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Understanding Nervines & Adaptogens


Woman doing yoga on cliff over a river

It is always a good time to support our nervous systems and think about overall health. Herbal nervines and adaptogens are our allies for coping with the normal day-to-day aggravations of life, especially work pressures, family responsibilities, financial worries, lack of warm weather, and regular use of caffeine. Whether your nervous tension results in occasional minor aches, occasional melancholy, or sleepless nights, there are many herbs that can help us find relaxation and calm both day and night.

Stress is the body’s heightened physiological response to stimuli, both good and bad. The adrenal glands secrete stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline, which create a cascade of effects, including a rush of energy, increased heart rate, and rising blood pressure. These hormones act as an emergency response to a temporary situation, subsiding to normal functioning when the event has passed. However, constant release of these hormones can result in a weakened immune response, over-stressed mind, and harmful inflammation.

  • Nervines are herbs that specifically helps support the nervous system. Their effects range from tonics like skullcap and oat tops, to mildly calming herbs like catnip and chamomile, to stronger ones like valerian and hops. They are used to help relieve normal muscle tension, circular thoughts, wakeful nights, and the occasional worry we all experience from time to time. Some of these herbs provide multiple nervine actions. Skullcap is one such herb, which helps reduce muscle tension, helps calm worried thoughts, and nourishes the nervous system. Others such as oat tops, are not necessarily relaxing to the physical body, but help support healthy nerve functioning when taken on a regular basis.
  • Adaptogens are another group of herbs that help us face and handle stress as it happens, although the classification is often complicated and the boundaries difficult to define. These herbs help restore overall balance and strengthen the functioning of the body as a whole without impacting the balance of an individual organ or body system. Adaptogens facilitate these changes by a wide range of actions and energetics, rather than one specific action. Adaptogens many help improve focus, help support normal immune system functioning, or provide some other broad-spectrum normalizing influence on unbalanced physiological processes.

By definition, the active properties of the adaptogenic herb must be safe, non-toxic, and non-habit forming, even when taken over a long period of time. When taken daily as a tea or extract, these herbs can help improve your mental functioning and allow your body to adapt more easily to stressful situations, relieving an overactive adrenal response. However, herbs should not be used to push us beyond our limits and cannot replace the benefits of good restful sleep. These herbs are of better use to our wellness when paired with the appropriate need or used as gentle tonics.

Organic skullcap in bloom with purple flowers


Here's a list of some basic nervines to get you started:

  • Oat Tops - Very gentle tonic herb that helps support the nervous system without a calming  action. Can help reduce fatigue and support nerve functioning over time. Great for anyone who is overworked or relies on caffeine to get through the day.
  • Skullcap - Wonderfully gentle and nourishing to the nervous system. Helps relieve occasional tension and stress, circular thoughts, and nervousness. Can be used throughout the day during stressful situations or at night before bed to calm worried thoughts.
  • Chamomile - A classic, relaxing nighttime tea, this nervine herb is also helpful for relieving generally mild daily mental stress.
  • Lavender - Calming herb that is often used in aromatherapy applications for its mild calming action. Lovely when used in the bath, massage oils, pillows, room sprays, or body fragrance to uplift the spirit.
  • Lemon Balm - Sunshine in plant form, this herb helps with nervous exhaustion, gloom, and restlessness, with pure aromatic pleasure. Simply rubbing a leaf between your fingers and smelling the citrusy oils can elevate the mood.
  • Catnip - Gentle calming herbs for sleeplessness in children and the elderly. 
  • California Poppy - Used for its calming properties, this plant helps promote relaxation in those seeking rest.
  • Passionflower - This stunning plant is helpful for relieving general tension, occasional nervous restlessness, and helps support restful sleep.
  • Hops - With a distinctive flavor and action known well by beer drinkers everywhere, this plant supports relaxation (although the effect can be considered hypnotic), and helps calm a nervous stomach.
  • Valerian - When sleep seems impossible thanks to nervous energy at night, this potent herb can supports relaxation. It is reliable. For some people, valerian can have the opposite effect of relaxation, causing more anxiety and stimulation. If this happens to you, valerian is not the right herb to use.


Here's a list of some basic adaptogens to get you started:

  • Schisandra Berries - Supports normal concentration, coordination, and endurance. Chinese folklore says that schisandra calms the heart and quiets the spirit. Supports normal central nervous system functioning without excitation. 
  • Holy Basil or Tulsi - An important adaptogenic herb in India that helps restore vitality and promotes overall health and a softened reaction to stress.
  • Eleuthero Root - Improves normal mental clarity and emotional stamina during stressful situations, boosts physical endurance, helps with sleeplessness, and (according to Ayurvedic medicine) supports healthy immune system functioning.
  • Ginseng - (Panax quinquefolius) Boosts physical strength and stamina. Supports mental alertness and memory. Good for exhaustion and vitality. Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is thought to be better suited for people older than 30 or the very weak. Used as a tonic.
  • Rhodiola - Supports healthy immune system functioning.
  • Reishi Mushroom - This immune system supportive mushroom is also considered to have a mildly calming and strengthening effect on the nervous system.

Ginseng roots in a white porcelain bowl on a white linen tablecloth


Topics: Traditional Herbal Recipes, Herbal Education


Written by Friends on February 19, 2013