Nervines and Antispasmodics

Nervines can fail to take action when the liver is congested and blood is stagnant. When prescribing nervines, it is recommended to first move blood because emotions, stories, and fears are held in the blood and thus in the heart. Also, in the case of heavy liver stagnation, nervines struggle to find an effective metabolic pathway to flow through. By clearing liver heat and potentially related phlegm, the actions and effectiveness of nervines are increased. It is also important to work with the individuals constitution. Why are you suggesting nervines? Where do they feel the anxiety? When do they feel wired? What are the stress levels and how do they feel when tension arises? These can help the practitioner better assess a formula or single appropriate for the individual. Also, consideration of constitution is necessary for nervine prescription with special regard to the heating or cooling quality of herbs. Balance occurs when opposite quality herbs to constitution are given to warm a cold situation or cool heat. This prevents exacerbating an existing imbalance. 

Overall, nervines are nourishing to the nervous system and have a variety of actions, including increased mental relaxation and potential sedation. Antispasmodics promote physical muscle relaxation, reduce cramping and ease muscle spasms without necessarily being sedating. These two categories can become interwoven because some antispasmodics are also nervines, some nervines are also antispasmodics, and both of these categories contain herbs that can be sedating to the mind, heart pacifying, liver cooling, muscle relaxing. The actions of some nervines are to soothe the mind, ease physical tension, aid in reducing circular thoughts and excessive worry, and restore healthy nerve function. Nervines can be seen as sattvic (coming from Boddisattvah), which can help us to feel at peace, feel centered, and be present with self and the universe. These are beneficial for wired, exhausted, constantly mobilized, and stressed humans. 

The actions of antispasmodics include the suppression of spasms and physically reduced muscular tension.  Antispasmodics are also used for psychological tension and can be directed to different muscle groups, like the stomach, lungs, and abdomen. Tarragon, Cinnamon, Cardamom, Ginger are excellent culinary antispasmodics that are not sedating, whereas Jamaican Dogwood is a great example of an effective antispasmodic that is also a nervine and sedative. 

Nervines and antispasmodics are given well with medicated wines and in many formats such as decoction, tincture, powders into paste, or capsules. The herbs that gracefully fall into both categories are appropriate to provide when a client has nervous excitability (valerian and passionflower) or nervous insomnia (hops and pedicularis racemosa). 

A handful of healing herbs are both nervine and antispasmodic, like the beloved California Poppy. Eschscholzia californica is used for spasms (specifically of the gallbladder), menstrual cramps, pain management, headaches, and also as a narcotic. It's sedating quality is derived from its action of clearing heat from the liver. Due to the more sedating and potentially narcotic effect of certain nervines  like mulungu, California poppy, valerian, pedicularis densiflora, cannabis sativa and other powerful plants, they can create lethargy and interfere with daily activities that require full attention. 

When hysteria, tension, and cramping spasms are present, I do not hesitate to give acute nervine/antispasmodic combinations, especially in the evening time and as an alternative to recreational/prescription drugs and/or alcohol. However, if the nerves are strengthened and nourished by blood moving and  'non-drowsy' herbal tonic nervines everyday, this can overall reduce the experience of anxiety and hysteria. Blood tonics are also appropriate for creating a solution for anxiety relief, like Dong Quai. Most blood tonics are not considered nervines, but they can alleviate stagnant emotional feelings stored in the memories of our blood. Anxiety is a massive topic with this question of antispasmodics versus nervines because both can be beneficial for raising the resilience and effectiveness of the coping mechanisms we default to when experiencing sympathetic nervous system and/or limbic system stimuli and stress. Weakness of the nervous system can be a vicious cycle if the amygdala continues to search for fear and release adrenaline and other stress hormones. In this case, tonic nervines often nourish Qi and Shen, making them a wonderful choice to provide for clients with a strong expression of perpetual over-analysis and a sense of constant danger. When a client expresses daily anxiety, rigidity, or jittery nerves, I suggest the lovely ally nervines of scullcap, blue vervain, avena sativa seed or milky top, catnip, motherwort, or lavender. Other tonics that are beautifully combined with these nervines would be ashwagandha and Reishi mushroom. These are appropriate to use throughout the day and do not impair ones ability to drive or analyze text (for example). When more severe cases of restlessness, insomnia, and startled conditions are present, I reccomend nervines that ground the Shen while tonifying the nerves. These can be given in higher doses in the evening time if needed without having to consider mental / physical sharpness and agility. A classic combination would be scullcap and kava kava , or scullcap, valerian, and hops. In the case of an acute anxiety attack, a low dose (1-5 drops tincture) of anemone tuberosa or anemone canedensis can settle the mind back into the body as an acute nervine. 

When a client is experiencing a anatomically-particular spasm, like a triggered cough in the lungs; this is when specifically antispasmodic herbs come into the picture, like Elencampane. 


Some rad facts:

  • Passiflora is an anti-spasmodic and nervine that goes to heart and liver channels, which makes it valuable for clearing specifically mental heat, obsessive thinking, and disturbed Shen. Passionflower combines nicely with hops and valerian for a potentiated evening medicine. 
  • St. John's Wort and Lobelia work wonderfully together as an anti-spasmodic topically. St John's Wort is also anti-viral internally due to an action of clearing the liver heat that has been trapped due to long-term pathologies. This heat clearing quality acts as a nervine as well because the Hun (Liver) is then calmed. 
  • Scullcap is a cooling bitter nervine that clears heat, cools & calms the liver and aids in digestion. This acts  as a strongly Shen-calming anti-spasmodic because it can pacify internal Wind, or a range of nuerological disorders. Scullcap is effective for soothing 'stuck' thoughts, emotional dwelling, lack of expression, and irritability. 
  • Dragon bone an Oyeter shell are shen grounding, mineral rich herbs useful for bringing a worried, frenzied state of being back down to Earth.
  • Chamomile is a carminative nervine that soothes digestion and colic, is great for children, and wonderful to add into relaxing & nourishing formulas.
  • Ashwagandha is not in the nervine or antispasmodic classification, rather in the anxiolytic and adaptogenic realm. I mention this here because it is such a gorgeous medicine that acts as a bi-directional tonic. Withania somnifera (somnifera being opposite of insomnia) can help provide more vital energy and also increase quality of sleep. Warm ashwagndha milk in the evening is a beautiful ritual and a warm blanket to hug the nerves and is great to combine with milky oats. 


Information derived from:

  • Miles Coleman American Herbalist Guild Webinar: TCM for Mental Health
  • In-person lectures with Candis Cantin
  • Corey-Pine Shane American Herbalists Guild Weibnar: Treating Anxiety with Herbalism
  • Personal experience and application
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