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Motherwort has a long tradition of helping with both heart and menstrual problems

Motherwort

Leonurus cardiaca Lamiaceae

Motherwort is a classic calming remedy, with much modern relevance for reducing anxiety and stress symptoms.

  • How does it feel?

    The immediate impact in taking motherwort tea is its bitterness. This taste is quickly augmented by a modest sharp acrid quality. However these tastes do not linger and apart from a residual aromatic flavour in the mouth the taste sensation is short.

    Appreciating these qualities reminds us that as well as any other property motherwort acts on bitter receptors and its overall effects on the body will include their impact on digestive and liver functions.

  • What can I use it for?

    Motherwort is associated with calming anxiety symptoms, especially in the chest. The key to understanding this reputation is to see it as the herbal accompaniment to a good breathing exercise and with a focus on reducing tension in the diaphragm.

    This large muscle is our breathing bellows, and should move smoothly and expansively with each breath.

    Tension and anxiety are often associated with tightness in the diaphragm and ribcage: this creates a sort of echo-chamber in the chest in which for example you might hear your heart pounding, and it can also interfere with the smooth transit between gullet and stomach.

    A routine of good breathing exercises to unlock the diaphragm is important to manage this pattern of trouble and motherwort then becomes a very useful support measure.

    So think of this herb as a tea if you are prone to heart palpitations, hyperventilation, hiatus hernia and swallowing difficulties, if any of these seem to have an anxiety origin.

    In women, motherwort is classed as a uterine tonic and can help regulate the menstrual cycle, again especially where this has been influenced by anxiety and/or tension.

    Similarly, it can relax excess tension and stress during the menopause.

  • Into the heart of Motherwort

    The common and botanical name of this plant are key indicators of its modern and traditional usage. Motherwort (= ‘mother plant’) is an indicator of its traditional usage to support female health, particularly menstrual and uterine based conditions affecting fertility and conception. The Latin specific cardiaca (and the German common name Herzgespann) is indicative of the plants affinity for treating heart based disorders, particularly where the condition may be exacerbated by emotional stress.

  • Traditional uses

    Interestingly in both Europe and China (which has a similar species Leonurus heterophyllus) the use of motherwort is to regulate periods and to treat associated menstrual conditions. It also has a persistent reputation to improve mood. The mediaeval English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper considered motherwort useful for removing melancholy vapours from the heart, improving cheerfulness, and settling the wombs of mothers.

    Other more modern herbal uses include for hyperthyroidism (for the cardiac symptoms), palpitations, nervous tachycardia, secondary amenorrhoea, dysmenorrhoea, ovarian pain, anxiety, neuralgia, can be useful for menopausal hot flushes and a general menopausal aid.

  • Traditional actions

    Ayurvedic actions are

    • Anulomana Redirects the flow of apana vata downwards.
    • Artavashamana Regulates menstruation.
    • Hrdaya Heart tonic.
    • Jwaraghna Reduces fevers.
    • Medhya Brain tonic, nervine.
    • Mutrala Diuretic.
    • Nidrajanana Induces sleep.
    • Raktashodhana Purifies the blood.
    • Unmadaghna For mental & emotional disorders.

    Western herbal actions are

    • Nervine tonic
    • Cardiotonic
    • Hypotensive
    • Antiarrhythmic
    • Antithyroid
    • Spasmolytic
    • Emmenagogue
    • Anxiolytic
  • What practitioners say

    Cardiovascular and heart: Useful in any heart condition exacerbated by stress. Specifically indicated in palpitations, tachycardia and angina. Particularly useful where the heart is under high levels of emotional distress, for example during grieving or heartbreak.

    Women’s health: Can be used in any condition affecting the functioning of the uterus. It is classed as a uterine tonic, strengthening and nourishing the uterus, preparing it for childbirth but also strengthening it after childbirth. Specifically indicated where menstruation is delayed or suppressed as a result of emotional tension.

  • Research

    Almost all the supporting literature for motherwort is from classic herbals.

    In China motherwort is used as an injection to reduce bleeding after childbirth and caesarean section, and there is a positive review of published studies on this practice.

  • Did you know?

    The botanical name, Leonurus, given to the plant by the leading plant taxonomist Linnaeus, reflected an early common association and name: ‘Lion’s tail’.

Additional information

  • Safety

    Generally safe. There is a theoretical caution in taking this in pregnancy but there is no evidence for this.

  • Dosage

    2-4 g per day of dried herb as a tea.

  • Constituents

    • Bitter iridoid glycosides (including leonuride)
    • Diterpenoids
    • Triterpenes
    • Alkaloids (trace) leonurine and stachydrine.

    Some of the evidence cited in the case of motherwort relate to laboratory studies involving the effects of the alkaloid leonurine (which has demonstrated uteroactive properties). Given the very low level of this alkaloid in the whole plant it is doubtful that this connection can be made, including in the theoretical cautions around pregnancy.

  • Recipe

    Brave Heart Tea

    This Brave Heart tea is a therapeutic recipe for nourishing your heart, both the physical and emotional.

    Ingredients:

    • Hawthorn berry 4g
    • Hawthorn leaf and flower 2g
    • Limeflower 2g
    • Cinnamon bark 2g
    • Motherwort 1g
    • Saffron 5 strands
    • Rose flower 1g
    • Pomegranate juice a glug (or 1 tbsp) per cup

    This will serve 2 cups of a very heartloving tea.

    Method:

    • Put all of the ingredients in a pot (except for the pomegranate juice).
    • Add 500ml (18fl oz) freshly boiled filtered water. Leave to steep for 10–15 minutes, then strain.
    • Add a glug of pomegranate juice to each cup.

    This recipe is from Cleanse, Nurture, Restore by Sebastian Pole

Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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