Herbs for the MindMichael Vertolli, RH September 1, 2006
Find Relief from Anxiety, Depression, and Stress with Allies from the Plant Kingdom
September is a great time of year. Summer is winding down and fall is around the corner. The worst of the midsummer heat, humidity and smog has passed, as have most of the biting insects. It’s a great time of year for a long hike in the woods or a canoe trip now that the summer crowds have dissipated. We can enjoy the blazing colors of goldenrods and asters before the trees put forth their fall colors.
Every month has its own special beauty. There is much to enjoy and be thankful for. Yet many people dread September. Whether it’s going back to school or getting back into the same old grind now that the holidays are over, this can be a stressful time of year for many. This can lead to an increase of anxiety and even depression for some. Although stress, anxiety and depression can be an issue all year round, September to March tends to be the most difficult time of the year for many.
Various so called “mood disorders” are on the rise in our society. There are many reasons for this. We’ve become disconnected from ourselves, our fellow
humans, and from Nature. Our lives are filled with endless distractions that prevent us from focusing on the things that really matter.
In our society, the “solution” to this growing problem is an endless supply of mood-enhancing drugs. These drugs do not improve quality of life. They make us affectless. In removing emotional lows they also remove the highs so that the person essentially becomes an emotional zombie.
Antidepressant pharmaceuticals also eliminate our capacity to understand and address the real causes of our anxiety or unhappiness. It isn’t very different from escaping our problems by self-medicating with regular use of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol or marijuana. This isn’t to say that drugs don’t have a place in our health care system, since it’s inevitable that some of us will experience extreme states of anxiety or depression that may warrant the temporary use of these drugs to help get them over the hump.
However, the goal should be to address the underlying causes and get these people off the drugs as soon as possible and replace them with a more natural and harmonious treatment protocol. Stress, anxiety and depression are really symptoms of deeper underlying issues. They indicate that something in our life is out of balance. It could be past trauma that hasn’t been fully integrated, maladaptive stress responses, unhealthy relationships, or a lack of personal and/or spiritual fulfillment. Dietary and lifestyle factors also come into play.
Nutrient deficiencies and lack of exercise may play a role, as well as over-consumption of sugar, caffeine, alcohol, social drugs and many food additives, pollutants and agricultural chemicals.
LIFESTYLE CHANGES TO IMPROVE MENTAL HEALTH
For those of us who suffer from stress, anxiety and depression, it is important that we eat a healthy diet consisting primarily of whole, organic foods. It is particularly important that we get sufficient vitamin C, B vitamins, trace minerals and essential fatty acids, especially of the omega-3 variety readily found in organic flax seed oil. Regular exercise is important including both aerobic exercise and more leisurely walking especially outdoors in a natural environment. I can’t over-emphasize the importance of spending time in Nature.
It is also essential that we get enough sleep, at least eight hours each night for most people. Disciplines such as yoga, tai chi, meditation and prayer are very helpful, and some kind of counselling is often necessary, especially in the early stages of treatment. It is important that a counselor or psychologist come from a more holistic and humanistic perspective.
Of course this means we need to take time for ourselves, turn off the cell phone, computer, television, fax machine and other things that demand our constant attention, and allow ourselves the time and space to slow down and just be. It’s usually only in these moments that we can get a balanced perspective on things. The more often we do it, the clearer our perspective. Some people might think that this is selfish or unproductive.
The truth is that the greater the amount of peace and harmony in our lives, the more we can give to others and to our work.
NERVINE HERBS FOR CALMING AND RELAXING
There are many herbs that can help us to become more clear and peaceful and reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Unlike drugs, when used correctly these herbs work more in harmony with our natural physiological and psychological rhythms.
The first category of relevant herbs is the nervines. These herbs act as gentle tonics to our central nervous system. They tend to be neural vasodilators, increasing blood flow to our brain and increasing the availability of oxygen and nutrients while aiding elimination of waste products and toxins. This helps improve overall brain function.
Subjectively, it tends to improve our mood and make us more focused and alert. Most nervines are also antioxidant. Many of their antioxidant constituents are able to pass through the blood-brain barrier and have a protective effect on our brain cells. The technical term for this property is antineurotoxic. In addition to increasing blood flow, the nervines also contain numerous chemical constituents that gently normalize neurological functioning. This is possible because they contain low levels of many psychoactive chemical constituents that work together synergistically, rather than very high levels of a single chemical as with pharmaceutical drugs.
The majority of nervine herbs are mildly tranquilizing. They tend to make us feel calmer while at the same time more alert due to the neural vasodilator effect. They may, however, have a stronger sedative effect if used in larger doses. They can be used this way before bed when we have difficulty falling asleep. There are also a number of stronger sedatives, but keep in mind that the stronger the sedative, the less tonic the overall result.
Some examples of effective tranquilizing nervines include St. John’s Wort herb (Hypericum perforatum), lavender flowers (Lavandula angustifolia), lemon balm herb (Melissa officinalis), catnip herb (Nepeta cataria), valerian root (Valeriana officinalis), motherwort herb (Leonurus cardiaca), purple passionflower herb (Passiflora incarnata), German chamomile flowers (Matricaria recutita), Roman chamomile flowers (Chamaemelum nobile) and ox-eye daisy herb (Leucanthemum vulgare).
Some nervines are less tranquilizing and more neural vasodilating. These often have a slightly stimulating effect. Examples include rosemary herb (Rosmarinus officinalis), maidenhair tree leaves (Ginkgo biloba), white pine leaves (Pinus strobus), northern prickly ash berries (Zanthoxylum americanum) and clove buds (Syzygium aromaticum).
Other nervines are more in the middle. These herbs tend to be amphoteric they have opposite effects depending on the state of the person who takes them. Amphoteric nervines can be either mildly tranquilizing or mildly stimulating depending on our needs when we use them. Examples include spearmint herb (Mentha spicata), wild mint herb (Mentha arvensis), peppermint herb (Mentha x piperita), hyssop herb (Hyssopus officinalis), kava rhizome (Piper methysticum), thyme herb (Thymus vulgaris) and wild bergamot herb (Monarda fistulosa).
The above information is based on how these herbs tend to act in most cases and situations. It is important to keep in mind that each person has a different biochemistry and history. In other words they we are all unique in general and at any given moment. For this reason, not everyone responds to herbs in the same way. Because of the tremendous complexity of the way nervines act on our nervous system, this is particularly the case for this category of herbs. As a result, some people will find an herb to be tranquilizing while others find it somewhat stimulating and visa versa. It may therefore be necessary to try several herbs before we will find those that produce the desired result. However, when we combine several nervines together the results will be more predictable. This only applies to the degree of tranquilizing or stimulation. The stress-, anxiety-, and depression-reducing properties of the herbs tend to be fairly consistent.
HERB FORMULAS FOR SOOTHING THE MIND
To create a nervine formulation, it is best to include one warming herb and two to four herbs that are not warming. The warming properties of an herb increase general circulation. This acts as a catalyst to the effect if the whole formulation and also boosts the neural vasodilator effect. Of the herbs listed above, the ones that are warming are ox-eye daisy, rosemary, white pine, prickly ash, clove, kava, thyme and wild bergamot. For people who tend to be nervous or high-strung, it is best that the non-warming herbs in the formulation are all tranquilizing nervines. However, when our symptoms include significant mental fatigue or moderate to severe depression it is best to focus primarily on the amphoteric nervines. Even in these cases there should always be at least one tranquilizing nervine in a formulation to produce a more balanced effect.
These herbs can be taken as a tea. Use the herbs in the “cut and sifted” or “rubbed” form. Roots should also be obtained in the “cut and sifted” form, but they must be coarsely ground with a mortar and pestle before steeping them. Do not purchase them already ground as they will be of inferior quality. Use equal parts of each herb. The dosage is 2-3 teaspoons of all of the herbs collectively per cup of tea. Steep them for 10-15 minutes in a closed container. A cup covered by a saucer will do. Drink a cup of the tea three to four times per day on an empty stomach. The best times are 15-20 minutes before meals and 30-60 minutes before bed. You can drink up to 8 cups of tea per day during really stressful times.
Teas are great and a pleasant way to take our herbs, but the best way is in the form of fresh herb tinctures. Dry herb tinctures are second best when fresh is not available. Once more the individual herb tinctures should be combined in equal parts. The unit dosage will vary with the potency of the tincture. I use 1:5 fresh herb tinctures. This means that there is the equivalent of one gram of fresh herb in every 5 millilitres of tincture.
Other tincture potencies will require different dosages. Check the product label for more information. The unit dosage for 1:5 tinctures is three to five millilitres (one half to one teaspoon) of all of the herbs collectively. The tincture should be added to 25-30 ml (one ounce) of water and held in our mouth for 30-60 seconds before swallowing. This is not necessary with teas because of the quantity consumed. Once more the frequency of the dosage is three to four times per day on an empty stomach, before meals and before bed. With tinctures we can also take up to eight doses per day during more stressful times.
ADAPTOGENIC HERBS TO TONIFY THE NERVES
The second major category of herbs that have a tonic effect on the nervous system is the adaptogens. These herbs have a deep tonic affect on our nervous and endocrine systems. They help to reduce the negative impacts of all kinds of stress. Most of the adaptogens also tend to be mild neural vasodilators and amphoteric nervines. However, their action is much deeper than most nervines.
Although adaptogens can be used from the start, these herbs work best after we have used more specific herbs for some time. In the case of stress, anxiety and depression, the adaptogens will work best after we have initially used a good nervine formulation for some time. Some of the better adaptogens include North American ginseng root (Panax quinquefolius), Siberian ginseng rhizome (Eleutherococcus senticosus), wild sarsaparilla rhizome (Aralia nudicaulis), lacquered polypore mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), artist’s conk mushroom (Ganoderma applanatum) and Chinese milkvetch root (Astragalus membranaceus).
To create an adaptogenic formulation, include two or three adaptogenic herbs and one of the warming neural vasodilators indicated in the discussion of nervines above. These herbs act as a catalyst in adaptogenic formulations as well. One other herb that is worth considering is maidenhair tree (Ginkgo).
This herb is mildly adaptogenic itself and is extremely synergistic with other adaptogens. The preparation and dosage information for adaptogenic formulations is the same as for nervines except that it is not recommended to exceed four doses per day. Also, some people find adaptogens too stimulating to take before bed. It depends on the individual. For effective results, adaptogenic
formulations need to be used for at least two to three months.
Using herbs as recommended above along with appropriate dietary and lifestyle changes can be very effective, even for more difficult cases of moderate to severe depression. However, in more serious cases self-treatment is not recommended and it is essential to consult with a qualified herbalist or other natural health care practitioner who is experienced using herbs.
Consulting with a qualified practitioner is also recommended for anyone taking tranquilizing, anxiolytic, antidepressant or other mood-altering medications, or when we use herbs as recommended above for a few months and do not obtain significant results. Sometimes a case may be more complicated than it seems.
I believe that peace, harmony and joy are a necessary and desirable part of life. In the crazy, high speed, materialistic world that we’ve created, this can seem unreachable. Fortunately, we can change our attitude and the kinds of choices that we make. Then life can become joyful instead of a burden.
The choice is ours, but we are not unsupported. Help can be found in many places, including from our many plant friends.
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. More information: 905-303-8723, ext. 1. Visit: http://www.livingearthschool.ca/index.html Blog: http://michaelvertolli.blogspot.com/