A few weeks ago we had no shortage of stress in our daily lives – demands of our jobs, running to sports for the kids, errands, balancing life and ongoing tasks at home to name a few. Now we’re faced with a global pandemic and all the fear and uncertainty that came along with it. A relaxing, carefree spring day seems like its going to be hard to come by anytime soon.
While the buzz the last few weeks is on which herbs and natural supports will boost your immune system during the CoVid-19 outbreak, I want to focus on another type of plant ally that many will benefit from in the weeks and months to come.
Nervines are classified as plants that have a beneficial effect on the nervous system.
They are calming herbs that are mildly relaxing without the suppressing results of sedatives. They act to nurture the nerves and re-establish balance throughout the nervous system. They can alleviate anxiety and mild depression, stress induced heart or gastrointestinal symptoms, sleeplessness, irritability and can even help lower blood pressure that has been raised by stress – all unwanted effects the current world climate is causing many of us!
Before I get to some of the herbs, a little about your nervous system…
It’s your hard-wired system that joins the control center of your brain and spinal cord to all the organs, muscles, and other parts of your body. It is also responsible for bringing in signals from the outside word, and sending signals to the body on how to react and move in a variety of ways.
One of the main areas of your nervous system is the autonomic nervous system – which controls things like your breathing, heartbeat, hormone release, etc. Your autonomic nervous system is then divided again into both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.
Your parasympathetic nervous system is the one most active when you are at rest, and controls your digestive functions, as well as elimination and repair functions within the body. When you’re stressed, your body transfers the energy from your rest and digest functions to your sympathetic nervous system – well known as your “fight or flight” response. This tells us that danger is imminent and raises your heart rate, along with the production of stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol.
The difficulty with fight or flight is that it happens during ANY type stress, whether a real threat or the everyday stressors we experience. This leads the system to stay chronically activated. Over time this interferes with the body’s ability to both digest and absorb needed nutrients, which eventually weakens your immune responses and the overall function of your nervous system.
Obviously, one of the most important ways to create a healthy nervous system is to lower the effects of stress and anxiety in the first place. But right now in the midst of this pandemic, so much is an unknown and so while resting our bodies with mandatory self-isolation might not be hard, resting our minds at this time is a different matter!
Along with exercise, good nutrition, restorative sleep and things like deep breathing or meditation, there are many herbs that can help restore balance to your nervous system. Different categories of nervine plants exist, all of which help to improve our ability to cope with life’s challenges:
Nervine sedatives sedate nerve function. They are milder than pharmaceutical sedatives with very few side effects. These are used short term, and often are used in those with insomnia.
Nervine relaxants will do just that – directly relax the nervous system, easing tension (both mental and physical) and anxiety while promoting restful sleep.
Nerve tonics are those herbs that strengthen, tone, and restore balance to the nervous system. They often are full of minerals such as magnesium, calcium, and B vitamins which all support the overall health of the nervous system. These herbs are considered safe to use in various combinations over longer periods of time.
Here are a few of my favourite nervines:
Milky Oats (Avena sativa)
One of the most popular nervines in the herbal world, Milky Oats is one of the most healing to your nervous system, supporting nervous tissues and helping to rebuild normal vitality and function. The immature seed heads of the oat grain (‘milky tops’) are picked right at the height of the season, as this is when they are the most potent. Milky Oats have long-term nourishing and calming effects on the nervous system, helping the body to better cope with daily stressors. I personally like this one for those who feel like they are “at the end of their rope” and are just exhausted.
A tincture made from the fresh tops is great for active symptoms and is where most of the medicinal and nutritional value will be found. A tea made from the dried tops is more like an adaptogen for long-term rebalancing. If you’re making a tea, steep it overnight to extract as much of the medicinal qualities as possible.
Note: Those with Celiac disease or severe gluten intolerance should avoid oats.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)
This superstar has the honour of being a sedative, relaxant, and nervine tonic all in one! Skullcap is a great choice for dealing with long-term nervous system exhaustion as it has the ability to calm the nervous system and also repair the damage done by excessive stress hormones over time.
Skullcap is a member of the mint family and works to soothe and renew the nervous system through its cooling effects. This herb also boasts bitter principles and various other complex chemicals that make it a balanced choice as a gentle nervine. Helpful for those who have a “busy mind”, suffer from sleeplessness, restlessness, and stress headaches, it also has use in women with hormonal imbalances, depression, and for some nervous disorders.
Note: Pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid its use.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
Passionflower is an eye-catching purple flower and the most sedating of all nervines, offering a wide range of beneficial properties. It is also considered a hypnotic.
Passionflower was used by Native Americans for hundreds of years to reduce inflammation in wounds and in more recent times is best known for calming those having trouble moving into restful sleep due to an overactive mind – you know the kind, that seems to ramp up at night when your head hits the pillow. It is also helpful for stress-induced headaches. Passionflower’s exerts its effects through relieving pain and relaxing muscles.
Passionflower is a fantastic remedy for these times as it lends itself well to those who are wound tight or over-stimulated. If you just look at the plant itself, its tightly coiled wisps remind you that this is the type of person it is suited for. The exact way that this plant works is not known, but it is believed to increase levels of GABA (the feel good neurotransmitter) in the brain, creating a relaxing feeling.
The leaves and stems of Passionflower can be made into a tea or tincture, however I find that the tea is a better, more palatable option especially for sleep issues.
Note: Do not combine with other pharmaceutical sedatives, or take while pregnant. Also those with low blood pressure should avoid Passionflower.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
A gentle nervine, Chamomile has delicate and beautiful little flowers that make a big impact! Because of its particularly gentle effectiveness, chamomile is the first herb of choice for many home remedies, employing its effects on both the nervous and digestive systems, as well as having anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
Chamomile is also a great one to grow in your own garden! It calms anxiety and eases stress and is safe even for babies and children who are having trouble sleeping. Chamomile works on all levels of the mind and body, healing both physical physical and relaxing emotions. Prepared as a tea is the only way to go with this one! Start with two cups per day, steep gently for relaxation benefits and longer to extract the bitter properties used to settle your digestion.
NOTE: Chamomile one of the safest herbs, but caution in those with ragweed family allergies (be sure to check for sensitivity before using). Chamomile also contains natural blood thinners known as coumarins, so best to avoid the tea when taking prescription blood thinners.
These are unprecedented times, many of us have never faced before and life can feel overwhelming right now. Herbal medicine has a long tradition of providing many tools to us for coping with day-to-day stressors as well as more concerning negativity and anxiety. More than ever we could all use some extra support to calm our minds, and our nervine plant allies here to help us find a health balance and build stronger resilience to the world around us.