Stress is here to stay, and we need to accept that it is a natural byproduct of life. The question is, how do we support our body when it’s influence becomes a nuisance, or worse, destructive? This 2 part series will hopefully give guidance there. Part 1 will define tonic herbs and how they affect the nervous system. A Materia medica packed with options will be included. Part 2 will address the effects of stress on other body systems, maladies which result and are exacerbated by stress with specific strategies for healing.
Relieving stress is one of the most important things we can do for our health. Not only can it increase our quality of life, but the supportive tools we employ to alleviate it can alter how we deal with stress in the future. This allows us to become more adaptable in stressful situations, making life’s woes more bearable.
The process of learning to live with and lessen the effects of stress does not happen without a bit of effort. And there is an abundance of advice on the subject. Lifestyle modification is especially popular. The counsel is sound and often includes sensible things, such as the following.
1. Get proper sleep
2. Eat a whole foods, low processed sugar diet-no soda and low caffeine
3. Drink plenty of water
4. Get regular exercise
5. Involve yourself in enjoyable activities that make you feel good-meditation, yoga, art, writing or music, for example
There are times, however, when change is not enough. Our reaction to stress is perpetuated by our bodies inability to break an internal cycle, and our life’s inability to give us a break. Help is needed to restore balance, and redirect energy. And plant medicines can be very effective here, especially in the way of nervine tonics.
What is a Nervine Tonic
The two classes of plants that are specific for stress are adaptogens-which support the adrenal glands, and nervine tonics. The latter of which we are addressing now. But before describing nervines, I would like to define what a tonic is. For to know the function of a tonic is to understand a core principal of plant medicines.
Tonics nourish, tone and retrain the body. Their effects can be felt immediately, but the best results are seen when taken over a long period of time for they work slowly to inspire deep and long standing changes internally.
A tonic coaxes the organ to remember balance and function by one or more of the following actions: relaxing, stimulating, moistening to soften, drying to harden, heating to disperse energy and/or cooling to restrain it. They have the capacity to invigorate function when an organ system is deficient, or reduce activity when excess is occurring. (It should be noted that all herbs work by these actions. But all herbs are not tonic.)
Nervine tonics have the above mentioned effects on the nervous system. But they don’t stop there. They also have affinity for other organ systems with secondary effects that support multiple processes of the body, thereby showing us that more than our nerves are stretched thin when stress is high.
For example, it is known that stress can cause digestive distress in some. And many herbs that calm the nervous system also influence digestion. Chamomile is one. It calms the nervous system, is anti-inflammatory, demulcent (soothing irritated tissues), carminative (dispelling gas in the intestinal tract) and is antacid. Chamomile is also slightly bitter, stimulating bile from the liver and supporting digestion and assimilation in the large intestine.
Pick Your Nervine Tonic
Choosing the right nervine tonic is a matter of taking aspects of health and personality into account. And while someone trained in herbalism might consider many things when recommending plants, picking your own can sometimes be as simple as answering a few questions and reading about a few plants. Here are some questions to consider.
1. What are your symptoms when stressed?
2. Do you suffer from anxiety, insomnia, acute illness that keeps reoccurring or digestive distress?
3. Are you a hot head who needs something cooling to pull heat down, or something warming to relax and break through cold blockages?
What follows is a Materia medica of herbs to assist you in your choice. I have had lots of experience using these in my practice, on myself and family. While there are many nervine tonics, I chose these seven based on their diverse specific indications, individual charm, and ability to grow here in WI.
Blue vervain (Verbena hastata): Tastes: acrid, bitter; Energetics: sedative, diaphoretic, diuretic, bitter tonic and antispasmodic, anti-anxiety, soothing anti-inflammatory in cases of nervous and hot headaches, once considered an aphrodisiac.
Dosage: 10-35 drops of tincture 2-4 times daily
Blue vervain has affinity for the spine and nervous system. And in my opinion, I believe it has an affinity for the stomach. Not only have I used it as a nervine tonic, but also for stomach flu and food poisoning. The bitter action of the plant assists the body in throwing off that which is bothering it more quickly, but it also lessens stomach and nerve pains associated with the conditions.
Blue vervain is a truly acrid bitter. Acrid bitters make one shiver when the herb touches the tongue, therefore indicating their use specifically for unbreakable patterns of tightness and constriction in the nervous system.
Sensitive people who have imbalanced energy from anxiety and nervous exhaustion improve with blue vervain. It backs off excess energy in the nervous system and spine channeling it to other places in the body that are deficient, such as the digestive tract and the urinary tract. It is an excellent remedy when depression is accompanied by headaches that radiate from the spine, and liver congestion. I also recommend it for anxiety and depression linked to hormonal imbalances.
Blue vervain is a potent diaphoretic, reducing a fever that is stuck in the spike and rising very high. I use the tincture, for the tea is far too bitter for consumption in great enough quantities. I often combine it with catnip tincture, and encourage the person to sip on a tea of linden and yarrow with honey. This herbal strategy is also great for kids.
Blue vervain give excellent nervous system support in auto immune disease. And I will further address this in the next article.
Calendula (Calendula offic.): Taste: sweet, bitter, pungent, salty; Energetics: warm, can dry and moisten (is therefore seen as being a tonic to tissue states), haemostatic (stops bleeding), antiseptic, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, diaphoretic, astringent, lymphatic, anti-oxidant, nervine, mild emollient and demulcent (soothes dry irritated mucous membranes and tissue), mild diuretic
Dosage: 10-20 drops of tincture 2-4 times daily; infused oil for topical
Calendula is a complex assortment of tastes, which is reflected in its many energetic properties. The sweet and salty nature make it nourishing and soothing to tissues and nerves, while the bitter stimulates function to release energy in the digestive tract. The pungent and resinous nature make it warming. The plants resins also account for the anti-bacterial and anti-fungal qualities.
Calendula has an affinity for the nervous system and the lymphatic/immune system. It is a nervine tonic with sunny disposition. It relaxes tension in the nervous system and supports a depressed immune system. It has the ability to anesthetize prickly nerve pain internally and externally. It is very useful here not only topically, but in sticking pin pains associated with infections of the tonsils.
I have used Calendula for sadness that accompanies a depressed immune system with recurrent bacterial or Candida infections, and a swollen liver which is accompanied by low immunity with jaundice. Recurrent infections of the tonsils and glands with swelling, whether bacterial or viral, respond well to calendula with long term use. It reduces inflammation in the lymph by warming and thinning stagnant fluid to be removed.
The infused oil is topically used for: bug bites, diaper rashes, general skin irritation, vaginitis, and in topical formulas for lymphatic swellings
Chamomile flowers (Anthemis nobilis ): Taste: aromatic bitter, pungent, sweet, slightly acrid; Energetics: carminative, nervine, powerful anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, sedative, diuretic, diaphoretic, mucosal tonic (to heal mucous membranes), antacid, ulcer protective
Dosage: 2 tablespoons steeped for 10 minutes in 8 oz hot water. Drink between meals for digestive relief 3 times daily. Tincture is much more bitter in nature, and the tea is more appropriate for digestive woes where there is acid reflux. May take 5-30 drops 2-4 times daily.
Chamomile is for the nervous system, skin and digestive tract. It is a sedative and is specific for emotional distress with a heated personality. Anxiety, insomnia with irritability or hot headaches benefits from chamomile.
One specific case I recall was an elderly woman with moderate high blood pressure, acid reflux, and anxiety with occasional insomnia. It worked beautifully for her as a tea, 3 cups drunk daily between meals.
From the stomach down to the large intestine chamomile is a true healer. As mentioned before, it is antacid, carminative, and anti-inflammatory. Not only does it reduce acid in the stomach, it inspires the stomach lining to heal more quickly. In the large intestine it inactivates toxins produced by bacteria over time and increases the bowels ability to heal from Candida overgrowth. Effectiveness is increased when taken with acidophilus to aid restoration of healthy bowel flora.
I have also found it’s anti-inflammatory and cell regenerating qualities indispensible for healing the skin. I recommend it be used as a tea wash for dryness, irritation with bright red patches and/or inflammation.
Chamomile is effective for children. Teething pain accompanied by a low grade fever, hot swollen gums(apply topically) and irritability is often relieved by this plant. Or in cases of colic with acid reflux. The tea or homeopathic are most effective here.
Milky oat seed (Avena sativa): Taste: sweet and moistening; Energetics: nervine tonic, anti-anxiety, stimulant, anti-spasmodic
Dosage: Fresh plant tincture 15-60 drops 2-4 times daily; dried oat straw tea 1tsp-1 tbspn. steeped in 8 oz. of hot water drunk 2-3 times daily
Milky oat seed tincture is sweet, and specific for the dry, hot and withered constitution. When someone has burned out as a result of too many life excesses or is feeling frayed and fried, milky oat seed tincture is a gift. Examples of a few of these excesses are: adrenaline stress, insomnia from stress, alcohol, caffeine, drugs, nicotine, late nights, taking care of the infirmed.
It is specific for folks who have trouble focusing, insomnia from nervous exhaustion, occipital headaches that radiate down the spine and into the lower extremities, tachycardia, impotence in men, swollen prostrate, PMS with exhaustion and panic and epilepsy.
Milky oat tincture was historically used to help wean from caffeine, drugs and nicotine. I have had great experience using it for such as well. 2 clients benefited from its effects who were cocaine abusers. They used the milky oat seed tincture after post withdrawal in a formula with adaptogens.
I have also used the tincture on clients suffering from and debilitated by arthritic and rheumatic pain with success. Though it should be mentioned that this a realm oat straw tea is also useful in. It strengthens connective tissue weakness (hair, skin, nails), is nutritious, and specific for arthritis and complaints of the joints.
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca): Taste: bitter, acrid, aromatic Energetics: anti-spasmodic, anti-anxiety, nervine tonic, cardio tonic, emmenagogue
Motherwort is specifically a cardio tonic and nervine tonic. It encourages restfulness and, as Maude Greives tells us, “there is no better herb for strengthening and gladdening the heart.”
Motherwort is an amazing remedy to relax anxiety and tension, thereby strengthening the heart and elevating mood . It is also a mild vasodilator and anti-spasmodic for smooth muscles, one of those muscles being the heart. I find it to also be effective for menstrual and intestinal cramps.
Motherwort can be a good choice for high blood pressure, but is effective when the disease is due to stress and anxiety. It’s calming nature slows heart palpitations while its mildly diuretic affect also supports heart health. Chinese studies have also found motherwort to decrease clotting and the level of fat in the blood. Yet another way the heart is supported with this plant.
Rose (Rosa spp.): Taste: sweet, slightly sour, slightly bitter; Energetics: astringent, mild anti-viral, antiseptic, diaphoretic, nervine and cardiac tonic, anti-anxiety, aphrodisiac, anti-inflammatory
Dosage: 2 tablespoons of the dried flowers in 8 oz. of hot water; please be sure to use organic, this is a heavily sprayed flower
Rose has a special relationship with the nervous system and the heart. It is specifically for fear, shock with a saddened heart with emotional heat rising. An anxious heart also benefits from rose.
The leaves or flowers make an tea drunk as an analgesic for muscular pain, diarrhea and sore throats.
The flowers and leaves have astringent, anti-inflammatory and demulcent properties. They speed healing of tissue and slow bleeding. They make an excellent douche for afterbirth, wash for sore eyes, poultice for bee stings and a tea for sore throats and diarrhea.
The flowers and leaves have been found to have anti-viral and diaphoretic properties making a tincture or tea of rose flowers or leaves good support for colds and flu.
St. Johns Wort (Hypericum perforatum) Taste: sweet, oily, warming, balsamic; Energetics: nervine tonic, liver tonic (secondary), normalizes stomach acidity, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, analgesic, anti-spasmodic, diuretic, has effects on the involuntary nervous system
Dosage: 15-35 drops of fresh plant tincture 2-4 times daily
St. Johns Wort is a true nervine tonic and wound healer, specifically for punctures, nerve trauma, burns, and bruising. It is warming and dispersing of pooled blood, and anesthetizes nerve pain on contact. I can personally attest to its wondrous powers, as I have had some serious punctures.
This plant is also excellent support for sciatica, and conditions where there is prickly nerve pain. It is specific for pain due to spinal and brain injuries, and has shown to speed healing in the brain after brain surgery, be it cancer or other.
It’s anti-viral properties have come under fire of late, but I believe it very effective on viruses, especially herpes. This is a virus that lodges in the nervous system and is triggered by stress. The nervine qualities of St. Johns Wort are quite applicable here, even if the anti-viral effects are negligible.
St. John’s Wort is associated with bile production of the liver, and acts through phase two detoxification of the liver. In Chinese medicine, melancholia (melancholy) translates as black bile, and black bile/liver insufficiency is one of the issues of depression. St. John’s Wort also lowers liver enzymes. When liver and digestive functions are properly stimulated and the nervous system supported, over time depression can lift.
St. John’s Wort is not for chronic depression, or depression of a bi-polar/manic nature.
I have also found use for this plant in young children of a highly excitable nature who tend toward bedwetting. There are times bedwetting occurs as a result of nervousness and times it results from a weak bladder muscle. Children who tend to be hyper reactive tend toward the nervous wetting, and this plant is highly effective there.
When we have no control over events in our life, we are still capable of changing our mind about what is happening. Nervine tonics can help. It is important to remember that they don’t exist to solve our problems or take emotional pain completely away. But in supporting our nervous system, they can help us gain perspective on our life.
In article 2 I will describe a bit of the relationship between our nervous system and other internal processes, and outline illnesses that arise from them. Included will be plant strategies-herb and some aromatherapy-to assist you in taking this information on plants and putting it into action.