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Herbal Support for Stress

by Anne McIntyre(more info)

listed in stress, originally published in issue 101 - July 2004

Our nervous system clearly illustrates the relationship between mind and body. To date, we know of approximately 300 substances that act as neurotransmitters, including endorphins, neuropeptides, adrenaline, noradrenaline and acetylcholine. Composed of neurones and nerve fibres, the nervous system is part of the physical body. Yet as well as controlling physical activities and sensations, it expresses our thoughts and emotions. Just as physical symptoms can affect the way we think and feel and create psychological problems, so thoughts and emotions have a direct effect on the physical body and can create physiological illness. A large study of 22,461 Finish adults found clear correlations between life dissatisfaction and mortality in men (though curiously not in women), suggesting that part of the effect is mediated via adverse health behaviour.[1] Happiness does indeed seem to promote health!

Improving the Nervous System

Treatment of disharmony in the mind can be sought through counselling or psychotherapy, and in the body by physical means, including exercise, yoga and by herbs and diet. Using herbal nervines and a nutritious diet, the function of the nervous system can be enhanced, and resilience to stress increased. There are many herbs that have the ability to affect the nervous system beneficially.

Herbal tonics have the ability to nourish the nervous system and enhance resilience; they are excellent when tense, anxious or depressed, tired and run down. Some of my favourites include vervain, rosemary, lemon balm, skullcap, wild oats and ginseng. The effect of both Panax ginseng and Eleuthrococcus senticosus on stress and well being is well documented. Both appear to have a paradoxical effect of either increasing or decreasing the stress response. This property, known as an adaptogenic action, is believed to be due to ginseng's effect on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, increasing plasma corticotropin and corticosteroid levels.[2][3] Recent research in healthy subjects supports the anxiolytic properties of skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora).[4] This action may be mediated by binding of the compounds baicalein and baicalin to the benzodiazepine site of the GABAA receptor.[5]

Chamomile, lime flower, valerian, hops or passion flower all have relaxant properties and can be given to calm nerves and relax tense muscles. A trial on 22 healthy subjects indicated an increase in positive mood ratings on exposure to chamomile oil,[6] whilst in vitro trials suggest that apigenin, a flavonoid found in chamomile, acts as a central benzodizepine receptor ligand.[7] A double blind randomized trial of the effect of passion flower (Passiflora incarnate) compared to oxezapam in patients with general anxiety disorder, concluded that Passiflora was as effective as the drug. The herbal extract also had the advantage of reducing the incidence of impairment of job performance found in the oxezapam group.[8]

Nutritional Treatments

There are many beneficial Ayurvedic herbs for the nervous system. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a nourishing nerve tonic, helping to calm an agitated mind, enhancing resilience to stress and promoting energy as well as good sleep. Gotu cola is an excellent herb for promoting brain function, for poor concentration and for calming an agitated mind. Oil prepared from coconut oil and gotu cola can be massaged regularly onto the soles of the feet and the head to calm the mind and promote relaxation.

Sandalwood (Santalum album) is an excellent brain tonic and is used in mental debility, irritability and poor concentration through an agitated or restless mind. Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) acts as a nourishing brain tonic, promotes energy and vitality, enhances immunity and helps to relieve pain. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is an adaptogen, supporting the adrenals and increasing resilience to stress. Bala (Sida cordifolia) is also a nourishing tonic to the nervous system and good for nerve disorders generally. Jatamansi (Nardostachys jatamansi) is an effective sedative and brain tonic, enhancing concentration and memory. It is one of the best herbs for stress related headaches and insomnia. Vacha (Acorus calamus) is a well known brain tonic, which is used to clear 'tamas' from the mind and enhance intellectual function.

There are certain nutrients which are vital to the production of neurotransmitters and normal function of the nervous system. These include essential fatty acids, vitamins C, B, and E, calcium, magnesium and zinc. Unless they are in plentiful supply during times of stress, a deficiency may arise, further exacerbating any stress-related problems. Generally a healthy diet, with plenty of organic fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains and foods containing protein and essential fatty acids, should provide most of the necessary nutrients to support the nervous system. Attention to diet and supplementation can prove beneficial especially during stressful periods in one's life.


1. Koivumaa-Honkanen H, Honkanen R, Viinamaki H, Heikkila K, Kaprio J, Koskenvuo M. Self-reported life satisfaction and 20-year mortality in healthy Finnish adults. Am J Epidemiol. 152(10): 983-91. 2000.

2. Nocerino E, Amato M, Izzo AA. The aphrodisiac and adaptogenic properties of ginseng. Fitoterapia. Suppl. 1: S1-5. 2000.

3. Gaffney BT, Hugel HM, Rich PA. Panax ginseng and Eleutherococcus senticosus may exaggerate an already existing biphasic response to stress via inhibition of enzymes which limit the binding of stress hormones to their receptors. Med Hypotheses. 56(5): 567-72. 2001.

4. Wolfson P, Hoffmann DL. An investigation into the efficacy of Scutellaria lateriflora in healthy volunteers. Altern Ther Health Med. 9(2): 74-8.2003.

5. Hui KM, Wang XH, Xue H. Interaction of flavones from the roots of Scutellaria baicalensis with the benzodiazepine site. Planta Med. 66(1): 91-3. 2000.

6. Roberts A, Williams JM. The effect of olfactory stimulation on fluency, vividness of imagery and associated mood: a preliminary study. Br J Med Psychol. 65(Pt 2): 197-9. 1992.

7. Viola H, Wasowski C, Levi de Stein M et al. Apigenin, a component of Matricaria recutita flowers, is a central benzodiazepine receptor-ligand with anxiolytic effects. Planta Med. 61: 213-215. 1995.

8. Akhondzadeh S, Naghavi HR, Vazirian M, Shayeganpour A, Rashidi H, Khani M. Passionflower in the treatment of generalized anxiety: a pilot double-blind randomized controlled trial with oxazepam. J Clin Pharm Ther. 26(5): 363-7. 2001.


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About Anne McIntyre

Anne McIntyre FNIMH MAPA is a fellow of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists and a member of the Ayurvedic Practitioners' Association. She has been practising as a herbalist for 30 years and has also trained in remedial massage, aromatherapy, counselling, homoeopathy and Ayurvedic medicine. She is the author of several books on herbal medicine, including The Complete Woman's Herbal (Gaia), The Complete Floral Healer (Gaia), The Herbal Treatment of Children (Elsevier), The Top 100 Remedies (Duncan Baird), The Complete Herbal Tutor (Gaia) and Healing Drinks (Gaia). Anne's latest book Dispensing with Tradition: A practitioner's Guide to using Indian and Western Herbs the Ayurvedic Way has recently been published. She teaches regularly in the UK and USA and spends as much time as she can in her herb garden which she opens to the public by appointment. She practises at Artemis House, Great Rissington, Gloucestershire, (Tel: 01451 810096) and in London and Wales once a month. She may be contacted on Tel: 01451 810096


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