I don’t have to tell you how popular adaptogens are. I would posit that this is in large part due to their broad support for the (also broad) term “stress.” I’ve made plenty of arguments against relying on adaptogens as bandaids for chronically stressful situations, which is a caution any good herbalist will also give you. So, I won’t do that again here. I’ve also called out the importance of checking sources, as there are many out there about adaptogens — but they’re often misrepresenting them.
I’ve also reminded people to inquire into the source of the stress, not just its effects. For example: are we treating tiredness with energizing herbs when we should really be going to bed earlier or adjusting our diet? Herbs are helpful, but they aren’t magic carpet rides to bliss. (Well, some are, but that’s another story.) And, very importantly: are the herbs we’re using the right ones for the situation we’re treating?
Stress and anxiety are some of the most common challenges clients ask for my help with. They’re not always at the top of the list, but they’re almost always on it. Many folks are trying adaptogens to treat the symptoms, though not sure if they’re “doing it right,” which is fair — since most products on the market don’t include great dosage information.
The first thing I explore with them is the source of the stress and how to minimize it. Then we look at what “stress” means for them and their bodies. For some, it’s tension headaches and hyperactivity. For others, it’s knotted shoulders and exhaustion. One commonality is that the stress is affecting our nervous system. (Makes sense, right?) And so, rather than reaching for adaptogens, I’ll likely pull some nervines off the shelf.
Ner-whats? Nervines are herbs that treat our nervous systems, and, by definition, have “a soothing or calming effect upon the nerves.” Do I have your attention now?
Just as “adaptogen” is a classification of herbs, so is “nervine.” One major difference is that adaptogens are general in their action — meaning broad and non-specific — whereas nervines are specific. They have a more singular mission: to mellow you out.
Different nervines have slightly different effects. Some are nourishing, like milky oat, while others are more sedative, like valerian. Generally, they’re very well tolerated and more gentle than adaptogens, which I prefer to reserve for recovery rather than prevention or long-term support. A nourishing mix of calming nervine herbs has become the single most popular tea that I blend and sell at Supernatural Café.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Milky oat tops: This is your daily dose of nervous system support! Oat tops are high in B vitamins, which may help reduce anxiety symptoms. Overall, the herb has been called “a bath for the nervous system.” This is a nourishing herb that’s calming without being sedative, so consuming any time of day is OK. I suggest a strong tea that steeps overnight, and drinking it regularly, especially in times of high or particularly emotional stress.
Skullcap: A member of the mint family that doesn’t taste like mint, skullcap is my pal. I mix him into tea blends all day long. This nervine really captured my attention when I discovered that one of its active compounds binds to the same receptor sites in our brain as benzodiazepines. In other words, skullcap is nature’s Xanax. Tea, tincture, or my soon-to-launch product are all great ways to chill.
Valerian: I save this for clients who really can’t sleep as it can cause grogginess the next day, but otherwise, it’s such a great way to calm down. Start with small amounts of tea or tincture and work your way up to the perfect portion. I love to sip it throughout the evening as a #zeroproof cocktail and then float off to sleep. Warning: The tea has a distinct scent. My partner calls it “sock tea.”
Lavender: One of the most well-known herbs out there, lavender is used to support a sense of wellbeing. It’s not quite a sedative, not quite an antidepressant, but somewhere wonderfully in between. Carrying it as an essential oil is an easy way to dose, though it can also be brewed as tea, incorporated into cooking, or even smoked.
Chamomile: An often underrated classic, chamomile is gentle enough to be used daily. It’s particularly great after meals to help with digestion. I definitely prefer this one as a tea. Let it steep overnight for a stronger brew.
So the next time you feel nervous — or better yet, before you do — get to know a nervine or two. They know their way around our nervous systems better than most of us do.