Anxiety is a body-wide response to a perceived threat. An event or situation fuels a chemical reaction in the endocrine system. Combined with personal history, spiritual wounding and the power of the mind, one is left feeling compromised, vulnerable and in danger.
For those who experience anxiety regularly, our emotional reaction to the world around us begins to control our lives. It dictates how we feel about others and ourselves, and disarms our ability to deal with stress. As hormone levels surge and drop, organ systems function less optimally. This leads to a slue of complications. Digestive, liver, and urinary tract function may become impaired, libido decreased, sleep disrupted, and disease may worsen.
The medium of plant medicine brings relief and balance to those who struggle to maintain balance while in the throes of anxiety. Externally and internally, physiologically and spiritually, plants can help; but they must be employed wisely, with clear purpose and intent.
How Plant Medicines Help Us
Plant medicines support growth and healing in many different ways. The literal reason to use plants therapies is they are pharmacological agents that have a profound effect on how our body heals when used appropriately.
Then there is the healing that comes from story: I believe the history of a plant is an often overlooked factor. When we hear their story, we connect emotionally, and engage our own process metaphorically. This gives us perspective on our own life and healing, gives hope, and supports healing on an unconscious level. Also, when people have a chance to learn about their plant medicines, they appreciate their healing power more. Knowing strengthens the mind to believe, increasing our healing potential.
Plants also have the ability to move energy and heal spiritually via their own spirit. Getting to know plants as healing agents allows the plants spirit and our spirit to connect, and work together.
Finally, our hands are powerful tools in the process of using plant medicines. We move a lot of energy through our hands. Our hands make the medicines, and take the medicines. Throughout these steps, we put our positive energy and intentions into them through our hands.
We are capable of engaging our healing process consciously, unconsciously and physiologically. With the right intent, plants provide a medium to heal on all levels. And tonics are a good place to begin.
What are tonic herbs? Tonics tone and strengthen an organ system, much like we would tone a muscle. Depending on the condition presented, one would use a tonic for a period of time to help support organ system function when the body’s innate ability to find balance has been distracted. In the cases of disease or a chronic condition, tonics would be employed differently. When the damage is permanent, the approach must change.
Nervine tonics strengthen the nervous system by buffering how we emotionally react to stressful situations. They are great tools that help us change our emotional patterns. Some nervine tonics aid digestion, and are anti-inflammatory, such as blue vervain. Others, such as motherwort, can calm the heart. Lavender is a tonic that not only aids digestion and balances the nervous system, but is also supportive of the immune system by being antiviral and anti-bacterial.
While nervine tonics address the nervous system, adaptogens support and strengthen adrenal gland function, thus balancing how hormones are produced when we are enduring stressful circumstances. They help us maintain chemical equilibrium during these times. They also help our body right imbalance after stress chemically quicker. Adaptogens allow us to move with stress instead of become immobilized and suffer by it.
Many plants bring relief to those with chronic or acute anxiety. I have chosen motherwort, blue vervain, and holy basil for this discussion. There is no such thing as one size fits all in herbal medicine. What works for some may not work for others. What works for another may work for you, but at a different dose. Consult a trained practitioner if you have questions or concerns, especially if you are taking medications.
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca): Western classification: anti-anxiety, emmenagogue, nervine tonic, heart tonic, anti-spasmodic relaxes smooth muscles, mild diuretic, slows palpitations and rapid heartbeat.
Motherwort “gladdens the heart”, according to Maude Greives. It is an excellent nervine and heart tonic that relaxes the nervous system. It lifts the mood and brings relief from nervous debility. It is very useful in relieving emotional symptoms associated with hyperthyroidism (anxiety, heart palpitations, sleeplessness, depressed appetite). I have also used motherwort when anxiety is a contributing factor in worsening autoimmune diseases, and I have recommended it for some with MS, chronic fatigue, neuralgia and other afflictions where nerves are compromised due to high anxiety. It is also, despite its common name, a great remedy for men. Troubles of the heart affect men as well, and men with high blood pressure due to stress and fatty blood benefit from motherwort as well as women.
The name motherwort comes from the Greek. It was used during birth to lesson anxiety. It works well for anxiety during pregnancy as well, but the tincture may only be used during the last 4 weeks before birth due the alkaloids. The alkaloids are what cause the emmenagogic effect (bringing on the period). Because the alkaloids in motherwort are not water soluble, motherwort may be used as a tea throughout pregnancy for anxiety. In this form, it will not aid high blood pressure, for it is the alkaloids that inspire this action in the body as well. By the way, the tea is terribly bitter, and most pregnant moms have difficulty tolerating it. One teaspoon of the dried leaves and flowers per cup of hot water steeped for 3 minutes with honey, if you can take it.
Motherwort tincture also helps new moms adjust to the incurable condition of being a mother, with great results. And it is highly effective for PMS, acting not only to aid anxiety, but also as a mild diuretic and antispasmodic to relieve cramps. Motherwort is great for women who have menopause with anxiety and hot flashes worsened by anxiety. I find it most effective when combined with other plants for this condition.
Blue vervain (Verbena hastate): Western classification: sedative, diaphoretic, diuretic, bitter tonic and antispasmodic, anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory in cases of nervous and hot headaches, soothing, once considered an aphrodisiac.
Blue vervain is not used very often now, but has a long and colorful history as a healing agent. According to Maude Greives, vervain is derived from the Celtic ferfaen; fer, “to drive away”, and faen, “a stone.” This identifies its use for expelling urinary gravel. It was also widely used in rituals of incantations by sorcerers and magicians, and considered to be good luck. But story has it that vervain was responsible for healing the wounds of Christ on the Mount of Calvary. A distinction that possibly earned it the name Verbena by Roman priests; verbena being a common name for ‘altar plant.’
Blue vervain today is overlooked as a medicine, but its calming and cooling nature provides peace for those who choose to use it. Sensitive people who have imbalanced energy from anxiety and nervous exhaustion improve with blue vervain. Blue vervain by nature backs off excess energy in the nervous system and channels it to other places in the body that are deficient, such as the digestive tract. Therefore it is an excellent remedy when depression is accompanied by headaches and liver congestion, as blue vervain stimulates bile from the liver. It is specifically recommended for anxiety and depression that are linked to hormonal imbalances. Blue vervain is also an excellent diaphoretic, helping the body sweat off a fever. For such use, I combine it with catnip, and lemon balm. The combination is calming, and great for kids.
Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum): Western classification: adaptogen, antibacterial, antiviral, carminative, expectorant, antioxidant.
Sadly, there is just not enough room to write about holy basil. It has been revered by the Hindu for thousands of years, and it is said that nearly every home has plants on their altar. The leaves are used in ritual and the plant itself is considered sacred and protective.
To look at the medicinal picture of holy basil, you notice that it supports nearly every system of the body in the long term. It is used in India for coughs, colds, indigestion, asthma and fatigue. But the main concern we will address here is its ability to clear the mind, balance the adrenal glands, and lower stress related high blood pressure, thus taking care of the heart. Holy basil leaves eaten fresh daily, taken as a tea, or tincture have a strong restorative effect on the adrenals. Holy basil brings clarity of mind, and while it stimulates cognitive function, it focuses it at the same time. It is specifically indicated for exhaustion where a cluttered chatty mind is involved. I have also found it to be useful for addictions.
Whether it is anxiety, an autoimmune disease or cancer, chronic illness builds barriers between others and ourselves. We become disconnected from our environment and our life. But I suggest we examine if the disconnection was there to begin with. It can be merely exaggerated by the illness. Healing the disconnection within ourselves is essential if we want to heal the whole.
The healing process that I describe above demonstrates how plants help to facilitate and integrate healing on a body, mind and spiritual level. Part two of this series, coming in January 2009, will describe healing the anxious spirit through shamanic work, and the use of essential oils and healing baths.