Nervines: The Anxiety-Reducing Herbs You Need In Your Diet

May 16, 2022

lavender field

That chamomile tea you drink at night to help you sleep? 

It’s not just the soothing scent and taste that calms those Sunday scaries the night before work, but the very chemical composition of the chamomile plant itself. As a part of the herb family known as ‘nervines,’ chamomile contains natural anxiety-reducing properties used for centuries by herbalists and natural health practitioners, dating as far back as the Egyptian, Roman, and Grecian eras to cure illnesses and prepare the dead.

More than a traditional herb, nervines are rich in nutrients that feed and regulate the body’s nervous systems and act as natural relaxants. While adaptogens—linked with stress relief, anxiety reduction, and energy enhancement—may be having their moment in the mainstream media, nervines may very well be the next biggest star in the wellness world and industry. 

Discover the benefits of nervines and how to channel the healing powers of this folkloric tradition which still ring true today.

Nervines vs. Adaptogens—understanding the Difference

If the main goal of adaptogens (commonly found in mushrooms, goji berries, and licorice root) is to create subtle, long-term effects on the body as a whole, then nervines can best be understood as more hyper-targeted herbs focused specifically on the nervous system itself, for both long-term and short-term benefits.

Pairing nervines and adaptogens is a common recommendation, as nervine herbs positively impact the nervous system by calming the body while adaptogens balance the body’s natural equilibrium in seasons of stress and anxiety. Both alleviate anxiety and enhance overall mood, but nervines outperform adaptogens in their efficiency and overall accessibility as common grocery store items available for everyday use.  

Nervines Types & Health Benefits

Within the nervine family, there are four common categories into which the individual herbs themselves get divided: relaxants, stimulants, tonics, and demulcents.

  • Nervine relaxants calm and relax the nervous system, often acting as a sedative and muscle relaxant (examples include poppy, chamomile, passionflower, and valerian)
  • Nervine stimulants, conversely, support stamina and maintain energy levels throughout the day (such as cola, ginseng, rhodiola, and schisandra) for increased alertness and memory retention   
  • Nervine tonics (or trophorestorative), tonify the body and feed the overall nervous system (such as skullcap, lavender, and lemon balm)
  • Nervine demulcents soothe and strengthen the nervous system by lining the intestines with a soluble fiber (examples include rosemary, spearmint, peppermint, and cayenne) 

Most Common Nervine Herbs

Among all of the nervine herbs, there are some used more often than others. Explore the most  common nervine herbs used in our day-to-day live, with tips and tricks for how to best gain each herb’s health benefits:

Lavender: A common antidepressant, natural relaxant and antioxidant, lavender’s natural chill pill nature stems, in part, from linalool, a chemical that lavender shares in common with the cannabis plant. According to a study published by the National Library of Medicine, the benefits of lavender possibly extend beyond mental health regulation and into pain alleviation as well—treating burns, insect bites, and muscle pain. 

Lemon Balm: A member of the mint family, it’s no surprise that lemon balm is linked with the gut as digestive aid and gut health enhancer. Beyond its gastrointestinal healing properties, lemon balm is also used as a sleep and anxiety aid. Composed of rosmarinic acid, lemon balm contains antioxidant and antimicrobial properties and can be used topically in lotions, as an essential oil or consumed in teas or tablets. 

Milky Oats: Derived from the same plant that creates your favorite breakfast food, milky oats are simply the tops of the oat plant that gets harvested when the oat plants release a cream-colored sap. As a tonifying herb, milky oats alleviate stress, elevate mood and energy, and rebalance your body’s nervous system. Rich in manganese, zinc, and vitamins A, C, and E, milky oats are nutrient-dense and best consumed in teas or tonics.

St. John’s Wort: While St. John’s wort is a nervine commonly used for treating mild to moderate depression, menopause, PMS, and anxiety, it may not be for everyone. St John’s wort can cause negative side effects when combined with prescription medication. Explore the Mayo Clinic’s list of drug interactions here and decide if St. John’s wort makes sense for you.

Chamomile: Last but not least, chamomile supports daily health as a natural sedative and digestive aid. Take chamomile before bed for deeper sleep, decreased anxiety levels, and a peaceful stomach free from pain.  

How To Incorporate Nervines Into Your Wellness Routine 

While each nervine is prepared in a slightly different manner, nervines are most commonly consumed in tea form, mixed with other herbs for powerful effects. 

Other ways to incorporate nervines include topically via lotions and ointments, sensorily via essential oils and aromatherapy, and digestively as extracts or oils. 

However you choose to use nervines, find the nervine that makes the most sense for you and enjoy the tension-relieving benefits of these extraordinary herbs and plants. 

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Photo: Kelly Rabie via Pexels

Dana Drosdick
Dana is a marketer living in Saratoga Springs, NY with a passion for all things related to stewardship, faith, wellness, and personal enrichment. Her work has been featured in various Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, The Odyssey Online, and The Banner Magazine. Follow her at @danadrosdick on Instagram for foodie trends, her latest book recommendations, and far too many photos of clementines.

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