Herbs to Calm, Balance, and Restore Your Nervous System
I’ve needed more than just lifestyle changes to make a dent in my health. Anxiety, stress, restlessness, and overwork honestly weren’t things I could change all by myself. My body needed help coming back to itself. It had to restore proper function but was all out of whack. There were days along the way I needed more encouragement, a push in the right direction, and days I needed to feel less alone. Sometimes I just needed a little something to quiet my thoughts, like Piper methysticum (Kava), or something to make me feel safe and held after a long day, like Avena sativa (Oats).
The plants have been great friends to me in many ways. When I’ve felt lost or in need, the plant world has lent a leaf, a root, or a petal. The trees have swayed my way when I needed a hug, and they’ve picked me up from the ground when I thought it might be time to return home. The flowers have laughed with me on the days where the sun was beaming brightly through my window, and at the same time, stood with me when my head hung low, mirroring their resilience into me.
When I’m in search of comfort or a confidant, I often turn to my apothecary. The plant world is filled with such mysticism, knowledge, wisdom, and truth, as well as radical love and care. As a studying herbalist, I often experiment with the plants that come my way- sometimes in hopes that I’ll feel a little better. And not to my surprise, they have shined.
Adaptogens are a class of herbs that work to keep our bodies in balance, operating non-specifically to help us adapt to changes within and without ourselves. They work on many different factors and help to regulate/normalize organ and system function. These herbs are generally labeled as ‘non-toxic’.
You may have heard the word ‘adaptogen’ before. This is likely because they’ve become increasingly popular in recent years. When I first heard of adaptogens, I was working in a café that carried Moon Juice– a fancy LA brand that makes herbal products. Adaptogen sounded exotic and intriguing, as I’m sure it does to you. It drew me in with the possibility of stress and anxiety regulation, improved memory, and better focus. I didn’t know much about herbs at the time, so I bought into it (mentally and financially!). And to be honest, I wasn’t disappointed.
Many herbs worked great for me. Unfortunately, most of the popular supplements on the market were pricey for an 18-year-old college student, so I eventually stopped using them. There was still a twinkle in my eye that I was in reach of being able to heal myself (affordably).
Nervines are a class of herbs that work on the nervous system (hence the name). These herbs promote calmness, support stress, and can act as sedatives. These are also commonly used herbs like Matricaria chamomilla (Chamomile) or Lavandula angustifolia (Lavender). They can help us deal with what we’re facing head-on or work overtime, whether that be winding down before bed or building our reserves back up. Nervines can be tonics (help strengthen and restore the nervous system), relaxants (put us at ease and relax), or stimulants (stimulate the nervous system or act as a pick-me-up).
Nervine tonics and relaxants are what I’ll be focusing on today because they act more to soothe stress/anxiety and help to restore the nervous system.
I believe plants are powerful ancient medicine. In this post, I steered away from some of the typical herbs you may hear about for stress and anxiety because I wanted to shed the spotlight on some of my personal favorites. These are herbs I’ve tried, worked with, and feel comfortable with- though your own experience with these herbs (if you decide to try them) will be entirely unique.
5 Plant Allies to Help You Balance Out & Experience More Peace
1. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha is a compelling nightshade, native to India and Africa, and goes by other common names such as Winter Cherry. It’s an adaptogen and nervine that can help improve sleep quality, rebalance the stress response, and address fatigue, exhaustion, and anxiety. And though it is fantastic as a nervine, it also helps stimulate thyroid function, has long been used as a sexual tonic, and is high in iron.
I find Ashwagandha to be especially helpful before bed. I’m a ‘wired but tired’ person who needs help winding down after a stimulating day. I often find it hard for me to just stop working because I feel like I need to get everything done in a day. Ashwagandha grounds me, keeps me present, and reminds me that I need to rest. Ashwagandha holds me in a loving grip, much like Mother Earth, and carries me back to where I should be.
How to Make: I like to make golden mylk with Ashwagandha, Turmeric, Cinnamon, Ginger, Black Pepper, and honey. Or sometimes I’ll make a hot cocoa with Cacao and Ashwagandha. It doesn’t combine well with water, so it’s best to do so in something ‘fatty’ like ghee, milk, or mylk. You can add it to your morning oats too! 2 tsp in 12oz of liquid (best simmered).
Where You Can Find It: Banyan Botanicals has high quality Ayurvedic herbs.
2. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Valerian is a calming nervine that’s great for nervous tension, anxiety, and restlessness. It’s an amphoteric herb, which means it normalizes function (in this case, that would be functions of the nervous system). Valerian also works to help insomnia and reduce the number of times you awake throughout the night.
Valerian is a superstar for anxiety. I know someone who swears by it, even after being on prescription anti-anxiety medication for years, and remarks that if they knew of Valerian, they would’ve used that all along. Valerian has been a great ally to help me fall asleep and calm my anxiousness that prevents good sleep. I don’t take Valerian during the day because it makes me a little too sleepy.
How to Make: I often mix it with Chamomile and Lavender to help mask the very peculiar sticky/musky, but also sweet, smell and taste it has. I take about 1 tsp of each herb and add it to my mug, then steep for 20 minutes.
Where You Can Find It: I prefer Valerian in its tincture form if I have nothing else to mix it with because of its taste. Herb Pharm makes a good quality tincture of valerian. If you choose to purchase Valerian, you would want the root, and you can find that at your local herb shop. Starwest Botanicals also has valerian root in bulk. Pukka has some of the best tea I’ve ever tried and has a lovely night-time blend with valerian root in it.
3. Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
Also known as Tulsi, Holy Basil is a nootropic, nervine, and adaptogen. Nootropic refers to improving cognition or memory. Holy Basil helps enhance focus and concentration. And it is an uplifting herb that doesn’t stimulate, as well as a calming herb that doesn’t sedate. It’s a perfect balance. Holy Basil is also a tonic to the brain and nervous system.
Holy Basil is truly one of my most beloved herbs. I drink the tea throughout the day (every day) and have seen many improvements in my mental health, clarity, and mood- not to mention it smells and tastes beautiful. I used to really struggle with a foggy mind, waking up tired and staying tired throughout the day. Since I started drinking Tulsi tea, I feel rejuvenated, refreshed, and clear.
How to Make: 1 tbsp to 12oz of water, steep 20 minutes.
Where You Can Find It: Deer Creek Collective Herb Farm has an AMAZINGLY great quality holy basil, so I would recommend them if you are looking to buy in bulk.
4. Milky Oats (Avena sativa)
Milky Oat Tops are a wonderfully nourishing nervine- high in magnesium and gentle for anxiety. ‘Milky’ refers to the stage in which the oat tops are harvested. When harvested fresh and you press on the oat top, a white mucus emerges- thus milky.
Milky Oat Tops are for people who are overworked and depleted- people who have run themselves dry. This is for those of you who are burnt out and need long term support to build up your reserves. Oat tops help restore the nervous system.
Though the touch of Milky Oats is light and gentle, the medicine is potent. For me, drinking a tea of Milky Oats feels so supportive. I add them to pretty much every tea I make because they are such a lovely addition. They’re sweet and synergize with many other herbs.
Milky Oats are best for long term use in order to feel the effects. It’s a plant you have to get to know and sit with for a while. And time spent with this plant is never wasted because the benefits are unmatched.
How to Make: 1 tbsp of dried milky oat tops in 12oz of water, steep 20 minutes to overnight.
Where You Can Find It: Foster Farm Botanicals has good quality dried milky oat tops. If you’re looking for a tincture or the dried herb elsewhere, make sure it was harvested in the milky stage. Also for a tincture, the herb should be bottled fresh.
5. Kava (Piper methysticum)
Kava is a relaxing nervine originating in the Pacific Islands. It is best at relaxing tension- whether that be physical or emotional. Kava helps improve focus, concentration, soothes anxiety, and can help with insomnia. It’s also indicated for racing thoughts.
The first time I tried Kava, I was having trouble falling asleep because there were too many thoughts on my mind. It was late, but I just wasn’t tired. I laid there in the dark, mind wandering. I took the recommended dosage of a tincture, and it felt like something was lifted off my shoulders. Literally- the tension I was carrying in my shoulders was relieved. The overbearing chatter had disappeared, and suddenly, I was sleepy! Though Kava is not a sedative, it may make you think it is because it eliminates whatever’s keeping you up.
There are such places called “Kava Bars” scattered across the country, where people go like they would a bar, but instead enjoy a cup of Kava (no alcohol involved). I have not been to one, but I’ve heard good things. Kava has a special quality about it that helps people in social or group settings connect better.
It’s important to note that this herb is not for long term use. It is best used occasionally. The FDA warns that Kava has been linked to rare, but serious liver injury.
How to Make: Kava tastes good on its own, but I like to mix it with Cacao to make Kava Cocoa. Sometimes before bed, I’ll mix it with Blue Lotus and Cacao to ease me into the dream world. 1-2 tsp simmered for 20 minutes should do the trick.
I think it’s important to discuss that all of these herbs have been around long before you and I walked this Earth. They have been used, experienced, and cared for for centuries- way before they were ‘trendy’ and ‘cool’ to add to your iced coffee.
All these fancy/pretty/popular brands are actually quite expensive, but what is the true quality of their products? Where are they coming from?
Most of the time, herbs aren’t something you hear about unless it’s a fad- unless someone is promising you an overnight cure. Most of the time, these products, and the conversation itself, are out of reach to the general public and people who most need them. Herbs have become something to capitalize off of, instead of as a way to care for the community and build a relationship with the environment.
Let’s think about how trends affect the plants themselves and their communities. Sacred plants like Ayahuasca have been made so available, but at what cost? Trends can destroy the environment and local economies and also be harmful to traditional culture.
Think about who you choose to give your money to. When possible- choose the organic, sustainable, and local option. Ask yourself- is there another, more sustainably harvested and crafted plant, or plant that grows in your area that you can use instead? A plant being sold at your local farmer’s market or one that’s right in your backyard as opposed to that exotic plant everyone’s talking about? There may be something native to your area or even an ‘invasive weed’ that can do more justice to your specific needs. (Not to steer away from the possibility that a popular plant may actually be what you need!)
Herbs are not one-size-fits-all. They are unique. They have personalities, just like you! And you may find one that matches yours that will work twice as good.
To get the most out of the herbs you work with, I suggest having a consultation with an herbalist or visiting your local herb shop (if you have one) to chat with an herbalist. It may be best for you to take certain herbs under professional supervision. If you’re taking any medications or have any medical issues, it’s important to speak with your doctor before taking any herbs. And of course, always do your research.
So Much Love,