Teas tell a story, especially hand-harvested teas. Finding the penultimate Rose, camping with friends and harvesting fresh Skullcap as the last think to pack into the car, cutting Passionflower for a trailing bouquet with dahlias and sunflowers, magenta sunsets, petting kitties in the waning moonlight. » 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.
Tierra, Micheal. Planetary Herbology.
- 2 milky oats
- 1-2 skullcap
- 1 lemon balm
- 2 spearmint
- 1 chamomile
- 1/2 rosemary
- .25 ginger
- 1 rose hips
- 1 orange peel
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.
One thing I love about herbalism is that every herbalist has different herbs, practices and tactics that they favor. There is so many varieties and examples to learn from! Some seem to be more into tonics, others use simples (single herbs) in almost homeopathic dosages, but most all have specific remedies for symptoms while reiterating the need to support the body systems over the long term.
No matter how you look at it, suggested herbal formulas from trusted herbalists are a good place to start. They can also be used as guidelines when formulating for the individual. After going over a few examples from a few different herbalists, the beginning herbalist gains knowledge through researching the materia medica and action categories mentioned.
Let’s look at a few formulas to get some ideas, starting with some from Rosemary Gladstar. She reiterates that you should stick to an herbal program at least four months. Here is a “Hormonal Regulator Tea” from Herbal Healing for Woman, p 117. Decoct, and drink 3-4 cups for 3 weeks out of the month. As you can see, it is not simply herbs for the reproductive system. It offers much support for the liver, which has to process all the hormones circulating in the body, and supports the digestive system, inflammation, and enriches the blood.
- 1 part wild yam
- 1 part ginger
- 2 parts dandelion root (raw)
- 2 parts burdock root (raw)
- 2 parts licorice
- 2 parts sassafras
- 1 part yellow dock
- 1/4 vitex
It is also important to include sufficient calcium, as a low amount has been linked to cramping, as blood levels of calcium drop off 10 days before menstruation. Again, there are more than just calcium-rich herbs in here! There are nervines, blood and uterine tonics and emmenagogues. “High Calcium Tea” (p 118):
- 2 parts oatstraw
- 1 part horsetail
- 2 parts comfrey
- 2 parts nettle
- 4 parts peppermint
- 2 parts pennyroyal
- 4 parts raspberry leaf
For acute cramping, she recommends the following “Cramp-T”
- 1 part cramp bark or black haw
- 1 part pennyroyal
- 1 part valerian
- 1/2 part ginger
A tincture of valerian, about 1/2 teaspoon every twenty minuets until the pain decreases. Another handy remedy to have around is pennyroyal essential oil, to rub a few diluted drops on the abdomen during cramping. Please be cautions with pennyroyal essential oil and never take it internally, because it is extremely toxic internally.
Now let’s take a look at David Winston’s recommendations. In my last entry, I asked, “…I don’t know if all anodyne work on the same parts of the body…”. Well, Winston has cleared that up for me. Here is “Aspirea Compound” (32)
- willow bark
- meadowsweet herb
- St. John’s wort
- Jamaica dogwood
- indian pipe
It has anti-inflammatory herbs (willow, meadowsweet, St. John’s wort), Jamaica dogwood which is analgesic and antispasmodic which Winston says is “especially for dysmenorrhea…”, and indian pipe which “…creates a feeling of separation from the pain” (32). I have tried this formula for other types of pain with great success (tooth ache, back spasm), but have yet to use it for cramps. It is very relaxing.
“Full Moon – Woman’s Antispasmodic Compound”
- PA-Free Petasites root
- Black haw
- wild yam
- Jamaica dogwood
- cyperus root
- Roman chamomile flowers
Winston’s notes: for mild to severe dysmenorrhea and some of the accompanying symptoms, take acutely, not daily. Here we see lots of antispasmodics at work.
“J. Kloss Anti-spasmodic Compound” (p4 6)
- black cohosh
- skunk cabbage
This is an example of a classic formula that works well as is, or can be adapted to suit individual needs. I have seen and used a couple variations of this formula (Dr. Christopher has one), one with blue vervain, blue cohosh instead of myrrh and skunk cabbage for treating epilepsy in a dog (2 drops a day for 3 months) and a severe tension headache (1/4 teaspoon every hour), both times it worked great. In the later, I sipped miso soup to quell the nausea that came with the lobelia and vervain.
Here is one more set of examples from David Hoffmann’s Medical Herbalism from page 387 -8.
- black haw
- black cohosh
This is a basic formula that covers the many of the action categories mentioned in the last entry. All are antispasmodic, al are nervine, and black cohosh is uterine tonic. The dosage is 5mL of tincture as needed, so when pain is approaching and in full swing. If a woman has secondary dysmenorrhea caused by pelvic lesions (from endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease) the dosage is 5 mL of the following tincture taken three times a day, rather than just symptomatically:
- cramp bark
- wild yam
- black cohosh
Again, all herbs are antispasmodic, cramp bark and black cohosh are nervines with black cohosh being the uterine tonic.
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.References: Mase’, Guido. “Using herbs for support when transitioning off psychiatric medication” lecture notes. Myss, Carloine. “Energy Anatomy” Audio lecture. Disc 7.
Practically everyday I find myself using mints for one reason or another. Here are a few of my current favorites.
Skullcap: Scutellaria lateriflora for mental exhaustion
I have been drinking infusions of this cooling bitter nervine, as I usually do after a mercury retrograde when thinking, communication, and information dissemination are often difficult and confusing. Though I have heard that the fresh tincture is best for acute burn-out conditions, I am using the tea is as a brain tonic to promote a clear mind. Skullcap can be a good ally for mental tension, nervous fear and even dread. Ah yes, this plant is very effective for tension of all sorts, even high blood pressure during pregnancy. Guido Mase of Vermont mentioned that skullcap is useful for acute drug withdrawal symptoms (use frequently) as well as breaking addictions in general, especially that of pain-killers and other receptor-site addictions. I hear that skullcap and motherwort are used to treat sunstroke; luckily I haven’t had to try it.
Sage: Salvia officinalis for a sore throat
Currently I am gargling with a strong sage tea right before bed and upon waking to treat a sore, scratchy throat. I like the spicy astringency of sage for sore throats because it seems to promote reduction on the soreness in a stimulating manner, almost as if it is gently scratching my irritated tonsils. During the winter I often opt for the soothing, coating, mucilaginous ways of slippery elm, especially when the sore throat is a cold or flu symptom, whereas currently I have an infection of the tonsils. Sage seems to prompts a healing response and tone up the rawness I see in the back of the throat. Helium.com has a sums up the common uses of sage. Phyllis Light and Matthew Wood mentioned sage for ‘male menopause’ when there are signs of wasting, premature aging, nervousness and shaking when a man passes mid-age, as it converts hormones to be used by the adrenals. They also cite sage for cystitis caused by mucus congestion in the bladder.
Thyme: Thymus vulgaris for a respiratory infection
About a week ago I awoke with an intense pain in my lungs, as if my chest and ribs were beaten to a bloody pulp. To my dismay, I had another respiratory infection. Feeling wiser since my last infection, I promptly took care of myself the best I could. Acupressure, deep breathing, saunas and steams, light soups and steamed veggies, gentle movement to circulate lymph, mustard plasters (you know it’s bad when you skip the onion plaster and go straight to mustard) followed with chest massage with essential oils, echinacea, goldenseal and osha tinctures, and lots and lots of thyme tea.
Spicy and warm thyme is an expectorant, antiseptic, and anti-infective, which makes it so useful in protecting the lungs from a worsening infection. I use it for both acute coughs and lung congestions, as well as for recovering from chronic infections. Looking back, I should’ve taken thyme for a longer duration after my last respiratory infection–I know I will now! Use it for pneumonia, tuberculosis, cold and flu, whooping cough, and sore throat. I read somewhere that it is not the best for chronic bronchitis where there are a lot of secretions, but rather indicated in dry coughs.
Pennyroyal: Mentha pulegium or Hedeoma pulegiodes as an emmenagogue
A few years at an herb conference in North Carolina, a complete stranger came over to me while I was making some tea. When she read the ingredients of the formula, she scoffed and said, “why are you using pennyroyal of all things? It’s a very dangerous herb best let to practitioners, young lady!” “Yes”, I told her, “I am well aware of the dangers of pennyroyal, and make sure to never ingest the essential oil” and continued on with my tea time. Common sense tells me it is always wise to employ caution when using herbs and essential oils. However, I am not about to be scared away from responsibly using pennyroyal herb after hearing a few stories. According to drugwarfacts.com, “Each year, use of NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) accounts for an estimated 7,600 deaths and 76,000 hospitalizations use of NSAIDs in the United States.” (NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, diclofenac, ketoprofen, and tiaprofenic acid). Would this woman have reacted in the same manner if I took out a bottle of aspirin?
Pennyroyal is one of my favorite herbs to have around to use both premenstrually during the first few days of bleeding. It is a well-know emmenagogue, antispasmodic and sedative, while calming nervous tension that settles in the stomach . I can feel its warm, diaphoretic action almost immediately; pelvic congestion and fullness with a bit of coldness or stagnation is allayed. A few drops of the essential oil in a spray bottle with plain water is one of my favorite mosquito repellent.
Lemon Balm – Melissa Offinalis as a calmative
Volatile oil-rich Melissa is hands down one of my favorite herbs. It is so sweet yet tart, cooling yet uplifting! Could there be a more tasty herb? During the long Minnesota winter, melissa is a melancholy sun-mourners best friend (along with Saint John’s Wort, calendula and rosemary), as it seems to dry up the dreariness and cheer one out of any funk. In true Scandinavian style, the winter darkness doesn’t seem to bother me. In fact, I thrive off of the most yin time of the year. Rather, I like to drink lemon balm tea in the summer to healthfully align myself to the yangness of the long sunny days. I say healthfully align because I have a tendency to be overstimulated in the expansiveness of summer, so much so that I drain my adrenals with too much all-day physical activities and late-night projects. Melissa helps me stay calm in the face of nervousness and insomnia, so I can be more appropriately active. I appreciate its carminative and somatic properties after eating too many raw and cool foods.
Peppermint – Menta piperita as a cooling beverage
I inherited a community garden plot that is chock full of gobs of healthy peppermint. When I initially laid out my garden beds, I transplanted all the peppermint to its own designated spot. With a little bit of conscious planting and watering, this former weed is now the prime example of health and vitality in my garden. Every time I come back from the garden, I take a hand full of peppermint with me to make into a deliciously aromatic sun tea. What says summer like fresh mint tea? To my roommates requests, we will probably be making mojitos soon.