Understanding Nervines & Adaptogens
As we transition from winter into spring and new tender leaves begin to color the ground under our feet, it’s a good time to restore our nervous systems for the busy year ahead. Herbal nervines and adaptogens are our allies for coping with the daily aggravations of life, especially work pressures, family responsibilities, financial worries, lack of sunshine, and regular use of caffeine. Whether your nervous tension results in minor aches and pains, occasional melancholy, or sleepless nights, there are many herbs that can help us find relaxation and calm both day and night.
Stress is the body’s heightened physiological response to stimuli, both good and bad. The adrenal glands secrete stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline which create a cascade of effects including a rush of energy, increased heart rate, and rising blood pressure. These hormones act as an emergency response to a temporary situation, subsiding to normal functioning when the event has passed. However, constant release of these hormones can result in a weakened immune response, over-stressed mind, and harmful inflammation.
Nervines are herbs that specifically support the nervous system. Their effects range from tonics like Skullcap and Oat Tops, to mildly calming herbs like Catnip and Chamomile, to strongly sedative ones like Valerian and Hops. They are used to relieve nagging muscle tension and spasms, anxiety, circular thoughts, and insomnia. Some of these herbs provide multiple nervine actions, such as Skullcap which relaxes the muscles, helps calm worried thoughts, and nourishes the nervous system. Others such as Oat Tops, are not necessarily relaxing to the physical body, but help restore and support healthy nerve functioning when taken on a regular basis.
Adaptogens are another group of herbs that help us face and handle stress as it happens – although the classification is often complicated and the boundaries difficult to define. These herbs restore overall balance and strengthen the functioning of the body as a whole without impacting the balance of an individual organ or body system. Adaptogens facilitate these changes by a wide range of actions and energetics, rather than one specific action. Adaptogens can be stimulating and/or relaxing, many help improve focus, support immune system functioning, or provide some other broad-spectrum normalizing influence on unbalanced physiological processes.
By definition, the active properties of the adaptogenic herb must be safe, non-toxic, and non-habit forming, even when taken over a long period of time. When taken daily as a tea or extract, these herbs can help improve your mental functioning and allow your body to adapt more easily to stressful situations, relieving an overactive adrenal response. However, as Kiva Rose suggests, herbs should not be used to push us beyond our limits and cannot replace the benefits of good restful sleep. These herbs are of better use to our health and healing when paired with the appropriate need or used as gentle tonics.
Here’s a basic list of nervine and adaptogen herbs:
Oat Tops – Very gentle tonic herb that is nutritive to the nervous system, without a sedative action. Can help reduce fatigue and improve nerve functioning over time. Great for anyone who is overworked or relies on caffeine to get through the day.
Skullcap - Wonderfully gentle and nourishing to the nervous system. Helps relieve muscle tension and spasms, circular thoughts, nervousness, and anxiety. Can be used throughout the day during stressful situations or at night before bed to calm worried thoughts and muscle aches.
Chamomile – Classic relaxing nighttime tea, this nervine herb is also anti-inflammatory and helpful for relieving headaches, general pain, and mental stress.
Lavender - Calming herb that is often used in aromatherapy applications for its mild antidepressant action. Lovely when used in the bath, massage oils, pillows, room sprays, or body fragrance to uplift the spirit.
Lemon Balm – Sunshine in plant form, this herb helps relieve nervous exhaustion, gloom, restlessness, and insomnia with pure aromatic pleasure. Simply rubbing a leaf between your fingers and smelling the citrusy oils can elevate the mood.
Catnip – Gentle sedative for sleeplessness in children and the elderly. Helps relieve nervous headaches.
California Poppy - Used for its anti-anxiety, sedative, and analgesic properties, this plant helps promote relaxation in those seeking rest from nerve pain.
Passionflower - This stunning plant offers anti-spasmodic power and is helpful with tension headaches, nerve pain, nervous restlessness, and insomnia.
Hops - With a distinctive flavor and action known well by beer drinkers everywhere, this plant makes a nice sedative (although the effect can be considered hypnotic), helps calm a nervous stomach, and is anti-spasmodic.
Valerian - A potent sedative herb for most people when sleep seems impossible thanks to nervous energy at night. It is reliable, but only if used occasionally – not daily. For some people, Valerian can have the opposite effect of relaxation, causing more anxiety and stimulation. If this happens to you, Valerian is not the right herb to use.
Schisandra Berries - Improves concentration, coordination, and endurance. Chinese folklore says that Schisandra calms the heart and quiets the spirit. Stimulating to the central nervous system without excitation. Helps with insomnia and supports immunity.
Holy Basil or Tulsi - An important adaptogenic herb in India that helps restore vitality and promotes overall health and a softened reaction to stress.
Eleuthero Root – Improves mental clarity and emotional stamina during stressful situations, boosts physical endurance, helps with sleeplessness and insomnia, and supports the immune system.
Ginseng - (Panax quinquefolius) Boosts physical strength and stamina. Improves mental alertness and memory. Good for exhaustion and sexual vitality. Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is thought to be better suited for people older than 30 or the very weak. Used as an anti-aging tonic for the elderly.
Rhodiola - Improves the brain’s ability to analyze, evaluate, calculate, and plan. Normalizes the heart rate after exercise or a stressful event. Stimulates release of dopamine and serotonin. Strengthens immune system against bacteria, viruses, and toxins.
Reishi Mushroom – This immune system supportive mushroom is also considered to have a calming and strengthening effect on the nervous system.
For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Consult with a licensed healthcare practitioner before use to discuss effects and possible interactions.