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H
erbal Medicine
 
Ever had a problem or person "get on your nerves"? Or felt certain sensations to be "nerve-wracking"? Or lived through an experience that turned you into "a nervous wreck"?

Popular figures of speech attest to the importance the nervous system takes in our daily lives. Most of us know of at least a few things that seem to weaken our nerves: aggravating noises, overwork, relationship problems, lack of exercise or natural light, and excessive use of stimulants such as coffee, tea, chocolate, and caffinated soft-drinks. Almost everyone has had insomnia from nervous tension at one time or another, and some of us may even suffer from more extreme nervous conditions such as heart palpitations or depression.

But whether we suffer from mild or severe conditions, occasional or chronic, much of the solution is always the same: better living habits to restore overall health, and gentle but effective natural medicines, like herbs.

Herbalists use a class of herbs known as nervines to help with many different kinds of nervous disorders and imbalances. These herbs are especially effective when combined with other natural healing methods such as deep breathing, hydrotherapy, exercise, meditation, visualization, and nutritional counseling.

Undoubtedly one of the most important ways to create a healthy nervous system, reduce the ill effects of stress and eliminate depression and anxiety is to rest. Resting the body is not hard, we try to do this every day when we sleep. But resting the mind--that is a different matter! Today, as we become more and more information-oriented, and less physical in our work, the mind and nervous system is ever active. Mental fatigue is probably one of the most devestating influences in the health and sickness realm. Sevo Brooks, a European-trained health counselor extroirdinaire has this to say. "Our appetite for speed and information seems insatiable; we are constantly encouraged to ingest as much of life as we can -- in the shortest possible time. As a result, our nervous systems gradually become strained and overloaded, overstimulated and overextended. After months and years of incessant intellectual activity, often combined with decreased physical activity, the deterioration begins to show: we feel tired; our neck is stiff; we have to strain to mover our bowels,; we are easily irritated; we spend more time worrying." Brooks emphasizes that many of the common activities usually associated with realaxation really are not so. Watching TV, reading and talking are still activities. Instead, he says, "relaxation....is a feeling we get while not doing something. It is a resting state, a time when we are doing nothing. After a period of true relaxation we feel refreshed and invigorated, the way we do after a pleasant nap.

Herbs have a special place in healing the mind-body connection. We have a history and connection with them that is long-lasting as we are. Plants and animals co-evolved and turning to them to help us soothe our nerves or lift our spirits is perhaps an instinctive behavior. David Hoffmann, a leading herbal spokesperson for a return to herbal medicines based on our connection with all life here on planet earth says, "....our unquestioned materialism has created a deep split in the collective consciousness. No wonder that our modern scourges are anxiety and fear." But Hoffmann emphasizes that "Herbalism is based on relationship -- relationship between plant and person, plant and planet, person and planet. Using herbs in the healing process means taking part in an ecological cycle."

Concentrated herb essences have been known to have a healing action on frazzled nerves, as well as more deeply-seated emotional and nervous conditions. Edward Bach, the great English doctor and creator of the Bach flower remedies, which work with the finer vibrations of healing plants hints at one of the most important aspects of nervous and mental health when he says, "It is when our personalities are led astray from the path laid down by the Soul, either by our own worldly desires or by the persuasion of others, that a conflict arises." Bach prescribed "flower essences" to help harmonize conflicts between our soul and personality. He gave (xxxx) for nervous states relating to (xx).

Essential oils are distilled essences from plants that are receiving increasing attention world-wide for their healing properties. Robert Tisserand, a leading French aromatherapist recommends plant essences for therapy as both stimulating and sedative nervines. He says, "Essences can be of use as therapeutic agents in a similar way to ordinary trnquillisers, although they work organically, and in a more subtle way. At the same time they uplift our spirits they have a calming effect on the nervous system. He praises the virtues of oil of bergamot, camomile, camphor, geranium, jasmine, lavender, rose and sandalwood for anxiety and nervous tension and frankincense, neroli, patchouli, peppermint to counteract depression and melancholy. The essences can be smelled directly from a small container, or used in a commercial "mister," which can spread the aroma throughout a larger living area. A sort of environmental herbal treatment. Best of all, try taking a hot bath using herbal bath salts (such as lavender), and experience the healing aromas of plants and hydrotherapy together.

Most nervine herbs that herbalists use--among them valerian, hops, kava-kava, and camomile--have a long history of use and have more recently been scientifically supported with clinical and laboratory tests (want refs?). They are safe and effective medicines when taken in the right dosages and in high-quality preparations. However, they are sedatives and stimulants, and as such should not be abused.

The term nervine usually encompasses several different kinds of therapeutic activity. For instance, an herbalist might prescribe an herbal nervine to calm and sedate the nerves in cases of anxiety or insomnia. But he or she might also recommend a nervine to perk you up if you're feeling run-down, depressed, or have low energy.

Sound like a contradiction?--Not to the way of natural medicine. What is needed in both cases is fundamentally the same:

* increased nourishment to the nervous system

* a restoring and balancing action.

To understand this paradox, we need to know a little bit about what the nervous system is and how it works.

The nervous system is the "hard-wiring" that connects all of our organs, muscles, and other functional parts with the control center of the brain and spinal cord. Our nerves also bring in signals from the outside the world, and send signals to our body telling it to move or react in various ways.

SIDEBAR
Nervous Connections

Doctors have known for a long time that stressing the nerves can weaken digestion. But recent studies (source--Advances journal) have found fascinating connections between the nervous system and other systems in the body, especially the hormonal and immune systems.

For instance, we now know that certain neurotransmitters (the chemicals that make connections between nerves) interact with immune cells. This new information seems to point the way for future studies which may explain the workings of other phenomena we have already observed--for example, that feelings (both positive and negative), nervous stress and general outlook on life can affect both the immune system and digestion.

What we're interested in for our purposes here is the autonomic nervous system, which energizes and regulates automatic functions like breathing, heartbeat, release of hormones from glands, dilation of the pupils, etc. These functions are usually considered to be outside of our conscious control--that is, unless we train ourselves to affect them.

The autonomic nervous system has two sub-systems: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The parasympathetic nervous system is most active when we are at rest. It controls the digestive tract as well as the eliminatory and repair functions of the body.

However, in times of stress, energy is diverted from the parasympathetic to the sympathetic nervous system, which activates the famous "fight or flight" reaction--our most primitive survival mechanism. This reaction prepares us for danger in a number of ways: by decreasing digestive activity, diverting extra energy to the muscles, increasing the heart rate, and telling the adrenal glands to secrete stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol.

Unfortunately, the fight-or-flight reaction is indiscriminate. That is, it occurs during any stress, whether it is a real threat to our lives, or only common life-problems such as traffic jams, deadlines at the office, or a strong emotion.

Thus, chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system can harm the entire body in two major ways:

1) It can rob the digestive system of energy, thus interfering with proper assimilation of nutrients, which in turn can eventually weaken the immune response and nervous function.

2) It can cause nervous energy to get trapped in the muscles, which leads to tension and fatigue. For instance, if you have a fight-or-flight call to action, yet just sit in your car or at a desk in the office, all the nervous energy mobilized by the stress finds no release. That's why it is good to work off nervous energy by engaging in sports or some other physical activity.

Fortunately, many herbs help restore balanced nerve function. There are four basic categories of nervines:

Sedative nervines are prescribed for anxiety, over-excitement, and sleeplessness. They include herbs such as valerian, hops, passion flower, lavender, and lemon balm.

Stimulating nervines are for low energy states, lethargy, and depression. These include theobroma extract, rosemary oil (which contains natural camphor), green tea, ma huang, and St. John's wort (used especially for mild depression).

Functional nervines are needed to repair actual nerve damage or weakness. St. John's wort and wild oats are functional nervines. (The tincture of fresh wild oat seeds is a good nerve tonic, and is particularly useful for nerve weakness while trying to "kick the habit" of smoking or drugs.)

Antispasmodic nervines are prescribed for muscle cramping or twitches, especially of the colon, bronchi, or uterus. Thyme is used for coughs (bronchi), while camomile and peppermint oil are good for painful digestion (colon).

Note: antispasmodic nervines are not used for sore, tight muscles, as in the back or neck. For these conditions try external applications, such as camomile oil or tiger balm.

SIDEBAR
Choosing an Effective Herbal Nervine

With most herbs, the fresher the better. Herbal sedatives, especially, lose their strength if they are too old. Herbs such as valerian, hops, and passion flower retain more of their medicinal properties when they are extracted fresh or are fresh-dried. You can often find the expiration date of a given sample, or even its manufacture date, on the bottle. If you can't find these, ask the store manager for information, or call the manufacturer.

A second principle with herbs is that quality counts. Look for "Certified Organically-Grown" herbal preparations whenever possible, because these are the only ones that are guaranteed to have been grown under optimum conditions and without the use of pesticides and herbicides.

Also, liquid-extracts (tinctures) retain their properties longer than any other type of preparation. The next best is a powdered extract or a freshly-dried powdered product. Whole or cut-and-sifted herb in the bulk bin is the least reliable, because it is exposed to air, which can cause sensitive ingredients to degrade.


Valerian--a Proven Herbal Sedative

Valerian has demonstrated decidedly relaxing properties in clinical trials. For example, in three separate sleep tests (two of them double-blind) people who received a valerian preparation fell asleep up to 50% faster and had a sounder, more restful sleep than people in the placebo group (Hobbs, 1989). Another study found that a preparation of valerian and hops caused "significant improvement" in both subjective and objective measures of stress-reduction (Moser, 1981).

One researcher has stated that herbal sedatives such as valerian not only can help old people who have trouble falling asleep, "but they also can make it easier to put up with lying awake at times, so that it becomes a restful, relaxing experience." (Weiss)


It is important to remember that herbal remedies need to be tailored to a person's unique constitution and condition. No one herbal nervine is a panacea for a given type of problem. For instance, valerian alone will not cure all cases of insomnia, especially where a weakened immune system or low vitality due to poor living habits are involved. Often a whole constellation of complaints need to be treated at once, or in the proper order--which is why it is advisable to consult a trained herbalist.

The following case histories should illustrate situations in which each of the four categories of herbal nervines is best used. Note well how other natural treatments interact to support the herbal formulas.

Sedative nervines

Joseph was a 25 year old student at a junior college. His family expected high things of him, but didn't have the money to put him through school. So he attended classes during the day, studied hard in the evenings, and worked on the weekends. His routine left little time for relaxation.

Eventually Joe began to lose weight. The muscles in his shoulders and neck were often ached, and he had trouble falling asleep. He tried sleeping pills and muscle relaxants, but had little luck.

In desperation he visited a natural health practitioner, and was advised to take at least 15 minutes to walk and think of nothing but relaxing. He was also told to take a brief cold shower in the morning after a hot one, to help restore nerve strength.

The herbalist gave Joe a tincture of valerian and hops (2 droppersful, 3 times a day), plus digestive bitters to be taken in the dose of 1/2 tsp. half an hour before meals. Within two weeks, Joe was sleeping better and felt more relaxed. He liked his walks so much that he began to lengthen them.

Stimulating nervines

Emily was 35 and had a job as a bank teller. She had been married for 5 years, but had no children. Her problem was exhaustion. She couldn't take any interest in work, and just wanted to lie down when she got home. Although she enjoyed going out with friends on the weekends, she often had to stay home due to lack of energy.

Emily had been to several doctors, who had diagnosed chronic fatigue syndrome and candida. Then one day she read an article on herbal medicine and decided to try it. She visited a naturopathic doctor who prescribed regular daily walks and foods with warming spices such as ginger, mustard, and cayenne, to increase circulation and enhance metabolism. The doctor also prescribed 1-2 enteric-coated capsules odorless garlic extract (also to boost circulation and metabolism). The herbal combination for Emily included ginger, damiana, and rosemary to gently stimulate her natural energy. She took this as a tea, one cup each in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The dosage was 1 tsp. of the mixed herbs added to 1 cup of boiling water and simmered for 10 minutes, then steeped for 15. Or she could substitute capsules of herb powder (4 to 5 = 1 cup of tea), or a tincture (2 droppers = 1 cup of tea).

After ten days, Emily started to feel better when she got up in the morning. She began to read all she could about other natural ways to increase her energy. She discovered that she was wasting energy by worrying about her illness. Soon she found that when she turned her mind to more positive thoughts, and took an interest in painting, she really began to improve. Several months later, Emily had regained her full health and joy of living.

Functional Nervines

Jody had been working as a computer operator for nearly four years when her right wrist began to feel stiff in the mornings. She visited a doctor, and thought he was joking when he told her that she had Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

But soon Jody began to feel more and more pain; her wrist even got swollen at times. So she went to an acupuncturist, who gave her treatments, a warming analgesic oil consisting of camphor and camomile, and encouraged her to take up Yoga exercises to stretch and strengthen the joint.

The acupuncturist also recommended that Jody put hot- and-cold compresses on her wrist (4 minutes hot, then 1 minute cold) for a half hour in the evenings, followed by rubbing oil of St. John's wort on the joint. (St. John's wort is excellent herb for joint, muscle, or nerve trauma; it has demonstrated anti-inflammatory effects in scientific studies (Hobbs, HerbalGram). After 5 weeks, Jody began to feel less pain, and learned to relax her wrist at regular intervals during her work time, which led to a complete recovery after 3 months.

Antispasmodic nervines

Steve was a contract lawyer who ran a very tight schedule, slept little, and ate on the go. After years of this lifestyle, his digestion became very weak. He suffered from excessive gas, abdominal pains, and constipation. He felt nervous during the day, and noticed his hands shook in the mornings. That's when he decided to seek help from an herbalist.

Steve did well on digestive bitters, 1 tsp. half an hour before meals. He was also advised to take 15 minutes in the afternoon to relax, breathe deeply, and to have a bowel movement (one movement a day is average for many people, though three is ideal--one after each meal).

Steve also took a an infusion of camomile, which he could drink as much as he desired (up to 1 quart a day).

All of these treatments helped restore proper digestion. Steve's condition improved significantly after several months, and he became interested in vegetarianism. He read everything he could find on the subject, and soon began to tell his friends that he felt more energetic and relaxed.
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About The Author
Christopher Hobbs is a fourth generation herbalist and botanist with over 30 years experience with herbs. Founder of Native Herb Custom Extracts (now Rainbow Light Custom Extracts) and the Institute for Natural Products Research. Christopher writes and lectures internationally on herbal medicine. He is a consultant to the herb industry and is currently practicing and working on a......more
 
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