Nervines and Adaptogens: Naturopathic Choices for Anxiety, Stress & the Nervous System

Written by Dr. Laura Jones

Botanical Medicine provides multiple tools for coping with normal day-to-day stressors as well as more troubling anxiety.  Nervous tension, sleep disruption, and melancholy are all symptoms one may experience during stressful times.  Herbs such as adaptogens and nervines can help us find calm again, allowing for more enjoyment and a normal, healthy cycle of activity and rest.

As humans, we experience both positive and negative stressors. During moments of stress, our pituitary, hypothalamus and adrenal glands are involved in a cascade of biochemical communication that results in secretion of cortisol and adrenaline.  This cascade can produce multiple effects on our minds and bodies including spikes in alertness, heart rate, and/or blood pressure. Cortisol and adrenaline act together to elicit a normal response to a temporary stressful situation. For those of us experiencing more intense, frequent or sustained stressors, the prolonged exposure to cortisol and adrenaline can result in a run-down immune response, a “worried and hurried” mind, and damage to our bodies’ tissues and systems.

What are Nervines?

Nervines are herbs that support the nervous system.  Skullcap (Scutellaria), milky oats (Avena sativa), Catnip (Nepeta) and Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) are all mildly calming and stronger nervines include relaxants such as Valerian (Valeriana) and Hops (Humulus). These herbs can be very useful in relieving normal muscle tension, ruminating thoughts, restless sleep and the worried mind.

What Are Adaptogens?

Adaptogens are another category of herbs well known to help us manage stress as we experience it. Herbs in this group have been shown to reestablish balance and strengthen the body’s ability to roll with stressors. Adaptogens facilitate these changes through a wide range of actions and plant energetics, rather than through one specific action. With sustained use, adaptogens improve focus, mood and immune function.

To be considered an adaptogen, the active properties of an adaptogenic herb must be safe, non-toxic, and non-habit-forming, even when taken over a long period of time. Often adaptogens are taken daily as a tea or extract.

Nervines we Love

  • Chamomile – This nervine herb is also helpful for relieving mild daily mental stress.
  • California poppy – This herb is rich in calming properties and helps promote relaxation in those seeking rest.
  • Catnip – This is a gentle and calming herb for sleeplessness- it is particularly safe for children and the elderly.
  • Hops – This plant supports relaxation and helps calm a nervous stomach.
  • Lavender – This calming herb is often used in aromatherapy applications because of its mild calming action.
  • Lemon balm – This herb helps with nervous exhaustion, gloom, and restlessness. It smells amazing.
  • Oat tops – Oats are a very gentle tonic herb that help support the nervous system without a strong noticeable calming action following administration. Oats may help reduce fatigue and support nervous system over time. This herb is a nice suggestion for those who are overworked or relies on caffeine to get through the day.
  • Passionflower – Passiflora relieves general tension, occasional nervous restlessness, and supports restful sleep.
  • Skullcap – An herb that is gentle and nourishing to the nervous system. Skullcap relieves occasional tension and stress, ruminating thoughts, and nervousness. This can be used on an as needed basis the day during stressful situations or at night before bed to calm worries
  • Valerian – This potent herb support relaxation. It is stronger than some other nervines. It usually works wonderfully but, in few folks,  it can cause stimulation. If this occurs with you, then switch to a different nervine.

Adaptogens we Love

  • American ginseng – This adaptogen is well known for its ability to increase physical strength and stamina. It also supports a healthy memory and mental acuity. It will help to relieve exhaustion mental alertness and memory. (Asian ginseng – another awesome adaptogen – this is believed to be better suited for people older than 30 or the very weak.)
  • Cordyceps – This immune system supportive mushroom has long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
  • Eleuthero root – Improves normal mental clarity and emotional stamina during stressful situations, improved physical endurance, supports healthy immune system functioning.
  • Holy basil – This herb helps restore vitality and promote overall health, allowing us a gentler response to stress.
  • Rhodiola – Supports healthy immune system functioning
  • Schisandra berries – This plant aids with concentration, coordination, and endurance. It is known to calm the heart and mind.

These herbs can be combined with another or several others to create an individualized and synergistic formulation. Herbal tinctures make for an easy way to combine as many as you wish. Always start with small doses until you know how you tolerate the herbs. When used responsibly and compliantly, these plants offer a great treatment option for a healthier and happier lifestyle.

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  1. Image for Cheryl Wheeler Cheryl Wheeler

    Lovely resource, will share these with my clients. Thank you!