Similar to adaptogens, nervine herbs can help us naturally reduce stress. But while adaptogens target our adrenals, nervines are typically used to restore and support the central nervous system by reducing overactive stress responses. I use the word typically because though nervine herbs are most often used to calm the mind and body, there are in fact three categories, which include nervine relaxants, tonics, and the less commonly prescribed but widely used, stimulants.
What does this mean?
Let’s start with our nervous system. The nervous system provides the fundamental means of communication throughout our body. It’s responsible for taking in what’s going on in the outside world and translating that data into subsequent automated and voluntary responses. Nervine herbs are used specifically to target our “autonomic nervous system”, which is made up of the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) system and the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) system. While there is a time and place for our sympathetic nervous system to dominate, for example if you need to run away from something (hence “fight or flight”), it’s our parasympathetic nervous system that allows us to feel calm, to digest our food properly and to fall asleep. So, when we take a nervine relaxant, it acts on our nervous system by switching it from sympathetic to parasympathetic, and vice versa with nervine stimulants.
Nervine relaxants like chamomile, lemon balm, skullcap, passion flower, lavender, and valerian help reduce symptoms of stress and tension by sedating the nervous system. These herbs are the closest natural alternative to conventional nerve tranquilizers. While nervine relaxants are often prescribed for stress and feelings of anxiousness, they are most commonly used as sleep aids because of their ability to calm an over stimulated nervous system.
The second category, nervine tonics like oats, St John’s Wort and vervain have less of an immediate sedative effect on the mind and body. Rather, their purpose is to restore and tonify (aka strengthen) a burnt out nervous system. This burn out can be a result of chronic stress, sleep issues, etc., and similar to adaptogens, they help the body get back to its balanced state.
While nervine stimulants are typically the least prescribed of the three, they are likely the ones you encounter most in your day-to-day, or even consume regularly yourself. If you’re a coffee or caffeinated tea drinker, then you know the immediate, stimulating effects these herbs have. And while short term they can serve a purpose, like stimulating the nervous system to handle an acutely stressful situation, or to support stamina, they also come with a variety of side effects like an anxious mind, sleep problems, and long term can even have a depleting effect on the nervous system.
In addition to calming the mind, a bonus health benefit of some nervine relaxants is that they also work to support the digestive system. They do this by calming the nervous system and allowing food to digest properly, but also because of the “carminative” (ability to reduce gas and bloating) effect many of the oils in these herbs contain. Lemon balm, chamomile and lavender are great examples of the dual functions of nervine relaxants.
While some use nervine herbs as complementary medicine, they are incredibly powerful remedies on their own, especially for sleep, stress, feelings of anxiousness and even muscle tension. In fact it can be argued that nervine tonics in particular don’t actually have a pharmaceutical equivalent that offers the same nourishing and supportive effects to the nervous system. The best part? As can be the case with conventional drugs, nervine herbs have been shown to be non-addictive.
Interested in trying nervine herbs for yourself? Our Sleep supplement contains a calming dose of lemon balm to help you fall asleep, and stay asleep.
By: Kylie McGregor
The Herbal Handbook: A User’s Guide to Medical Herbalism, David Hoffman, Healing Arts Press, 1998