Intro to Nervines - Your Best Nervous System Allies (text over cup of lavender tea)

Intro to Nervines: Your Best Nervous System Allies

Ancient adaptogenic herbs (like ashwagandha and lion’s mane) are now making their way into mainstream headlines and commercial superfood products, grabbing the attention of various media outlets for their special stress-reducing properties. But at this point in time (2022), I still find very few people (herbalists aside) have heard of nervines!  

Nervines may be flying under the radar for now – but given everything going on in the world, it won’t be long before nervines (aka Mother Nature’s army of nervous system plant allies) start gaining traction.

In this article, I’ll be introducing you to the magical world of nervines!  We’ll dive into what they are, how they work with the nervous system, and why you may want to consider partnering with nervines as a natural and holistic way to reduce anxiety and manage stress (among many other things!).

Affiliate disclosure: As a clinical herbalist, I’m a proud affiliate for a few of my favorite herbal online apothecaries, Mountain Rose Herbs and Starwest Botanicals. I’m also an Amazon Associate for non-herbal products (i.e. books).  If you make any purchases through my affiliate links, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Disclaimer: This article is written for educational and informational purposes to help you gain clarity and understanding from a holistic health standpoint. This is not medical advice! Please consult with your doctor and holistic health team to receive custom herbal recommedations to support you on your journey.

What are nervines?

Nervines are a special class of herbs (similar to but separate from adaptogens) which are often recommended by herbalists to help nourish, soothe and support a frazzled, overworked, tired and overactive nervous system. 

What makes nervines special and unique is their direct actions on the nervous system in ways that settle, soothe, and calm us.

What is the nervous system?

In a nutshell, the nervous system is a complex physiological network of nerves which transmit signals to and from your brain to the rest of the body.

We have two main branches of the nervous system: conscious and unconscious. 

Within the unconscious branch of the nervous system, there are also two distinct, opposite sub-branches or states:

  1. Sympathetic (“fight or flight”)
  2. Parasympathetic (“rest and digest”)

It’s important to note, we can’t be in both sympathetic and parasympathetic states at the same time. That said, most of us nowadays end up spending pretty excessive amounts of time in the “fight or flight” nervous system response – and it’s wreaking havoc on our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

This is where herbs like nervines and adaptogens come into play.  Thank goodness for these herbal allies which help take the edge off!

Now you may be wondering, how are nervines any different from adaptogens, if they both help reduce stress?

Nervines vs. adaptogens

While the exact mechanism of adaptogens is still unclear, it’s generally established that adaptogenic herbs seem to modulate the stress response via the adrenal glands.

  • Adrenal glands are triangle-shaped glands which sit on top of the kidneys and produce stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which are responsible for the “fight or flight” nervous system response.

Adaptogens also have multiple other effects on the body, such as modulating the immune system, strengthening resilience, supporting gut health, fostering better mental health, aiding in cognition, combating inflammation, and much more.

Nervines, on the other hand, are said in traditional herbal medicine to work directly with the nervous system by “tonifying” (nourishing and balancing) the nerves and modifying cellular pathways specifically in the nervous system (versus indirectly through the adrenal glands).

For example:

  • While the exact mechanisms of nervines are also still unclear, a 2021 study from the Journal of food biochemistry was able to pinpoint that Roman chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), one of the most well-known types of nervines, demonstrated direct actions on the nervous system at the cellular level, resulting in reduced anxiety. (1
  • Chamomile was also found in this study to alter serotonin activity, having a positive impact on overall mental health and reported stress reduction among participants. (1)

Even despite their differences, there’s still a good amount of overlap between nervines and adaptogens when it comes to how they can help us.  In some cases for this reason, certain herbs can actually be considered both nervine and adaptogenic.

For example:

  • Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) and damiana (Turnera diffusa) are considered “adaptogenic nervines” because of their direct calming actions on an overactive nervous system alongside the way they modulate (balance) the immune system and adrenal stress response.

You’ll also want to keep in mind, there’s another sub-class of nervines which are more sedative andmust be taken in a different context (clinically speaking) compared to non-sedative nervines.

Nervines vs. sedatives

Sedatives are a branch of nervines which tend to have a sedative effect on the mind and overall nervous system (go figure!).  Sedatives, for obvious reasons, make great herbal allies for those of us prone to insomnia.

(On the other hand, non-sedative nervines such as lemon balm or milk oats can help you to feel more calm and relaxed, without sending you into dreamland halfway through the day!)

There are a few very key distinctions to consider when working with sedative versus non-sedative nervines:

  • Sedative nervines are best taken only as-needed, at night before bed, ideally when you don’t need to drive anywhere or operate heavy machinery. 
  • Sedative herbs aren’t meant to be taken long-term or “tonic” (safe and helpful when taken regularly and indefinitely). 
    • For example: In my first-hand anecdotal experience taking valerian root tincture during our early stages of raising our sweet dog Nelli (when she was 8 weeks old and not yet sleeping through the night), I relied heavily on this sedative nervine to fall asleep and stay asleep!  
      • Over time I found my initial valerian dose of ~20 to 30 drops started becoming less effective because I began building up a tolerance.
  • Since sedatives tend to suppress and depress the central nervous system response, you should proceed with caution when it comes to sedative nervines if you’re prone to symptoms of depression.

Types of nervine herbs

There is so much more to nervines (and so many more types of nervines) beyond just a soothing cup of sleepytime tea or “shot” of valerian root tincture before bed!

You’ll have your own unique nervine plant allies which will best support you.  It’s just a matter of uncovering which nervine herbs are most compatible and synergistic with your mind, body, and spirit depending on what you need and what’s going on in your life.

(The list below is not exhaustive – pun intended – but these are the nervines you’ll most likely encounter in the field of herbal medicine.)

Disclaimers:

  • This is strictly informative and educational, not medical advice; herbal dosing recommendations and optimal delivery methods will vary individually case-by-case. 
  • Nervines are relatively safe for most people who are NOT on any medication.  
  • Most but not all nervines will likely interact with at least some types of medications, so it’s best to consult your doctor if you are on any medication at all.  

Classic nervines

While each of these nervine herbs helps to settle and soothe an overactive nervous system as a common denominator, they all also have their own distinct personality, energetics and unique benefits. 

  • Some of these nervines may support hormone balance, while others are heart-healing.
  • Some nervines aid in dissolving depression, while others help calm a nervous stomach.
  • Some are bitter, while others are aromatic or nutritive.
  • While certain nervines are best taken as a tea infusion, others are more effective as an herbal tincture (alcohol extract of a medicinal plant).

Alongside each nervine herb and its Latin name, I’ve included a list of the medicinal plant parts, as well as my favorite clinical delivery methods for internal use for each type of nervine. I’m also sharing the most significant herb-drug interactions for safety purposes.  I’ll continue to update this post when I have more time to do so!

In the meantime, have fun doing your research and trying out as many nervines as you’d like (within your clinical safety parameters). 🙂

Blue vervain (Verbena hastata) (2

  • Plant part:  roots (fresh or dried)
  • Delivery method:  tincture, glycerite, spagyric, or capsules (tea would be unpleasantly bitter!)

Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) (1, 3

  • Plant part:  flower heads or petals (fresh or dried)
  • Delivery method: loose flower petal tea infusions, fresh/dried tincture, glycerite, spagyric, or capsules

Catnip (Nepeta spp.) (4)

  • Plant part:  leaves (fresh or dried)
  • Delivery method: loose leaf tea infusions, tincture, glycerite, spagyric, or capsules

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) (5)

  • Hawthorn’s actions on reducing blood pressure and supporting overall heart health are linked to its ability to relax a stressed-out nervous system.  (5)
  • Hawthorne is often incorporated by clinical herbalists in remedies for grief, sorrow, and/or depression related to matters of the heart. 
  • Plant part: berries (dried)
  • Delivery method:  dried berry tea infusions, fresh/dried plant tincture, glycerite, spagyric, capsules or powder
  • Herb-drug interactions:  Hawthorn is a wonderful heart tonic but should not be taken alongside any heart medications since it can interact.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) (6, 7)

  • Plant part: dried flowers
  • Delivery method:  tea infusion, tea blend, tincture, glycerite, or spagyric (internally)

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) (4, 8, 9)

  • Plant part: above-ground parts (stems, leaves)
  • Delivery method:  tea infusion, tincture, glycerite, or spagyric
  • Herb-drug interactions and clinical considerations:  Lemon balm is safe in most cases, but should be avoided in cases of hypothyroid. Consult a clinical herbalist before taking lemon balm if you’re on thyroid medication.

Milky oat tops (Avena sativa) (10, 11)

  • Plant part:  oat tops / “oat seed” (fresh only)
  • Delivery method: fresh plant tincture, glycerite, or spagyric
  • Herb-drug interactions:  None.
  • Clinical considerations:  Oats (avena sativa) can sometimes be cross-contaminated with wheat (source of gluten), which is a concern for people with celiac disease. Make sure you’re choosing a product that is certified gluten free if you have celiac disease or a severe non-celiac wheat sensitivity.

Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) (12, 13)

  • Plant parts:  flowers (fresh or dried), bark
  • Delivery method: tincture, glycerite, or spagyric
  • This herb is not meant for long-term, daily tonic use; it’s ideal for supporting grief alongside other grief-healing, mood-supporting herbs in times of necessity.

Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) (14)

  • Latin for “lion heart”, motherwort is often recommended by herbalists as a “heart tonic” to help remedy anxiety and stress-induced heart palpitations, arrhythmias, atrial fibrillation (“A-fib”), and high blood pressure. Quite literally, this herb is an ideal candidate for those who are “faint of heart”.
  • Plant parts:  above-ground plants (fresh or dried)
  • Delivery method:  tincture, glycerite, or spagyric (too bitter for tea)
  • Herb-drug interactions:  Motherwort interacts with all heart medications.

Prairie verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida)

  • This plant is classified as a nervine in folk herbalism and in clinical herbalism. 
  • It grows abundantly on our land at home and all around central Texas, every spring, into the summertime! 
  • Plant part: above-ground flowering plant (ideally fresh)
  • Delivery method: fresh plant tincture, glycerite, or spagyric

Rose (Rosa damascena) (15)

  • Plant part: flower buds or petals (dried only, if taking internally)
  • Delivery method:  loose rose bud/petal tea infusions, tincture, glycerite, or spagyric

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) (16, 17)

  • Plant part: flowering tops
  • Delivery method: capsules, tincture, glycerite, or spagyric internally
  • Herb-drug interactions:  While this herb is very powerful, it also interacts with virtually every single type of medication.  Regardless of what your read anywhere online, do not take St. John’s Wort internally if you’re taking any kind of medication, and consult a doctor either way to see if this herb is safe alongside other supplements.

Wood betony (Stachys betonica)

  • In clinical herbalism, anecdotally wood betony is said to be wonderful for helping people to ground back into their bodies, especially in cases of dissociation related to past trauma.
  • Plant part: above-ground parts (leaves, flowers and stems), ideally dried versus fresh
  • Delivery method: tincture, glycerite, or spagyric medicine

Adaptogenic nervines

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) (18)

  • Plant part:  root (fresh or dried)
  • Delivery method: dried root decoction (in a blend, such as this adaptogen chai tea), or fresh/dried tincture, glycerite, or spagyric

Damiana (Turnera diffusa) (19)

  • Plant part:  leaves (fresh or dried)
  • Delivery method:  dried leaf infusion or fresh/dried plant tincture, glycerite, spagyric, powder, or capsules

Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) (20

  • Plant part:  above-ground herb (leaves, stems) – fresh or dried
  • Delivery method:  loose tea infusion, tincture, glycerite, spagyric, powder, or capsules

Holy basil / “tulsi” (Ocimum gratissimum) (21)

  • Plant part:  above-ground herb (leaves, stems)
  • Delivery method: tea infusion, tincture, glycerite, spagyric, or capsules

Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) (22)

  • Plant part: whole fruit (mushroom) – fresh or dried, depending on delivery method
  • Delivery method: double extraction is best for adaptogenic mushrooms. Lion’s mane can also be administered as a dried tea decoction, tincture, glycerite, spagyric, or powder- although it may be less effective clinically.
  • Lion’s mane mushrooms are also edible and can be incorporated into culinary dishes! I’ve incorporated freshly cooked lion’s mane from my local farmer’s market into stir fry dishes as well as pasta recipes more times than I can count.

Sedative nervines

FYI:  All sedative herbs (whether moderately or highly sedative) interact with anxiety medication as well as sleep medication. Don’t mix and match herbs and medications. Consult your doctor before trying any sedative herbs!

Moderately sedative 

Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) (3)
  • Skullcap is more sedative as a tea than a tincture. It’s helpful as a tea infusion for relaxing, unwinding and falling asleep at night, or as a tincture for easing nervous tension during the day.
  • Plant part:  leaves/above-ground herb (fresh or dried)
  • Delivery method: tea infusions, tincture, glycerite, or spagyric
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) (3, 23, 24)
  • Plant part: flower heads or petals (fresh or dried)
  • Delivery methods: tea infusion, tincture,  spagyric, glycerite, capsules or powder

Highly sedative 

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) (26)
  • Plant part: above-ground parts (flowers, leaves, stems) – fresh or dried, depending on delivery method
  • Delivery method:  tea infusion, fresh plant tincture, glycerite, or spagyric
Hops (Humulus lupulus) (27)
  • Plant part:  flowers / “seed cones” / “strobiles” (dried only)
  • Delivery method: tea infusion blend, tincture, glycerite, or spagyric
Kava kava (Piper methysticum) (28)
  • Plant part: dried root only (leaves are toxic to the liver)
  • Delivery method:  tea decoctions, tincture, glycerite, spagyric, or capsules
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) (29, 30, 31)
  • Plant part: root (fresh or dried)
  • Optimal delivery methods:  tea, tincture, glycerite, spagyric, or capsules

What about cannabis?

Technically, cannabis (marijuana) is also considered a sedative nervine due to its tendency to support sleep and relieve nerve pain among many people. (32, 33)

However, since cannabis is also a psychedelic herb and not always legal, cannabis is outside my scope of practice! 😉 

While there are practitioners out there who do work with cannabis, most clinical herbalists will find much more effective options for you to reduce and manage anxiety and stress, with a lot less potential side effects than cannabis, when it comes to finding your best nervine allies!

Nervine herb benefits 

In our modern-day “hustle culture”, most of us are living in a constant baseline of nervous system overdrive.  We’re over-stimulated, overworked, run-down, probably not sleeping enough, and likely burning the candle at both ends – at least sometimes.

If you’re dealing with any kind of anxiety, insomnia, and/or burnout (or you’ve been burning the candle at both ends)… nervines just might become your new BFF!

Nervine herbs have been recommended by traditional herbalists and integrative medicine practitioners for many hundreds of years to help:

  • Pacify anxiety and/or depression
  • Reduce stress, worry, and rumination
  • Promote deeper, better quality sleep
  • Help settle a nervous stomach (in some cases)
  • Help dissolve depression
  • Aid in pain relief (i.e. nerve pain, muscle tension, or sometimes migraines)
  • And much more!

Who should try nervine herbs?

In my life and clinical practice, I find that the most common situations and circumstances in which people should consider leaning on nervines include but aren’t limited to:

  • Living a “work hard, play hard” lifestyle
  • Traveling a lot (long road trips, jet lag, etc.)
  • Going to bed late and waking up early
  • Cramming for exams
  • Pulling an all-nighter
  • Getting a puppy
  • Having a baby
  • Overtraining (over-exercising)
  • Recovering after a marathon
  • Multi-tasking / juggling too many commitments (leading to a baseline state of overwhelm)
  • Working multiple jobs
  • Working a night shift
  • Going through a stressful life change (divorce, losing a loved one, losing a job)

If any of the above resoates with you, I think it would be worth giving nervines a chance to make your life easier!

Can you grow your own medicinal nervine herbs?

It’s very easy to grow your own nervine herbs, if you have a garden, a windowsill, or a porch for potted plants!  

Below is a list of the best nervine plants you can grow relatively easily on your own, at home:

The environment, soil type, planting season, degree of sun exposure and watering patterns vary immensely from one herb to another, so you may want to do your research in advance before diving head-first into growing your own nervines!

  • To learn more about how to grow your own nervine herbal remedies at home and which would be the best fit for you, I highly recommend that you check out the book Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies (written by one of my herbalism teachers, Maria Noel Groves).


Where should you purchase nervine herbs?

I’m a big fan of growing your own herbs whenever possible, but that isn’t always realistic or feasible!  If you’d like to get started working with nervines sooner rather than later, you may want to look for a local or online organic apothecary which uses ethical and sustainable growing, cultivating and harvesting practices.

It’s also important to make sure that companies are storing their herbs properly.  For example, herbs sitting on shelves in direct light for years are not going to have the same potency as fresher herbs that have been properly stored in a cool, dark, dry place.

Best herbal apothecaries

Here’s a list of a few of my favorite apothecaries for purchasing herbal products in general (including nervines), whether locally or online:

What about Amazon?

Purchasing herbs and supplements via Amazon (instead of directly through the company website) won’t provide the same level of quality, potency, and outcome when it comes to herbal medicine.

For this reason, although I’m an Amazon Associate for non-herbal products, I advise you NOT to order herbal medicine via Amazon (even if it’s one of the above brands).

Which nervine herbs are best for YOU?

Ideally you’ll want to work with the nervine herbs which align best clinically and energetically.

Feel free to refer back to the above list of nervines and their unique qualities/properties to narrow down your options, based on what resonates most with you.

As a friendly reminder, nervines will alter the biochemistry in your mind and body.

For safety’s sake and for optimal outcomes, I highly recommend consulting with a clinical herbalist and/or functional dietitian (alongside your doctor) if you’re unsure, if you take medication and/or are navigating a medical condition of any kind, 

Final thoughts

Nervines are one of nature’s many under-tapped gifts to humans.  They’re here in abundance and waiting for us to discover them, so they can help us get through these modern-day challenges with more ease and comfort.  

While more research is needed, we know that nervine herbs interact with our nervous system on the cellular level in ways that benefit mental health.  We also know that nervines help reduce anxiety, calm an overactive, stressed-out mind/body, improve mood, settle a nervous stomach, relieve nerve pain, and much more!

There are dozens of different types of nervines which can be taken as tea infusions, decoctions, tincture, capsules, spagyrics, or double-extraction.  The type, form and dosing of nervine herbs will vary depending on what is going on individually with your mind, body, and life circumstances.

Some types of nervines such as lemon balm, lavender, chamomile and passionflower can be easily grown in your garden, while others like milky oat tops grow in abundance in nature, and can be harvested and wildcrafted throughout various parts of the U.S. and other regions of the world.

When purchasing nervines on your own, it’s best to go through an organic local or online apothecary which uses ethical and sustainable sourcing and harvesting practices.

If you’d like 1:1 or group support, consultation, and guidance from a clinical herbalist and functional dietitian, please reach out to inquire about how we can work together!

Click here to book a free call with Jenna Volpe