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Vervain is a traditional European relaxant nervine herb, used for balance in the nervous system

Vervain

Verbena officinalis Verbenaceae

Vervain holds onto its traditional value as a primary herb of the nervous system. It has been used for centuries by herbalists to support those with anxiety and depression as well as for a number of conditions affecting the liver and digestive system.

Sustainability Status

Sustainability status

Not currently on risk lists but complete data may be missing on the status of the species. Commonly cultivated though may be sourced from the wild. Only source cultivated supplies or from certified sustainable wild collection. Read more about our sustainability guide.

Key benefits
  • Relaxant nervine
  • Autonomic nervous system balancer
  • Bitter tonic
  • Liver conditions
  • How does it feel?

    The tincture and tea of this vervain is powerfully bitter to taste with mildly sour and aromatic notes.

  • What can I use it for?

    vervain flower seeds
    Vervain (Verbena officinalis)

    Vervain is primarily a herb for the nervous system. It can be used to gently calm the nervousness of acute anxious or depressive states. Vervain nourishes the nervous system and can be an excellent support where burnout is accompanied by a low or depressive mood. It is also particularly useful for helping to increase both mental and physical wellbeing after one is left with lack of motivation, energy and joy following a bout of viral illness such as influenza.

    Vervain is also a powerful diaphoretic. It can be used in the early stages of a fever to stimulate perspiration and movement of heat out through the skin. This helps to regulate the core body temperature whilst also encouraging the body’s natural defence mechanisms.
    The overall objective of holistic fever support is to encourage the ‘breaking’ of a fever. This can be done by supporting a balanced and healthy immune response with herbs that enable better detoxification of pathogens. Vervain may be used in combination with herbs like elderflower and peppermint for this purpose.

    It is also a liver tonic due to its bitter compounds which directly support the liver function. It may be used for general liver support but also for more specific conditions such as colitis and dyspepsia for which better digestive or gall bladder function may be of use.

    The decoction of vervain may be used as a mouthwash for gingivitis and inflammations in the mouth.

  • Into the heart of vervain

    European vervain
    Vervain (Verbena officinalis)

    Vervain is a deeply restorative medicine used in a number of nervous conditions. It is energetically dry as well as cooling. It has relaxant and antispasmodic effects upon the nervous system. It also has the ability to open up the circulatory channels because of this relaxing action upon the nervous system.

    It also has this relaxing and cleansing effect on the viscera,working on the liver, gallbladder and kidney channels. Vervain releases tensions and obstructions and facilitates a diffusive and externalising action. This allows for better availability of the important nutritive metabolites to the cells whilst also reducing heat and toxicity in the blood (3).

    As a nourishing nervine herb it is particularly suitable to use during the convalescent stages of illness. It works on multiple levels to support systemic recovery. Primarily it works by building strength and resilience in the nervous system, however, these effects are elicited by improving liver function. This leads to better expulsion of toxins from the blood and also improving the absorption of dietary nutrients via increased gall bladder activity (1).

    In a women’s book of herbs, Brooke describes that vervain is excellent for phlegmatic presentations. Much like Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, ancient Western herbalism was based on concepts such as energetics and people having patterns that make up individual constitutions and personality types. For example, one of the personality type was “phlegmatic’s”. Phlegmatic’s may be prone to getting lost in deep emotions. Brooke explains that such an individual may easily lose their sense of boundaries and proportion. Vervains strengthening and focusing qualities is said to help to improve emotional resilience (1).

    Andrew Stableford describes in his newly released book; The Handbook of Constitutional and Energetic Herbal Medicine that vervain is a facilitator for change. It may be used for tension and ‘scattered disharmony’ associated with over-striving, anxiety and competitiveness (3).

    All of these psycho-emotional actions can be understood through vervains effects on autonomic balance in the nervous system. Herbalists will often assess the balance of this part of the nervous system which is called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This is because it controls all automatic functions in the human body such as sleep, digestion, breathing and heart rate. This system is also responsible for regulating the stress response and is impacted by prolonged exposure to stress. It is therefore understandable that imbalance in either of its two branches (parasympathetic and sympathetic) is possible as a result of chronic stress and that physical and emotional symptom patterns may arise as a result.

    This is a deeply cooling medicine and if taken in large doses it is said that it may cause a chill through the body (4).

  • Traditional uses

    vervain field
    Vervain (Verbena officinalis)

    Vervain has a long history of use in European folk medicine. It was reputed as a plant with magical association among the druids. It was also considered by the ancient Greeks, Romans and the Celts to be sacred. It was apparently used to cleanse the altars within their temples. It was also used medicinally for a variety of ailments including pains in the womb, and relief during confinement.

    John William Fyfe, an eclectic herbalist of the early twentieth century wrote that vervain‘has cured cases of epilepsy which had been unsuccessfully treated for a long time by many other methods’. In cases of depression that is rooted in hormonal anxiety, chronic stress or melancholia characterised by anger (what the Greeks would call an excess of black bile) vervain is well established in the Materia Medica as an appropriate nervine.

    Hildegard von Bingen, a 10th century medical writer and practitioner in Germany classified vervain as cooling. Within Hildegard’s practice of medicine, she references vervain to treat swelling and inflammation in the throat, for the healing of ulcers, to treat jaundice, tooth and gum infections, and to reduce gum inflammation.

    It was also traditionally used for a variety of reproductive ailments including menstrual pain.

  • Traditional actions

  • Traditional energetic actions

    Herbal energetics are the descriptions Herbalists have given to plants, mushrooms, lichens, foods, and some minerals based on the direct experience of how they taste, feel, and work in the body. All traditional health systems use these principles to explain how the environment we live in and absorb, impacts our health. Find out more about traditional energetic actions in our article “An introduction to herbal energetics“.

  • What practitioners say

    Blue vervain (Verbena hastata)
    Blue vervain (Verbena hastata)

    Nervous system

    Vervain has a number of effects on the nervous system. It works as a powerful anxiolytic and is used by some herbalists to help balance the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS governs the function of all automatic processes in the body by means of adrenal control. Herbalists may use vervain as one of the best remedies for ANS balance, particularly where stress, trauma and burnout are part of the picture (3). Vervain is one of the best ANS relaxants.

    It may be used by herbalists as part of an approach to restore balance in the nervous system, in some cases of anxiety, nervous irritability and depression (1, 2).

    Vervain combines well with motherwort and skullcap for anxiety conditions. It is always important to combine nerve tonics and regeneration protocols when treating nervous debility or any depressed state in the nervous system. This would include the use of tonic and trophorestorative herbs like oat straw or ashwaghanda.

    Mathew Wood explains a recurrence of case studies where vervain is found to be helpful for spasmodic nervous disorders including tics, palsy and tourette’s syndrome (6).
    The mechanism of action for these nervous system effects of vervain are likely as a result of the relaxing effects of its iridoid and polyphenol compounds (8).
    Digestive System

    As a powerful bitter, vervain produces a stimulating effect on the liver. It can be used as part of a supportive approach for the treatment of a number of chronic liver conditions such as cirrhosis, jaundice and persistent viral infections of the liver (1). This would be in combination with other specific liver tonics such as milk thistle and dandelion root, as well as herbs that support overall lymphatic and digestive health such as burdock root.

    Reproductive system

    Vervain is a specific uterine tonic which both cleans and tones the female reproductive organs (3). It is used in a number of menstrual conditions, particularly those where there is a constricted state in the tissues, as vervain is a relaxant. Some conditions that may be indicated for use of vervain include amenorrhea and dysmenorrhea.

    It is referenced in the writing of Matthew Wood as being most specific for problems which occur during the last half of the cycle, which is the half with dominant progesterone. Its effects as a nervine make it particularly helpful for pre-menstrual tensions (4).

    Vervain may be used in the long-term treatment of menstrual pain caused by coldness or atrophy in the uterus. This coldness is explained as constriction in the tissues. It is also useful for treating the migraines and headaches that occur around menstruation (1).

  • Research

    vervain essential oil
    Vervain essential oil (Verbena officinalis)

    Very little research has been carried out around the effects of this plant for its actions on the nervous system. However, there are a number of in vivo studies that focus on compounds found in vervain which show a number of effects such as anti-tumor, antioxidant and anti-inflammation (10). A small number of in vitro and in vivo have been included below to demonstrate the mechanism of action for some of the uses of vervain that have been discussed in this monograph, however there is a lack of available human studies.

    Animal studies are not condoned by herbal reality, however for the purpose of including research from which some understanding of therapeutic actions can be confirmed, some animal studies have been included herein.

    Nervous system

    An in vitro study was carried out to investigate the cytoprotective effects on cells of the central nervous system. The study showed that using aqueous extracts of vervain significantly reduced the toxicity of β-amyloid (Aβ) peptide and reduced agent dithiothreitol in primary cultures of cortical neurons. Extracellular accumulation of Aβ peptide is known to be an important cytotoxic factor in Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Further investigations show that treatment with vervain also reduced Aβ-triggered DEVD- and VDVAD-cleavage activities in a dose-dependent manner.

    Further studies elucidated that phosphorylation of both interferon-inducing protein kinase (PKR) and c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) was reduced in Aβ-treated neurons.

    The study concludes that vervain shows significant novel neuroprotective effects actions in vitro. The study is described as a lead for its potential to be a neuroprotective agent against neuronal loss in AD. Further research is needed to fully understand its efficacy using clinical trial methods in human subjects (5).

    Sleep-inducing effects

    An in vivo study was carried out to investigate the sleep-promoting effects of some compounds found in vervain. The three major iridoids; hastatoside, verbenalin, and verbascoside and the polyphenol verbascoside were investigated. The researchers used an electroencephalographic scan (also known as an EEG scan) to measure the brain activity of rats after oral administration of the compounds.

    Hastatoside (0.64 mmol/kg of body weight) and verbenalin (1.28 mmol/kg of body weight) shows a significant improvement in non-rapid eye movement sleep during a 9 hour period from 23.00 to 08.00 hours by 81% and 42%, respectively. There was a lag time of about 3–5 hours after the administration at 20.00 hours (lights-off time).

    Both compounds were also observed to increase the delta activity during non-rapid eye movement sleep. Delta brain waves indicate the deepest level of sleep. However, verbascoside had no effect on the amount of sleep. The study concludes with promising results to explain the activity of vervain as a nervous system relaxant and sedative (8).

    Depression

    An in vivo study was carried out to assess the efficacy of vervain for the treatment of depression in female rats. The methodology’s used were the Forced-Swimming Test (FST), Light-Dark Box (LDB) test, and Open Field Test (OFT). Across all methods used improvements were observed which suggests that vervain has anti-depressant activity (9). This study should be followed up by a series of clinical trial in human subjects with mild to severe depression to fully understand its effects.

    Dentistry

    A double-blind randomised controlled multi-centre clinical trial was carried out on 260 patients (130 control / 130 placebo) with generalised gingivitis. A decoction of vervain was used as a mouthwash in the control group. Both the control and the test group were instructed to brush and floss. The outcomes were measured at day 0, day 14 and day 28.

    Significant improvements were confirmed by the group receiving vervain with the study compared to placebo, showing that vervain has a promising ameliorative effect for treating patients with chronic generalized gingivitis (7).

Additional information

  • Botanical description

    Vervain is a perennial herb native to Europe. It grows up to 70 cm high, with an upright habitus. The lobed leaves are toothed growing as opposites with two leaves per node along the stem and the delicate spikes hold clusters of two-lipped mauve flowers.

  • Common names

    • Vervain
    • Common verbena
    • Blue verbena
    • Holy herb
    • Herb of the cross
    • Juno’s tears
  • Safety

    Vervain is not recommend in pregnancy due to its emmenagogue actions. It is however thought to be safe for those who are breastfeeding.

  • Interactions

    None known

  • Contraindications

    None known

  • Preparation

    • Tincture
    • Dried herb
    • Infusion
    • Decoction
  • Dosage

    Tincture (1:5 40%): Take between 2.5 and 5ml in a little water three times daily.

    Infusion: To make an infusion, pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1-3 tsp of dried herb, infuse in a covered container for 10- 15 minutes This should be drunk 3 times daily.
    Decoction – Add up to 2 heaped teaspoons of dried vervain into approximately one cup of boiling water. Simmer for around 15-20 minutes, strain and use as a mouth wash unto 3 times a day.

  • Plant parts used

    Aerial parts
    Leaf
    Flower

  • Constituents

    • Iridoids – verbenin, verbenalin, bastatoside, hastatoside
    • Polyphenol -verbascoside
    • Volatile oils
    • Mucilage
Vervain (Verbena officinalis)
  • Habitat

    Verbena is native to Europe. It grows in meadows and fields.

  • Sustainability

    According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants Status vervain is classed as least concern due to its widespread distribution, stable populations and no major threats (11).

    Habitat loss and over harvesting from the wild are two of the biggest threats faced by medicinal plant species. There are an increasing number of well-known herbal medicines at risk of extinction. We must therefore ensure that we source our medicines with sustainability in mind.

    The herb supplement industry is growing at a rapid rate and until recent years a vast majority of medicinal plant produce in global trade was of unknown origin. There are some very real and urgent issues surrounding sustainability in the herb industry. These include environmental factors that affect the medicinal viability of herbs, the safety of the habitats that they are taken from, as well as the welfare of workers in the trade.

    The botanical supply chain efforts for improved visibility (transparency and traceability) into verifiably sustainable production sites around the world is now certificated through the emergence of credible international voluntary sustainability standards (VSS). Read our article on Herbal quality and safety: what to know before you buy and sustainable sourcing of herbs to learn more about what to look for and questions to ask suppliers about sustainability.

  • Quality control

    Herbal Medicines are often extremely safe to take, however it is important to buy herbal medicines from a reputed supplier. Sometimes herbs bought from unreputable sources are contaminated, adulterated or substituted with incorrect plant matter.

    Some important markers for quality to look for would be to look for certified organic labelling, ensuring that the correct scientific/botanical name is used and that suppliers can provide information about the source of ingredients used in the product.

    A supplier should be able to tell you where the herbs have come from. There is more space for contamination and adulteration when the supply chain is unknown.

  • How to grow

    Vervain is easy to grow in poor to moderately fertile, well-drained, alkaline to neutral soil, It requires full sun and can be incorporated into wild flower border or meadow gardens.

    • Blue Vervain is best sown direct in late summer or early fall in a sheltered location where it is not overly exposed to high winds.
    • If starting in spring, stratify seeds in refrigerator for 1-2 weeks.
    • Water around twice a week or more during periods of dry weather.
  • References

    1. Brooke, E. (2018). Woman’s Book Of Herbs.
    2. Hoffmann, D. (2003). Medical herbalism – principles and practices. Inner Traditions Bear And Comp.
    3. Stableford, A. (2021). The Handbook of Constitutional and Energetic Herbal Medicine The Lotus Within. London: Aeon Books.
    4. Wood, M. (2004). The practice of traditional western herbalism : basic doctrine, energetics, and classification. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, Cop.
    5. Lai, S.-W., Yu, M.-S., Yuen, W.-H. and Chang, R.C.-C. (2006). Novel neuroprotective effects of the aqueous extracts from Verbena officinalis Linn. Neuropharmacology, 50(6), pp.641–650. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2005.11.009.
    6. Wood, M. (2008). The earthwise herbal, volume 1 : a complete guide to Old World medicinal plants. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books.
    7. Grawish, M.E., Anees, M.M., Elsabaa, H.M., Abdel-Raziq, M.S. and Zedan, W. (2016). Short-term effects of Verbena officinalis Linn decoction on patients suffering from chronic generalized gingivitis: Double-blind randomized controlled multicenter clinical trial. Quintessence International (Berlin, Germany: 1985), [online] 47(6), pp.491–498. doi:https://doi.org/10.3290/j.qi.a35521.
    8. MAKINO, Y., KONDO, S., NISHIMURA, Y., TSUKAMOTO, Y., HUANG, Z.-L. and URADE, Y. (2009). Hastatoside and verbenalin are sleep-promoting components in Verbena officinalis. Sleep and Biological Rhythms, 7(3), pp.211–217. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1479-8425.2009.00405.x.
    9. Bekara, A., Amazouz, A. and Douma, T.B. (2020). Evaluating the Antidepressant Effect of Verbena officinalis L. (Vervain) Aqueous Extract in Adult Rats. Basic and Clinical Neuroscience, [online] 11(1), pp.91–98. doi:https://doi.org/10.32598/bcn.11.1.3.
    10. Miraj, S. and Kiani, S. (n.d.). Study of pharmacological effect of Verbena officinalis Linn: A review. [online] Available at: https://www.skums.ac.ir/Dorsapax/Data/Sub_39/File/ProfessorsArticles_etoolsfile1_90d3ffc4-72ba-49d4-a5fb-145add444b04p976-c2706f1a-e582-4f9a-9d4a-bbbc84ff3fb4.pdf [Accessed 20 Feb. 2023].
    11. Bilz, M. (2012). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Verbena officinalis. [online] IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Available at: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/164308/1040163.
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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