Nourishing the Nerves

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Specific medicines

In these high stress times, herbal nervines, sedatives and adaptogens provide an important role in clinical practice, both in the treatment of disease processes and in staying healthy. Specific prescribing, individualized to the particular patient's response to their life experience in an y given moment, gives us tools for choosing among the wide array of herbs we have to prescribe for the nervous system.

Nervines may generally be defined as that class of herbs that calm the nervous system. These herbs may be very nourishing, as in the case of Avena sativa or trophorestorative, as with Hypericum perforatum or Centella asiatica. A sedative is an herb with a stronger action on the nervous system and one that is more likely to induce drowsiness. This class of herbs is most useful in the treatment of insomnia. Passiflora incarnata and Valeriana spp are two examples of sedative herbs. Adaptogens are herbs that help us deal with stress more effectively at a physiologic level. These herbs often have a strengthening or tonic affect on the adrenal glands and immune system. Examples include Glycerrhiza glabra and Eleutherococcus senticosus. Of course these categories are not pure and there is lots of crossover.
Hypericum perforatum (St. John's Wort)

Hypericum has a wide reputation as a regenerative nerve tonic for both psychiatric and neurologic conditions. It is directly calming to the limbic system and, as numerous studies have shown, is a powerful adjunct in mild to moderate depression.

Hypericum, named for the Greek Titan, Hyperion, God of the Sun, has a strong relationship with the sun. In some sensitive persons or in very high doses taken internally, it is known to cause photosensitivity reactions, yet it is used topically as a mild sunscreen and again for sunburn. Its perforated leaves allow sun to shine through, just as the plant taken internally brings the sun into those sad depressed places. Even the flowers are the color of the sun — a beautiful bright yellow. Hypericum works well in alleviating the mild depression of seasonal affective disorder, through its ability to increase our sensitivity to the sun.
Leaonurus cardiaca (Motherwort)

Leonurus is the herb to think of first when anxiety is accompanied by functional heart palpitations due to stress and anxiety or liver toxicity. It is also a bitter digestive, antispasmodic, emmenogogue and useful in hyperthyroidism where it both calms the nerves and protects the heart. Its common name, motherwort, reflects its ability to connect us to Divine Mother, when used in medication. Many writers call Leonurus the herb to mother mothers. It is also said to give courage and strengthen the heart.
Avena sativa (Milky Oat Seed)

Rich in a wide array of nutrients, Avena is a wonderful nerve tonic gentle yet reliable. It is said that Avena can bring focus to the scattered mind that jumps from one subject to the next (Boericke). It also has a reputation for being helpful in breaking addictions to various drugs. Avena is specifically indicated for nervous exhaustions or debility from protracted illness or overwork.
Crataegus spp (Hawthorne)

Although not primarily considered a nervine, Crataegus can often act as a calming agent when specific symptoms indicate. Such symptoms include tension or anxiety associated with a history of grief, or feelings of betrayal and disappointment in relationships. Crataegus is particularly well suited for those patients who have closed their hearts even partly or have built walls to protect themselves or, conversely, for those overly sensitive patients whose anxiety stems from being too open.
Melissa officinalis (Lemon Balm)

Melissa is a soothing nervine whose uplifting qualities make it mildly antidepressant as well. It is carminative and antiviral. As it interferes with thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) binding to thyroid cells it is contraindicated in hypothyroidism, but may be a helpful adjunt in hyperthyroidism, where the common symptoms of restlessness and agitation make it well indicated.
Scutellaria lateriflora (Skullcap)

Scutellaria is useful for insomnia and nervousness or anxiety where there is muscle spasm, twitching, or tremors. It may also be helpful in functional heart palpitations, a form of muscle spasm, or for insomnia from overwork, worry or long illness.
Humulus lupulus (Hops)

Volatile oil content makes Humulus a good herb to include in a dream pillow for insomnia. Taken internally, the presence of bitters give it some digestive stimulating and cholegogue powers and make it useful for headaches from digestive upset. Its nervine qualities are specifically indicated for the overly intellectualized type of worrier. It is also antispasmodic, as are many of the nervine herbs.
Agrimonia eupatoria (Agrimony)

The flower essence of Agrimony is indicated for people who suffer from terrible inner turmoil, yet put on a cheerful face. Small doses herbally can have a similarly calming effect when indicated. It is commonly known as an astringent. Its near relative, Potentilla anserina may have similar indications, but seems, in my experience, to impart a sense of empowerment and centeredness as well.
Piper methysticum (Kava Kava)

Used traditionally as a sacred ceremonial herb in the South Sea Islands, Piper methysticum is said to invoke the higher states of consciousness and increase openness in social gatherings or important meetings. Experience in clinic reveals that Piper has an ability to lift one out of a deep chaotic emotional state of either anxiety or depression to a place of clearer vision and centeredness. It not only calms but actually lifts the patient to a different place. It is specifically indicated for patients who have done their inner work, taken the "dark of night of the soul" journey, as it were, yet cannot break free of the angst.

Piper can induce a mild feeling of peace and euphoria. Part of its ability to uplift may be linked to the fact that it moves thinking from a linear processing of information to a greater sense of being and understanding where there is more capacity to flow and let be. This plant seems to encourage us to relax into other, more expansive parts of our brain, while still maintain and even sharpening our ability to stay focused.

Piper methysticum can be toxic in prolonged or high dosage. Symptoms of such toxicity include yellow, dry, rough skin and increased liver enzymes, all reversed when the herb is discontinued. Very large doses can cause dilated pupils and unsteady gait.
Cimicifuga racemosa (Black Cohosh)

Specific indications for Cimicifuga include a deep dark depression, a sensation of a black cloud that sometimes descends suddenly out of nowhere and a feeling of wildness in the mind with an inability to focus. This wildness of the mind and inability to focus may bring on or accompany acute or chronic anxiety. It is anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, antirheumatic, and antihypertensive as well as being regulatory to female reproductive organs. It may be used as a pelvic decongestant for both men and women.
Artemesia tridentate (Sagebrush)

Sagebrush is most specifically indicated when depression or anxiety is associated with a sense of being caught in either or patterns, or when the patients are feeling split off and isolated from parts of themselves or from others. Sagebrush is invaluable for those patients who feel that certain objects, most commonly electronic equipment are the source of demonic voices or bugging devices. This is a common perception in people experiencing a schizophrenic state. The use of sagebrush smoke, when the plant is burned as a smudge and passed over the offending objects on a regular basis can be an enormous help in clearing this problem. Inhalation of volatile oils given off in the smoke directly affects the limbic system via olfactory nerve pathways, which in turn has a significant impact on the emotions.

As a tea, Artemesia tridentata is used by native peoples for fevers, colds and flu, as well as indigestion. Like its close relative Artemesia absinthium (wormwood), sagebrush is antiparasitic.
Lavendula officinalis (Lavender)

Another plant high in essential oils, lavender is very soothing to the nervous system, and may be used in a dream pillow for treatment of insomnia. Its folkloric association with the elderly suggests it to be a specific for the insomnia of elders and indeed I have seen a simple sock filled with lavender flowers and kept on the pillow at night do wonders in some case of insomnia in the elderly where valerian and passiflora had failed utterly. Taken internally, lavender acts as a digestive stimulant and may be a helpful adjunt in the prevention and treatment of migraine or toxic headache. In these cases it combines well with feverfew and ginger.
Matricaria chamomilla (Chamomile)

Chamomile is an excellent nervine when the patient is oversensitive, touchy and irritable. It is often given to children who are prone to tantrums or irritable adults, whose oversensitive nature causes them to be impatient and intolerant. It is a wonderful gastrointestinal remedy where it helps stimulate digestive function as well as alleviate symptoms of spasm and inflammation.
Eschscholzia californica (California Poppy)

The California poppy, with its bright yellow and orange flowers and soft green, easy flowing leaves and petals, is well indicated when what is needed is to relax into the moment, and flow, rather than resist. It is a nice antispasmodic as well as a good nervine and is safe even for small children, as it does not contain any of the strong alkaloids found in its relative the Opium poppy.

The sight of this plant blooming brightly is invariably and uplifting experience, suggesting it might be a good adjunct in depression, particularly in those cases where the patent has struggled and feels powerless in the face of life challenges that need to be accepted and embraced.
Passiflora incarnate (Passionflower)

Passiflora works most effectively for those heartful overworked worriers by bringing a gentle healing to the nervous system that soothes the spirit. It is also helpful where functional heart palpitations are part of the picture and stress is due to cares of the heart, as opposed to hops whose worry is more intellectual in nature. In insomnia it works partially as a mild sedative but more as a gentle nervine, healing the overwrought nervous system. Passiflora's cure for insomnia is like a wise gentle grandmother rocking us into a deep peaceful sleep.
Valeriana officinalis (Valerian)

Valerian is often the first herb folks turn to for treating insomnia. Studies from modern scientific research have shown that valerian reduces the time it takes to fall asleep. Its bitter qualities and volatile oils stimulate and tonify the digestive system causing, in some cases, the reverse effect of overstimulation and wakefulness. Unlike the gentle Passiflora, valerian seems to act like a strong warrier ordering us to sleep. The two work well together.

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By Deborah Francis, R.N., N.D.

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