Herbs for stress, anxiety and overwhelm

Last month I wrote about the negative effects of stress on the immune system. This month I want to discuss a specific class of herbs called ‘nervines’ – trusty little plants that nourish, calm, tone, and regenerate the nervous system.

The need for nervines
Along with mindful relaxation, herbal nervines help us reconnect with ourselves. The increasingly fast pace of modern life can create a sense of ‘disconnect’ between mind and body, as a mammoth to-do list leaves no time for a gentle walk in the park, a relaxing bath, or a spot of daydreaming.

As self-care practices go out the window, stress creeps in and, after a while, leads to discontent and even despair. This is when we may be offered strong pharmaceuticals – anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications – which have serious side effects and are often addictive.

If left untreated however, stress contributes to all ‘modern’ illnesses – type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer and dementia to name a few. There is clearly a need for more natural, non-addictive solutions – and that’s where herbal nervines come in.

Simple herbs such as chamomile, lemon balm and oats offer something truly unique – a safe, effective solution to everyday nervous afflictions like anxiety, insomnia, depression, tiredness and headaches.

How nervines work
As US psychotherapist and herbalist Trilby Sedlacek said: “My general approach to psychological treatment with herbs is to use the basic nervines, adjusting the combination for each person. I’ve gotten people out of psychiatric hospitals, reduced their psych meds, stabilized relationships.”

So what are the ‘basic’ nervines, and how are they so effective? The three most important groups are nervine tonics, nervine relaxants and nervine tropho-restoratives.

Nervine tonics
Nervine tonics feed and strengthen the nervous system. Herbs like milky oats, oat straw, borage and nettle contain important vitamins and minerals such as calcium, silica, magnesium and B vitamins, which nourish and soothe the nerves.

The concept of ‘tonics’ is foreign to modern medicine, but in alternative modalities these remedies are the foundation of any treatment plan. In Chinese medicine, tonics are ‘superior herbs’ – they favourably alter the condition of the body with no side effects. They are not strong acting or quick, but over time they are extremely effective.

Many adaptogens are therefore also nerve tonics – for example ashwagandha, a calming yet energising herb which improves sleep whilst stimulating thyroid function. A 2012 study showed that, after 60 days of treatment, ashwagandha reduced cortisol levels and improved self-assessed quality of life in adults with a history of chronic stress.

Nervine relaxants
These are herbs that have a relaxing or sedating effect, and can be used to ease pain, relieve tension and aid sleep. Passionflower, valerian and kava kava, for example, work partly by binding to benzodiazepine receptors, increasing levels of the calming neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Other relaxants include chamomile, lemon balm, lime flowers, wood betony, rose, hops, california poppy, cramp bark and wild lettuce.

In my clinical practice, I’ve seen these simple herbs have a pronounced effect on people’s outlook and healing process. Chamomile tea, for example, was shown in a 2016 study to reduce moderate-to-severe symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).

Nervine tropho-restoratives
Nervine tropho-restoratives are herbs that nourish (from the Ancient Greek, trophos), repair and rebuild the nerves. These include Ginkgo biloba, gotu kola, Bacopa monnieri, Vinca major and St John’s Wort.

These herbs have powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity, improve circulation to the brain and aid cognitive function, memory and mood. They are used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for the treatment of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and other brain disorders. St John’s Wort, as well as being an uplifting nervine when taken internally, is also an excellent topical treatment for damaged nerve tissue or nerve pain.

There are other classes of nervines, such as nervine stimulants (Rhodiola, rosemary, Eleutherococcus) and nervine demulcents (marshmallow root, liquorice)… but then, we’d be going beyond the ‘basic’ nervines. Careful combination of some of the above herbs into a blend that suits the individual is the next step forward.

The best way to do this is either with help from your nearest herbalist, or through your own research and intuition.

By Poppy Burr
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Poppy is a UK-trained medical herbalist practising in Praia da Luz. She offers consultations and treatment in Western Herbal Medicine, incorporating Functional Medicine testing and nutritional strategies where appropriate. For more information, visit poppytheherbalist.com.