The traditional Western nervines have an important place that cannot be replaced by using more exotic adaptogenic herbs, chemical supplements, or pharmaceutical drugs. Perhaps the most important roles of the Western nervines are to improve sleep and reduce anxiety or stress. These are common problems particularly in today’s society. However, they have a broader range of potential uses that include pain reduction, relaxing tense muscles, and improvement of mood. This is a short primer on the Western nervines and some ways in which we might begin to use them. Although I have included ashwagandha here, which is Indian and an adaptogen, I feel it is too important to leave out.
The Western nervine herbs, aside from those that are stimulating which are not to be described here, fall into additional categories or ‘actions’ depending on their effect of the nervous system.
Nervine relaxant: These herbs are very gentle and have a mild relaxing effect, they can be useful for mild insomnia or anxiety. An example of a nervine relaxant is German chamomile. They may be an important addition to a sleep formula, or their other actions may be called upon, such as a carminative effect.
Nervine sedative: These nervines are a bit stronger in terms of their relaxing effect, but do not tend to make one sleepy or unable to function normally. An example of a nervine sedative is American skullcap, this one is best in a fresh tincture.
Nervine hypnotic: This is the strongest category of nervines, but usually still pale in comparison in potency with pharmaceutical drugs. May be well suited for sleep and not so suited for daytime use. A good example being valerian.
Nervine tonic: These nervines are thought by herbalists to have a longer term renewing role to play on the nervous system, thus helping restore a better sense of overall health and a feeling of well being. Good examples here would be the fresh tinctures of St. John’s wort and American skullcap, a common nervine tonic pair. A popular nerve tonic in the U.S.A. is fresh milky oat seed tincture, that is said to support the nervous system.
Analgesic: Nervines which have a role to play in reducing pain. For example, St. John’s wort is a nerve pain analgesic and California poppy is a more general mild analgesic.
Antispasmodic: Relaxing for tight muscles and muscle spasms. This can be related to problems with the nervous system. For tight tense muscles, we might try nervines such as black cohosh combined with ashwagandha. Another antispasmodic nervine is valerian.
Antidepressant: Several nervines have mood elevating properties. Good examples are lemon balm and St. John’s wort. Motherwort is another example.
(left) American skullcap, (middle) St. John’s wort, (right) California poppy
This is a way of dividing herbs into categories based on their general effect on tissues, such as warming, cooling, drying, and moistening. If taking an excess of drying herbs, for example, an individual’s skin will become dried out. This kind of problem is quite quickly dealt with by reducing or stopping doses or switching to a more moistening formula. It is best to be responsive to the signs of the body.
Drying nervines may be used at a lower dose without causing constitutional dryness, but depending on an individuals constitution (how naturally inclined they are towards hot, cold, dry, wet), as the dose increases or frequency, they are more likely to cause problems such as dry skin. Another issue is the cooling nature of many nervines, cooling herbs have a tendency to slow down the digestive system (herbs such as blue vervain, for example), and thus they can be combined with warming nervines such as valerian, to mitigate this problem. Often it is those individuals that tend towards the dryness and cold, the Vata constitution, that get these problems more easily. Other individuals such as Pitta may feel too hot more easily, with too many warming herbs, this isn’t much of a problem as the formula or dose can be changed or stopped.
Moistening, warming nervines: Fresh milky oat seed
Moistening, cooling nervines: Hawthorn berry
Drying, warming nervines: Valerian, St. John’s wort, ashwagandha, damiana, wood betony
Drying, cooling nervines: American skullcap, chamomile, blue vervain, black cohosh, Californian poppy, lavender, lemon balm, motherwort, Jamaican dogwood
These are a collection of mostly simple formula I have used for various problems. Oftentimes constitutional dryness is not a problem with these nervines unless the dose is high or frequent. However, dryness can be mitigated using hawthorn berry tincture (15-60 drops 2-3 times daily) or reducing or stopping the dose. Hawthorn berry can reduce blood pressure, so be wary of dizziness and signs the blood pressure is getting too low. In the case of American skullcap and St. John’s wort, in my opinion, it is best to use fresh tinctures, i.e. made from fresh plant material.
St. John’s wort (1 part, 15-60 drops 2-3 times daily) and American skullcap (1 part, 15-60 drops 2-3 times daily). This is a nervine tonic pair that can be used for anxiety, mild insomnia, mild depression, and also tried for nerve pain. There should not easily be problems regarding dryness here, because both are only mildly drying compared to other herbs. Since it is a tonic formula, we expect some results in the more longer term, to relax an individual, improve sleep, and provide a sense of well being. Particularly, American skullcap if the dose is too high, one might feel a bit sedated. St. John’s wort is contra indicated with drugs generally and can cause easy sun burning.
St. John’s wort (1 part, 15-60 drops 2-3 times daily) and ashwagandha (1 part, 2-4 500mg capsules per day). This is another nervine tonic pair for anxiety, low mood, and certain types of pain. Ashwagandha is in many ways a stronger and more capable herb than most other nervines, as it also is quite a potent anti-inflammatory for the nerves and muscleoskeletal system, can reduce pain quite well, and improve sex drive. These two may improve mood quite nicely as they reinforce one another. Ashwagandha may improve sleep. St. John’s wort is contra indicated with drugs generally and can cause easy sun burning.
Ashwagandha (1 part, 2-4 500mg capsules per day) and American skullcap (1 part, 15-60 drops 2-3 times per day). This is again another nerve tonic pair for anxiety, poor sleep, and possibly nerve pain. This time more on the sedating side, because both ashwagandha and American skullcap can be classed as nervine sedatives. It is still suitable for daytime use at lower doses.
St. John’s wort (1 part, 15-60 drops 2-3 times daily) and California poppy (1 part, 45-120 drops 2-3 times daily). This is a simple pair I have used to combat pain, it relaxes the nervous system as well.
St. John’s wort (1 part, 15-60 drops 2-3 times daily), American skullcap (1 part, 15-60 drops 2-3 times daily), ashwagandha (1 part, 2-4 500mg capsules per day). This is a nice nervine tonic formula that can be used to support the nervous system. St. John’s wort is contra indicated with drugs generally and can cause easy sun burning.
III) More complex sleeping formula
Only when herbs are combined together in more complex sleeping formula does the sedative and hypnotic strength of the formula really improve dramatically. Using a single herb like American skullcap may work, but when the case is more severe, often best in my opinion, to use a formula like these.
American skullcap (1 part 15-45 drops before bed), lemon balm (1 part, 15-45 drops before bed), valerian (1 part, 15-45 drops before bed). This is a moderately strong synergistic sleeping formula, it will lose effectiveness over the first few weeks a bit, but is suitable for more longer term use.
American skullcap (1 part 15-45 drops before bed), lemon balm (1 part, 15-45 drops before bed), valerian (1 part, 15-45 drops before bed), passion flower (1 part, 15-45 drops before bed), California poppy (1 part, 15-45 drops before bed), German chamomile (1 part, 15-45 drops before bed). This is quite a strong formula, if we use 45 drops of each this will end up around 6ml of tincture before bed, this will be too strong for the majority of people. If in doubt, start with low doses.
Safety and contra-indications
The herbal medicines described here are really quite safe in most situations, however, for pregnant and breast feeding women, many herbs are not safe to use. It is best to consult a trained herbalist if this applies to you. There also may be contra indications of certain herbs with medications and pre-existing medical conditions, that should be taken into account. For example, St. John’s wort is contra indicated with SSRIs. Hawthorn berry could overly potentiate the effect of blood pressure lowering medication.
However, the reality is herbs are much safer than most people think and picking up some knowledge of how to use herbs medicinally is very helpful. The traditional Western nervines have proven themselves historically to support the nervous system and provide us with useful tools to combat the life’s various stresses.
(left) Wood betony, (middle) Damiana, (right) California poppy