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Motherwort: Healing the Anxious Heart and Mind

by Kathy Eich

Though anxiety does not define who we are, it can certainly feel like it. Anxiety can cause one to feel as if they are powerless. When powerless, many emotions flare, from fear to shame. Our hearts become stressed. And regardless of the situation, there is an element of failure and loss involved.


Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca, does much to calm the excess of energy which courses through the heart and nervous system. It is a great healer that spreads joy and calm to those who seek it. While motherwort is often considered an herb for women, men can find benefit in using it as well for maladies of the nervous system and heart triggered by stress.

Leonurus cardiaca

Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca, (Chinese form: L. sibiricus; L. heterophyllus) is native to Europe and Asia. Colonists introduced motherwort to North America, and it has naturalized here quite easily. It is in the mint family, and has a square stem. Its roots are quite hardy, and if it goes to seed it spreads voraciously.


The Greeks gave Motherwort to pregnant women suffering from anxiety; hence the name “mothers herb” or “mother wort”. Leonurus is of the Greek leon, for lion, and ouros, for tail. The plant in flower was seen to resemble the tail of a lion. Cardiaca refers to heart, for it has, through history, found notoriety as a heart tonic.


Uses

Afflictions of the heart and nervous system find rest with motherwort. History tells us that it is considered to be a cardio tonic as well as nervine tonic. Maude Greives tells us that there is “no better herb for strengthening and gladdening the heart.” Due to the presence of the chemical alkaloid leonurine, a mild vasodilator, motherwort acts as an anti-spasmodic to relax smooth muscles, one of those muscles being the heart. Chinese studies have also found motherwort to decrease clotting and the level of fat in the blood. That it can, in its calming nature, slow heart palpitations and rapid heartbeat. Motherwort has a mildly diuretic affect, also aiding high blood pressure. But it is important to note that while motherwort can be helpful in instances of high blood pressure, it is most appropriately effective when high blood pressure is a symptom of excess stress and anxiety.

The effects this plant has on the nervous system are profound. There is nothing subtle in the way that it works. As motherwort “gladdens the heart,” it relaxes the nervous system resulting in an elevated mood, relief of nervous debility and spasm. Higher doses of tincture can act as a sedative to improve sleep, while smaller doses during the day can give energy by balancing and backing off the typically anxious nature of the user. I have used motherwort with illnesses such as MS, chronic fatigue, neuralgia and other afflictions where nerves are compromised. It benefits the spine greatly. And while its stalk of flowers has been compared to rhythm of the heart, or of the menstrual cycle, I recognize that it closely resembles the spine, further indicating it as an excellent nervine tonic.


Hyperthyroidism benefits greatly from motherwort. I explain to my clients who deal with it that the thyroid is how we metabolize. That it affects not only what food we ingest, but how our nervous system and our senses (how we hear, see, touch, taste, smell) process information. While I have seen articles on motherwort indicate that it decreases thyroid function, this is not how the plant functions. It brings to balance and alleviates symptoms associated with a hyperactive thyroid. Those symptoms being heart palpitations, anxiety, sleeplessness, and in some cases depressed appetite, for it is a bitter that stimulates digestion. It is, however, contraindicated for those with hypothyroidism. Though, in certain cases and in low doses in a formula, I have used it successfully when this condition is present for menopause.


Which brings us to issues of a feminine nature. Motherwort inherits its most used common name from the application of use as a plant for pregnancy, birth, motherhood and menopause. Motherwort’s use in pregnancy is specific; since it is an emmenagogue, it puts the pregnancy in danger of termination. It is the alkaloids in motherwort that stimulate this action. But the alkaloids are alcohol soluble, not water-soluble. Therefore, it is safe to say that while the tincture of motherwort, both alcohol and glycerin, are contraindicated during pregnancy, one can safely use the tea while pregnant for anxiety. Note, however, that it will not be very effective for high blood pressure during pregnancy, for it is the alkaloids that facilitate this action as well. The tincture is typically used in a “Mothers Cordial” during the last 4 weeks of pregnancy in preparation for the birth. Motherwort will lesson cramping and anxiety during the birth process. It is used to aid the birthing of the placenta, for easing the anxiety of learning the motherly role postpartum, and lifting the spirits. It can aggravate heavy bleeding, so if you are prone, use it sparingly. It is used with great benefit throughout motherhood in easing the stress of children cycling through difficult phases as well.


PMS is a great venue for motherwort. Women who tend to have menses that come on slowly, and have other symptoms during PMS such as anxiety, digestive disturbances, nervousness and cramps will benefit from motherwort. It also has a mildly diuretic affect, as noted in the cardio tonic paragraph.


Menopause, just like motherhood, is another transitional point for women. I have had great success using motherwort in combination with other plants to ease the anxiety and hormonal shifts associated with hot flashes. In some cases I combined motherwort with kava, black cohosh and bugleweed with great success. Transitions can be traumatic. And this plant can ease much of the anxiety associated with trauma.


There are other things this plant has been witnessed to aid. It has been found useful for fever where there is delirium and sleeplessness. As an antispasmodic, it has been used for rheumatism, and for lung afflictions such as asthma and bronchitis, though I have not used it for such. I have used it successfully for intestinal spasms when in a pinch. The bitter nature of the plant also lends itself well to digestive ills, though these are secondary actions.


The strength of this plant lies in many areas of the body. An important lesson is that motherwort shows us how many things are affected by our emotional response to stress.


There is a process to working with stress and anxiety, instead of it working against us. Anxiety points out what can be perceived as weakness. But I encourage the concept that anxiety can be a tool that assists us in learning something about ourselves, a tool to encourage us to move to a more functional emotional and physical place. Dealing with it makes us stronger. I believe it comes to help us realize that we need to listen to our heart, and realize what we truly desire out of life. And motherwort can bring the stillness to allow us to hear more clearly.

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  • Madeline

    Hi There,

    Do you know if motherwort should be avoided when taking kava or if it is known to interact with any other herbs? I am on a blend from my naturopath but was given some motherwort loose leaf tea that i would like to try for delayed menstruation and nervousness 🙂

    • Hello. Thanks for writing. Kathy Eich, here. I have used kava and motherwort together before. And the tea will extract differently than the tincture/alcohol extract. The alkaloids are not water soluble, so they will be lacking. Try it, and see if it works for you. If it doesn’t, then I would go with a tincture. The only things motherwort does not combine well with are some high blood pressure medications that work via the brainstem to affect heart rate and blood pressure. Other than that, you should be fine. Good luck!