wise Herbal: New World Plants, and Old World Plants.
Remember that the Kidneys are the root of both Yin and Yang, even though in and of themselves the Kidneys are considered Yin. Michael Tierra says that Kidney Yang is the “pilot light for our energy system”. When deficient, the warming ability of the Kidneys decreases and can manifest in one or more of the following patterns:
Cold, sore, weak low back
Copius clear or pale urine, incontinence, nighttime urination, weak or dripping urine stream
Coldness, cold limbs, avoiding cold and wanting warm
Weak legs, leg edema
Poor appetite, loose stools
Sexual dysfunction, infertility, premature ejaculation, nocturnal emission
As you can see, some of these Kidney Yang deficiency patterns overlap with other Kidney deficiency patterns, although the bolded symptoms are the most tell-tale of Kidney Yang. We should also keep in mind that a person may very well have Kidney Yang deficiency and another pattern of excess, and maybe more deficiency patterns, as our bodymind is connected on so many levels. For example, the Kidneys receive from the Spleen and give to the Heart and Pericardium, so if the Spleen is out of balance that may be the underlying reason for Kidney deficiency. It is also a good practice to add a bit of yin tonic (like lycii) to balance a yang tonic.
A few Yang tonics:
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is a warm, bitter and aromatic seed has a multitude of culinary and medicinal applications. As a Yang tonic, it is used for coldness, sore lower back, pain in the torso and extremities, morning sickness and indigestion. Make into a gruel with milk or tea to nourish the body and stimulate the appetite during or after debilitating diseases and sicknesses, including infant diarrhea. Lesley Tierra suggests sprouting and eating the seeds to aid digestion.
Fenugreek gruel: 1 1/2 tablespoon fenugreek ground coarsly simmered low in 1 cup milk or water, for a 5 minuets or until it thickens. Add herbs to flavor or thicken, cinnamon, fennel, slippery elm, marshmallow, ect. Turn off heat, let sit to cool, covered. Three times daily.
Damiana‘s (Turnera aphrodisiacea) spicy leaves combined with cinnamon, dried ginger and lemon peel are one of my favorite ways to warm up and tonify yang in the winter. The herbalist/acupuncturist at the Medicine Tree in St. Croix Falls formulated this “Libido Lifter/Kidney Tonic”, one of the most popular tea blends. Damiana is attuned to the Kidneys as it is a well-known aphrodisiac (just check the botanical name) that also treats impotence. The Tierras use it for irritable coughs, which I have yet to try, but I don’t doubt its soothing expectorant abilities, as I have felt how calming damiana can be to the nerves.
Blend and drink as needed. I like it strong; 2 tablespoons to a pint of boiling water, steeped an hour.
2 parts Damiana
1/2 part each cinnamon, ginger, lemon peel ground coarsely
1 part Spearmint
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) tastes bitter, with an underlying sweetness and a slight warming to the body. Its has yang tonic, aphrodisiac, sedative, astringent and adaptogenic properties. Some yang tonic can be too stimulating (think deer antler, yohimbe), but ashwaganda apparently does not overstimulate and in fact is used for improving sleep and clearing the mind when stressed or overworked. I have witnessed a complete turn around for a friend with lower back pain, creaky knees, low libido and a general state of low energy by mixing a teaspoon of the powder in heated raw milk daily. Personally, I have used ashwaganda tincture in adrenal formulas, which I always seems to need in spring. Perhaps I should be taking some right now for to tonify my Kidney Yang so to prevent adrenal exhaustion.
Delicious dosage to nourish yang: Mix 1/2 teaspoon powder with warm milk (can be rice, almond, soy, or ghee), take twice a day.