Next time you feel anxious or can’t sleep, you don’t need to take drugs. Herbs are a safe and effective alternative to tranquilizers and sleeping pills.
Proof of this came from a four week study conducted at the Salzburg University in Austria. Researchers gave 102 depressed patients either St. John’s wort or the antidepressant drug, maprotiline. Although St. John’s wort was slow to act, it didn’t cause the mouth dryness, tiredness and “heart problems” found among some who took maprotiline (1). My only caution, if you decide to try this herb, available as a tincture, is that some fair-skinned people occasionally experience photosensitivity after taking large doses of St. John’s wort. If you have this problem, consult with an herb-wise practitioner.
As is the case with most herbs, St. John’s wort doesn’t just cure the blues with its relaxing and tonic properties. It also treats viral and bacterial infections, heals burns and wounds, and helps lung and kidney problems. Some heart conditions are aggravated by stress and anxiety. Because herbs often solve more than one problem at a time, you should be able to find a plant that cares for both your frayed nerves and ailing heart. Herbs can also be blended to enhance their activity.
The group of herbs that affect your nervous system are called nervines of which there are several types: tonics, relaxants and stimulants. Nervine tonics are botanicals that nourish and generally restore nervous system function. Included among the tonics are oats, skullcap and St. John’s wort.
My favourite nervine tonic is oats, known to herbalists as Avena sativa. Besides uplifting the depressed, oats is a gentle convalescent herb for individuals suffering from nervous exhaustion or just recovering from a long illness. Oats help protect you from stress and let you sleep at night. I find it very appealing that a steaming bowl of oatmeal or oat bran, found in most kitchens, strengthens the nervous system. Some doctors add oats to their stop-smoking tinctures. Kicking cigarettes is always a good idea for heart patients.
Korean ginseng and Siberian ginseng, collectively known as ginseng, enhance health by bracing you against stress, fatigue and disease. Korean ginseng achieves this by orchestrating the activity between your adrenal glands, pituitary and hypothalamus. The roots of Korean ginseng are rich in ginsenosides, responsible for intercepting physical, biochemical and chemical stress on your body. Once you understand how ginseng works, its reputation as a cure-all makes sense.
If you try ginseng, select capsules or tablets with these caveats in mind. Both ginsengs are only as effective as the concentration of their active ingredients. Most commercially available ginsengs vary greatly in strength because the government doesn’t regulate ginseng quality. Ginseng plants vary in age, the root parts used, dilution procedures and preparation. Poor manufacturing methods can destroy all active ginseng compounds, leaving a worthless product.
When standardized techniques are used to prepare ginseng and reasonable dosages taken, side effects are rare. If you do happen to experience anxiety, rashes, diarrhea, irritability, insomnia or melancholy while taking ginseng, discontinue taking it. If you decide to take ginseng for a long period of time, consult with your health practitioner.
Plants that Relax
For people with heart disease or high blood pressure, relaxation is vital. Nervine relaxants, herbs that calm and sedate you, can play a role in controlling stress.
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.
- Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry & Neurology, 1994, vol 7 (Suppl 1).
- Weiss RF. Herbal Medicine: (translated): England: Beaconsfield Publishers Ltd, 1988.