It's been another weird summer. Climate deterioration (extreme heat waves, flooding, fire, drought), war, the removal of key freedoms and human rights (and the ongoing fight to get them back), and higher prices on, like...everything.
Even if you try to keep to yourself and avoid the flow of anxiety-inducing news, it's hard not to notice what's happening around you. Honestly, I think it would be a little bit weird to not be upset or struggling with the current state of our world.
Throw in anything going on in your personal life - most of us have some kind of stress or trauma or grief - and life can feel overwhelming. I know for me personally, the past few years have been especially challenging when it comes to my health and that of my loved ones. I've needed more rest than I ever have, and it's been an effort of stay above the waves and find little pockets of peace and joy.
Lately, so many people I talk to seem to be feeling anxious/down/worried/sleepless that I decided it might be a good time to share a little bit about nervines, plants that act on the nervous system to keep us calm and balanced. I think we could all benefit from having these plant allies in our lives, especially during tough times.
Very often, nervine plants are all lumped together under one banner - I see a lot of charts and lists floating around on the interwebs with the caption "herbs for relaxation," or something equally vague. But, just like people, even herbs within a certain category can vary greatly, and each one has a specific set of things its good at. Picking the right plant for the right situation can make the difference between getting the desired outcome and whispering darkly under your breath that "herbs don't work."
One of my teachers, Sajah Popham, breaks down nervines into several different sub-categories. This really appeals to me, as I've found that dividing them up like this makes them much easier to understand and helps me pinpoint which herbs I want to use when. He breaks them down into a handful of categories, but here are the four basic ones I'd like to focus on in this post:
Relaxants/sedatives: These tend to be gentler herbs that will have a general relaxing, slightly sedative effect without making you too groggy and tired to get on with your day. They sort of just gently calm you down and leave you feeling a bit more chill.
Hypnotics: These have a deeper, stronger effect than relaxants, and may make you feel a little too chilled out during the day. They're great for unwinding at night so you can fall asleep and get a good deep rest. That said, if your anxiety is really intense, you can consider trying these out even during the daytime.
Restoratives: Restoratives, or trophorestoratives, are herbs which actually nourish, tone, and help to repair the nervous system - this makes them a nice thing to reach for when trying to recover from long-term stress or trauma.
Uplifting: These are plants which can help to move stuck energy and make the spirit feel a bit lighter.
Now that we have an idea of what each of these sub-categories means, let's talk about a few of the nervines I like to have on hand. As I said above, plants are individuals with different qualities, so many of them will fall into more than one of the categories I've listed above. Some are relaxing and uplifting, some are hypnotic and restorative, and so on.
A Few Favorite Nervines
Hops (Humulus lupulus) - Hypnotic
A very bitter, cooling plant, hops is what I think of when someone has been suffering from multiple nights of insomnia and feels simultaneously jittery/wired and deeply worn out. Because its so bitter, I suggest taking it in tincture form. Some people find even the scent of hops to be calming, and stash a little pillow stuffed with them next to the bed.
Hops can help people calm down and get to a much lower energy state, and for this reason I would use with care in people who have a history of chronic low mood or depression.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) - Hypnotic
Valerian is among the stronger hypnotic nervines. To me, this plant feels like wrapping yourself in a weighted blanket. It calms the mind and helps to relax the muscles, allowing you to let go of tension and sink into a restful sleep. It has an acrid, bitter taste that many people may not like, but it's very worth it for how effective it is. I really like it as a glycerite (an extraction of the plant into vegetable glycerin) instead of a tincture - the flavor is much nicer and I find that it works just as well.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) - Hypnotic Restorative
Skullcap is a wonderful plant for restoring/repairing the nervous system and calming the mind. I love it as a tea or glycerite, and find it pairs very well with valerian for relaxing both the mind and body so that you can fall into a restful sleep. True to its name, skullcap makes you feel like you put a cap on your head to block out the worries and racing thoughts that keep you from getting the rest you need.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) - Relaxant/sedative
As an anxious person, this plant has always been a wonderful ally to me. It's wonderful for calming a general sense of anxiety, and most especially for stopping circular, racing thoughts - you know, that kind that wake you up in the middle of the night and play on repeat. Passionflower quiets the noise and helps you to relax. Because it has a neutral energy (neither cooling nor warming), it works well on most anyone and is a great option to consider when you aren't quite sure what is keeping you up at night or causing your anxiety.
Motherwort - (Leonurus cardiaca) - Relaxant/sedative and Uplifting
Motherwort is a plant I have a very special and deep relationship with - she was the first plant I saw in my dreams, and I met her for the first time under an ancient oak tree, just at the start of a thunderstorm. Since then I've relied on her deep green medicine for comfort and calm when things feel overwhelming. A cooling, bitter plant, motherwort acts on the cardiovascular system, helping the heart to beat more easily and steadily - great to reach for when anxiety is causing a pounding heart and/or palpitations. Motherwort gives you courage and, like a good mother would, helps you to do things that scare you or feel beyond you. Leonurus cardiaca - the heart of the lion. Because she's such a bitter plant, I recommend a tincture rather than a tea.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) - Gentle relaxant
Chamomile is such a gentle medicine that it often gets overlooked in favor of stronger plants...but gentle certainly doesn't mean weak. Chamomile is one of our best relaxants, helping to cool inflammation in the body and calm the nervous system. I like this plant for general anxiety, or for when you just feel a bit too wound up and overstimulated. A tea of the flowers is a wonderful way to unwind - just the act of drinking a nice warm cup of tea at the end of the day is relaxing! Chamomile is a bit of a diuretic (read: makes you pee more), so I'd suggest having a cup at least an hour before you plant to go to sleep.
Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) - Relaxant
This plant is a specific for people who are experiencing burnout from working Way. Too. Hard. For people who are overloaded, frustrated, who have become victims of trying to do too much. A cooling, bitter plant, blue vervain moves energy downward, relaxing the mind and the neck/shoulders. Blue vervain helps you to stop, feel how high and tense your shoulders are, and let them drop dooooown. Relax. Like motherwort, this plant is so strongly bitter that I would suggest either adding it in small amounts to a blend of other herbs or taking it as a tincture.
Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) - Uplifting
Also called Holy Basil, this gorgeous, warming, gentle plant is wonderful for lifting your mood. With a sweet, spicy scent and taste, tulsi makes a delicious tea. In addition to being uplifting, this herb is a gentle adaptogen, meaning that over time it can help your body adapt to stress and deal with it in a healthy way. I generally think that the best way to deal with long-term stress is to try and address it if you can...but if you can't, adaptogens are a wonderful ally to help you through it.
St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) - Restorative and Uplifting
With yellow flowers like mini suns, St. John's wort is a warming plant that brings light into darkness and lifts the spirits. A restorative tonic, it helps to strengthen and repair the nervous system. It also helps the liver to clear excess cortisol from the body and eliminate waste products - something which really can improve your mood and overall feeling of wellness. A note of caution: St. John's wort is one of the few herbs that can interfere with certain medications, so be very sure to check whether or not it is safe for you to take. When taken over a longer period of time or in large doses, it can also increase photosensitivity.
Milky Oats (Avena sativa) - Restorative
Milky oats, the tops of the oat plant harvested just when it starts to secrete a milky substance, is wonderful in situations where the nervous system feels depleted - think worn down, low energy, and a general heavy/tired feeling. It can help to replenish and rebuild the system, especially after long periods of chronic stress. Because it's so gentle and nourishing, it's a great thing to add to most nervine formulas.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) - Relaxant, Uplifting
This beautiful plant in the mint family is a like a ray of sunshine. Cooling, uplifting, and delicious, lemon balm is wonderful for people who feel overheated, irritated, frustrated, and like they have a hard time relaxing and "lightening up." This is a wonderful plant all by itself, but pairs really well other nervines in tea blends.
Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus) - Uplifting, Relaxant, Stimulant
Rosemary isn't often included in lists of nervine plants, but I think it deserves a spot. What I love about this plant is that just about anyone can find it in the grocery store when they need it. Warming, stimulating, relaxing and uplifting, rosemary can help to release tension in the digestive system.
"How can something be stimulating and relaxing?" you ask. Well, I once heard herbalist jim mcdonald explain it like this: let your hair down and give your scalp a nice rub. It stimulates blood flow but also feels so relaxing, right? Rosemary is like that. It's a nice ally to reach for when there is brain fog and a feeling of sluggishness brought on by too much stress. It may sound odd, as most people think of rosemary only as a culinary seasoning, but a tea of the fresh sprigs is really delicious and comforting.
Non-herbal Ways to Feel Better
This may sound strange coming from someone who works so much with herbs, but I think it's important to try and work out the root cause of any health issues - including stress and unhappiness and address it. The plants can help to lift us out of a negative mental state and give us courage and support, but then we need to do the work to fix the underlying problem.
I'm certainly not saying this is always possible - there can be many causes of stress and worry and low mood that can't be so easily fixed. Sometimes, we just need to get through a tough period. And sometimes what we need most is to look at our lives and see where we need to make changes.
Can you pinpoint what things are upsetting you?
Maybe there is a toxic relationship. A commitment that takes too much from you. A job that drains you.
Can you let it go?
Another side effect of too much stress is that we start to fall into a small, dim mindset where we can actually forget what we like and what brings us joy.
We evolved with a stress response that helps us to get out of immediate danger - we hyper focus on the problem at hand until we're safe (i.e., outsmarting or outrunning a predator). But that doesn't serve us well when it comes to frequent, persistent stress. We can focus too much on our problems and forget to look at the bigger picture and to notice the good things around us. It's like a darkness begins to fall, and you get trapped in this static mindset and forget that things always pass and change.
One way I like to combat this is by sitting down and literally writing out what things/activities make me feel happy and at peace. I know it sounds almost trivial, but taking the time to think of all the things that are great about life can help you remember all the nice stuff you may have stopped doing/thinking about.
I'll go first:
- sitting by a lake or stream with a cup of coffee or tea
- walking in/spending time in the forest
- swimming/being in the water
- the first tomato to ripen
- cooking oatmeal over a fire when I'm camping
- cloud-shadows on the mountains
- groves of evergreen
- moonrise at the ocean
- really good beer
- the light just after a thunderstorm
- strangers that are kind for no reason
- the sound of frogs singing at dusk
- late-night candy runs
- laughing with friends until I can't breathe
Just from sitting here and making this list, I'm thinking that I should carve out a little time to bake cookies to share with friends this week, that I should make more solid plants for fall hiking, and that I should...adopt more dogs (well, we'll see about that one...)!
You matter, and you deserve to feel at peace in your life. Don't be afraid to do what you need to do to take care of your precious self. We are all just little wandering souls that have the privilege and luck to be having a physical experience in this beautiful world. You deserve to enjoy that.
And, if you need a little help from the plants, they're always there for you.
P.S. I want to stress that seeking help with your mental health is NOT something to be ashamed of. Mental illness is like any other sickness, and sometimes we need to go to the doctor. If you are struggling with depression, find a way to reach out to someone you trust and find help. The National Suicide and Crises Hotline can be reached by dialing 988 on your phone and can help you find the resources you need.
As always, everything I share here is strictly for educational purposes and is not intended to treat, cure, or act as advice regarding disease. Always do your own research and make sure a herb is safe for you to take, especially if you are on medication, pregnant or breastfeeding.