As we approach the holidays and post-election season, it’s a good time to think about how to fold in some good self-care so we can enjoy (and even relax!) during the hectic holidays. My self-care focus this year: calming and nourishing the nervous system.
Why the nervous system? Between a severe case of Lyme Disease and revolving bouts of Epstein Barr Virus, I’ve dealt with a lot of nervous system disorder, manifesting primarily as chronic fatigue, insomnia and anxiety, over a period of years. But even without these disorders, our modern, fast-paced lifestyles impact our nervous system all year long, and what better gift to give ourselves this holiday season to nourish the system that helps us understand and react to everyday life.
Some of my Favorite Nervine Herbs
Today in the global herbal marketplace, we can choose from nervine herbs that come from all corners of the globe. I like to focus on herbs that grow locally, have a long tradition of use, and have wide safety margins. Here are some of my favorites – the ones I keep stocked in my home apothecary – for general nourishment, sleep, anti-anxiety, and cheerful mood.
Herbs to Nourish the Nervous System
One of the things I love about herbs is that they can nourish our bodies and promote self-repair, rather than just relieve symptoms. One of the most highly regarded herbs to nourish a frazzled nervous system is oats. You can use the humble varieties that grow wild prolifically in the Sierra Nevada, (various Avena species), or the cultivated version that is used for growing commercial oats or cover crop (Avena sativa). In cases of nervous exhaustion, addiction withdrawal, or any stressful state of being when your brain feels scattered, oats can help. Oats are not a quick fix – they are a gentle, nourishing medicine that takes several days to many weeks to do their work, and are a great source of calcium to boot.
There are lots of ways to take oats:
Milky Oats are often considered the best way to get this nervine nourishment- using a tincture made out of the fresh maturing seed (called “milky”, because when you squeeze the seed head during this stage, a white liquid comes out).
Oat straw is the stalk of the grass, harvested when green, and then dried and chopped. Oat straw is often used as ingredient in nervine tea blends, and has a light, slightly sweet flavor.
Oatmeal is the mature, dried seed, available in stores either whole or rolled. Eating oats for breakfast every day is a great way to nourish the nervous system over a period of time. You will get the most benefit out of whole oats, and the least out of quick-oats.
Here in the Sierra Nevada foothills, wild oats are bountiful in the late spring, and they can be harvested for milky oats or for oatstraw. Oats also make a great cover crop for farms and gardens – so that’s a great way to ensure you will have access to a local harvest!
Take oats 1 – 2x a day, via tincture (2 droppers) or a cup of tea. Adding in oatmeal for breakfast will also help. For a more luxurious experience with oats, fill a muslin bag with a handful of oats and put it into a warm bath, add a few drops of lavender essential oil, and treat yourself to a warm, relaxing experience.
Want to create a tea blend for her nervine nourishment? Here is a blend I can recommend:
2 parts oat straw
1 part skullcap
1 part nettle
Steep about 1 tablespoon of tea blend in 12 ounces of hot water, let it sit for at least 20 minutes (even better if you can let it sit overnight and drink the next day).
Herbs for Anxiety
Anxiety is often our body’s response to high levels of stress, and can manifest more quickly when our nervous system is not functioning well. In addition to long-term nourishment, we can also support our nervous system through relaxation techniques, self-care, exercise, and movement traditions like yoga and Qi Gong.
For acute anxiety, here are some herbal suggestion that can help take the edge off and help relax the body and mind.
Tinctures taken under the tongue are a great way to deliver herbs when you need quick action – the alcohol helps carry the herbs quickly into the body via those sub-lingual blood vessels.
A calming tincture blend I like to use includes:
2 parts albizia (the flowers of the mimosa tree)
1 part passionflower
1 part chamomile
This particular blend is quite gentle, and you can take 3-4 droppers every couple of minutes to calm the nerves.
Flower essences can also be effective for calming an anxious mood – look for Bach’s Recue Remedy or FES’s Four Flower Remedy. Flower essences are great for kids and the elderly, or anybody with fragile constitution.
Sedative Herbs for Insomnia
This class of herbs are helpful for bringing on sleep. Everyone is unique in terms of what works best for their own particular body, so experiment and see what works best for you. Start with a cup of tea an hour before bed, or take a few droppers of tincture every hour in the few hours leading up to bedtime. Try one at a time to experience the effect of each herb, but ultimately, combining them together will enhance their effects on sleep.
Skullcap: Unlike most of the other herbs on this list, skullcap doesn’t just help you sleep, but it is also nourishing to the nervous system at the same time. It can also help calm mental chatter and relax muscle tension. Tips: take in tea or tincture form
California Poppy: Despite being in the poppy family, this herb is extremely safe, non-addictive, and great for children and the elderly. However, in large doses, it can leave you with a headache in the morning. Tips: try it in tincture form (the tea is extremely unpleasant). If making our own, use the whole plant – all parts can be used medicinally, even the seeds and roots.
Hops: one of the reasons why beer makes you sleepy! Hops is in the cannabis family, and these flowers can leave you feeling a little fuzzy headed as well. Tips: try it in tincture form (the tea is extremely unpleasant).
Passionflower: A lovely herb, both inside and out! A gentle soother, often used for insomnia, especially effective when there is associated nerve pain. Caution: do not use with sedative drugs – it can potentiate the effects.
Chamomile: This plant has never lost its status as a useful medicinal for sleep! Chamomile helps relax, promote sleep, and calm the mind, and is an especially good fit for insomnia with digestive pains or upset. Tips: pleasant as tincture or tea
Catnip: Like chamomile, its great for promoting relaxation and sleep, and especially good for kids (and also adults) with digestive upset that keeps them awake. I find that its anti-spasmotic qualities help my tense muscles relax. Tips: use as tincture or tea
Valerian: one of the most popular herbs for sleep, valerian can be found in most commercial herbal sleep formulas. But test it out for yourself – valerian can make some folks more alert and activated! Tips: try it in tincture form (the tea is unpleasant).
Well, now that recreational cannabis is legal in California, many folks will be using it as their herb of choice for bringing on cheer this holiday! However, many of us seek a boost in good cheer while keeping a clear mind and avoiding a psychoactive adventure. Here are some herbs with a long tradition of gently encouraging a joyful mood.
St Johns Wort – once hailed in the popular media as a cure all for depression, and then later described as a useless herb, St Johns Wort’s reputation has a take a ride in modern culture. Nonetheless, it has a long history of use as a nervine, with special affinity for relieving nerve pain and lifting the spirits. It seems to work best for the “blues”, and is not an appropriate treatment for chronic depression. As an alternative to taking it internally, I like to put the beautiful crimson infused oil into my hot baths. Caution: Please note that even though St Johns Wort has been used widely over-the-counter, this is one herb that you do NOT want to take with any other kinds of medication. It can alter the rate at which your liver metabolizes drugs and can inadvertently modify your intended dose.
Lemonbalm – a traditional bringer of good cheer in European cultures! It relaxes the muscles, especially in the digestive tract, and lowers blood pressure. It’s a lovely herb to drink in tea or to diffuse as an essential oil.
Lavender – an iconic herb with a long and wide tradition of use, because it has so many incredible actions in the body! Lavender could go in any of the above nervine categories, but I put it here because I think it is best represented as encouraging a positive state of being. It relaxes muscles, lowers blood pressure, promotes healthy sleep as well as a positive mood. Take it as tea, dilute the essential oil in lotion and apply it the skin, put a few drops in the bath…. so many joyous ways to apply it!