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More Than Just Chamomile and Lavender

Calming the Nervous System with Nervine Herbs

What is a nervine herb?

A nervine is a plant that has an effect on the nervous system. Sounds boring, but when we think about the role that the nervous system plays in every aspect of our mental health, including our response to stress and anxiety, it makes sense why nervine herbs are some of the most commonly known and well-accepted herbs not only in traditional use and modern peer-reviewed research, but in the mainstream as well.


But just because a category of herbs is mainstream or even trending, that does not mean every herb in that category works the same or that any of them are a good fit for everyone! That's one of the many beautiful things about herbs: each one has several components, actions, and mechanisms at play, making them highly customizable.


Now, not many folks will take the time to get to know the plant in order to match it appropriately, which can lead to, at best, it not working, but at worst, negative reactions.


So, instead of giving you a list of herbs to memorize that are all "used for" stress and anxiety and having you pick one to try willy-nilly, I'm going to explain how these herbs interact with the nervous system, so that you can choose the best ones for your specific circumstances.


Let's start with a brief, simplified overview of how the nervous system works, so that we know what we're dealing with.

The Nervous System

The nervous system contains the brain, spinal cord, nerves, and sense organs such as the eyes, ears, and those on the skin.


The nervous system is broken down into two main parts:

  1. The Central nervous system, consisting of the brain and spinal cord, and the

  2. Peripheral nervous system, nerves that extend to all the outlying parts of the body: the periphery! Peripheral nerves relay information between your brain and the rest of your body.



The peripheral nervous system can further be broken down into two parts:

  • The somatic nervous system is a part of the peripheral nervous system that consists of motor nerves that control voluntary actions of the skeletal muscles. Moving our arms and legs and whatnot.

  • The autonomic nervous system is a part of the peripheral nervous system responsible for involuntary functions that we have no conscious control over, such as heart rate, smooth muscles that create stomach and intestinal contractions, and hormone secretion.


But wait, there's more! The autonomic system, this involuntary part, can even further be broken down into two parts:

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is our "fight or flight" mode, functions in emergencies and stressful situations. It speeds up the heart rate, stops digestion, dilates pupils, causes goosebumps, and increases sweat and epinephrine production. This is meant to help us survive the stressful situation.


The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the opposite. It slows the heart rate and turns on digestion. This is often called "rest and digest" mode. This is where we feel calm, relaxed, and safe. (I don't know her)


(I try and remember the difference by thinking the sympathetic dinosaur brain is saying “aww I feel bad for you you’re about to be attacked by a bear. Let me see what I can do to help”. It's trying to be "sympathetic" to our situation, which is great in a survival situation! Thank you for your sympathies, brain)


Many organs receive signals from both the PNS and SNS and are continually bombarded by opposing signals. It’s like a constant competition between the two in order to maintain homeostasis (aka balance). In this day and age, many of us struggle with an overactive sympathetic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is controlled by the limbic system in the hypothalamus. This is our emotional brain, which many times feels like it's constantly telling our organs that we are in danger. Anger, fear, and hate all trigger the sympathetic nervous system to prepare the body for fight or flight; that we're either going to have to battle or run away from a predator.


So, what happens when there’s no fight or flight to be had?


For many who struggle with general anxiety or panic disorders, the sympathetic nervous system is like a feedback loop:

  1. Worry and stress cause fight or flight to kick in,

  2. The dinosaur brain says “You’re worried about something, let me get your body ready to do something about it”

  3. But when we’re not worried about a physical threat- maybe instead it's financial troubles, family dynamics, pandemics, or you know, the fall of society as we know it, - that increased heart rate doesn’t help. So we feel this seemingly out of nowhere, (sometimes when we’re not even actively worrying)

  4. We think, "Something’s wrong with me why am I feeling these things in my body", which elicits MORE fear and anxiety, thus turning the sympathetic nervous system on even stronger and perpetuating a vicious cycle.

This autonomic interface and balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic is where nervine herbs really get to shine.

When we’re working with nervines, we’re trying to get the parasympathetic nervous system to overpower the sympathetic nervous system, since they’re both constantly sending signals to our organs at the same time.


Many nervines function directly on the central nervous system, some work directly on the autonomic nervous system, and some act on both.


Let's talk about some of the different categories of nervines...


Types of Nervine Plants

With such a broad system for nervines to function in, to more easily study them we can categorize them into the following groups:


(You’ll see a lot of overlap, and that’s because each nervine functions differently through countless different mechanisms and constituents. This makes it possible to select very specific nervines on a case-by-case basis.)


**plants we will profile as primary nervines in the Rootcraft 10-month online intensive

*plants we will profile in the 10-month intensive, but not as primary nervines, and

the rest are plants that are nervines that will not be profiled in the course.


Nervine Tonics

These plants have shown to help improve both the response to stress, as well as improve cognition, a term for the mental processes that take place in the brain such as thinking, attention, language, learning, memory, and perception. In cases of stress, shock, and nervous debility, nervine tonics can work over longer periods of time (weeks or months) to strengthen and restore nervous tissue directly. They can also help the body heal damaged nervous tissue caused by disease or physical injury. Some, but not all, nervine tonics have an additional relaxing effect.


Some of our most reliable nervine tonics are:

**Milky Oats Avena Sativa

**Skullcap Scutellaria lateriflora (as a tincture, not a tea)

**Tulsi Ocimum tenuiflorum

Lions Mane mushrooms Hericium erinaceus


Nervine Relaxants

These are plants that we rely upon to calm the mind relatively quickly during times of anxiety and stress and are by far some of the best-known herbs in the mainstream because of, well, the world we live in.


Unline tonics, which are mainly worked with over longer periods of time to restore proper nervous system function, nervine relaxants can often show more immediate results and are worked with more short-term. Some, such as skullcap and tulsi, can do both.


Nervine relaxants should always be worked with in a holistic way, addressing underlying causes of stress and anxiety as well, rather than as a band-aid-type tranquilizer to disconnect from our lives and our worries. Working with relaxing herbs over time can have an overall depleting effect on the nervous system, so they should only be worked with temporarily to get over a particularly stressful slump, while simultaneously implementing healthy coping mechanisms as well.


There are several nervine relaxants to choose from, so it’s often a good idea to match an herb's secondary actions to each situation. These combinations of actions are a beautiful way that plants can address both a symptom that has shown up as a result of anxiety, as well as the underlying anxiety itself.


For example, chamomile and lemon balm have a secondary action of supporting digestion, so if the anxiety comes along with nausea or gastrointestinal upset, one of these may be a good choice. Motherwort and Black Cohosh have effects on the uterus, so might be a better choice if the stress or tension is related to the menstrual cycle. Always check a plant's entire profile of actions and contraindications before choosing it solely on the basis that it is a nervine.


Plants that are nervine relaxants include:

**Hops Humulus lupulus

**Lavender Lavandula spp.

**Passionflower Passiflora incarnata

**Lemon Balm Melissa officinalis

**Motherwort Leonurus cardiaca

**Chamomile Matricaria recutita

**Skullcap Scutellaria lateriflora

**Valerian Valeriana officinalis

**Crampbark Viburnum opulus

**Tulsi Ocimum tenuiflorum

*Black cohosh Cimicifuga racemosa

*Klamath weed Hypericum perforatum

Mimosa Albizia julibrissin

Lobelia Lobelia inflata

Kava Lactuca virosa

California poppy Eschscholzia californica

Wild lettuce Lactuca virosa

Vervain Verbena officinalis



Hypnotics

Aka sedatives. These are nervines that can specifically help to induce a deep and healing state of sleep. This effect can be caused by mild muscle-relaxing properties, volatile oils that ease psychological tension, or strong alkaloids that work directly on the nervous system to induce sleep. Opioids, some of the most powerfully sedative, painkilling, and addictive drugs that have been made, were originally plant-derived. While not as dangerously potent, the following hypnotic plants also have the benefit of not being habit forming:


Hypnotic plants that can support sleep include:

**Hops Humulus lupulus

**Chamomile Matricaria recutita

**Passionflower Passiflora incarnata

**Valerian Valeriana officinalis

**Skullcap Scutellaria lateriflora (as a tea, not a tincture)

Wild lettuce Lactuca virosa

California poppy Eschscholzia californica


Antispasmodics

These are nervines that prevent or ease spasms or cramps in the muscles, easing physical tension and, as nervines, psychological tension as well.


Some plants have general antispasmodic actions, and others work specifically on certain organs or systems. In general antispasmodics work on the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for controlling unconscious bodily functions (such as breathing, the heartbeat, and digestion). Not all of them necessarily effect the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) though. So some antispasmodic plants, but not all, have sedative effects.


Motherwort

Antispasmodic herbs include:

*Black cohosh Cimicifuga racemosa

**Hops Humulus lupulus

*Hyssop Hyssopus officinalis

**Lavender Lavandula spp.

**Passionflower Passiflora incarnata

**Lemon Balm Melissa officinalis

*Motherwort Leonurus cardiaca

*Lobelia Lobelia inflata

*Chamomile Matricaria recutita

**Skullcap Scutellaria lateriflora

**Valerian Valeriana officinalis

**Crampbark Viburnum opulus


There is also an extensive list of antispasmodics that are not considered nervines. These relieve muscle spasms without having any effect on psychological stress or tension. These are antispasmodics that are mostly specific to the respiratory, digestive, and urinary tracts. Most cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and several digestive antispasmodics are also nervines.


Neurogenics

Some nervines have shown to increase NGF (Nerve Growth Factor) which is involved in the regulation of growth, maintenance, proliferation, and survival of nerves. These are called neurogenic or neuritogenic.


Lions Mane mushrooms Hericium erinaceus

*Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis

Cannabis sativa

Ginseng Panax ginseng

Hosetail Equisetum giganteum

Rue Ruta gravolens

Phytoestrogen rich legumes: Alfalfa Medicago sativa, Red clover Trifolium pratense, Soy

Several culinary spices that are still being investigated


Nootropics

Many nervines are also considered nootropic, meaning they have been shown to improve memory or cognition.


*Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis

**Lemon Balm Melissa officinalis

Lion’s Mane mushrooms Hericium erinaceus

**Milky Oats Avena Sativa

Gingko Gingko biloba

**Tulsi Ocimum tenuiflorum


Nervine Simulants

The term stimulant can be looked at in a couple of different ways. Many of us think of stimulants as things that give us energy or speed up the body’s activity. But stimulation can also mean triggering organs or systems to perform their functions or begin their processes.


We won’t be detailing “energizing” nervous system stimulants in this course, such as those from alkaloids like caffeine found in coffee, tea, and chocolate. In general, our lives (and the world these days) are more than stimulating. Most of us aren’t actually seeking stimulation, we’re seeking to not be tired. Relying on nervine stimulants to trick our bodies into feeling awake leaves us with side effects of feeling jittery, anxious, and tense.


A different option is to work with plants that simulate the body’s vitality. These have a deeper, longer-lasting, but more subtle effect than more traditional stimulants.

Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis and Peppermint Mentha piperita have these qualities.


There are a couple of things that nervines don’t do:

Nervines don’t eliminate the stressors from your life.

This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at some peoples’ reactions to this. If your boss is causing your anxiety, your baby is keeping you awake, or capitalism is burning you out: nervines won’t change that. Your boss will still be a jerk, your baby will still cry, and capitalism will still be burying the working class. You will still be exposed to stress after you start taking nervines.


What nervine tonics can do, though, is create a sort of buffer in our responses to these stressors. Whereas one tense encounter may have typically triggered full-blown panic or spiraling thoughts before, hopefully, with the support of nervine tonics, that threshold for panic can move a bit higher so that we’re not constantly on edge, waiting for one wrong move to set us off. We will still be subject to the things in life that are stressful, there’s no escaping that, but we’re hoping to stave off the physical responses and subsequent chronic illnesses induced by it.


Nervines don’t give us a green light

to continue patterns, habits, or lifestyles that are overly stressful. The goal is to remove as many of these stressors as possible, rather than mask them with relaxing or sedative herbs.


My top 3 recommendations to incorporate with nervine herbs are to work on:

  1. Setting boundaries and saying “no” This is by far the most accessible. It costs no money and takes no time, it's just also the one that effects others the most, and that can be intimidating. Just know that your needs for time and space are just as important as theirs.

  2. Working with a therapist This can be difficult to access in a country like the US where access to affordable healthcare doesn't exist for everyone. If your employer offers an EAP (employee assistance program) take advantage of that. Those seeking free or low-cost counseling often think their only options are counselors in private practice, but publicly-funded providers in your community may also offer counseling services. Resources like Open Counseling can help you find mental health services near you While state-based programs are not for everyone, they’re often a great place to start for people who face geographic or financial barriers to therapy. Intake specialists at community mental health programs can help people learn whether they qualify for state-funded services and can refer people who don’t qualify to other low-cost programs that may be able to meet their needs.

  3. Making time for things that bring you joy. This holistic mind-body-spirit approach will triple the potency of the herbs, in a matter of speaking. This can be the most challenging, not because of traditional barriers to access such as cost or location, but because of the time restrictions that capitalism imposes on us that prevent us from spending time finding joy. Going for a hike, taking yourself to the movies, or cooking your favorite meal may not cost as much as, say, a spa day, but when we have to work as many hours as we do just to have a place to live, then also take care of our homes, our loved ones, and still answer emails after all that? Taking any amount of time for ourselves seems highly unaffordable. Time is money, as they say. I challenge you to reframe this expectation. I'm not saying quit your job and move into the woods (as much as many of us would like to), but rest should not be a privilege. This brings us back to #1: setting boundaries and saying no. Get to know your mental health limits. You don't have to push harder or achieve more just for the sake of it. When you have a choice between taking on more or taking the rest: it's okay to choose rest. That doesn't make you lazy. Laziness is a social construct used to shame us into working harder, and for who? We've been duped into believing the "sense of pride" we receive from a hard day's work is what it's really all about. Is that sense of pride valid? Of course. Being proud of what we've achieved for ourselves and provided for our loved ones is natural. We have to make sure we don't let that get taken advantage of by employers, though. They're the ones who really stand to benefit from exploiting this pride by turning it into guilt and shame in order to increase their own bottom line. With no additional effort on their part! When we push harder, the capitalists win.

Ok, ok, end of anti-capitalist rant. My point is, you're not lazy. There's no such thing as lazy. Is a cheetah lazy for basking in the sun when it isn't hunting? No, it's simply existing. Be the cheetah.

Simply exist. And you can incorporate nervine tonics to restore and maintain nervous system health, adding in other nervines as needed on a short-term basis.


For in-depth profiles on all of the plants in this post, including

  • how to grow and harvest them,

  • how each one is best extracted into remedies,

  • how each plant is used,

  • history and folklore behind them, as well as

  • safety and contraindications for each plant...

consider enrolling in the next Rootcrarft 10-month online intensive.

Pre-recorded lessons are released weekly February through November and can be taken on your own schedule. And if you'd like me to send you herbs, seeds, and tools each season to go along with the course, check out my Medicine Maker Shipments


Learn more and reserve your spot here!

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