by Susan Staley
A nervine is a term used to describe a broad category of plant actions that interplay with the human nervous system. There are 3 large subcategories of nervines: the nervine tonic, the relaxing nervine, and the stimulating nervine. As with any category of herbal actions (ie. adaptogen, bitter, nootropic, immune stimulant, etc.) plants can be further characterized by defining their qualities such as aromatic, warming, and moistening. Although beyond the scope of this article, a sense of these characteristics is helpful to identify which herbs will be most helpful.
Nervines help to restore, balance, and bring ease to our nervous system. Depending on the individual this might be calm and focus, uplift and move, deep relaxation and rest, or a need to bring ease to the mind or heart. Because the body is really a whole (rather than a collection of parts), and a person is really a whole (rather than a collection of body, mind, and spirit), when we support our nervous system we support digestion, immunity, cardiovascular systems, and adrenal health. And we support our emotional heart and our minds too. We don’t need plants to support our nervous systems, but they sure are helpful.
A nervine tonic is an herb that broadly supports nervous system function and integrity. These tonic plants are helpful when a person’s nervous system has been affected by an extended period of extreme circumstance such as prolonged stress, trauma, or substance abuse. Nervine tonics can be helpful for physical nerve damage as well. Often nervine tonics are also nervine relaxants such as skullcap or milky oat. Other nervine tonics include ashwagandha, schisandra, and st. johns/joan’s wort. Mineral-rich herbs may also be considered nervine tonics.
A nervine relaxant is an herb that helps to bring a sense of calm into a person’s perception and increase parasympathetic nervous system activity. Nervine relaxant plants can be supportive any time of day, whether to support irritability connected to digestive upset, brighten and calm mid-day, or ease into rest and recuperation at the end of the day. They can also help with pain (anodyne is another sub category of nervine). Some cooling/neutral nervine relaxants include linden, lavender, chamomile, anise hyssop, lemon balm, and motherwort. Warming nervine relaxants include damiana, monarda, kava, and angelica.
A nervine stimulant is an herb that brings excitement and stimulation to the nervous system and engages the sympathetic nervous system. This can be especially helpful for sluggishness (that is not related to adrenal fatigue!) or a tendency towards depressive qualities in body, mind, or spirit. Some of our most famous nervine stimulants include camellia sinensis (tea plant), coffea species (coffee), and theobroma cacao (chocolate). Other herbal nervine stimulants include rhodiola, guarana, and guayusa.
The information above is a basic guide to familiarization of these plant actions, but it is important not to get hung up on the categorization of the plants, particularly because each plant is complex- just like you! For example, plants carry a range of effects and have affinities for various body systems. Blending a nervine relaxant with a nervine stimulant, or a nervine tonic, is often a balancing blend that takes into account the broadness of human experience by supporting various areas of body, emotion, and mind.
Additionally, a person with significant muscular tension may feel tired or have difficulty focusing because of the energy it takes to continue holding tension. In this case one may benefit from working with a relaxing plant that can help liberate stuck energy and improve outlook. A relaxing nervine might have the desired invigorating effect for this person, rather than a stimulating plant which could cause even more tension. As always, we are able to be our best selves when we combine herbs with nourishing food, clean water, fresh air, body movement, connection, creativity, service, and deep sleep as circumstances dictate. Here’s to your health!
Susan Staley is a clinical and community herbalist and staff member with Railyard Apothecary. She deeply values those herbs and plants commonly available in most grocery stores, and the where the edge blurs between food and medicine. She works with individuals with a variety of health goals. You can schedule a conversation with her or other members of Burlington Herb Clinic here.
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