Famous author and personality Deepak Chopra likes to tell a story about a medical doctor who had not had a check-up for 25 years. When the doctor finally was compelled to get a physical for life insurance requirements, a large dark spot was found on his lung. It was diagnosed as inoperable cancer. A couple of months later, the doctor was dead.

Some days after the funeral, Chopra was sorting through the physician’s effects and came across a chest X-ray that was 25 years old. Out of curiosity, he put it up to the light and, lo and behold, there was that same dark spot on the lung! The deceased doctor had lived a vigorous life all those years until, in effect, he was killed by the worry and fear, not by disease itself.

Many experts feel that fear and worry–stress–is the underlying cause of 80 percent of all our health problems. The opposite of stress–relaxation–is something people today seldom experience. It is almost as if we conspire to avoid it. But before you seek nervous fortitude in a martini, a cigarette or a prescription antidepressant or sleeping pill, you might want to try nervine herbs, which specifically enhance nerve power.

It’s best to treat stress symptoms while they’re still comparatively mild with low, nutritional doses of nervine herbs, available in tea, tincture or capsule form. Use as directed or, if your symptoms are already severe, see a qualified natural health practitioner for expert advice.

Chamomile relaxes the nervous system. As a natural antispasmodic, sedative and relaxant, it’s particularly good for headaches, anxiety and insomnia. Its high concentration of bio-available calcium makes it particularly useful for soothing the nerves.

Hops contain the active ingredients lupulinic acid and humulon, which help make them an excellent remedy for insomnia, tension and anxiety. Soothing and calming, hops can also be a strong sedative.

Kava kava’s capabilities as a relaxant for anxiety and insomnia are scientifically well supported.

Oats may most conveniently be taken in the form of porridge or oatmeal. The oat seeds can also be administered as a tincture. Both a relaxant and a tonic, oats are one of the best remedies for "feeding" the nervous system.

Passionflower encourages sleep by reducing nervousness. It’s also useful for worry, nervous excitement and muscular twitching.

Skullcap contains an excellent nervine named scutellarian. Like oats, skullcap relaxes the user while reviving the central nervous system. Popular both in western and Chinese herbal medicine, skullcap is valuable in treating insomnia, nervous disorders, "hysteria" and certain types of convulsions.

Valerian root contains valepotriates, which researchers have determined are the compounds that contribute to its soothing, calming and sedative effect. Valerian is useful in any chronic or severe condition where the whole system needs to be relaxed: chronic anxiety, chronic insomnia, migraines, panic attacks, palpitations and vertigo.

Adaptogenic Herbs

Adaptogens are safe natural substances that have a balancing, homeostatic effect on various body functions and increase resistance to stress. Taking herbal adaptogens should produce a feeling of calm and relaxation. Unlike drugs prescribed for stress, herbal adaptogens can also deliver the "side benefit" of strengthening the immune system. Adaptogens are best taken daily.

Ashwaganda is the primary strengthening tonic and adaptogen of ayurvedic medicine. It is used for physical weakness, nerve weakness and the effects of old age.

Ginseng (Panax spp) is a mildly stimulating adaptogen that improves memory, decreases fatigue and increases one’s ability to handle stress.

Reishi mushroom can have a dramatically relaxing and strengthening effect on the nervous system. By relaxing tense muscles as well, it relieves insomnia and increases sleep time.

Schizandra berries also have a tonic and sedative effect, making them helpful both for insomnia and low energy, especially low mental energy.

Siberian ginseng (Eleuthero) is widely used to relieve stress, to help people adapt to life changes and time zone changes (jet lag) and to enhance athletic or work performance.

De-Stress Nutrients In addition to herbs, there are many vitamins and nutrients helpful in the treatment of nervous system disorders. Studies have shown that individuals taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement experience less anxiety and an enhanced ability to cope with stressful circumstances.

Inadequate intake of the B-complex vitamins can lead to anxiety, apprehension, vague or morbid fears, unusual fatigue, insomnia, indigestion and severe depression. A B-complex supplement can relieve stress and promote relaxation.

Vitamin B1 (thiamine), for example, helps ensure carbohydrate tolerance. The therapeutic dose ranges from 50 to 3,000 milligrams daily, though the highest doses are very seldom used.

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) is required for the conversion of tryptophan to soothing serotonin. Therapeutic doses range from 50 to 500 mg daily, though 100 mg is usually adequate.

Vitamin B12 (cobalamin), essential for nerve cell metabolism, has been prescribed for years for patients with fatigue. Using a tablet or sublingual lozenges, the therapeutic range is 50 micrograms to 2,000 mg. A good starting dose is 100 mcg a day.

5-HTP (5-hydroxy-L-tryptophan) is another useful supplement. It’s a metabolite of the amino acid L-tryptophan and the precursor to serotonin and melatonin, two brain chemicals necessary for preventing anxiety, facilitating sleep, regulating mood and controlling appetite. 5-HTP can be obtained in synthetic form or as an extract from the Griffonia simplicifolicia plant. Use as directed.

The average North American has far less free time now than ever before in human history. Most of us are simply too busy to relax and enjoy life, and this has a drastic impact on our health. Herbs are not an anachronistic throwback to a bygone era. Rather, herbs are a much-needed tool to strengthen our "nerve power" so we can more readily relax and manage the stresses in our lives. Taken internally or in a therapeutic herbal bath, and with key nutrients on the side, herbs are a valuable component in any relaxation program.

Kava Under a Cloud

Kava kava, the popular herbal relaxant, is making people nervous these days. In the last few years, more than 24 cases of severe liver damage have been reported in German and Swiss users. In Britain and France, kava has voluntarily been pulled from the shelves or suspended. Health Canada is advising consumers to avoid the best-selling herb.

The exact cause of the problem is still unclear. In 18 of the 24 cases, kava users were also taking drugs with known or potential liver toxicity. Strangely, there have been no reports of liver damage among the millions of Canadian and US users. Still, it is wise to err on the side of caution. So avoid kava if:

Bathe Away Anxiety

The skin is the largest organ of the body. It will readily absorb the healing properties of any herb in a therapeutic herbal bath. At the same time, the nose will absorb the relaxing aromas of such volatile herbs as camomile and lavender. Throw a handful of soothing herbs into your bath water. You can also try adding four cups of Epsom salts to the tub; the magnesium content will help you rest like a tired child upon its mother’s bosom.

Copyright (c) 2002-2010 by Rand Smith.
Originally published in alive #234, April 2002