Herbs for the Nervous System
Healing with Medicinal Plants Author : Keith Stelling
Herbalism is sometimes maligned as
a collection of home-made remedies to be applied in a placebo fashion to
one symptom or another.. provided the ailment is not too serious and
provided there is a powerful chemical wonder-drug at the ready to suppress
any "real" symptoms.
We often forget, however, that
botanical medicine provides a complete system of healing and prevention of
disease. It is the oldest and most natural form of medicine. Its history
of efficacy and safety spans centuries and covers every country on the
planet. Because herbal medicine is holistic medicine, it is, in fact, able
to look beyond the symptoms to the underlying systemic imbalance; when
skillfully applied by the trained practitioner, herbal medicine offers
very real and permanent solutions to very real problems, many of them
seemingly intractable to pharmaceutical intervention.
Nowhere is the efficacy of
herbalism more evident than in problems related to the nervous system.
Stress, anxiety, tension and depression are intimately connected with most
illness. And the herbalist finds his success accelerated by including in
his treatment, medicine to free the body from the vicious cycle of
interference from worry and nervousness that so often takes its toll on
otherwise healthy systems.
Few health practitioners would
argue with the influence of nervous anxiety in pathology. We know that the
Xth Cranial Nerve, the Vagus, travels down from the medulla oblongata at
the brain stem to innervate the pharynx, heart, bronchi, lungs and gastro-
intestinal tract, including the small intestine, caecum, appendix and
colon, supplying both motor and sensory fibers. It is not surprising that
nervous stress can interfere directly in digestion. Nervous tension is
generally acknowledged by pathologists to contribute to duodenal and
gastric ulceration, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and many
other gut-related pathologies. We know also from physiology that when a
patient is depressed, the secretion of hydrochloric acid...one of the main
digestive juices... is also reduced so that digestion and absorption are
rendered less efficient. Anxiety, on the other hand, can lead to the
release of adrenaline and stimulate the over-production of HCL and result
in a state of acidity which may exacerbate the pain of an inflamed ulcer.
In fact, whenever the voluntary nervous system (our conscious anxiety)
interferes with the autonomic processes, (the automatic nervous regulation
that in health is never made conscious), pathology is the result.
But few other health professionals
have access to the scope of botanical remedies with their fine subtlety in
rectifying this type of human malfunction. The medical herbalist knows,
for example, that a stubborn dermatological problem can best be treated by
using alternatives specific to the skin problem, circulatory stimulants to
aid in the removal of toxins from the area, with re-enforcement of the
other organs of elimination (liver and kidney); but above all he will
achieve the excellent results for which phytotherapy is famous, by using
herbs which obviate nervous interference in the situation and allow the
patient to relax... perhaps for the first time in many months.
Curiously this is an approach which
has never been taken up by orthodox medicine. There, the usual treatment
of skin problems involves suppression of symptoms with steroids. Our
subtle, non- invasive botanical nervines are not available in synthesized
form. And the use of anti-histamines or benzodiazepines by the orthodox
profession often achieves less lasting benefit to the patient than an
additional burden of "impairment of intellectual function", drowsiness,
further toxicity for an already compromised metabolism, and often
life-long drug dependence.
Botanical nervines, on the other
hand, are free from toxicity and habituation. Because they are organic
substances and not man-made synthetic molecules, they possess a natural
affinity for the human organism. They are extremely efficient in balancing
the nervous system. Restoring a sense of well-being and relaxation is
necessary for optimum health and for the process of self-healing.
Herbal medicine can justifiably
boast of Valeriana officinalis (Valerian), the ideal "tranquilizer". The
rhizomes of this plant contain a volatile oil (which includes valerianic
acid), volatile alkaloids (including chatinine), and iridoids (valepotriates)
which have been shown to reduce anxiety and aggression and even to
counteract the effects of ethanol . So effective is Valeriana in
cutting out the interference of anxiety while maintaining normal mental
awareness, that it enables the patient to continue the most complicated
mental exercise without drowsiness, loss of consciousness or depression.
Valerian has been usefully taken even before an examination or a driving
Verbena officinalis (Vervain) on
the other hand, is not only effective against depression, but also
strongly supports the detoxifying function of the liver. Its French name
is still "Herbe Sacre"; an old English name is "Holy Wort"; for Vervain
was one of the seven sacred herbs of the Druids. (Significantly Druidic
medicine worked very much upon the psychological background to the
disease, attempting to revitalize the psyche before healing the body).
To-day we know that the antispasmodic qualities of Verbena are largely due
to the glycoside verbenalin. Recent Chinese research has linked the plant
with dilation of arteries in the brain: a likely explanation of its
usefulness in treating migraine, especially when this problem is
accompanied by liver congestion. It is certainly indicated for hysterical,
exhausted, or depressive states.
Hypericum perforatum (St. John's
Wort) is an analgesic and anti- inflammatory with an important local
application to neuralgia and sciatica. Systemically, its sedative
properties based on the glycoside hypericin, (a red pigment), make it
applicable to neurosis and irritability. Many English herbalists use it
extensively as a background remedy.
Melissa officinalis (Lemon Balm)
being both carminative and antispasmodic, is active specifically on that
part of the vagus nerve which may interfere with the harmonious
functioning of the heart and the stomach. Recent experiments at the
University of Heidelberg have confirmed that the action of the volatile
oil begins within the limbic system of the brain and subsequently operates
directly upon the vagus nerve and all of the organs that are innervated by
it. Accordingly, neurasthenia (complete nervous prostration), migraine,
and nervous gastropathy are amenable to its healing power.
The great herbal restoratives of
the nervous system are Avena sativa (Oats), Scutellaria lateriflora (Scullcap)
and Turnera diffusa (Damiana). Oats contains a nervine alkaloid which also
helps to restore the heart... (again the vagus connection). According to
Canadian research, Avena is helpful in angina and in cardiac
insufficiency. Moreover in an article in Nature in 1971, Gonon outlined
its usefulness in the treatment of addiction to morphine, narcotics,
tobacco and alcohol... a use which is still current in British hospitals.
But the list does not stop here.
Rosmarinus officinalis (Rosemary) helps the circulation to the brain and
is therefore useful in geriatric senility; Lavandula officinalis
(Lavender) exerts a cardio-tonic and anti-migraine action; Tilia europea
(Linden or Lime Flowers) is an antispasmodic particularly suited to
problems of venous congestion and arteriosclerotic states, but gentle
enough for an anxious child.
There is great scope for the
development of herbal medicine in the area of nervous diseases and of its
application in so-called "mental illness" where pharmaceuticals seem at
best to be applied for their "management" effect. And this is an area
where the benefits of a whole food diet and holistic life-style are badly
Among the more outstanding serious
problems that have been recorded at the Clinic of Herbal Medicine in
Balham, London, England, (the teaching clinic of the National Institute of
Medical Herbalists), are: the control of Parkinson's disease in a 59-year
old man; the elimination of epileptic seizures in a 14-year old girl; the
removal of clinical depression in a 46-year old woman; the eradication of
frequent migraine attacks in many patients; and the regulation of the wide
mood swings and other distressing symptoms that accompany both menopause
and premenstrual stress in countless women patients. (These are just cases
which I myself have witnessed over a period of 10 months).
Understandably, the choice of a
nervine most suitable to an individual patient must be based upon a
thorough health assessment and the experience and training of a qualified
herbal practitioner. But even the layman can do much to alleviate stress
and sooth frayed nerves. Drinking Chamomile, Lemon Balm or Linden tea
(long the custom in Europe). is the prudent choice instead of coffee for
anyone having sleeping difficulties or anyone who wishes to achieve a
greater sense of inner calm. Twenty minutes out-of-breath exercise
(walking, swimming, or cycling) will go a long way as a natural antidote
to the pent-up tension that results from a stressful day at the office.
And it will have the unexpected bonus of improving circulation, increasing
metabolic rate and enhancing heart and lung function. The B-vitamins as
found in whole-wheat bread, wheat germ, torula or brewer's yeast and liver
(organically produced) provide ideal nourishment for the nervous system
and can be wisely substituted for the stimulant foods such as white flour,
sugar, junk foods and their myriad harmful chemical additives.
Keith Stelling. M.A; Dip Phyt;
This Article is taken from The
Herbalist, newsletter of the Botanic Medicine Society. COPYRIGHT Dec 1988.
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Copyright 1996, 1998 by The Herbalist, Lori Herron, R.N.and Alternative Nature