Nervines, Adaptogens, & Coping: An Holistic Perspective on Nervous System Health

These are not easy times.  I am deeply concerned for the well-being of my family and community.  Grief is an issue, and so is hypervigilance (plus the energy of maintaining said hypervigilance).  Trying hard to revel in the extra time with my children and let tomorrow worry about itself.  Every day I’m recommitting to lowering my expectations for myself, trying to shake off the myth of productivity as the barometer of my highest worth.

Sometimes that works…other times, I’m trying to channel my stress into functional problem-solving as much as feels helpful–filling the freezer like I’m having another baby, delivering groceries to housebound neighbors–anything that feels like a useful thing to do with an excess of nervous energy.  At those times, nervines (herbs that support the nervous system) and adaptogens (herbs that support a healthy stress response by calming the endocrine system) are indispensable in helping me stay grounded and calm.  Following is a brief description of when to use some of our best-known nervines and adaptogens for the most effective application.

Individual herbs might not be appropriate for everyone, so as always, double check your personal health needs with the herbs you’re thinking of taking.

Specific Indications of Common Nervine Herbs

Calming herbs for the nervous system are perfect for stress and anxiety.  Taking the edge off anxiety can make a really big difference in your ability to enjoy the moment you are living.  This sounds obvious but it needs to be said: enjoying your human animal life is central to feeling good in your body.

Some of my favorite nervines for a dull roar of background anxiety are lemon balm, rose, tulsi, ashwagandha, borage, and milky oats.  These herbs are helpful in instilling a sense of calm and decreasing emotional reactivity.  They tend to work better if taken daily, but also work if taken only when you need them, a dropperful of tincture/syrup/oxymel or a cup of tea morning and night.

In high-stress moments, the herbs above are helpful at a higher dose like 2 dropperfuls.  You can add stronger nervines like hops, skullcap, passionflower, or hemp (CBD) in small amounts, like 5 drops (too much might make you sleepy).

For feelings of panic, strong nervines at small doses (up to 10 drops) can be helpful.  These include kava kava, pedicularis, pasqueflower, cannabis and hops.

Anxiety that strikes at night can be helped by a diluted dropper of hops, skullcap, passionflower, linden, or catnip.

If anxiety is accompanied by a racing heart, a diluted dropper of hops and 1/2 dropper of motherwort are particularly useful–this is true during the day too, but only take 5-10 drops of the hops so you don’t get sleepy.

For anxiety related to safety, lilac, borage, and linden are specific, 1 dropper ideally as an oxymel.

For sadness, my favorite herbs right now are blue vervain, mimosa, lemon balm, and milky oats, dosing 2 droppers twice daily.  These work much better if taken daily, although mimosa and milky oats can help in the moment as well.

For grief, I’m handing out motherwort, rose, hawthorn, lilac, and peach blossom–dosing around 5-10 drops undiluted or 1/2 dropper in formula–and well as herbs helpful for depression.  These work much better if taken daily, although they can help in the moment to a lesser extent.

For children, I love rose for peace and happiness, lilac for safety, ginger or peppermint for a nervous tummy, or catnip for embodiment.  Oxymels or infused honeys are ideal.

Specific Indications of Common Adaptogenic Herbs

Simply put, adaptogens help decrease emotional and physical stress response by balancing the endocrine system, especially stress hormones like cortisol; this has a downstream affect on all other body systems.  There are lots of adaptogens, all with affinities for different body systems and different constitutional energetics.

The ones in this list are all anti-inflammatory and either immune stimulating or immune modulating, which is very important right now.  They are generally more effective when taken daily, although many will certainly take the edge off in a moment of need, too.

In this moment, I love schisandra as it uplifts the heart and brightens the mind, shaking off anxiety and supporting people with completely different constitutions.

Tulsi is especially perfect for people struggling with depression or sadness.

Ashwagandha supports those who feel run down or a lack of vitality.

Reishi is a great choice for those concerned about a run-down immune system.

Turmeric supports the function of the liver, lungs, and gut.  It’s super drying, so combine it with something demulcent like violet leaf.

Licorice is ideal for people with gut or breathing issues that are triggered by strong emotions and stress.  It’s not appropriate for people with heart disease, kidney disease, or high blood pressure since it makes you retain fluid (as always, check herbs out to make sure they’re right for you before you take them).

Formula Types

Most of these herbs work just fine as tinctures or teas.  Honey-based medicines like syrups and oxymels are particularly appropriate for anxiety, grief, and depression, as they take advantage of our brains’ association between sugar and our continued well-being.

Aromatic steams can bubble away on the stove all day, humidifying the kitchen to protect your mucous membranes and helping everyone feel good–use aromatic nervines like rose and lilac to calm your heart.

Massage is a great way to deliver medicine along with a physical connection, for both kids and adults.  Be sure to include an aromatic nervine like rose.

How to make your own:

Holistic Behaviors for Emotional Survival

When we live an herbalist’s life, we bring holism into our daily routine in more ways than just taking herbs.

We all know we’re supposed to eat well, sleep, and exercise–but that isn’t enough, is it?  Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this, and I wouldn’t be writing it.  Here are some more thoughts on ways to support yourself right now.

You’re Allowed to Have Feelings.

This is an existential crisis.  There is nothing pathological about feeling that.  People who have preexisting anxiety, depression, any kind of trauma history, obsessive behaviors, food issues, substance abuse disorder or other mental health issues may experience significant increase in symptoms during this time of heightened stress.  People without preexisting emotional or mental health conditions may start to experience them.  There is nothing wrong with you.  It is a normal, appropriate human reaction to feel distress in times such as these.

Do your best to call on your supportive coping mechanisms: identify nonjudgmental people to video chat with; send mail; schedule a video chat therapy session; use herbs, nutritious foods, exercise, and other self-care activities that make you feel good.  But most importantly, give yourself permission to feel things without self-recrimination.

This is Part of the Human Tradition.

Look to the legacy of your ancestors: we have been here before.  Not coronavirus, no, but plagues like this have come before.  You are the descendant of many generations of survivors: hold that in your heart with pride.  Take their pictures out, eat their foods, speak their languages, tell their stories.  Reach into your lineage for strength and courage to face this challenge: it’s in your DNA already.

Shake Off The Productivity Myth.

Stop.  Just stop.  Do less stuff.  Let go of the myth that your value as a human is predicated on the things you produce, your billable hours, when you clocked in, how clean your house is, whatever.  Just do less.  Acknowledging that being able to afford to do less is closely tied to race and class privilege, give up as much as you can, and give yourself permission to focus on the people and things that fill your heart up.  Do the actual minimum you need to survive, and focus instead on caring for yourself, your loved ones, and your neighbors.  You have an intrinsic worth that is immeasurable, and you do not need to justify your day.

Creativity: Fake It Til You Make It.

We have turned the arts into a meritocracy, alienating ourselves from one of the most primitive joys.  Art, music, and dance are ancestral rights.  You do not need to be talented to earn the pleasure of singing and dancing.  It is one of the oldest, easiest ways to be truly present in your body and connect with other people, and it boosts your intellectual prowess and engagement in other aspects of your day.  If you’re seeing bad news scroll by in your dreams, it might be time to draw a lousy picture instead, or butcher a Townes Van Zandt song.

Gratitude Feels Good.

There’s a reason every culture has gratitude practices.  The world is glorious and full of wonder.  Find a way to remind yourself of that, it helps.  Seriously.  We do this anyway in my house because it makes a huge difference for my 3-year-old’s mood–moments of awe keep her grounded, and it helps the rest of us to live in the moment.  Taking a moment to specifically find something you’re happy out goes a long way to supporting mental health and being present in a hard time.

How are you supporting your emotional health right now?  Let me know in the comments or on social media!  Great suggestions will be added to this or future scribblings (with attribution of course).


2 thoughts on “Nervines, Adaptogens, & Coping: An Holistic Perspective on Nervous System Health

  1. Whatever can I do to mitigate being super toxic with fluoride, mercury, aluminium& tin toxins? I am interested in learning what, if anything natural can be done to chelate these harmuful chemicals from my cells, then bind them for safe removal so as not to have them reabsorbed into the interstitial fluid and then back into the old and/or new cells_ again? Thank you!!!


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