Soothing and Healing Nerves with Herbs
Herbal medicine is traditionally used as part of a holistic system that acknowledges the connection of our body, mind, heart and spirit. Today, life’s complexity asks us to consider the many ways we face stressors every day. Though we may not always have control over the conditions, supporting our nervous system health is a critical way we can help bring ourselves back into balance.
The nervous system is a key part of the communication system of our body. This magnificent instrument functions to attune us to the surrounding world with exquisite precision and sensitivity. Many of us live in a modern context surrounded by constant stimulus. Our bodies are designed to adapt to stress, yet the demands of everyday life can often leave us exhausted and depleted. It is no wonder why herbal support has become so sought after for nervous system health.
What is the nervous system?
Our nervous system is grouped into two major components, the Central Nervous System and Peripheral Nervous System. The Central Nervous System includes our brain and spinal cord while the Peripheral Nervous System encompasses the nerves outside of the spinal cord that extend through our limbs, glands and organs. This network of nerves receives information and coordinates our responses. The brain and spinal cord send out signals through motor nerves which tell the body to perform essential functions such as breathing, salivating, digestion and movement. In turn, the peripheral nerves send sensory information back to the brain. The Peripheral Nervous System includes the Autonomic Nervous System, which regulates our heart and respiratory rate, digestion, sexual arousal and perspiration.
Fight, Flight, Rest, Digest
The Autonomic Nervous System can be divided into our Sympathetic Nervous System, responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ responses and our Parasympathetic Nervous System, responsible for ‘rest and digest’ states. The state of the nervous system signals the overall mood and wellbeing of the body. When the body encounters a stressor it increasing stress hormones. When we become stuck in a state of chronic stress, this taxes the body by producing tension, inflammation, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression. When we enter a state of relaxation, our body is better able to repair, recover from stress and perform its essential functions with more ease. This is why regular periods of rest, sleep and nourishment are critical for the proper functioning of our body’s systems.
Health concerns, lack of sleep, poor nutrition, too much caffeine, difficult relationships, world issues, work and financial pressures… There are many conditions contributing to excess stress. Luckily, we have green allies to help. When used as part of a holistic approach to whole body health, these powerful but gentle herbal superstars help to soothe and tone the nervous system, lifting the mood while providing a deeper well of resilience.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon balm is a summer star in the garden with bright and cheerful energy. Its signature aromatic, lemony smell is due to its high concentration of essential oils. Drying and mildly warming, it brings a gentle tone to tissues throughout the body. The leaves of lemon balm make a lovely addition to teas both fresh and dried, while also working well as a tincture.
This fragrant herb brings an uplifting, yet calming energy to support nervous system, gut, heart and liver health by pacifying anxiety and overstimulation. A gentle and well tolerated herb by most, Lemon Balm has a special affinity for hot, irritated states. It can be particularly supportive for those that exhibit symptoms pointing to hyperthyroidism. Lemon balm helps to rejuvenate and protect the nervous system, promote restful sleep and easeful digestion.
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca)
Motherwort is another member of the mint family known for its powerful support for the physical and emotional heart. Known to settle nervousness, it is a great companion to those that might experience a racing heart due to fear or worry.
The acrid, bitter taste of motherwort helps to calm the sympathetic nervous system and support anxiety, restlessness and insomnia. Regular use helps to slow a rapid heartbeat and bring ease to menstrual and other smooth muscle cramping. Motherwort is also a core remedy traditionally used for women undergoing menopause.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)
The purple flowering clusters of skullcap spring up through the garden in a wild frenzy, signaling its affinity for calming nervous, frenetic energy, specifically when there is physical agitation or unrest.
One of the most reliable restoratives to the autonomic nervous system, Skullcap provides gentle tonic relief when taken regularly and quiets the “monkey mind”, helping to calm repetitive thought patterns. Particularly well suited for those that have muscle spasms or jitters, skullcap is supportive for restless insomnia and other irritable muscular conditions.
Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)
This sacred plant has been revered throughout cultures as a supreme relaxant for physical and emotional tension. Blue Vervain is well suited for driven, type A personalities who are constantly on the go, highly active creative types who don’t know when to stop.
The tense, spiky flower heads and leaves are very bitter and pull energy from an overwhelmed and overactive mind back into your center. This grounding herb quiets overthinking and impatience, allowing for a more spacious perspective, while acting as a gentle nervous system tonic for anxious, tense and irritable states. A calming presence, blue vervain supports relaxation of the musculoskeletal system with an affinity for neck and shoulder tension.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Valerian is a nervine that helps reestablish balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. This pungent root extract is a well known ally for reducing anxiety and supporting restful sleep.
Valerian promotes balance in the system while relieving pain, calming anxiety and relaxing skeletal muscles. Helpful taken right before sleep, or during the night upon awakening, it is one of the most potent sleep supporting herbs, without the groggy effects of conventional medications.
Valerian can have a stimulating effect on a very small percentage of people. If you feel awake and agitated when working with valerian, rather than relaxed and sleepy, you will be better aided by any of the other herbs mentioned here.
Linden (Tillia spp.)
The delightful honeyed fragrance of a blooming linden fills the air in early summer, accompanied by the happy hum of nectar collecting pollinators, bringing joy to heart. In this same way, linden’s medicine brings relaxation and awakeness to the body and mind while soothing frazzled nerves.
The flower and pedicle is traditionally used to help with tension, anxiety and headaches, often enjoyed in a delicious tea but also effective as a tincture. Linden brings a gentle cooling and moistening effect to hot and irritated states, helpful not only for nervous system health but also for digestive and respiratory support.
Oats Milky Tops (Avena sativa)
Oats are a well known staple in the pantry, yet are also one of the best tropho-restorative herbs to the nervous system. Harvested in the fresh ‘milky’ stage, oat milky tops are deeply nourishing. Best taken regularly over a longer period, their effects are gentle but noticeable after regular use.
Oat tops are best paired with other nervines and adaptogens, enhancing their therapeutic effects. A solid remedy to support a constitution depleted by mental and physical overwork, oats is often indicated for those that are overstimulated and sensitized with anxiety and overwhelm.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, an herb that supports resilience while protecting the body from stress. This strongly aromatic root extract is a grounding nervine, helping restore vitality after exhaustion and depletion.
Ashwagandha can help a muddled mind regain clarity and may even stimulate regeneration of nervous tissue in the brain. Through decreasing the excessive release of stress hormones, Ashwagandha helps to normalize the stress response and bring the sympathetic nervous system back to balance after prolonged states of activation. This potent herb helps the body better cope with stress. During the day, ashwagandha saves precious energy by allowing you to feel more grounded and resourceful, thus responding in a calmer and more balanced way to stress. Ashwagandha supports deeper, more restful sleep at night so you can feel refreshed in the morning.
Ashwagandha has the best bioavailability and effectiveness when taken in ashwagandha milk before bedtime.