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.
Do you see the motherwort in this picture? Hint: its vertical. Mmmm…Motherwort! I have been craving the bitter herb for a steady week running – and as a tea! Who in their right mind drinks motherwort infusion? Someone who needs it, or who likes the bitter zing. Have you ever eaten a motherwort flower? Try it, I dare you. I have been drinking motherwort infusion to calm my critical and exacting PMS self to a down to a low roar; its working quite well. It is also nourishing, stockpiling nutrients that will soon be shed; for this purpose I add a bit of nettle or oat straw. At this time in my cycle I tend to see things very clearly, which can either enrich my life with wise insight or keep me up at night ruminating. Motherwort, along with hops, eases my mind.
In the middle of winter, I dream of a sunny day and a garden full of motherwort. There is something very awakening and attracting about the upright member of the mint family. A friend once became very aquatinted with a particular motherwort plant and described her as juicy. I have yet to have a garden full of motherwort, as my seeds never seem to germinate. This year I am trying really hard to get my seeds sprouted…so wish me luck.
Motherwort promotes menstruation, reduces nervous tension and cramps, and is regulating to stress and anxiety caused heart problems, racing and/or irregular heartbeat (tachycardia). Culpepper says about motherwort, “Venus owns this herb and it is under Leo. There is no better herb to drive melancholy vapors from the heart, to strengthen it and make the mind cheerful, blithe and merry”. Yes, motherwort is warming in taste and even color with the sweet downy pink with white whorls of flowers, soothing to the heart and demanding emotions, and a wonderful ally for women of all ages and at all times of their cycles. The way it stands in the garden, attracting bees like mad, reminds me of an seemingly innocent attention-seeking amorous Leo. Well, not that innocent, if you have ever been tangled amongst their sharp seed pods at the end of the season!
It is called Ectes Herzgespann in German, which in an excruciatingly literal translation is “common heart team”; luckily a German woman described it to me as meaning “it pulls the heart forward, as one would lead a team of yoked oxen”. What a wonderful way to visualize this herb’s actions. Like many herbs, motherwort contains a myriad of chemical compounds that give rise to its unique uses. From its taste we know that it works on the digestion; Tierra says it is specifically a carminative. The tannins make it astringent to the uterus, and according to Wikipedia, “the herb contains the alkaloid leonurine, which is a mild vasodilator and has a relaxing effect on the smooth muscles. For this reason, it has long been used as a cardiac tonic, nervine, and as an emmenagogue.”
As an emmenagogue, I view it as enriching the blood and circulating it, rather than starting delayed menstruation, as the latter has never worked for me. It still has an important pre-menstrual use of allying stress, anger and rage, worrying that keeps you up at night, and anxious palpitations. Stress and anxiety keeping your period away? Try motherwort. Motherwort may be helpful include during the last few weeks of pregnancy to promote uterine tone. Ruth Trickey states in Women, Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle that motherwort “is one of the many herbs which posses the apparently contradictory actions of relieving spasm and stimulating uterine activity–an effect which seems to be brought about by a reduction in the irritability (spasticity) of the uterine muscle. This allows contractions to be followed by an adequate rest period when blood can circulate through the muscle again”(470). Of course, motherwort is useful for peri-menopausal women, adressing palpitations, night sweats and worrying keeping you up at night, Trickey combines hops, motherwort and black cohosh for this reason with “excellent results”.
I’ve always been a fan of bitters; my taste-buds appreciate the wake-up call, my belly the appetite stimulation. I have taken them from time to time, and felt they were effective. Until this morning, I never gave them my undying support much thought…until I read in Simon Mills’ The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine that bitters may not be indicated in cold conditions or people. I am a cold person (just listen to my screaming boyfriend when I crawl into bed at night and lay my icy paws on his back), and here I have been using bitters the whole while! After some investigation, I have found that aromatic digestives (sometimes simply referred to as aromatics) are indicated for cold people and conditions like myself. Aromatics will be discussed in the next post.
Mills (226) states that bitters are indicated for hot conditions, such as liver conditions like jaundice and food/drug toxicity, gall-bladder disease, poor digestion, food intolerances, “chronic inflammatory diseases of the skin, joints, vascular system and bowel, migrainous headaches and fevers”, and blood-sugar regulation.
Bitters work quickly through stimulation of the taste buds that seconds later trigger gastrin secretion, which is why they are effective as in cooling hot conditions (430). Since bitters stimulate bile, and bile your body’s natural laxative, some bitters are gently stimulating laxatives. Here is Mills’ description of the bitter action (321):
“Comprised chemically of the most diverse array of molecular structures, the bitter principles have in common the ability to stimulate the bitter receptors inside the mouth, and thus evoke the taste of bitterness. Unlike other taste effects that of bitter stimulation seems to involve no electrical event on the surface of the cells: the conclusion is that each bitter molecule acts on cell membrane receptors to produce intercellular biochemical change. The immediate result is a rise in the concentration of calcium within the cell: this is likely to initiate the signal to the gustatory nerve.”
For the chemistry geeks out there, a group of terpenoids include most of the bitters. They are iridoids (gentian, dandelion, wild lettuce, valerian), sesquiterpenes (Artemisias, blessed thistle, gingko), diterpene (white horehound, Curcubitacea), and some alkaloids (coffee, goldenseal, quinine) (321-2).
Just a few bitters:
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a digestive and hepatic (liver) tonic. The leaves are nature’s perfect diuretic as it contains a large amount of potassium and well suited for edema but will not strain the heart, and the root is a mild laxative and detoxifier (434).
Gentian (Gentaina lutea) is an important bitter as it stimulates digestion and has an anti-inflammatory action. It is used “as a foundation for any prescription seeking to use the cooling, drying, and digestive stimulant effects” that may be present in inflammatory conditions (435).
Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is a bitter with a warm temperament. When I first purchased wormwood and brewed a cup on an chilly Minnesota spring day, I took two extremely bitter sips and felt a welcomed long-lasting warmth spread through my body and last the rest of the day. It is so bitter as well as astringent that its acrid constituents actually raises the temperature. As it name implies, it is useful for purging parasites, but let’s focus on wormwood as a bitter. Used for gastrointestinal infections, inadequate stomach acid, colic, and spasmodic dsymenarrhea, wormwood has been quite effective (438).
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is one of the most healing and astringent remedies to the gut wall and other irritated mucosal linings, and is a bitter digestive stimulant and cholagogue (liver stimulant) (440). “Dyspepsia with hepatic symptoms [is seen as] the main indication for using goldenseal”, as it is a strong bitter (441).
Anyone who has tried a tripled-hopped beer can attest to hops’ (Humulus luplus) bitterness…and also to its relaxing qualities. Hops has a relaxing effect on the nervous system similar to chamomile, as well as tension-related indigestion (it’s tannins lend their astringency quite nicely here) and headaches (Hoffmann, New Holistic Herbal 206). Hops can be useful in upper-digestive infections, irritable bowl syndrome, Crohn’s or diverticulitis, nervous coughs, palpitations, nervous dyspepsia or “whenever there are signs of visceral tension in the body” (460), so long as it is indicated. Would one use hops with watery loose, stools? I would say not.
A gentle and sometimes forgotten bitter is cold chamomile (Matricaria recutita) tea. Another visceral relaxant with bitter properties. Chamomile is great for children–indeed some of it’s best uses are for anxiety, teething pain, colic, and sleeplessness. Chamomile beautifully and subtly combines its calming and bitter qualities; it both calms the gut wall (useful for nervous digestion) and stimulates digestion, bile flow and pancreatic action (454-5).
Rue (Ruta graveolens) combines anti-spasmodic and bitter properties like chamomile, but not so sweetly. Don’t get me wrong, rue is a very nice plant, it is just very bitter in the cup. Hoffmann suggests using it for relaxing smooth muscles “especially in the digestive system where it will ease griping and bowl tension” (229). It is known to bring on suppressed menstruation. I have no experience of using is as a woman herb…have any of you used it as such?
That is just the beginning to bitter herbs. Try them where indicated, enjoy the peace in the belly that may follow.