When someone is feeling stressed, anxious, tense and wound up, herbalists will often recommend a type of herb known as a nervine. A nervine is a type of herb that has a relaxing (and sometimes stimulating) effect on the nervous system and can help to soothe tension and bring a sense of calm. These herbs are especially helpful for those who regularly experience emotional distress and have been labeled with a mental illness such as anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder. Nervines are not meant as replacements for psychiatric drugs and anyone on medication should not ever stop a medication cold turkey and try to use herbs as an alternative to meds.
So lets take a look at this type of herb. They can be divided up into a few categories going from most gentle to most potent. The gentlest nervines can be taken regularly (daily) with no toxic effect. They also have the least likelihood of causing an adverse reaction and being contraindicated for taking with a psychiatric drug.
Nutritive Nervines. These are herbs that restore the nervous system over a period of time, are mineral and vitamin rich and also have a gentle relaxing effect. These are herbs such as oatstraw (Avena sativa), linden (Tilia americana). Though not specifically a nervine, I would add nettles (Urtica dioica) to this list as it will strengthen the nervous system. Try taking a cup full of oatstraw or nettles (about an ounce), or a half cup of linden (half ounce), and placing the herb in the bottom of a quart mason jar. Then prepare boiling water and pour it over the herb and let it steep for 4-12 hours. Then decant the herb and drink the infusion throughout the day. Not only will it help you feel calmer and more relaxed, it will also help strengthen and rejuvenate your nervous system as you drink these herbs daily over a period of weeks.
Gentle nervines. These are herbs that you can prepare as a tea on a regular basis. They tend to be mild in effect but are amazingly effective as well. These gentle herbs include lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), skullcap (Scuttelaria lareifolia), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), catnip (Nepeta cataria), passionflower, motherwort, lavender, st. john’s wort and california poppy. For these herbs, you can generally take two to three teaspoons of the herb and add it to a cup of hot water and then let it steep for about 5 minutes, decant the herb and then drink. These herbs come in tincture form too. I am a big proponent of drinking teas as you get the secondary effects of having a full sensory experience by seeing, touching, smelling and tasting the herb. Most of all these herbs can be drunk in tea form though both st. john’s wort and motherwort are pretty difficult to drink and are better tolerated as tinctures. Try drinking one to two cups a day or as needed.
Sedative nervines. These are herbs that are more stronger acting and are known as sedative herbs. For some, they can be too strong or cause adverse effects in some people, especially for those who are taking psychiatric meds or are tapering off of psychiatric meds. They should not be taken if you are already taking an antipsychotic, a mood stabilizer or a benzodiazapene such as xanax or klonopin. These herbs include hops, black cohosh, vervain, valerian and kava. Because of their strong flavor, these herbs are often taken in tincture form. Valerian can also have a “reverse effect” of making some people more restless and wired. I see this especially in people who are already “hot-types” who tend to appear ruddy and are generally more excitable. I often recommend taking these tinctures “as needed” from 10-30 drops a time, no more than several times a day and not for more than several days before taking a break.
Activating nervines: These are herbs that excite and stimulate the nervous system. Gently activating nervines include rosemary, peppermint, lavender and ginger and can be used frequently. Stronger acting activating nervines tend to be herbs that should be used infrequently as excessive use can “burn out” the nervous system. Some examples include Gotu kola, coffee bean, yerba mate and tea. These are the most easily abused nervines and people often drink these herbs daily and in high doses. This leads to tolerance, addiction and withdrawal complications as well as the potential for leading to adrenal exhaustion. Proceed with caution with these.
Calming nervines are often useful herbs to take as part of a protocol for helping reduce the symptoms of anxiety, stress, tension, an overactive nervous system and an excessively heightened arousal state. They should not be used as a sole therapeutic modality but as part of a comprehensive program that addresses the root cause of the symptoms. Often this means adding appropriate and gentle exercise, a whole foods diet, plenty of sunshine and fresh air, massage, acupuncture, and working through and integrating any unprocessed trauma, often with the help of peers and therapists.
As part of a whole program, nervines are amazingly helpful allies on the path to greater health and wellbeing.