I’m a recovering, stressed out, former-hustling New Yorker, so you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon the fact that herbs could help me mellow out, repair my nervous system, and help me not be stressed 100% of the time. It started three years ago when my health coach at the time recommended I take ashwagandha after I told her I often felt frazzled and on edge. “What did you say? Can you spell that?” I asked with a puzzled and skeptical look on my face. Little did I know that this magic herb would rapidly decrease my stress levels and change the entire trajectory of how I viewed my body, medicine, and our connection to nature.
Adaptogens are having a moment (just look at Instagram), and don’t get me wrong, I’m totally here for it. It’s 2020 and while “self-care” is as prevalent as adaptogens, so is working long hours, exposure to environmental toxins, stress from social media, world events, and more… not to mention degrading sleep quality from staring at screens all day and night. Adaptogens are trendy because they are desperately needed in our chronically exhausted lifestyles — and they actually work.
Recently, though, I’ve become BFF’s with nervines, a classification of herbs that can also be helpful with stress, anxiety, and sleep, which are targeted at the nervous system.
According to Medical Herbalism by David Hoffman, nervines are “relaxants that ease anxiety and tension by soothing both body and mind.” Count me in.
Unlike adaptogens which have subtle long term effects that are not specific to a body system, nervines act directly upon the nervous system in both long term and acute situations, both tonifying the nervous system for the long haul and calming you during times of stress and anxiety.
You’re probably already familiar with some of these soothing herbs, which include chamomile, lemon balm, lavender, skullcap, passionflower, oats, California poppy, and more. They are very helpful for relieving anxiety as well as insomnia, headaches, muscle tension, and even worry, each herb having its preferred effects. Some are more mild relaxants like lemon balm, while others are more sedative like California poppy or valerian, and others, like milky oat tops, are tonic herbs that soothe the nervous system with daily use. Nearly all nervine herbs have affinities for other body systems as well — for example, lemon balm and chamomile are excellent for digestive health, which is a beautiful pairing considering gut health and mental health are so intertwined.
In addition to working both in the short and long term, there’s a deeper reason I have come to lean more heavily on nervines over adaptogens: their accessibility. One of the reasons I am fascinated by herbalism and have chosen it as a path of study is because of its implications for our connection to nature through plants. Nervines are generally affordable, accessible, and delicious herbs, many of which you can even grow yourself.
While I appreciate the awareness wellness is bringing to the world of herbs, it often comes at a cost. It’s a massive privilege to be able to buy a $50 (or more!) bottle of ashwagandha sourced from across the world, and while it will likely help you regulate your stress, it may come at a cost to the environment.
With nervines and other more local herbs, the barrier is lower. If you are not growing them yourself, which I encourage you to try (lemon balm is a great place to start!), you can buy locally sourced herbs in bulk at your local herb store or online for a few bucks an ounce, steeping them overnight in boiling water for potent medicine.
Plant medicine should be some of the most accessible medicine. We should be forming relationships with the plants, living in symbiosis with them, not just sourcing them from Instagram ads with cool branding.
Adaptogens and nervines are both central strongholds in my herbal practice, and I rely on them in different situations. When I am in a moment of anxiety or stress, I reach for one or both of my favorite nervine-driven support systems: Anxiety Ally by Wooden Spoon Herbs, and nerveless HRBLS by Rachelle Robinett.
Soothing tea with nervine herbs can be lovely as well, though I find tinctures work most efficiently and effectively in acute situations of worry, anxiety, or stress. For long term nervous system support, I include milky oat tops in my daily nourishing overnight infusions and I love my morning elixirs with Rasa, an adaptogenic coffee alternative that supports my body’s stress system in the long term.
I will caution you though — taking herbs doesn’t solve your problems. It’s always important to start drilling down to the root of your stress and anxiety wherever possible, even if it’s not something you can immediately address. If your rent is too high, you hate your boss, you’re not eating enough veggies, or you’re worried about the plight of the planet, nervines can take the edge off, allowing you to chip away at the deeper issue to alleviate it from the source, but herbal medicines are allies, they aren’t problem eradicators.
Be open-minded, curious, and engaged with the plants you consume, experimenting with different herbal allies and paying close attention to how they make you feel. They are all different with their varied personalities, energetics, and affinities that will support you in different moments and needs. So let’s not get caught up in the trends, but rather establish a working relationship with nature, the plants, and the medicine that supports us.
Sara Weinreb is a writer, sustainability consultant, and design thinking facilitator on a mission to support people and businesses in being kinder to themselves, each other, and the planet. She is the host of the Medium Well podcast and writes for Forbes, mindbodygreen, Cherry Bombe, and more. She recently moved to Denver, Colorado, in pursuit of a slower and more nature-driven pace of life, and is training to be a herbalist.