Relax Already: Selected Nervine Differentials
Here you’ll find indications and specifics for a small number of relaxing nervine herbs. I have not chosen the most popular remedies of commerce but rather the plants I have worked with most intimately and who I have used time and time again. I’m not attempting to give you a huge overview of all the ways they can be used either, instead I’m laying out the ways I have seen each herb excel and pointing out some of the connections and insights I have gained through my relationships with them. Previous posts on specific herbs are linked to in the title heading of that herb. You can find a past incarnation of my Nervine Differentials right here. Some bits of it can be found integrated into this current post, but most of this is new, refined or otherwise changed.
Vervain (Verbena spp.) – Cool, dry – Flowering tops – Bitter
A lifesaver when you’re so irate and uptight you could dismember the nearest living creature, with tense, tweaked, tied up in knots neck and shoulders. Great for PMS in women who have a harder time with the second half of their cycle and get ~intense~ food cravings. I call the particular feeling and intensity of feeling that are part and parcel of the indications for this herb “the need to bathe in blood” not so much in the sense of being angry or murderous but of having that much intensity, a kind of emotional/bodily tension that’s built up and has nowhere to go, and leaves your hair on end, your hands shaking and the people around you looking at you like you’re a crazed animal. It has the capacity to literally empty the head of all thought and stress where it is specifically indicated. I have personally felt and seen the neck muscles unkink and relax after a two drop dose.
Vervain is one of those funny herbs that effects different people in very different ways, some perceive it as a gentle nervine and others as a mind altering substance. Please be sitting down the first time you try it. Small doses are most appropriate here, if it’s going to work it’ll work in ten or less drops usually. Beside, very large doses can make you nauseous (really really nauseous, very unpleasant). Great for the irritable, restless phase of feverish viruses too, probably best taken hot as a diaphoretic tea for this purpose.
ChokeCherry (Prunus virginiana) – Cool, dry – Bark, flowers – Sweet, aromatic, bitter
Where the stress is centered in the heart/chest region, and threatening to keep you from breathing. A feeling of pressure or constriction around the lungs and heart is common. Heart palpitations or pounding may occur, as well as nervous stomach and shakiness. There’s also often signs of heat such as a red tongue, flushing, sensations of excessive heat and inflammation throughout the body. The symptoms will often have a normally sane, articulate and well managed person ready to climb the nearest wall or down the closest bottle of Valium. Five drop doses are usually quite sufficient to calm, and ten drops will usually stop a full blown set of heart palpitation gently but firmly.
Rose (Rosa spp.) – Cool, dry – Flowers, leaves, hips – Sweet, sour, bitter
Indicated by feeling deep stress and fear, with an underlying sense of vulnerability, distrust, defensiveness and even paranoia. The person will often act aggressively or defensively (thorns) in order to hide or submerge fear, pain and the resulting stress. Especially appropriate for wounding focused around or deeply affecting sexuality and romantic relationships.
Can be very helpful to those feeling a deep, numbing depression that is once again, underlaid by fear. Rose people are often terrified of abandonment and betrayal, showing that at their deepest level, they are struggling with the balance between vulnerability and boundaries. For the best effect, it often needs to be taken in small doses over a long period of time. Varieties with a strong fragrance and large thorns are often the most helpful in my experience.
All that said, it teams up with Monkeyflower for an excellent kind of rescue remedy for trauma, hysteria and acute stress. It’s action here is more general, being both relaxing and supportive.
Skullcap/Blisswort (Scutellaria spp.) – Cool, dry – Flowering tops – bitter
For nerves so frayed they’re about to snap, resulting in a very emotionally labile and reactive person. “At the end of their rope” is a very good way of describing it. These people have a tendency to flip out over (seemingly) nothing. They feel as if every sound, touch and bit of light is personally attacking them. Sensory hypersensitivity, as it were. They are exhausted on a deep level and need nourishment in the form of rest, nutrient dense food and nervous system restoratives. Blisswort is a phenomenal restorative especially for those with nervous exhaustion as a result of burned out adrenals.
Monkeyflower (Mimulus spp.) – Neutral, moist – Flowering tops – Sweet
For sadness and stress accompanied by a sense of joylessness and lack of wonder. A true sunshine remedy that brightens the spirits and can alleviate mild to moderate depression. It has also proven helpful for when someone is wound up on stimulants of any kind, to bring them back to earth from a hyped up, strung out place. Likewise, it can very useful when someone is hysterical to the point of being paranoid, unreasonable and frantic. It won’t sedate them into a stoned out kind of place, merely bring them back to the present moment and solid ground. I’ve also seen it help alleviate chronic insomnia with restlessness and frequent waking.
Sage (Salvia spp) – Warm, dry (fluids), moist (oils) – Leaves and flowering tops – Aromatic
Nervous exhaustion with shaking, tremors and a sense of chronic inner trembling. Panic attacks with heart palpitations, nervous headaches and a feeling of shaking loose from the body. An excellent nervous system restorative on par with Skullcap and Milky Oats, but quite underused. Also wonderful for waking up the mind, increasing memory and awareness while staying grounded and calm. Even the smell of Sage infused oil is deeply calming and healing for me.
Peach (Prunus persica) – Cool, moist – Bark, leaf, flower – Sweet, sour, bitter
Milder than Chokecherry, and better suited for overall stress that is felt throughout the body. For those prone to frequent adrenalin rushes, dry tissues and signs of heat. In dry, hot summer a cup of Peach leaf tea is like laying back in the river and just letting the water flow over you. Traditionally used to soften the delivery of bad news, punishment or grief. It takes the stress response down a few notches, allowing for better integration and presence. Well suited for the dryness, hot flashes and tension that often accompanies menopause.
Evening Primrose (Oenothera spp.) – Neutral – Whole plants – Sweet, peppery
Evening Primrose – Great for food based anxiety in those recovering from eating disorders as well as depression arising from digestive problems (David Winston). I also use Evening Primrose hormonally related anxiety and depression, it’s a very uplifting and calming plant without turning your mind to mush. I also use it in general anxiety and depression accompanied by nervousness and stress. Best of all, it’s intensely nourishing to the whole body, what Matthew Wood refers to as a balsam.
Elderflower (Sambucus nigra and spp.) – Cool, dry – Flowers – Acrid
For intense grief with accompanying depression and inability to see the magic and beauty of life. Lifts the spirits and opens the eyes to the enchanted in the everyday. I find it both relaxing and strengthening, grounding and magical. Elder’s a complicated plant with many nuanced effects, don’t shortchange it if you don’t “get it” right away.
Milky Oats (Avena fatua) – Neutral – Milky tops – Sweet
Another great remedy for grief and heart centered pain. An excellent nervous system trophorestorative. Calming, uplifting, gentle and moistening. Damn near perfect for everything. Makes a great base for many many adaptogenic and nervine formulas.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) – cool, dry – leaves before flowering – sour
Cheery but relaxing. Great for children and adults who just can’t (or don’t want to) stop going going going and are wearing themselves (and everyone nearby) out. Works well for SAD for many people, and is nice for many forms of mild depression. I personally use it for panic attacks with heart palpitations where the panic is very buzzy feeling (unlike Cherry where there’s more deep tension). Lemon Balm, Rose and Milky Oats are a great combo for any number of stressful, downer kind of situations.
Lavender (Lavendula spp.)
My favorite overall, for absolutely everyone kind of nervine. It’s warm, fuzzy and sweet and works for nearly anyone. A hug in a bottle, if you will. A flower that is able to move energy as well as calm, many people have found Lavender to be distinctly mood enhancing. For pain, stress, trauma, hyperactivity and other unpleasantness. It seems especially helpful at teaching us how to enjoy close up comforts – a hug, a big quilt, warm tea, a cozy sweater. It just enhances our ability to be sensorily aware and present. Even if that means getting really sleepy.
Golden Smoke (Corydalis aurea)
Like a cool, still point within. It makes everything just, stop. The frenetic insanity within and without recedes, at least temporarily. It won’t fix whatever your problem is, but it’ll let you take a few steps back. Very similar to Bleeding Heart and very useful for chronic pain, especially chronic pain accompanied by tremors. Like many members of the poppy family, it can take you further out of your normal consciousness that you’re aware of, so be careful driving or anything similar when you first use this plant. I like this plant best formulated with other nervines to help balance it.
Mexican/California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica spp.) – cool, dry – acrid
A great general nervine for nearly anything, and it blends well with most other nervine type herbs too. I specifically like it for depression and anxiety from pain. Great combined with Blisswort and Sage for deep nerve trauma. The Poppy is about taking a break from whatever is torturing you. Herbalist Mimi Kamp has a story about being really really stressed out, taking Cali. Poppy and totally forgetting what she was stressed out about. And when she did remember, she didn’t care anymore. That is the nature of the Poppies. This particular subspecies isn’t addictive and while it is comforting doesn’t give the big oblivion some of its cousins do.
Western Mugwort/Moonwort (Artemisia ludoviciana and spp.) – Cool, dry – Flowering tops – Aromatic, bitter
For those who have lost their trust in the natural order of things, who lack a sense of deep security. It can give a calm, “mothered” feeling to those who need it most. It’s an intense plant and can give some people nightmares. A sacred plant of many cultures, it’s best to ease into a relationship with Mugwort, and to be very conscious when working with it. Not everyone experiences the nervine/spiritual effects, some people just get the digestive and liver protective elements.
Primary Resources and References:
The Earthwise Herbal vol 1, The Book of Herbal Wisdom, The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, personal correspondence and unpublished writings of Matthew Wood.
Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, Medicinal Plants of the Canyon and Desert West, selected video and audio presentations by Michael Moore
Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest by Charles Kane
Personal correspondence and unpublished writings of jim mcdonald
Western Herbs According to Traditional Western Herbalism by Thomas Avery Garran
Combining Western Herbs and Chinese Medicine by Jeremy Ross
Personal correspondence and course work with Charles Garcia