You're probably most familiar with this particular group of nervine plants, which include chamomile, hops, lavender, passion flower, skullcap, valerian, St. John's wort and catnip. If you noticed that skullcap and St. John's wort are mentioned as both tonics and relaxants, don't worry. You're not seeing things. While it's convenient to categorize plants into bunches, many herbs straddle between two or more classifications. Chamomile, for example, is a common ingredient in bedtime herbal tea formulas because it both tones and relaxes nerves. This plant is known as the child's sedative because it's generally a safe sleeping, calming and teething remedy for youngsters of all ages.
Valerian, the adult's choice when it comes to relaxation, possesses many fine qualities besides its calming effects. Over the last 900 years healers have used valerian to treat hypertension, anxiety, colic and migraine headaches. Valerian balances your central nervous system not only calming you during periods of agitation, but energizing you during fatigue.
Valerian also eases pain and relieves spasms in the circulatory system--a plus for heart patients. Dr. Rudolf Weiss, a German physician instrumental in the scientific development of herbal medicine, suggests valerian for "nervous palpitations" (2). Valerian is especially effective along side lily of the valley, a wonderful congestive heart failure remedy that should only be taken under qualified medical supervision. Cramp bark is another antispasmodic nervine that acts on your circulation system.
Balm is a splendid valerian companion, particularly for a heart that's "nervous" in the evening (2). This herb calms you down, relaxes tense muscles and alleviates intestinal gas. A teaspoon each of dried balm and valerian added to a cup of hot (not boiling) water provides a wonderful lemony nighttime beverage.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
Some nervine herbs are specific for heart and circulation problems. Lime blossom (or linden), for instance, is known among herbalists as a prophylactic against arteriosclerosis and high blood pressure caused by nervous tension. When paired with hawthorn, lime blossom is an excellent hypertensive remedy.
Motherwort, a plant with antispasmodic and sedative properties, is fitting for those heart conditions aggravated by stress. This cardiac tonic is said to strengthen an weak heart.
No discussion of nervines would be complete without mentioning stimulants. Most people drink a stimulating herbal beverage every morning called coffee. Like coffee, kolanut also gets its stimulating effects from caffeine.
Gotu kola, used since prehistoric times to heal wounds, is touted by Ayurvedic doctors as a brain and nervous system rejuvenator. It vitalizes your brain by supporting the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of your nervous system that functions mainly during rest.
Your feelings, thoughts and body are connected and influence each other everyday. It should therefore be no surprise that nervous afflictions like irritability and stress affect other organs like the heart. The best way to handle nerve-related problems is with a whole body approach: eat beneficial foods, exercise more and address psychological issues with counseling and positive thinking. Herbs can be part of this plan, for both calmer nerves and a healthier heart.
Lauri M. Aesoph, ND is the author of How to Eat Away Arthritis (Prentice Hall, 1996), and has penned over 200 articles published in more than a dozen magazines. She's a graduate of Bastyr University, and currently practices in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.