Mar 072009


In the most general sense, a nervine can be considered any herb which has a pronounced (and generally positive) effect upon the nervous system. They are often currently thought of simply as calmatives or even sedatives, but this is inaccurate and belies the complexity and diversity of the uses nervines are capable of. The truth is that Skullcap, Damiana, Wild Lettuce and Coffee are all nervines, although they may effect the nervous system in vastly different ways. As such, there are a great many secondary actions under the primary heading of nervine, including everything from hypnotic to stimulant to the potentially narcotic. We will only be discussing the more important of these sub-headings in this post in order to focus on the most essential and core elements of the nervine action.

Below are the three most easily understood categories of nervines with appropriate herbs under each heading. The herbs listed are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather a small sampling of those plants with which I have the most clinical and personal experience. The botanical name given is usually the species with which I am most familiar (often native to New Mexico or common to Southwestern gardens) but I try to indicate allied species where I am aware of them. When this piece is ready for my upcoming book (and student curriculum) it will be expanded upon and profiles of each herb in regards to their nervine action will be added.

Relaxant Nervine

A relaxant nervine are those herbs that relax constricted or contracted tissues in relation to the nervous system. It does not imply sedation in any way. These herbs may well allow a sense of calmness or even sleepiness through the way they allow vital energy to freely flow through the body in its natural manner, but they are not suppressive in nature. In essence, they enhance the vitality of life rather than diminishing it (as many overt sedatives do).

When vital energy is blocked or constricted in the body, it can created irritation and resistance that may manifest as insomnia, muscle spasms or tics, agitation or manic behavior (although these symptoms can easily be due to other underlying issues as well), or may eventually result in depression or a sense of constant fatigue. By relaxing barriers to the flow of vital energy, the body is more able to maintain emotional and physical equilibrium. This may manifest as increased energy or an easier time relaxing or getting to sleep, or all of the above.

They are appropriate where there is blocked, constricted or contracted tissues.

Milky Oats – Avena fatua and sativa
Vervain – Verbena and Glandularia spp.
Beebalm/Wild Bergemot – Monarda spp.
Skullcap/Blisswort – Scutellaria spp.
Lavender – Lavendula spp.
Rose – Rosa spp
Peach - Prunus persica
Chokecherry – Prunus virginiana and allied spp.
California Poppy – Eschscholzia californica and allied spp.
Desert Anemona/Pulsatilla – Anemone tuberosa and allied Pulsatilla spp.
Western Mugwort/Moonwort – Artemisia spp.
Damiana – Turnera difusa and allied spp.
Elderflower – Sambucus nigra and allied spp.
Peppermint – Mentha x piperita
Monkeyflower – Mimulus spp.
Violet – Viola canadensis and allied spp.
Sage – Salvia spp.
Bleeding Heart/Golden Smoke – Dicentra formosa, Corydalis aurea and allied spp).

Stimulant Nervine

A stimulant nervine is that which stimulates lax or stagnant tissues in relation to the nervous system. It does not necessarily imply overt nervous system stimulation as in the case of methamphetamines or even coffee, but may simply refer to a gentle herb such as Peppermint and their ability to stimulate the vital energy into depressed tissues.

They are appropriate where there is atonic, overly relaxed tissues.

It should be noted that some nervines are both stimulant and relaxant at once. Stimulant and relaxant should not be thought of opposite ends in a bisected polarity, but rather complementary and often overlapping actions within the whole. Michigan herbalist Jim McDonald says to think of it as “stimulating activity while relaxing resistance to that activity” and I find that a very useful (and accurate) way of looking at it.

Milky Oats – Avena fatua and sativa
Western Mugwort/Moonwort – Artemisia spp.
Rosemary – Rosmarinus officinalis
Peppermint – Mentha x piperita
Sage – Salvia spp.
Damiana – Turnera difusa and allied spp.
Coffee – Coffea arabica and allied spp.
Yerba Maté – Ilex paraguariensis and allied spp.

Tonic/Trophorestorative Nervines
We’ve previously discussed the general meaning of Trophorestorative in this series, but here it specifically refers to those herbs which act as nutritive restoratives for the nervous system. They feed the nerves and help to restore functionality and resiliency often in addition to their stimulating and/or relaxing properties. This is an extremely important class of herbs, given how burnt out, brittle and emotionally fragile the citizens of the modern industrial world tend to be. When there is great tension and stress, there can be a tendency to simply want to relax and calm (which in itself can be very healing) or to stimulate the body back up to functioning speed, but signs of nervous system fatigue and malnourishment should be carefully watched for and treated with specifically nutritive herbs. Applicable minerals and vitamins should not be overlooked either, as nutrition plays a primary part in emotional health and the ability to appropriately deal with with stress.

Again, it is possible (and common) to have overlap between this category and the others. This is not a contradiction, but rather a wonderful illustration of how dynamic herbal medicines can be.

Skullcap/Blisswort – Scutellaria spp.
Milky Oats – Avena fatua and sativa
Vervain – Verbena and Glandularia spp
Sage – Salvia spp.
Damiana – Turnera difusa and allied spp
Rose – Rosa spp.

More about the general nature of the terms Relaxant and Stimulant as applied to herbal medicine and energetics is forthcoming (hopefully soon). I will also be talking about tissue states in the near future, since they are very much connected to understanding herbal actions and energetics in the Traditional Western Herbalism.

Medical Herbalism by David Hoffmann
Personal Correspondence with Jim McDonald
Combining Western Herbs and Chinese Medicine by Jeremy Ross


Photos (c) 2009 Kiva Rose

  9 Responses to “Terms of the Trade: Nervine”

  1. This is timely, I was creating a formula yesterday for someone with muscle spasms in their legs. I was using Chinese herbs yet I appreciate your descriptive information. I am checking out your references too. Thanks!

  2. I’d love to hear all your thoughts on coffee sometime. Mainstream reporting on coffee’s health effects are always contradictory, but herbalists usually have pretty strong stances AND bring in information you’ll never read in the daily newspaper.

  3. in regards to wrapping your head around herbs being at once both stimuting and relaxant, its really easy if you do this simple exercise:

    ` hold your hands out and make them look like “claws”
    ` now take them and scratch your head vigorously.

    You’ll notice a very decided stimulatory effect, AND feel all those tense head muscles let go of some of the tension they’ve been holding.

    Stimulating and relaxing, all at once.

  4. Yes, I like that example alot, jim… I wanted to quote it from your actions/properties page on your site for this post but decided to save it for the upcoming stimulant/relaxant post.

    ellabellie, glad it was useful! Keep in mind that many cases of chronic leg cramps are caused by magnesium deficiency…. and should be treated through supplementation rather than (or at least in addition) antispasmodics.

    Amber, yeah I’ll have to talk more about coffee in the future. The cool thing is that coffee is yummy and is packed full of wonderful bioflavanoids… all that stimulation isn’t cool for us adrenally cooked folks though… done in moderation for fairly healthy people, I think it’s a fine (and tasty) thing…. too bad we americans suck at moderation :) It can also serve as a medicine in small amounts for certain people (cold, damp constitutions with a tendency to stagnant depression for example).

  5. mmm…coffee. one other use for it is with asthma. my younger son (he’s 27) has asthma and if his inhaler isn’t handy, he drinks a cup of coffee. of course, he won’t consider “herbal” remedies and i’ve avoided telling him that coffee is indeed a plant. some things are better left unsaid. *grin*

    as for leg cramps, whenever my calves start cramping up, i eat a baked potato for the potassium–didn’t know that magnesium is also a factor. hmmm….good to know.

  6. I am stunned (in a wow! ) way by this post. There is so much in these paragraphs–I love how you explain all this (and other!) concepts, Kiva–showing us that nervines are so much more than the generalized definition commonly given, opening windows to the different qualities, many examples, and some great clear language for helping us (me) understand what it all may mean. I found myself saying, yes, yes! — as I pattern matched my favorite herbs (milky oats, California poppy, peppermint, etc. to the various situations I use them for. And I got excited thinking about *why* I have intuitively called in various plant energies (and offered herbal teas of them)–such as (again) Calif. poppy–for/to my Reiki & Sound healing clients when it becomes apparent to me that they are suffering from energetic blockages …. It seems to me that “blocked, constricted, and contracted tissues” could indeed mirror “blocked, constricted, and contracted *issues*” on various levels indeed. Much food for thought here in how I might more consciously work with herbs in relation to energy healing, to support the healing process of some of my clients. Gracias!

  7. Yep, caffeine can be helpful for some people with asthma (depending on how the asthma manifests).

    Potassium can be helpful (although I wouldn’t recommend Potatoes as a source, as all the carbs tend to contribute to the stripping of minerals from the body), but magnesium tends to be a primary factor for those with chronic cramping.

  8. Dear Jane, I’m so glad you enjoyed and benefited from the post! Much more than a mirroring, emotional or psychological issues are part and parcel of the body. In fact, they are bodily issues, since there’s no true separation between these componants of ourselves. When we work with an herb, every part of us is affected: the spirit and flesh truly are one. The same goes for the plants — their energies, personalities and effects are inseparable. When we learn to recognize and understand the wholeness of them, we can see much more deeply into the healing that is possible.

  9. Thanks Kiva Rose,
    I knew about the magnesium and had suggested it to my client. I mentioned it possibly as food form because the clients I see are very low income. I like that you mentioned it, confirms my thoughts more. I used what we had in our pharmacy and wanted to use something I felt safe and confident about. I was told by a nurse once that leg cramping can be a sign of not enough water intake too. Water is another matter to suggest because unless it is obviously true, or perhaps diuretics of some sort is causing a water imbalance, I would add something to the water for electrolyte balance even if a little juice. Your website is a gem! I am enjoying it.

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