The nervous system is just one part of a highly complex control system in the body – the other two parts being the hormonal (endocrine) and immune systems. Gut bacteria, stress, diet and environmental toxins all affect its proper functioning. Nervines (herbs that work on the nerves) are prescribed for a wide range of conditions, specifically chosen to suit a person’s character and needs.
Migraines were once thought to be a dysfunction of blood vessels in the brain – nowadays it is treated as a neurological condition. In women it is often connected with hormonal fluctuations, whereas in childhood it can be due to mitochondrial dysfunction, in which case supplementation with B vitamins is often very helpful.
Common food triggers include red wine, blue cheese, chocolate & bananas, as these contain high levels of amines. Others may be bright lights, strong smells, weather changes, sleep deprivation or the oral contraceptive pill. Stress and diet have a direct effect, and in traditional medicine migraines are seen as connected to poor liver function and digestive disturbance.
Herbs that can be used include nervines, antispasmodics, anti-inflammatories and pain relievers, including feverfew, ginger, cramp bark, Jamaica dogwood, vervain, wood betony, Corydalis yanhusuo, Bacopa monnieri and St John’s Wort.
Pain may be related to chronic conditions (sports injuries, autoimmune disease, osteoarthritis, cancer), acute conditions (injury, period pain, migraine), or be drug-induced (chemotherapy or radiation-induced pain). Herbs, used safely, have their place in the management of all these types of pain.
For period pain, we might look at using cramp bark, Corydalis, Gelsemium and ginger along with a magnesium supplement, whereas for arthritic pain herbs like Boswellia, turmeric, devil’s claw and celery seed are often used.
Vitamin D is a very important nutrient for the management of autoimmune-related pain (eg. rheumatoid arthritis), and B vitamins are very effective for nerve pain from chemotherapy treatment. Food can be both medicine and poison – for example, high carbohydrate and high sugar diets can make pain worse.
For muscle sprains and strains, we have a choice of pain-relieving topical herbs as well as internal treatment – arnica, chilli, wintergreen, comfrey and mint are just a few examples.
Depression & anxiety
It was previously thought that depression was caused by a deficiency of the brain’s “happy chemicals” (eg. serotonin, dopamine) and psychiatric drugs were made to correct this deficiency.
However, it is now clear that this imbalance in brain chemistry is not the cause, but the result of disease processes that happen much earlier on in the body. These include inflammation, genetic changes and disruption to gut bacteria, mainly as a result of poor diet & lifestyle habits across generations.
Chronic stress will increase inflammation in the body and directly effect brain chemistry, so stress management techniques are very useful in anxiety and depression. Studies have shown exercise to be as effective as anti-depressant medications, whereas fish oil, turmeric and various herbs help to decrease inflammation,
Among the herbs that can be helpful are skullcap, St John’s Wort, lemon balm, vervain, lavender, rhodiola and withania. Professional counselling and/or anti-depressant medications may be necessary alongside herbs in more serious cases.