Nervines

Outside my house is a tall quick growing mimosa tree (Albizia julibrisin).  In the summer time thousands of bright pink Dr. Seuss like puff ball flowers emerge and gently sway in the breeze.  Just resting under the tree and looking up is magical, uplifting and relaxing.  In the evening the leaves close against each other, mimicking our same pattern of going to bed to sleep.  In Japan it is called “Nemunoki” which means sleeping tree and in Iran its name means “night sleeper”.  And indeed when we take mimosa as an herb it helps us not only feel uplifted but gently relaxed and as a helpful aid for sleep.

Mimosa is one of the hundreds of herbs that herbalists incorporate to help people who feel anxious, taxed, overwhelmed, frazzled with signs of nervous system exhaustion. Today we live in a world that is increasingly challenging with many multiple stressors to our nervous system.  The ubiquity of computers, smart phones, screens and laptops means we are almost always plugged in, constantly aware of a stream of texts, emails, phone calls, news reports and social media updates.  Imagine yourself in a cabin with all that technology available to you for 24 hours.  Then imagine being at the cabin with no technology for 24 hours.  The difference is astonishing.  Without technology, time opens up.  We can get…bored.  We may feel withdrawal effects.

Add to that the barrage of nervous system challenges from evening and graveyard shifts, florescent lights, traffic, working multiple jobs and a modern diet that is high in sugar, caffeine and processed foods.

In the midst of these challenges, some people experience a greater degree of nervous system assault that others.  Those who have experienced trauma are more susceptible to feeling overwhelmed by their environment.   And those from marginalized and neurodivergent communities experience a greater degree of stress due to oppression, racism, poverty, etc.

Though no herb or drug will be able to change the underlying need to reduce the allostatic load of so many stressors, the class of herbs known as nervines can be amazingly helpful aids for both the immediate and long term work of helping people who are struggling with feeling taxed, depleted, anxious and overwhelmed.

The term nervine very simply means an herb that acts on the nervous system to have a stimulating, relaxing or restorative action.  But confusingly, when herbalists talk about nervines, they generally mean herbs that have a relaxant or restorative effect and not herbs like coffee and tea that are stimulating.

Hawthorn Flower

 

Trauma, Oppression and Nervines

One of the tricky things about nervines is that they are very particular to the individual and some people can have stronger reactions while some may feel little at all.  Yes this has to do somewhat with weight, age, dosage and health history but it also has to do with the specific neurobiology of an individual.  For some people with a history of trauma, the body has become wired to guard against nervous system stressors.  Trauma can cause systemic freezing, or rigidity.  From tight muscles to a more rigid heart rate, to poor motility in the gut to persistent ruminative circular thinking, the body and mind have developed protective armoring in the form of tightness.  Just as someone who has been punched in the gut naturally curls around and tightens up to protect the belly, so will a trauma survivor use a variety of somatic expressions to protect from vulnerability.  Nervines tend to relax or greatly modify our nervous system and can lead to a feeling of being threatened- this causes the consumer to double up in greater tightness , or to flare into severe emotional distress.  That’s why we need to be careful when offering these herbs as some people react quite poorly.  In my experience this becomes increasingly the case with the stronger nervines.   Please take a look at my article Trauma Informed Herbalism for a deeper understanding of this subject.

As with all of herbalism, it is essential to tune into the specific and unique needs of an individual.  Sometimes this means gentler and lower doses, and sometimes this means avoiding certain plants altogether.  Let the individual who is healing take the lead.

OK so lets take a look at some of these types of herbs.  Before you read on- please note that there is a link on each herb here for you to get more in depth information about each plant.

 

Nervines

 

Stimulating nervines that contain caffeine

 

Cacao (Erythoxylum coca)
Coffee  (Caffea arabica)
Tea  (Camelia sinensis)
Kola nut  (Cola acuminata)
Mate  (Ilex paraguariensis)

These are the most consumed beverages in the world and for good reason.  Caffeine gives  a jolt, increases energy temporarily, increases alertness and stamina.  But of course as well know the effect wears off and caffeine is addictive.  These herbs can add to feelings of being overwhelmed and exhausted if consumed excessively.   At the same time, I think herbalists underestimate these herbs as agents that can help us with social bonding that in turn works to help build emotional resiliency as part of the polyvagal pathway.  Coffee and tea houses have long been meeting points for humans to share, connect, laugh and build a sense of local community.  To understand more about this subject, please take a look at my article here:  Polyvagal Theory, Herbalism, Resiliency and Healing.

 

Complex Strong Nervines

 

Cannabis  (Cannabis sativa)
Kanna  (Scletium tortuosum)
Yohimbe (Pausinystalia yohimbe) 
Low dose Psilocybin  (Psilocybe cubensis)
Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa)
Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum)
Khat  (Catha edulis)
Betel Nut  (Areca catechu)
Coca Leaf (Erythroxylum coca)

 

These are non-caffeine containing stimulant herbs that have very different and unique heterogeneous actions depending on the user.  They are strong in action and have multiple unique effects and each of these substances is quite different.  I will let the reader explore the subject themselves through clicking on each herb but I will add that these herbs are commonly used throughout the world for their multiple effects.  While many are stimulating they also often have calmative effects as well.  Think of smoking a cigarette.  The nicotine alkaloid both stimulates and calms the user.  All of these herbs/fungi can have side effects and can cause long term health conditions is used inappropriately.  I will add that if the reader wants to explore this topic more they can read my article In Praise of Strong Plants as well as the article on psilocybin entitled  Psychedelic Mushrooms for Mental Health: A Primer.

 

Stimulating herbs without caffeine

 

Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
Eleutherococcus (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Rhodiola  (Rhodiola rosea)
Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng)

These are herbs that are often called “adaptogens”, or tonic herbs that have marked effects on improving resileincy, stamina and energy levels in certain consumers.  These adaptogens are more energizing and stimulating than others and tend to be more heating and drying and therefore not great for a lot of people who are already frazzled, exhausted with symptoms such as anxiety and insomnia.  But for those who appear lethargic, heavy, stagnant with low and sad mood, these herbs can be useful.

 

Gentle relaxant nervines

 

Lavender  (Lavendula angustifolia)
Borage (Borago offinalis)
Catnip  (Nepeta cataria)
Chamomile  (Matricaria chamomilla) 
Lemon Balm  (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon Verbena  (Aloysia citrodora)
Hawthorn flower (Crataegus sp)
Linden  (Tilia europea)
Passionflower  (Passiflora incarnata)
Rose  (Rosa sp)
Motherwort  (Leonorus cardiaca)

 

These are the nervines that are most commonly used in day to day and often in tea form to help gently relax and calm people when they are feeling stressed and overwhelmed.  These are herbs that are appropriate for kids and elderly as well.  I find that this class of herbs is best tolerated by those with significant trauma background as the effects are more subtle and gentle.

 

Strongly relaxant nervines

 

Black Cohosh  (Cimicifuga racemosa)
Cramp bark  (Viburnum opulis)
Hops (Humulus lupulus)
Jamaican Dogwood (Piscidia erythrina)
Pedicularis (Pedicularis sp)
Kava Kava  (Piper methysticum)
Valerian  (Valeriana officinalis)

 

These herbs are most often found in tincture form and occasionally as tea (Kava) or capsules (valerian).  They have marked nervous system relaxant effects and generally are antispasmodic to help with muscles spasms, cramping and pain related to tightness and rigidity.  More caution should be taken with this class of herbs and are generally contraindicated when used with other pharmaceutical relaxants such as benzodiazepines like klonopin and xanax. They are also generally too strong for kids and infirm elderly.

 

Tonic nervines

Saint Johns Wort  (Hypericum perforatum)
Milky Oats  (Avena sativa)
Mimosa  (Albizzia julibrissin)
Skullcap  (Scutellaria laterifolia)
Ashwaghanda  (Withania somnifera)
Reishi mushroom  (Ganoderma lucidum)
Schisandra  (Schisandra chinensis)
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

 

These are herbs that can be taken for longer intervals for their cumulative tonic effect one the nervous system.  They each have particular medicinal functions but generally will help build nervous system resiliency so that one can better handle triggers and stressors while helping the body to avoid shifting into sympathetic nervous system states.

 

Digestive Aid Nervines

 

Mugwort  (Artemisia vulgaris)
Chamomile  (Matricaria chamomila)
Hops (Humulus lupulus)
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) 
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

 

These are herbs that both act as a gentle relaxant to the nervous system but also help improve the digestion.  All of them can be slightly bitter and some are very bitter (with mugwort- look out a little goes a long way).  That bitter effect improves gut motility, improves assimilation and elimination.  For those with a “nervous tummy” or where stress goes to the digestive system, these can be lifesavers.

 

Heart Nervines

 

Reishi  (Ganoderma lucidum, oregonense)
Motherwort (Leonorus cardiaca)
Linden (Tilia europea)
Hawthorn  (Crataegus sp)
Rose  (Rosa sp.)
Bleeding-heart  (Dicentra formosa)

 

These are nervine gentle relaxant herbs that have a special affinity to the cardiovascular system. They tend to be hypotensive and calmative while improving cardiovascular function, gently opening arteries and reducing the chance of stroke.

 

 

Conclusion

 

As we evolved with plants, we developed relationships that have marked effects on our nervous system.  Many of these have become beverages that we drink everyday for energy but also as social lubricants (coffee, tea) to help us interact and connect with others.  In some places the coffee house has taken the place of the village square- somewhere to meet, interact and deepen relationships.

Some of these stronger substances (kanna, low dose psilocybin, cannabis) play a reply important role for people who are working through anxiety, depression and other symptoms of emotional distress.  However, they are more challenging to the nervous system and present an array of potential side effects.

By and large herbalists stick to taking about the gentle, strong and tonic nervines.  These have a place for both short term acute bouts of anxiety and distress as well as for long term complaints of nervous system debility.  Here are some nervine recipes.

 

Gentle Nervine tea – Heart Ease

Linden                  1 part

Lemon Balm         1 part

Hawthorn Flower  1 part

Rose                    1/4 part

Mix together and then add one to two tablespoons per pint of hot water and allow to infuse for ten minutes- then strain and drink.

 

 

Gentle nervine tea 2 – Relax the Tummy

Catnip      1 part

Chamomile 1 part

Lemon Balm 1 part

Lavender 1/2 part

Mix together and then add one to two tablespoons per pint of hot water and allow to infuse for ten minutes- then strain and drink.

 

 

Strong Nervine combination for pain relief/tension–  This combo is especially good for pain issues especially associated with tightness, rigidity and cramping.  This is best in tincture form and very challenging to drink

Jamaican Dogwood 1 part

Kava    1 part

Crampbark 1 part

Motherwort 1 part

Mix even parts by tincture into one formula.  Then take 2-4 ml to 2x/day.  Avoid if operating heavy machinery, driving, in pregnancy.  Avoid with other tranquilizing pharmaceutical agents.

 

 

Strong Nervine combo for sleep

Hops 1 part

Valerian 1 part

Skullcap 1 part

Kava 1 part

This combination consists of hypnotic sedative nervine herbs to generally be used to aid for sleep but also as a nice relaxing tincture in the evening.  Mix even parts by tincture into one formula.  Then take 2-4 ml, mainly in evening for sleep.   Avoid if operating heavy machinery, driving, in pregnancy.  Avoid with other tranquilizing pharmaceutical agents.

 

Sunshine

Saint Johns Wort  2 parts

Milky Oats 2 parts

Mimosa Flower 1 part

Reishi 1 part

Ashwaghanda 1 part

Licorice 1/4 part

Tis is a combination of gentle nervine relaxants and tonics to help strengthen and stabilize the nervous system- especially for this who are prone to sympathetic nervous system overdrive.  Mix this together as separate tinctures into one tincture formula.  Take 3 ml 2x/day.

 

Grief and Loss 

Motherwort 1 part

Reishi 1 part

Chamomile 1 part

Lemon Balm 1 part

Rose 1/2 part

This is a combination that can be taken in tea form but more likely in tincture form. Mix together different tinctures in appropriate amounts and take 2-4 ml to 2 x/day for calmative and tonic effects on the nervous system.  These herbs also have a specificity for the heart center that is often affected by grief and loss.

 

 

This article written by Jon Keyes, Licensed Professional Counselor and  herbalist.  For more articles like this, please go to    www.Hearthsidehealing.com.  You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health.

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