‘Nervine herbs’, and herbs for psycho-emotional health

Bio-medicine has a particular conceptualisation of what gets called the ‘nervous system’. It involves talking about the brain, spinal chord, spinal fluid, nerve fibres, synapses, axons, dendrites etc. Through time its conceptualisation of this ‘system’ has evolved and used different metaphors (in part culturally generated) like speaking of it in terms functioning like electrical current, later as involving chemical transmission.
Stories about it have also often involved replicating cultural and social hierarchies — the brain will often be talked about as being the ‘control centre’ etc. In actual fact, in the same way that we know that the mind and body aren’t seperate and that the body isn’t divided so neatly into distinct systems, we know even the so-called systems themselves work in more of a complex, co-operative feedback way rather than having a central origin (‘control centre’)of activity.

Nervine is the term given in contemporary European herbal medicine to any herbs that affect what gets called the nervous system by nourishing, supporting, stimulating, sedating, soothing, or relaxing. Their actions will of course also be working on what get called the muscular, cardiovascular or endocrine system etc. A herb might relax the muscles and slow the heartbeat rate which will soothe what gets spoken of as the distinct ‘nervous’ system.

In Chinese Medicine there isn’t a conceptualisation of the nervous system per se. There is, for example, an understanding of (large Universal) Spirit and the (small personal) spirit, Shen, which ‘resides in the heart’. When there are disturbances of spirit there can be experiences of stammering, insomnia, agitation etc. If we chose to, there is room in our inquiry for us to find our own terms for what the Spirit might mean to us, and the way that (nervine) herbs might work on what we might speak of as the Spirit.

Below are some common, mostly (but not exclusively) European nervine herbs. All the herbs work in multiple ways in the bodymind but they can become known and used for one particular action more over their others. Hyssop, for example, is a lung herb, but is also a bitter so acts on the liver and is a relaxing and grounding nervine so would help calm a stress related cough. The list below focuses mainly on the ‘nervine’ actions of these so-called nervine herbs, though many of them have other significant therapeutic, medicinal properties, some of which are listed as well. There is information about dosage, including dosage for kids. At the bottom of the page is also a small section about entheogens and links to related online resources.

Some Nervine herbs – herbs that affect the ‘nervous system’:

Common name
Latin name
folk names
— Actions and uses (focusing on nervine actions):

Verbena officinalis
The common names of verbena in many Central and Eastern European languages often associate it with iron. These include for example the Dutch IJzerhard (“iron-hard”), Danish Læge-Jernurt (“medical ironwort”), German Echtes Eisenkraut (“true ironherb”), Slovak Železník lekársky (“medical ironherb”), and Hungarian vasfű (“iron grass”). Also pigeons grass, herb of Grace.
— Great for feelings of stress and anxiety, calming, grounding, relaxant, gently sedative, use for fraught stress, if you have been multi-tasking and feeling overwhelmed, tense or scattered, useful support for benzodiazipene withdrawal, nerve tonic, helps left low moods especially if liver stagnation is involved, good for times of transition, anti-spasmodic, seizures, thymoleptic (alters mood, esp feelings of depression). Contraindicated in pregnancy.

Passiflora incarnata
Maypop, passion vine.
— Anxiolytic (eases anxiety), sedative, hypnotic, antispasmodic, pain-relieving, hypotensive (lowers blood pressure). Useful for feelings of anxiety, depression, insomnia, hypersensitivity to pain, agitation, tics, tremors (has been used in cases of Parkinsons), circular thinking, stress-induced hypertension, overstimulation. Caution: Low doses in pregnancy.

Milky Oats
Avena sativa
Common oats, oatgrass, wild oats
— Nutritive tonic, restorative, useful for frayed, sensitive nerves as result of long-term stress, feelings of depression, weakness, convalescence, drug withdrawal, ‘nervous debility’

Matricaria chamomilla
Wild chamomile, German chamomile, derives, via French and Latin, from Greek χαμαίμηλον (khamaimēlon), i.e. “earth apple”, from χαμαί (khamai) “on the ground” and μῆλον (mēlon) “apple”
— Relaxant, anti-spasmodic, mild sedative, insomnia, useful for anxiety, nervous tension, restlessness, irritability in children, mild sleep disorders, menstrual & spasming pain. Also great anti-inflammatory, good for swollen inflamed, red, hot tissue, ie soak teabags in hot water and when cooled place over conjunctivitus, use for nappy rash etc. Caution: in some people very occasional contact skin irritant.

Lemon Balm
Melissa officinalis
Balm, Common balm, Sweet Balm, Sweet Mary, Honey Plant, Cure-all, Dropsy Plant, Melissa
— Calming, sedative, relaxant, anti-spasmodic. Lifts and lightens the spirits. Useful for feelings of depression, anxious heart & digestion, irritability, flatulent dyspepsia, nervous debility & exhaustion, palpitations, can be useful in hyperthyroid (used with other herbs in hyperthyroidism – overactive thyroid). Anti-viral so really useful for low mood following viruses.

Lavendula officinalis
The English word lavender is generally thought to be derived from Old French lavandre, ultimately from the Latin lavare (to wash), referring to the use of infusions of the plants
— Sedative, hypnotic, for feelings of depression. Useful for anxiousness with despondency, confusion, troubled busy mind, tension headaches, insomnia, liver tension & heat, stress-related heart & digestive upset. Lowers bloodpressure. Caution: if you experience very low blood pressure.

Tilea Europea
— Relaxing, sedative, warming, diaphoretic, anti-spasmodic, hypotensive, circulatory relaxant. Useful for cooling feverish states, to help relax and sleep, for high blood pressure, tension & anxiety, shifting stuck, deeply-held patterns of tension.

Scutellaria laterifolia
Quaker bonnet/hat, Mad-Dog, Madweed, Madderweed, Virginia Skullcap, Blue Pimpernel, Helmet Flower, Hoodwort.
— Anticonvulsive, sedative, nervine, central nervous relaxant and restorative, antispasmodic, bitter liver and digestive action. Useful for nervous tension states, seizure, exhausted and depressed conditions, pre-menstrual tension, circular thinking, insomnia, nervous headaches. Caution: large doses can cause dizziness.

Wood Betony
Stacchys betonica
Common hedgenettle, betony, purple betony, wood betony, bishopwort, or bishop’s wort.
— Aromatic, sedative. Especially useful for headaches (tension, migraine), jaw tension/grinding, dizziness. Caution: avoid large doses in pregnancy.

St Johns Wort
Hypericum perforatum
Amber, amber touch-and-heal, demon chaser, goatweed, hardhay, cammock, penny John, John’s wort, grace of god, rosin rose, and herb-John.
— Anxiolytic, anti-inflammatory, cooling, analgesic, nerve restorative, lifts spirits, feelings of depression. Useful for nerve inflammation & pain like neuralgia, sciatica, shingles (topically), nerve damage, wound healing, winter blues/SAD. Anti-viral so really useful for low mood following viruses. Caution: some evidence to suggest it can interfere with some medication and the efficacy of the hormonal pill – check with someone experienced for therapeutic use.

Valeriana officinalis
All heal, Valerian derived from the Latin verb valere (to be strong, healthy)
— Sedative, relaxant, mild anodyne (pain-relieving), hypnotic, anti-spasmodic. Useful for anxiety and connected sleeplessness, over-excitability, allowing rest in excess fatigue, pain e.g. menstrual cramps and other tension pain (muscles, joints, migraine). Caution: for some people Valerian can have the opposite effect and cause agitation and restlessness.

Leonurus cardiaca
Throw-wort, lion’s ear, lion’s tail.
— Relaxant, anti-spasmodic, sedative, emenagogue (encourages menstrual flow), hypotensive, diaphoretic (encourages sweating and thus reduces fevers). Good for anxiety and agitation and for the heart – palpitations, tachycardia, is also a bitter liver tonic. Contraindicated in pregnancy.

Crateagus Oxyacantha
Mayblossom, maythorn, quickthorn, whitethorn, motherdie, and haw.
— Systemic & cardiovascular relaxant, regulates blood pressure high and low, supports and strengthens the heart. Useful for both the emotional and physical heart as a tonic, strengthens the heart muscle, useful for for arrhythmia, angina, improves circulation in the coronary arteries. Also good for grief and loss. Adaptogen. Enhances exersize duration.

Artemesia vulgaris
Wild wormwood, felon herb, sailors tobacco, travellers herb,
— Anxiolytic, affinity with womb, stomach & nerves. Menstrual regulator, also for menstrual obstruction, pain or delay. Diuretic, diaphoretic. To temporarilly allay tremors of Parkinsons, reduce excitabilty of epileptics befire a seizure, convulsions in children. Useful for cramping muscles. Increases dreaming and so useful for dream/visioning work. Contraindicated in pregnancy and lactation.

Rosa damescena
— Anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory, aphrodisiac. Useful for opening the heart, for fear, shock, disconnection, or blocked or anxious heart.

California Poppy
Eschscholzia californica
Golden poppy, California sunlight, cup of gold.
— Anti-spasmodic, muscle & nerve relaxant, sedative. Useful for insomnia, migraine, in stressful conditions, nervous bowel, anxiety neuralgia.

Wild Lettuce
Lactuca virosa
Bitter lettuce, opium lettuce, poisonous lettuce, tall lettuce, great lettuce.
— Nerve relaxant, mild analgesic & sedative. Useful for hyperactivity, nervous excitability, promotes healthful sleep. Caution: large doses may cause stupor and confusion.

Viscum album
Druids herb.
— Tranquilliser, vasodilator (dilates the blood vessels so lowers blood pressure), vagus nerve stimulator (which interfaces with parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract). Useful for arterial hypertension, headache, dizziness, fatigue, hyperactivity, seizures, epilepsy. NB, the berries are poisonous, parts used: leaves and twigs.

Turnera diffusa
Damiane, oreganillo, the bourrique, Mexican damiana, Mexican holly, damiana de Guerrero.
— For feelings of depression, stimulating tonic to Central Nervous System. Useful for nervous exhaustion, anxiety states, fatigue affecting libido. Aphrodisiac.

Humulus lupulus
— Sedative, hypnotic, mild analgesic (painkiller), smooth muscle anti-spasmodic. Useful for nervous anxiety and digestive upset, cramps, bitter digestive tonic. Also febrifuge, anthelmintic expells worms), diuretic. Sometimes contraindicated in depression.Caution: occasional contact dermititis.

Rosmarinus officinalis
Derives from the Latin for “dew” (ros) and “sea” (marinus), or “dew of the sea”. Old man, rose of the sea, southernwood.
— Cerebral circulatory stimulant, bitter, liver tonic, warming. Increases concentration/focus/alertness, memory. Can be useful for headaches and migraines where there is liver congestion Topically it stimulates hair follicles to grow so useful for some kinds of hair loss. Antiseptic for coughs and colds. Avoid later in the day/evening if experiencing insomnia as it is stimulant.

Theobroma cacao
— Stimulant, aphrodisiac, nutritive. Useful for mental and physical exhaustion, need of uplift, to raise spirits and feelings of depression, and for nourishment.

Some Essential oils that can support, soothe, relax, sedate or stimulate, raise spirits —

Generally uplifting: Lemon, Lemongrass, Grapefruit, Mandarin, Orange, Rosemary, Basil, Neroli, Cardamom
Generally grounding, relaxing, sedating: Rose, Lavender, Chamomile, Melissa, Jasmine, Geranium, Orange, Clary sage, Patchouli, Ylang Ylang, Oakmoss, Frankincense, Sandalwood (NB environmental caution: danger of overharvesting), Vetiver.

Gentle Nervines for Kids
Nervines can be great for helping to soothe nervousness and anxieties, for example when kids are nervous about an event, or otherwise feeling under pressure. These herbs also lend a calming hand when children have become so overtired and that they are wired. Nervines can help to ease away occasional insomnia as well as aches and pains including headaches. And these plants also assist in providing calm comfort during illness when rest is needed.
Examples of nervines for kids include:
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
Rose petals (Rosa species)
Lavender (Lavandula species)
Catnip (Nepeta cataria)