In our fast-paced world, adaptogens can provide significant benefits to help relieve the negative impact of constant worry, overwork, inadequate sleep, and unsustainable lifestyles. It is also obvious that adaptogens alone will not make up for lack of sleep, poor diet, lack of exercise, and a host of other issues that are the basic foundations of health. Obesity has become an epidemic and yet so many of us are often deficient in many nutrients, including magnesium, zinc, selenium, folate, Vitamin D, Omega 3 fatty acids, and even dietary fiber. Herbs are no substitute for healthier eating or adequate sleep. Sitting at a desk all day long and a regular lack of physical exercise can contribute to sleeplessness, obesity, insulin resistance, and poor circulation. Again, adaptogens may offer benefits, but regular exercise, both strength training and cardio, are essential for good health. There are many additional issues that contribute to illness including smoking, drug and excessive alcohol use, feeling isolated and alone, being spiritually malnourished, and indoor or environmental pollution are all risk factors for disease.
In addition to lifestyle and dietary changes, there are other herbs that can enhance the effects of adaptogens, first and foremost among these are the nervines. Nervines are nerve tonics, calming herbs that are mildly relaxing without the overtly suppressant effects of sedatives. This type of herb restores emotional balance and nourishes the nerves and nervous system. Nervines help calm anxiety, stress-induced heart, or gastrointestinal tract symptoms, mild sleeplessness, irritability, and white coat hypertension.
Fresh Milky Oat (Avena sativa) – For one week out of the common oats growing cycle, the immature oat seed is filled with a white “milk”. If it is harvested quickly and made into a fresh tincture or glycerite, it becomes the greatest nervous system trophorestorative we have. A Trophorestorative is literally a food for a specific tissue or organ, one that nourishes the tissue, restoring normal function and vitality. Fresh Milky Oat extract is a superb food for the nervous system. It is a slow-acting tonic remedy that calms shattered nerves, relieves emotional instability, reduces the symptoms of drug withdrawal, and it helps to restore a sense of peace and tranquility to over-stressed, angry, and chronically upset people.
Fresh Oat paired with adaptogens is indicated for PMS and menopausal anxiety and mood swings, nervous exhaustion, sexual neurasthenia (sexual weakness) caused by an excessive lifestyle, and to reduce the agitation that comes from withdrawal from cigarettes, coffee, amphetamines, or prescription sleep medications. It is most appropriate for people who are emotionally “frazzled’, they become oversensitive and hyper-reactive to both physical and emotional stresses. They cry at the drop of a hat, have emotional outbursts, shake, can’t deal with even small issues, and look like a deer in the headlights. Patients with chronic fatigue immune deficiency syndrome (CFIDS), multiple chemical sensitivities syndrome (MCSS), and panic disorder can all benefit over time from this gentle, non-habit forming food/herb that has no real side-effects or drug interactions.
Tincture (1:2): 80-100 drops, 3-4 times per day
Glycerite (1:2): 120-140 drops, 3-4 times per day
Safety Issues: Avoid if you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
Scullcap herb (Scutellaria lateriflora) – The revival of herbal medicine has created a renewed demand for many herbs, including Scullcap. It is indicated for stressed-out people who, when nervous or agitated, develop muscle spasms, nervous tics, or tight, painful muscles. It can also be used for the spasms and tremors associated with tardive dyskinesia, restless leg syndrome, mild Tourette’s syndrome, bruxism, and it can even offer some symptomatic relief for the tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease. Scullcap is also indicated for stress-induced headaches, petit-mal seizures (use it with Lobelia, Blue Vervain, and Gastrodia tuber), neck and back pain and panic disorder (use it with Motherwort, Blue Vervain, Chinese Polygala, and Pulsatilla).
Dosage: Fresh tincture (1:2): 60-80 drops, up to 4 times per day.
Mimosa bark (Albizia julibrissin) – is called He Huan Pi in Chinese medicine, which means “collective happiness bark”. In Chinese tradition, it is used for disturbed shen symptoms, including bad dreams, irritability, anger, depression, and poor memory. It is indicated (along with Hawthorn berries and Rose petals), for “broken hearts”, grief and deep sadness.
Tea: 1-2 tsp. dried bark to 8 oz. water. Decoct for 10 minutes, steep 30-40 minutes, take 4 oz. up to 3 times per day.
Safety Issues: Avoid using Mimosa bark during pregnancy.
Lemon Balm herb (Melissa officinalis) – makes a delightful tasting tea that can be drunk simply for pleasure or for its mood-elevating and nervine effects. Human studies indicate this lemony smelling member of the mint family can enhance cognitive function, improve mood, and can relieve some of the symptoms of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, especially irritability and forgetfulness. It can also be taken for stress headaches, to promote better sleep quality (use it with Chamomile and Linden Flower), for nervous stomach, ADD/ADHD, and most importantly for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), it can be paired in equal parts with St. John’s wort and Lemon Balm as a tea or a tincture.
Tea: 1-2 tsp. dried leaf to 8 oz. hot water, steep, covered, 15 minutes, take 2-3 cups per day
Tincture (1:2.5): 80-100 drops up to 4 times per day
Safety Issues: Lemon Balm in large amounts is a thyroxin inhibitor. Avoid using it in patients with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and other hypothyroid conditions.
Blue Vervain herb (Verbena hastata) – is a nervine, anxiolytic, and antispasmodic. It can be taken in combination with Motherwort (Leonurus cardica), Chinese Polygala root (Polygala tenuifolia) and Fresh Oat (Avena sativa) for PMS or menopausal anxiety. It is also used with Ashwagandha and Scullcap for nervous tics, restless leg syndrome, mild Tourette’s syndrome, and tardive dyskinesia. It is especially indicated for women who have pre-menstrual or menopausal anxiety, or other issues related to hormonal fluctuations. It can relieve menstrual cramps, vaginismus, PMS mood swings, and irritability, spastic bladder, and menstrual headaches.
Tea: 1 tsp. dried herb to 8 oz. hot water, steep 15-20 minutes, take 4 oz. three times per day
Tincture (1:2.5):20-40 drops, up to 3 times per day
Safety Issues: Avoid use during pregnancy. Excessive doses of this herb can cause nausea; always combine it with carminative herbs (Ginger, Cinnamon, Orange Peel, etc.).
Motherwort herb (Leonurus cardiaca) – is the herb most frequently combined with Blue Vervain for simple anxiety. This combination is also superb for PMS and menopausal irritability, mood swings, and anxiety. In addition to its nervine and anxiolytic effects, Motherwort also has antispasmodic, blood pressure-lowering, and cardiac tonic activity. It can also be paired with Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) for menopausal insomnia. With this type of insomnia, the woman has little or no difficulty falling asleep but routinely wakes up at 2-3:00 am and can’t get back to sleep. The combination of these two herbs with a possible addition of Fresh Oat or Lavender can effectively treat this problem.
Motherwort is also of benefit for labile (white coat) hypertension. Anytime you are anxious, upset, angry, or nervous, your blood pressure goes up. Motherwort, along with Fresh Oat, Reishi mushroom, and Rhodiola, can help to moderate stress and the rise in blood pressure that for many people comes with it.
Tea: 1 tsp. dried herb to 8 oz. water, steep 15-20 minutes, take 4 oz. 3 times per day.
Tincture (1:2.5): 50-80 drops, 3 or 4 times per day
Safety Issues: Avoid use in pregnancy
Linden flower (Tilia platyphyllos, T. cordata) - it makes a delightful smelling and tasting tea. Linden flowers (actually the medicinal part is the flower and a modified leaf known as a pedical) have nervine, mild antidepressant, and blood pressure-lowering effects. While you can use this herb as a tincture, tea is the preferred form for use. Combinations of Linden flower, Lemon Balm, Chamomile, Catnip, Damiana, and other pleasant-tasting herbs are an enjoyable and effective way to reduce stress, irritability, mild anxiety, depression, and nervous headaches. Linden mixed with Chrysanthemum flower and Motherwort can reduce mildly elevated blood pressure. Linden mixed with Hawthorn, Lemon Balm, and Chamomile can calm children with ADD/ADHD.
A simple tea of Linden Flower, Chamomile, and Fennel seed can relieve digestive upset, wakefulness, coughs, and agitation in children with fevers. For insomnia and bad dreams, mix lime flowers with Passionflower, Reishi mushroom, and Lavender.
Tea: 1-2 tsp. dried flowers/pedicals to 8 oz. hot water, steep 10-15 minutes, take up to 3 cups per day.
Hawthorn berry, flower, and leaf (Crataegus oxycanthoides, C. monogyna) – Hawthorn is a tropho- restorative or food for the heart and circulatory system. It is frequently used for angina pain, mild congestive heart failure, to treat and prevent atherosclerosis, and for many other cardiovascular conditions. Few people are aware that Hawthorn is also an excellent nervine. In Chinese medicine, the heart stores the shen (mind, consciousness). Distributed shen symptoms include anxiety, insomnia, bad dreams, palpitations, and irritability. Interestingly enough, Candice Pert, PhD., the author of the book, Molecules of Emotion, confirms this heart/emotion connection claimed in Chinese medicine. She shows that, based on her research, the heart is not just an organ to pump blood, but that it is indeed an organ with receptors for a wide range of hormones and neuropeptides, i.e., the molecules of emotion. In this case, even though Hawthorn is a “heart herb”, or perhaps because of it, it helps disturbed shen symptoms, especially attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Use a solid extract of the Hawthorn berry for children and adults who can’t sit still, are fidgety, can’t stop talking, are disruptive, and have no ability to concentrate. It works and it has no side effects associated with the prescription medicines used to treat these conditions.
Tea: 1 tsp. dried berries to 10 oz. water, decoct 15-20 minutes, steep 1/2 hour. Take up to 3 cups per ay.
Tincture (1:5): 60-80 drops up to 4 times per day Solid extract: 1/4-1/2 tsp. 2-3 times per day Safety Issues: none known
Passion flower herb (Passiflora incarnata) – is a nervine/sedative, antispasmodic, and anxiolytic herb. Of all of the nervines, it has the most defined sedating effect. The specific indications for Passiflora are circular thinking that causes insomnia. The person can’t shut off their mind at night and they lay in bed thinking about the day, yesterday, tomorrow, last month, next month, what if this and if only that. Passion flower is the off switch. For menopausal insomnia, it is paired with Motherwort. For a,nxiety it can be combined with Fresh Oat, Blue Vervain, and Motherwort.
Tea: 1-2 tsp. dried herb to 8 oz. water, steep 20-30 minutes, take 4 oz. up to 4 times per day.
Tincture (1:2 or 1:5): 60-80 drops, 3 to 4 times per day
Drug Interactions: Passion flower may potentiate prescription sedatives, antispasmodics, and anxiolytics; use cautiously together. Do not use with MAOI’s (mono-amine oxidase inhibitors).
Chamomile flowers (Matricaria recutita) – have a very long history of use as a medicine and beverage tea. In Europe, Chamomile tea is consumed by millions of people per day as a relaxing tea for anxiety, upset stomach, irritability, nervous headaches, insomnia, and IBS symptoms. It is an excellent herb for children due to its safety, efficacy, and pleasant taste. It can be used for growing pains, fevers with restlessness and irritability, teething pain, colic in infants (it is taken by the mother and the essential oils pas into the breast milk, preventing or relieving colic in the baby), and nightmares. Chamomile can also be used for relieving PMS anxiety, menopausal mood swings, and menstrual cramps. It is especially useful for people whose moods are erratic, agitated one minute, fine the next, and then anxious ten minutes later.
Chamomile is one of the best remedies for stress-induced gastro-intestinal symptoms – you get stressed out, you have diarrhea, nervous stomach, constipation, acid reflux, heartburn, bowel spasms, or hiccoughs. I combine Chamomile with Catnip, Hops, or Valerian for these GI tract conditions.
Tea: 1-2 tsp. dried flowers to 8 oz. water, steep 30-40 minutes, take up to 3 cups per day Tincture (1:2.5 or 1:4): 60-90 drops, up to 4 times per day
Safety Issues: Avoid taking Chamomile and other flowering herbs from the Asteraceae family (Feverfew, Roman Chamomile, Calendula, Yarrow, Boneset, and Echinacea flowers) if you have severe ragweed pollen allergies. Since these plants are related, there is a possibility of cross-reactivity to the pollen of other closely linked plants.
St. John’s wort flowering tops (Hypericum perforatum) – has become known as the “depression herb”. This is unfortunate, because while it is useful for some types of depression, it has a much broader range of uses. Stating that Hypericum is the “depression herb” or Saw Palmetto is the “prostate herb” or Black Cohosh is the “menopause herb” is great for companies selling these herbs, but it does a great disservice to the plant and the public. Each herb has a personality – a range of uses, activities, and specific qualities that make it appropriate or not, for each person. Real herbal medicine is more than using an herb to replace a pharmaceutical medication. Real herbal medicine utilizes diet, herbs, and lifestyle changes to prevent illness, relieve symptoms, and to enhance normal physiological function.
In the ancient herbals, St John's Wort is recommended for “nervous griefs”, melancholia, nerve pain, and numbness. In clinical practice, herbalists still use this wonderful plant for all of these conditions and more. St. John's Wort is indicated where there is nerve pain and nerve damage. It is used orally and topically (Hypericum oil) for Bell’s Palsy, Trigeminal neuralgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, recovery from head trauma injuries, vulvodynia (vaginal pain), peripheral nerve pain, phantom limb pain, temperio-mandibular joint (TMJ) pain, and injuries to tissue with a profusion of nerves, such as the fingers, the spine, nipples, or genitalia. Hypericum oil is also used externally for first degree burns, painful bruises, muscle tears, insect bites, shingles, and painful puncture wounds.
St. John’s wort was used for melancholia (hepatic depression) which to the ancient Greeks meant a person had an excess of the black bile. To a great degree this describes the type of depression that Hypericum is most effective for. Mild to moderate depression with a sour disposition and a “sour stomach”.
The combination of Melissa and Hypericum is very effective for SAD, which is caused by a lack of sunlight.
Hypericum can also be used with Rosemary and Evening Primrose herb (Oenothera biennis), yes, I mean the herb, not the oil, for bilious or hepatic depression.
Tincture (1:2 or 1:5): 40-60 drops, 3 to 4 times per day
Tea: 2 tsp. dried flowers/buds to 8 oz. hot water, steep 30-40 minutes, take 4 oz. 3 to 4 times per day
Drug Interactions: St. John’s wort is well-known for enhancing liver detoxification, which reduces blood levels of many medications. Do not take St. John’s wort with Warfarin, Digoxin, Protease inhibitors, anti-organ transplant rejection drugs (cyclosporine), and chemotherapy agents (irinotecan). Use caution when taking this herb with contraceptive pills. Only use Hypericum with SSRI’s under a physician’s supervision.
Other Nervine Herbs
There are many other herbs that have nervine qualities. Many are little known or better known for other properties. A few other nervous system tonics including Wood Betony (Pedicularis spp.) which is mostly used for occipital headaches and sore, overworked muscles. Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is effective for children’s fevers with irritability and convulsions. In adults, it is used with Chamomile for digestive problems that are caused or made worse by stress. Damiana (Turnera spp.) is a nervine and mild antidepressant that is most useful for depression with loss of libido or mild depression in the elderly.