Stress - we all know it and all experience it, but how do we become more resilient to it? This stress phenomenon is defined by the W.H.O as:
“any type of change that causes physical, emotional or psychological strain. Stress is your body's response to anything that requires attention or action. Everyone experiences stress to some degree. The way you respond to stress, however, make a big difference to your overall well-being.”
Further stating that it can manifest as:
“as fear, worry, inability to relax, increased heart rate, difficulty in breathing, Disturbance in sleeping patterns, change in eating patterns, difficulty in concentrating worsening of pre-existing health conditions (physical and mental) and increased use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.”
In 2018 the Mental health foundation in the UK conducted one of the largest stress related studies with 4619 respondents – of these 74% of people reported that they felt so stressed that they experienced overwhelm and the sense of not being able to cope. (R)
Further, in 2020 the APA declared a national mental health crisis when it came to stress levels due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the pressures that they placed on us as a collective. (R)
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Long of the short is that more than ever we now have the beautiful opportunity to identify the stress we face in our lives, discern which stressors are ‘worthwhile’, implement life changes and shifts in coping mechanisms and strategies for dealing with stressors and overall supporting our minds, bodies and spirits in order to be able to navigate through them. This can take place in many forms – be it in receiving professional council, incorporating daily practices and rituals or finding herbal remedies to strengthen and restore your wellbeing.
The Nervous System holds a story - one which illuminates a means of understanding a physical mechanism of becoming more resilient and kind to our physical selves in order to nourish ourselves enough to ward off stress and live in a better state of alignment, health and wellbeing:
First off what is the nervous system and how does it work?
The nervous system is considered the most complex and deeply organised systems within the body – in action it receives information from sensory organs through nerves, this information is them transmitted through the spinal cord where it is processed in the brain – it is, in it’s glory, the blueprint off of which our body and mind are able to react to the world we live in.
In fact your body has billions upon billions of these nerve cells, 86 billion located in the brain alone! It manages everything from movement, thought and memory to blushing, blinking and the very much taken for granted act of breathing. The nervous system affects all areas of our lives, including the senses, movement, cognition, feelings, sleep, healing, the ageing process, heartbeat, breath patterns, stress response, digestion and affects other systems within or body’s too such as the adrenals, endocrine and enteric nervous system.
The nervous system makes use of incredibly special neurons which send messages all along the body – these messages allow for all the sensations we experience; from the tingling in your fingers, to watching the rain, hearing a bird, tasting a cup of tea and everything in-between – the mission of these nerves is to carry information about the environment you are in and communicate that to the brain in order to create a response.
There are different forms of neurons, namely:
- Motor neurons – which allow for muscular mobility
- Sensory neurons – which take information from our different senses of smell, touch, taste, sight and hearing
- Other forms are those which control automatic actions such as breathing, regulating heartbeat, digestion and other processes in the body.
The Nervous System contains two main parts, each of which consists of billions of neurons:
- Central Nervous System (CNS): made of the brain and spinal cord, the CNS sees that the brain makes use of nerves in order to send communications to the entire body, each nerve has an outer coating which is called myelin (READ MORE ABOUT LIONS MANE), this ensures that these cells are protected and are able to deliver the messages clearly.
Peripheral Nervous System: this consists of nerves which branch out from the CNS and extend throughout the body allowing for information to be relayed between the brain and spinal cord to your limbs, fingers, organs and toes. This includes:
- Somatic Nervous system – voluntary movements
- Autonomic Nervous system – automatic activates like breathing. This regulates the functions of our internal organs and keeps our bodies running irrespective of the situations are are in.
Within the autonomic nervous system there are another two branches:
- The sympathetic nervous system (arousing, fight-or-flight) - this system aids the body with the fuel, energy boost and stimulation needed when it comes in contact with a stressor or trigger. The body is able to register a form of danger and upon this the adrenal glands are activated and stimulate cortisol – the heart begins to race, pupils dilate, heart increases and muscles tense up in an attempt to prepare the body to fly, fight, freeze or any other action which will allow survival. Symptoms of being in fight-or-flight include being fatigued yet feeling braced, not sleeping well, digestive issues, high blood sugar levels, energy level drops and never feeling like you can calm down or relax.
- The parasympathetic nervous system (calming, rest-digest-heal) – relaxation is the name of the game here, allowing for the all essential process of healing, restoration and digestion. This process kicks in during a calming downtime space, and in all actuality is where we should be living most of the time in our day to day lives - when not in an emergency or faced with danger. This state allows for healthy digestion, hormonal balance, calm breath, easeful heart rate and healing in which the body can relax, regulate, regenerate, detox and restore.
So then what is a nervine and how can it help?
Nervines are a class of plants which are able to have a beneficial effect on the nervous and limbic systems in terms of providing support.
They aid in allowing for the active state of the sympathetic to switch over to the parasympathetic system, allowing for the nervous system to re-establish healthy and balanced nerve function. When it comes to the nervous system, it is important to remember that in many ways it is our first line of defence when dealing with stress, and therefore should be incorporated when treating a range of maladies and imbalances throughout the body.
They are differentiated into 3 categories through their actions and how they are able to act within the nervous system:
The closest herbs we have to treating a broad and holistic range of stress and tension, these herbs can be somewhat tranquillising in effect and aid in activating the parasympathetic nervous system. When it comes to anxiety and stress/ tension issues physical symptoms which bring the feeling of dis-ease are often addressed and healed in the use of these medicines, aiding the body in relaxing and allowing for the natural process of rest-digest-heal eases mind and body. Some allies include Skullcap, Chamomile, Lavender and Passionflower.
Nervine Tonics (trophorestorative)
These are truly a class of herbals which are the biggest building blocks and gifts to healing stress and anxiety disorders and imbalances. Nervine tonics aid in strengthening and feeding the nervous system in order to restore and regenerate the tissues of the neurons themselves – these medicines are often also incredibly mineral dense, can be adaptogenic and aid in supporting the body in numerous ways. Some of my favourites include Oat straw, Brahmi, St Johns wort and Gotu Kola.
These medicines have a direct stimulatory effect on the nervous system, Aiding the body in regulating energy levels in order to have a sustained energy release and increase the experience of vitality.. Some well-known herbs here include Kola, Coffee, Tea, Ginseng, Schisandra
On to the herbs:
(it is important to remember that some herbs can act across the separate categories and will not always be true to just one)
Oat straw (Avena sativa)
This glorious and humble medicine has been a beloved beverage for over 2000 years – myth even says that Gaia, Mother Earth herself was raised on Oat straw. When it comes to stress, emotional regulation and anxiety this Ayurvedic longevity ally is hard to beat – filled with nervine supportive minerals to feed the nervous system, skeletal system and even nourish our blood.
“One cup of oat straw infusion contains over 300 grams of bioavailable calcium that is immediately absorbed into the body” - Annette Müller from Wild Nettle
Whats more is that along with calcium, she is also rich in amino acids, chromium, magnesium, B vitamins, Silicon, Vitamin A and iron, she has also been used to moderate cholesterol, blood sugar levels, support endocrine health, restore muscles and boost libido.
Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri)
Brahmi (Northern) is one of the oldest traditional Ayurvedic medicines in India. Historically its use can be traced back more than 3000 years, with references linking it to ancient holy texts like the Charaka Samhita, Atharva-Veda and Susrut-Samhita. It is name is derived from Lord Brahma or Brahman who is the Hindu godhead responsible for creative force – Brahmi literally translates to the energy of Brahma exposing the immense reverence this medicine is held on. Mainly used as a mental health tonic medicine it has shown to improve memory, aid cognition, regulate mood, aid in treatment of ADHD, sooth anxiety and stress and support the nervous system.
St Johns wort (Hypericum perforatum)
When it comes to a herbal ally for treating anxiety and depression there are few who have the same reputation as St John's Wort. It inhibits the reuptake of 5-hydroxytryptamine which has an interaction with serotonin levels, this is why it has similar actions as some depression medications. St John’s wort has been used extensively to support the nervous system to regulate an overstimulated system – it has further shown to aid in managing and treating anxiety and mild-medium depression, seasonal affective disorder, mood disorders and is further a phenomenal anti-viral and skin health tonic.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)
There are two varieties of Skullcap which are used in herbalism – the nootropic one being American Skullcap which is native to North America, however has been used throughout Europe and the world for it’s incredible effects on the nervous system. With a rich history of over 200 years, Skullcap is used as an ally for treating anxiety, nervous tension, convulsions and is a mild relaxant – it is additionally a nervine tonic, showing incredible effects in balancing and regulating the entire nervous system. It aids through the fortification of the nervous system being a tonic preventative and protective as well as being able to treat symptoms associated with chronic stress and tension. Studies have shown that along with being a significant antioxidant it also aids in being neuro-protective against neurological dis-ease and dis-orders such as Parkinsons, depression and other ailments.
Passionflowers (Passiflora incarnata)
Passionflowers have a rich history in western herbalism in Native American, European and African medicine. It was given more focus in the 19-20th centuries where Eclectic physicians began to test it under more modern research which allowed for the insights we now have around this incredible medicine. An incredible nervine relaxant, these beautiful flowers interact with GABA which aid in lowering brain activity and therefore promote relaxation and better sleep. As an anti-anxiety it shows amazing results in being able to prevent the onset of anxiety and interact with levels of cortisol. It has additionally shown to soothe the stomach. Along with being soothing and calming overall it is antispasmodic, anxiolytic, sedative, hypnotic and anodyne (painkilling).
Hops (Humulus lupulus)
This herb is best known for being an ingredient in beer – however this herb has an incredible history as a nervine relaxant. A roman philosopher named Pliny first wrote about hops in 1 A.D. where it was used as a central ingredient in food and as a herbal ally for relaxation in medicinal beers. Used throughout Europe as a sleep medicine, modern findings have shown that Hops have sedating effects. On their own Hops have shown tremendous ability to aid in promoting sleep however when used with Valerian, there is a notable increase in both of their abilities to relieve sleep and anxiety disorders.
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
Schisandra is documented in early Chinese medical texts as a superior herb, capable of promoting overall well-being and enhancing bodily vitality. This rare berry was first documented in 2697 BCE - Schisandra was classified as superior by Pen-Tsao in the classic Yellow Emperor's Study of Inner Medicine. Schisandra is an elite herb used since antiquity. Also known as the “five flavour fruit” or the “quintessence of tonic herbs” by Taoist masters. It is most well known as a Tonic /Adaptogenic, to support respiratory health, it increases bodily vitality as a neuro-protective ally and as a beautifying tonic
Cordyceps (Cordyceps Militaris)
Folklore states that 1,500 years ago, Tibetan yak- herders noticed that mountain- grazed animals grew stronger & lived longer than those that consumed the grasses at lower elevations. At first they thought it was the robust mountain grass that was responsible, but then an unknown shepherd stumbled upon the answer – Cordyceps. This funky little fungi is your new best friend for physical endurance and health. Cordyceps is one of the strangest fungi we know, but also one of our greatest allies when it comes to supporting yet stimulating energy and the nervous system. As an nervine/ adaptogen it increases energy and combats fatigue in a sustainable manner, improves oxygen utilisation in muscles, increases libido and sexual functioning, it aids women during and post menopause regarding hormonal balancing and it additionally stimulates and regulates immunity.
Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
In the 16th century, Li Shih-Chen, a pharmacologist and physician wrote a 52-volume manuscript documenting over 10,000 substances used to support health - there was one herb that stood out to him. When it came to the herb eleuthero (Siberian Ginseng) He said, “I would rather take a handful of eleuthero than a cartload of gold and jewels. In Traditional Chinese Medicine its action is to invigorate physical energy, regulate vigour, strengthen the skeleton and tendons, and increase one's ambition. When it comes to acting as a nervine and adaptogen this superb tonic root is able to promote balance in the body, increase physical strength and endurance, focus the mind, is neuro-protective and acts as an endocrine supporter.
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PS: Here are two amazing images from fellow medicine women around the world who have some incredible practices to tonify the nervous system:
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