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.
I’d like to share one of my favorite tea blends featuring skullcap and milky oats, two of my favorite herbs for reviving the nervous system. I like them individually as simples and do most of the time, but I also think they work well as a pair. Just the two of them, skullcap and milky oats, isn’t the best tasting tea I have ever had. I don’t mind them separately, but together? They need some depth, some warmth, some support and some flavor. Before I say more, take a look at the ingredients:
2 milky oats
1 lemon balm
1 rose hips
1 orange peel
I still struggle with what to call this tea. I first blended a variety of it for a friend of a friend, a new mom who was getting a little frazzled with the demands (and joys!) of a newborn on just a few hours of sleep each day. This mom’s birth was on the long side (40 hours or so), so she was exhausted from the get-go. Plus, she was selling her house, moving and remodeling the new one. Basically, this woman needed some nervous system support, with manifestations of feeling wired and tired simultaneously. For her I called it “De-Stress Tea”, and she reported in after about 2 weeks that her stress and exhaustion was declining, and she was starting to feel like her old self.
This tea also typifies a student burning the candle at both ends, so I have called it simply “Students Tea”. There’s a lot of mental energy being used as a student, not to mention late nights of studying (and/or partying). It is a delicate act to balance school, a social life, family, work and self-care.
Now I call it “Skullcap Om”, because of the chilled-out feeling I get from drinking skullcap. Buddhists monks use skullcap to prepare for mediation, and it has the ability to stimulate and relax at the same time. Skullcap clears the mind from circular thoughts – which become especially apparent when you are trying to fall asleep. Sometimes, this over-thinking is the only thing that prevents sleep; my body may be totally heavy and relaxed, ready for sleep, but the mind races on. I say that it stimulates because I become more aware of my senses, and my body wakes up and comes into present time. Here’s a little something I wrote about skullcap a while back.
The four members of the mint family featured in this tea, skullcap, lemon balm, spearmint and rosemary, are well-known nervines. I love bringing mints together in a tea, especially picked fresh from the garden. That being said, I don’t want to drink only mints all the time, since as a group they are light, airy and cool. I happen to be light, airy and cool myself, so I need a little ginger, cinnamon, licorice, fennel and the like to anchor that dispersing mint nature. Combining them with the sunny sweetness of another nervine, chamomile, adds a little variety to the aromatic mints and directs the tea towards the middle burner/digestion.
Rose hips , ginger and orange peel are added for flavor, but they also direct the tea around the body a bit, orange peel and ginger again with affinities for the belly. I am not sure where rose hips would ‘go’ in the body, the heart maybe, blood vessels? I hesitate because I haven’t figured rose hips out yet. They are a bit sour and sweet, and thus astringe and tone, they are chock-full of nutrients in true red berry style, add color to an otherwise plain green tea, and they taste delicious. What don’t they do?
Milky oats (the tops of the oat (Avena sativa) plant harvested while in the “milky” stage) is a great restorative, for the brain, emotions and body alike. I love, love, love oats. When I was interning at an herbal retreat center, I bought a half pound of locally grown milky oats and drank a quart of the tea every day. The milky oats (combined with the luxury of working in a herb garden at the top of a mountain for three months) completely revived my energy, body and emotions.
I bring this tea up because I need it right now! My brain is on overload, so much that I can’t seem to muster the energy to make this tea for myself. With doing this post, I am reminded of the strengthening these herbs bring to a worn-out system.
Herbal medicine has a number of ways to help one break addictions and assist pharmaceutical and drug withdrawal. Quoting Guido Mase from the lecture handout, “Using herbs for support when transitioning off psychiatric medication” …”[P]eople can be subjected to a drug which, though not ‘addictive’ in the classical sense of an intoxicating substance, can nevertheless have severe withdrawal symptoms”. Indeed, addictions within the sphere of a holistic mind frame can include many conditions that biomedicine and psychiatry may not define as addictive.
Most useful to me about the aforementioned lecture is the emphasis Mase put on ensuring the integrity of both the GI tract and circulatory system before going to the nervous system. Chamomile, blue vervain, wood betony, St, John’s wort work on the nervous system as well as the digestive system and in my opinion can be very centering and grounding . Valerian and crampbark “dilate the arteries, warms the limbs and relaxes body (soma), then relaxes mind”. Herbs, no matter how hard mainstream herbal commerce tries, cannot be separated into clear-cut, straightforward categories or reduced down to one action only. Think black cohosh for hot flashes, goldenseal for colds, valerian for insomnia, ginseng for energy, St. John’s wort for depression, ect. Not only do these herbs have wider applications then what is popularly marketed, there may be another herb better suited to an individual constitution. For example, valerian has never help a candle to my insomnia, but American ginseng has worked wonderfully.
Herbs to support addiction and drug withdrawal also take into consideration the constitution of the individual and the underlying diagnosis. Milky oats are a good place to start in almost any formula, as they are one of the ultimate “nerve foods”, restoring the mylin sheaths on the nerve cells. Fresh skullcap tincture is another favorite, perfectly suited for “burn out” and mental over-stimulation. I once heard (perhaps from Matthew Wood) the difference between melissa and passionflower put as such: melissa is suited for people that are over-stimulated but love it, while passionflower is for people who are over-stimulated but don’t like it. I don’t exactly understand this differentiation, but still find it interesting. There are many nervines to choose from, hawthorn, ashwaganda, tulsi, mugwort, rose, gingko, hops, ect…
I find it hard to look at addictions only through a physiological or herbal medicine view. Lately I have been listening to a number of audio lectures from Caroline Myss which has added a whole ‘nother level to my considerations. While I am far from understanding much of what is out there, I do feel a resonance with what Myss has to say about addictions in the 7th disc of the “Energy Anatomy” audio lecture:
“So long as your will is in a fog, you will be an addict. You will either be an addict to a substance, to a habit, to a fear, to the need to have the windows open at a certain angle, I don’t care what it is, you will be an addict. There is no such thing as a non-addicted person if the heart and the mind are not clear and congruent and the will is not awake, you will be an addict.”
“The 6th chakra is your mind, the heart is the 4th, and what’s in between? Your willpower. If your mind is going one way and your heart is going another way, who is commanding your will? So long as you keep your mind and your heart away from each other, your will will find its allegiance in a substance, your will will become commanded by something outside of you because there is nothing inside of you that is strong enough to keep it intact. So you will literally release the circuits of your spirit to a substance, to a person, to a system of thought, to a school of belief, to an external spiritual discipline, to needing to eat tofu, to needing to shove vabooty up your nose, who cares what it is, you will find some addiction that you are convinced you need for tranquility. When in fact, what technically is amiss is that your heart and your mind don’t speak to each other and you haven’t developed an ounce of genuine willpower.”
How does one develop the will, to reclaim its allegiance for oneself? Unfortunately, it is not as simple as stating, “I demand my spirit to release this addiction now” because your willpower is not strong enough, probably from years of your heart taking the night shift and your mind taking the day shift. During your hearts’ shift, you may have decided to do or say something from the heart, but when you mind takes over, it will say, “Are you crazy? You can’t do/say that. What if that person leaves you? How are you gong to pay the bills?” It doesn’t matter if your heart is unhappy–your mind tends to dominate because it plays of the fears of pain, aloneness, loosing success and financial stability.
Here is an exercise in activating your willpower: Make a list of all the things that you shouldn’t do but do anyways (this list is from you mind/conscious). Next, make a list of all things you want to do but don’t (from your heart/inspiration). Then pick a one thing to do from each list, and do it. That’s it! Sounds easy, but it may be hard to even admit to yourself what goes on those lists. If it is difficult to make your lists, realize that you may be living in a “fog of deliberate unconsciousness so that you don’t have to develop a stronger will. What kind of will? The level of will power that says, ‘wait a minuet, I am going to will myself to see clearly. Enough is enough. I am going to will myself to call the shots the way they are. I am going to will myself to diagnose myself accurately’.”
Myss’s example is giving up coffee. In the first column, “I know I shouldn’t drink coffee but I do”. In the second, “I know I should give up coffee.” In making this list, “you see into whose hands you’ve commanded your spirit and what you’ve given authority over you”. Myss says to “pay attention to how often you make excuses as to why you allow yourself to break your own rules”, and to the excuses you make up in order to avoid the stress of developing the level of willpower you need to break the addiction. Do this not in a punitive way, but in a experimental way to know yourself more deeply, one notch at a time.
Mase’, Guido. “Using herbs for support when transitioning off psychiatric medication” lecture notes.
Myss, Carloine. “Energy Anatomy” Audio lecture. Disc 7.